Fanaticism as de-humanization

Bert van den Brink, Utrecht University, spoke under above title during Castrum Peregrini Central European Time kick-off workshop of FIT – ‘Fanaticism Indicator Test’

Do not quote or reproduce without written consent of the author: bert.vandenbrink[at]

I was asked to give a philosophical reflection on fanaticism. Fanaticism has never been a topic in my research but it does interest me a great deal. What I have to say here is no more than just a beginning of a reflection on the subject. I hope to say something about i) the history of the term, ii) what I will call fanaticism as de-humanization and iii) the question as to what to do with the fanatic once we have the power to confront him.

i. historical development of the term[1]

The latin ‘fanaticus’ comes to us from the latin ‘fas’ or ‘fes’, which designated – in Roman times — religious act, and ‘fanum’, which designates sanctuary. The religious acts in question do not designate an action in accordance with religious orthodoxy, however. On the contrary, the fanatic engages in cults concerning non-roman Gods. In early Christianity and in the Middle Ages, we see a similar use. The term fanatic now designates those who engage in non-Christian religious practice and worship. So a first and original meaning of fanaticism may be said to be religious action outside the trusted frameworks of the dominant religion.

A second meaning focuses on the nature of religious inspiration; the fanatic has been grasped by a special, immediate form of inspiration or enthusiasm. The immediacy of the experience is given with a claim to access to the divine that is not mediated by official religious institutions. For our purposes the most interesting thing here is probably not the claim as to how to come to knowledge of God or the divine, but rather that the fanatic has this experience outside of mediating institutions. Fanatics are outside of shared institutions and are, therefore, different and uncontrollable.

During the Reformation in Christianity the new Protestant groups are the fanatics, again they are characterized by inner conviction, enthusiasm and a rejection of the dominant institutional forms of mediation between human being and the divine. It is not until the period of the Enlightenment that a remarkable conceptual change occurs: an attack not on those who reject religious orthodoxy but religious orthodoxy itself. Catholic faith especially, with its trust in wonders and the Church as embodiment as the Kingdom of Heaven on earth appears as superstition, as nonsense upon stilts. A defense of religious orthodoxy can now be called fanaticism since it seems to do exactly what fanatics had always done: engage in practices and claim access to a special form of knowledge that remains hidden to those who use their common reasoning abilities as backed up by society’s or the church’s institutions. For understandable reasons, Protestantism, the first attack on Catholic orthodoxy, was seen as less fanatical, especially since it did not reject the idea that political organization can and should be informed by reason rather than by the truth of a particular faith.

Where Enlightenment-thinkers associate fanaticism with intolerance and domination in the exercise of political power the term ‘fanaticism’ itself takes on a political meaning. This meaning we can trace through the French Revolution, where both the ancién regime and the Catholic Church were seen as fanatical. Of course, it wasn’t long before the defenders of the revolutionary ideas were themselves seen as fanatical in their application of the ideals of freedom, equality and solidarity to social and political practice. What all these uses have in common is not so much that the designated ‘fanatics’ are outside of the center of power – for they most definitely were not – but rather that they seem not to respect limits defined by human reasoning abilities. The fanatic now is not the one who is outside of dominant religious practice but who is outside of the realm of human reason. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, a couple of decades after the French Revolution, Hegel describes both religious and political fanaticism as “fury of destruction.” The fanatic is unable to grasp the complex institutional and dispositional requirements of freedom and equality in a constitutional state. The fanatic is motivated by a blind passion that will not be tamed by stabilizing social structures and the use of reason.

Inside or outside of reason, that is the modern question about fanaticism. And of course, reason is vulnerable. So those who want to go beyond respect for institutional and dispositional requirements of freedom can seek to go beyond reason. In one of the most quoted passages of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler propagates exactly that: “Die Zukunft einer Bewegung wird bedingt durch den Fanatismus, ja die Unduldsamkeit, mit der ihre Anhänger sie als die allein wichtige vertreten und anderen Gebilden ähnlicher Art gegenüber durchsetzen.” “The future of a movement is conditioned by the fanaticism, yes, the intolerance, with which its adherents uphold it as the sole correct movement, and push it past other formations of a similar sort.” Not the correctness of a movement and its goals but the ruthless fanaticism with which its goals are upheld determines its future.

