We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists, brilliant masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: If a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster. Terrifying as it is to contemplate the catastrophes of the 20th century, it would be even more frightening to imagine that humanity had stumbled unthinkingly into its darkest moments.
But a careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.
Masha Gessen, “Incompetence Won’t Save Our Democracy”, The New York Times (4 June 2017), SR1, SR5.