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A Hopeful History

By Rutger Bregman
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Humankind by Rutger Bregman

Humankind (2020) is an optimistic study of its namesake. For centuries, the message seemed to be carved in stone: Humans are evil by nature, and only the veneer of civilization keeps us from terrorizing and murdering each other. The author Rutger Bregman aims to dispel that prejudice and reveal that our essential nature is peaceful and friendly. Perhaps humanity – as recent discoveries from disciplines like archeology and criminology suggest – is actually much less selfish than we think. 

Key idea 1 of 10

Crises like war don’t automatically make us barbarians.

Do you know what Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt have in common? Yes, all their names are splashed across history. But that’s not all. They were each influenced by the same book: The Psychology of the Masses, by the French author Gustave Le Bon.

In the book, Le Bon explains that in crises like war, the masses panic and gradually regress to their true nature, which is violent and selfish. In other words, when people fear for their lives, they become barbarians, concerned with nothing but their own well-being.

Hitler had Le Bon’s ideas in mind when he sent 348 Luftwaffe bombers to London in 1940. He believed that, in the rain of bombs, the people of London would become panicked and barbarous, aiding in their own overthrow. 

What actually happened when the bombs began to fall must have come as a surprise.

The key message here is: Crises like war don’t automatically make us barbarians.

In the year before the German Luftwaffe's "Blitz," which killed more than 40,000 people in London alone and destroyed entire neighborhoods, the British public built emergency psychiatric wards in a desperate attempt to prepare for the anticipated panic. 

But these facilities remained empty. Countless observers described how the British went about their daily lives more or less normally, even though air raids had long been underway. Children played, shoppers haggled, and trains continued to run. Londoners calmly drank their tea, despite windows bursting in the background, shattered by the detonation of bomb upon bomb.

Not only did Londoners remain unexpectedly calm – in many ways, they were psychologically and mentally better than ever before. Of course there was heartrending grief and deep mourning. But alcohol abuse decreased, and fewer people committed suicide. When it was all over, many Londoners even longed for wartime, because of the widespread camaraderie and solidarity it promoted. People helped each other out far more than they did under normal circumstances.

In short, the people of London defied Hitler’s expectations and disproved Le Bon’s theory. 

The existential threat by no means brought out the worst in people. Rather, it made them less selfish. Contrary to Le Bon's thesis, the crisis of the Blitz strengthened British society in many respects. Hitler had achieved the exact opposite of his actual goal.

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