So let us sum up: historically, fanaticism has designated immediate religious inspiration and enthusiasm, conviction without doubt, uncontrollable by reason, activity outside of accepted institutions and social forms, intolerance and the will the destruct what is inspired and organized in ways that clash with the fanaticism in question. Its early meaning is ‘outside of accepted religion’ its modern meaning is rather ‘outside of reason’. Fanaticism is a term that is mostly used to describe others but there are examples – from horrible sources – that show us that self-description as fanatical is a possibility.

ii. Fanaticism as de-humanization

The true fanatic is not willing, and may not be able to limit his action in light of the wishes, opinions, actions, and rights of others. Justified by his special inspiration and enthusiasm and his privileged access to truth, he is not responsive to the good reasons that may exist to, indeed, constrain his actions. He is, in a way, outside of the law. The fanatic is not able to take the insights, needs and interests of others seriously. Reaching own goals is more important to him than insights, needs and interests that stand in the way of such goals. At the base of all of this there is what I want to call a de-humanization of the fanatic and his other. The fanatic is less human than he could be and de-humanizes his others exactly because he steps outside of, goes beyond the laws of human connectedness. The fanatic treats neither himself nor his other as human.

In light of what I have said so far you may suspect that at the heart of this connectedness stands the human ability to reason together; to exchange reasons about an issue that interests or divides us in order to reach a certain conclusion that we somehow share and accept as something that can guide our actions. Yet, as important as the human capacity to reason with others about situations is, I think that it is not what makes us human in a morally interesting way. We can reason about horrible ends and reasoning itself does not obligate us to take into account the insights, needs and interests of all. There has to be something more basic that makes us human.

I will try to bring out what does make us human in a relevant sense here and I will label this, with a term coined by German philosopher Axel Honneth, empathic involvedness. With this I refer to a disposition for action that enables people to empathize with, feel for, the situation of others. The core of my argument is that the fanatic has lost this ability; his inspiration and enthusiasm for a single goal have blinded him to the very humanity of others, making it easy for him to ignore their needs, interests and claims. Empathetic involvedness is a necessary condition of reasoning practices that include all affected by a certain constellation. It is a matter of acknowledging their existence as human beings with distinct needs, interests and standpoints. It is an involvedness that is given before reasoning starts, so to say, it is a deep assumption about others being human and thus worthy of their status of reasoner, rights-bearer etc.

Maybe I can explain what the vague sounding term of empathetic connectedness stands for by introducing you to a perhaps silly but nonetheless interesting philosophical argument by Stanley Cavell. Cavell engages with skeptical philosophers who argue that it is impossible to know whether another human being is in pain. Skeptics in philosophy have made an enormous issue out of this. Some of them go so far as to claim that the circumstance that I cannot know with certainty that another is in pain leads to doubts about the existence of other minds than my own. Against this philosophical argument (you may want to say: illness ) Cavell develops an argument that I understand as an argument about humanity.

With his intellectual doubts as to the possibility of knowledge of the pain of others the skeptic treats human behavior and human speech as independent of the mind. The skeptic says: “You seem to be in pain, you say you are in pain, but how can I know that you are in pain. Can I feel your pain the way that you feel it? Which theory of knowledge can help me reach certain knowledge of what your behavior and words suggests, i.e. that you are in pain?”

Cavell’s answer is that there is no theory of knowledge that can help us here simply because certainty of knowledge is neither possible here, nor very important. When I say that I am in pain, or that I know that I am in pain, I express an experience that is relevant to both of us. The way you are supposed to react is not: “but I have no way of ascertaining that you are indeed in pain,” but rather: “you are in pain.”  And you don’t say this because you want to express that you have certain knowledge about my state of mind and body, but because you express your sympathy, because you feel for me, acknowledge my state, perhaps want to help me.

In this point about acknowledgment we find the crux of this argument: Your pain makes a claim upon me; it connects us as vulnerable, sentient beings, as beings who are sufficiently alike to acknowledge each other as belonging to the same group, as sufficiently equal to make claims on each other. Our empathic involvedness makes us human in our relation because we acknowledge a certain mutual dependence and the right to make claims on one another.

I would claim that our sense of humanity consists in our ability to relate to others in terms of empathic connectedness; to acknowledge their existence as human beings. This forms of acknowledgement precedes our recognizing each other as persons, as concrete human beings with specific traits, roles, and expectations. As a person with such traits I can make claims with respect to the way that others should treat me and I should treat these others. But making claims is more than exchanging reasons; the exchange of reasons, the cognitive process of testing these reasons etc. is preceded by a very basic form of mutual acknowledgement that I would call empathic involvedness.

My claim is that fanaticism affects negatively this sense of empathic involvedness. The inspiration, enthusiasm, the immunity to the power of reason, the breaking with shared patterns of expectation and institutional constraints – they are all indicative of a basic disposition to act that is not constrained by an openness to the needs, interests and most basic moral claims of others over the fanatic. The fanatic is severely hindered in acknowledging the experience of others as expressed in their claims, their reasons, their pain, their bodily movements. The fanatic is not empathically involved with them.

