This will come as no great revelation to anybody, but one thing I have learned from my half century of work in the media is that there is no idea so loopy, crooked or evil that it cannot gather its adherents. A connected idea is the truth that has been borne in on one over the years that things are being done by one person to others, somewhere in the world, at this very moment, that are almost unspeakably horrible. That is confirmed every time some poor soul breaks out of some suburban house where she and her siblings have been chained to beds in the basement by some lunatic for the last 20 years, an event that seems to unfold every year or two.
It seems that by happenstance in recent weeks my attention has been drawn to this darker side of human existence by various items that have passed over my computer and TV. Just yesterday I read a report that two sisters in the immensely wealthy Bronfman family have, over the years devoted more than $100 million to the leader of a cult based in Albany, New York, that is reported to have been up to some very strange, and one might say repulsive, things.
Of course, one need not look further than the Second World War to find perhaps the most mysterious event in human history, namely, the taking over of one of Europe’s most cultured and cultivated people by a psychotic cult based on pure hatred, the Nazis. Today our internet is full of various examinations of this cult, movies made about various aspects of its barbarities. The most recent I have watched is a European movie called Killing Heydrich, or in other places The Man With the Iron Heart. It is about the successful effort of the Czech resistance to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, second in the SS only to Himmler, who was the so-called Protector of Bohemia and Moravia during the Nazi occupation, and was notable for his intense cruelty and total lack of empathy. Indeed, he was a major player in the famous 1942 Wansee conference at which top Nazi officials decided, discussing it as if they were talking about railway schedules, on the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews from Europe. (In 1984 the Germans made a really fine film about this conference, based on the minutes which were the only record of its decisions, and the BBC have also made a film on this subject.)
The Heydrich film received some criticism on the grounds of some historical inaccuracies, but I thought it succeeded in capturing the chilling atmosphere of Nazi occupation, and the determination of citizens to resist, although resistance was usually met with immediate death. After the assassination, the entire village of Lidice was wiped out in a Nazi revenge operation, one of the most terrible actions in a war full of terrible killing.
Andother film emphasizing the really insane dichotomy that existed among cultured supporters of the Nazi theories, is one called The Devil’s Mistress, about the fate of the Czech actress Lida Baarova, who before the war ignored the presence of the Nazi government, and went to Berlin to make her fame and fortune. It was her misfortune to attract the attention of the womanizing Josef Goebbels, who, although somewhat deformed physically, exerted a strong fascination for her, perhaps because of his power within the all-powerful party hierarchy, until he was finally ordered by Hitler to end the affair. She was smuggled back to her home country by an admirer, having, it seems, not really learned her lesson, for in the film she was portrayed as an old lady who narrated the story without any expression of regret.
While on the subject of the Nazis, I should mention a more recent film that deals with the other side of the coin: The People vs Fritz Bauer. This is about an aged German civil servant in the 1950s who is determined that the German people should face the reality of what was done in their name. He found himself stymied at every turn, because former Nazi sympathizers were still in office in post-war West Germany, and succeeded in turning away his attempts to bring the facts to light. He made a hobby of tracking down escaped Nazis, and eventually succeeded in identifying the residence and alias of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. When responsible German officials refused to act, he contacted the Mossad, the Israeli secret service, although he knew it would be regarded as treason if uncovered, and they captured Eichmann using Bauer’s information. West Germany decided it had no interest in extraditing Eichmann from Israel, which put him on trial in an event that attracted world-wide interest. Bauer’s role in this event was not known until ten years after his death.
The deteriorating social atmosphere in pre-war Europe has been brilliantly captured by the American novelist Alan Furst in a series of riveting books dealing with spies, from Moscow to Paris, both before the war, and in the early months of the war. I can heartily recommend these books --- Night Soldiers, Red Gold, Spies of Warsaw, The Foreign Correspondent, Dark Voyage, are those I have read myself ---- to anyone with an interest in this dark period of history.
On the subject of cults, probably the best introduction is the remarkable TV series called Wild, Wild Country, a detailed 10-part analysis of the Ragneesh Hindu cult following the teaching of Bhagwan Ragneesh, which succeeded in lifting untold millions of money from its followers, and set out to establish a new city in Oregon in the 1980s. On the surface, this outfit, called the Ragneeshis, seemed to be doing good things, building a model city, providing its inhabitants with a free-living, sexually-uninhibited lifestyle that at first purported to want friendly relations with the people in the tiny local community of Antelope that they overwhelmed. Bhagwan himself descended into year-long silences, (as befits a guru), leaving the administration of the town to his follower Ma Anand Sheela, who devoted her life to him from the age of 16, and turned out to be not only a remarkable organizer, but a woman unable to accept failure in anything, indeed who became power-mad, and eventually armed the new city with the most modern of weapons, capable of overcoming any police force that might be sent against them. Not only that, but she is suspected of trying to poison a whole community in advance of an election for local officials, just to make sure that her team won the election. (Sheela, of course, reported to Bhagwan every day.)
To build up their numbers, the Ragneeshis scoured the cities of America for homeless people, street bums, and brought them to Oregon, fed them, gave them homes and clothing, all so that they could vote in the coming elections. When this strategy failed, the essential heartlessness of the cultists was revealed. They simply turned the street bums loose, so they began to hang around in every small town in the locality, sleeping in people’s garages, making the locals afraid of what might happen next.
When finally the local authorities acted against the cult, capturing Bhagwan as he attempted to flee the country and binging him back to Oregon to stand trial, examination of the immense house Sheela had built for herself, revealed multiple tunnels and rooms where she stored weapons and manufactured poisons for use in her nefarious dealings.
Meantime, of course, throughout, the followers are filmed in joyous, indeed hysterical outbursts of collective mania: the film is remarkable in that it is guided by Sheela herself, now a well-groomed middle-aged woman, who has settled into running a home for the elderly in Germany.
Bhagwan was also called Osho, and a report just this week in The Guardian indicates that his books and sayings are still meeting a lively response in the market, and his cult is alive and well in various parts of the world, although the guru himself died some years ago.
Although he is referred to throughout he film by various followers as “the most beautiful man I have ever met,” and similar accolades, the one weakness of the film probably is that it does not succeed in explaining why this inoffensive, posturing little fellow in the white robes should have become the focus of so much adulation. Like many other wise men, elders and gurus I have run across at various times, much of what he said seemed simplistic and obvious.
To a certain extent, stories like these of premeditated horror appear almost like works of fiction. But what did not was a recent BBC report from El Salvador, containing interviews with young women who are serving 30- year prison sentences for having had a miscarriage. Not an abortion, just a miscarriage, has earned at least 17 women in this one prison this brutal sentence. And among horrors happening in the world today, certainly that must rank among the worst.