I am not claiming that the fanatic is totally unable to act from empathetic involvedness; the fanatic need not be inhuman, a monster, a demon. To use Hannah Arendt’s term we could speak of the banality of fanaticism. In his involvement with evil the fanatic has left his humanity behind, and has become insensitive to that of others, by treating others as objects, not as human beings, and doing so in the name of an obsession, an ideology, a set of prescripts that does not turn him into a monster, but into a human being who in a way betrays his own humanity. Fanaticism, like evil, is not a solid state, that can never be changed. The fanatic has a choice, he can do or could have done otherwise. The fact that the fanatic does what he does despite his capacity for empathic involvedness makes him all the more frightening. On the other hand, the fact that there is a choice may also contain a glimmer of hope: the fanatic can change, can retreat from his obsession, can re-humanize himself and others by opening up to what I have called empathic involvedness with others.

iii What to do with the fanatic?

This finally raises the question as to how to relate to the fanatic. Since he dehumanizes himself and his other – us – we may treat him as less than human as well. That of course conjures up a problem: do we want to dehumanize ourselves in dealing with fanaticism? Here perhaps our best advice is to be taken from the saying that you shouldn’t argue with a stupid person since he’ll bring you down to his level and than beat you with experience. So don’t argue with a fanatic cause he’ll bring you down to his level and beat you with fanaticism there. The better way to react is not through face-to-face argument but through institutions that have been shaped in light of the requirement of empathic involvedness. Legal and political institutions in sufficiently decent states have been informed by that requirement and thus enable anyone who faces them to answer questions about his presumed fanaticism with good or not so good reasons. Good examples of course are the trials against war criminals in Nuremberg, Israel and many other places and – on a different issue and scale – trials against Islamist terrorists today. Sometimes, of course, we try to prevent fanaticism through schooling etc. There too, I’d say, the first step should be taken from an empathic involvement that is directed at making comparisons, offering alternatives, making people see different sides to stories etc. And then sometimes of course, there is war against fanatics. Here, reasoning with fanaticism stops and turns into a fight. But here too there is a difference between a justified war and one that is not. I can not decide here what makes a war against fanaticism justified but I do suspect that apart from the quality of its goals that question would have to be answered in terms of an empathic involvedness with the faith of all those affected by that war. Taking empathic involvedness seriously does not in any way imply that there cannot be a hard answer to fanaticism. But it does imply that those who are fighting fanaticism are themselves bound to a requirement of minimal empathic involvedness even with their enemies who are, after all, human beings.

[1] I have benefitted from Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, J. Ritter and others, Basel: Schabe, 1971-2007.

Quotes on Fanaticism – D/EN

fr: fanatique oder lat. fanaticus = göttlich inspiriert.


I.             im engeren Sinn das Besessensein von einer Idee, Vorstellung oder Überzeugung („ein fanatischer Anhänger einer Ideologie oder einer Gruppierung“, meist also religiös und politisch motiviert.)

hexenverbrennung2II.            im weiteren Sinn eine besonders hohe emotionale Wertschätzung bestimmter Tätigkeiten, Interessengebiete (fanatischer „Motorrad-Freak“ oder „Fußball-Fan“) oder Objekte wie z. B. Sammelobjekte. Harmlose Form, so leitet sich auch vom Begriff „Fanatiker“ Begriff „Fan“ ab, der aber ausschließlich im Sinne von „Enthusiast“ verwandt wird und keine ernsthafte politische, weltanschauliche oder religiöse Überzeugung meint, sondern überschwängliche Begeisterung für Sportler oder Popkünstler.


Entwicklung des Begriffes

Staats-Lexikon oder Encyklopädie der Staatswissenschaften, Band 5 (1837)S. 434ff

Fanatismus. Fanatiker. „Jeder übermäßiger – namentlich bis zur Grenze der Wut oder der Verrücktheit gesteigerte – für oder gegen eine Sache, sie es eine Idee oder eine praktische Richtung, oder auch eine Person, oder was sonst ein Gegenstand einer Anhänglichkeit oder Abstoßung, der Liebe oder des Hasses, kann mit dem Namen Fanatismus, nach der weitesten Bedeutung des Wortes, belegt werden. Im engeren Sinne jedoch, oder vorzugsweise gebraucht es für solchen Eifer in religiösen und politischen Dingen.“

twin-tower-9-11Auch hier erkennt man schon, dass auch 1832 das Hauptaugenmerk auf die zwei Pole des politischen und religiösen Fanatismus gelegt wird.

Begriffsspektrum im soziologischen, religiösen und philosophischen Wörterbuch:

I.             Fanatismus: (von lat. fanum, „Opferhaus, Tempel“), das völlige Durchdrungensein von einer Idee, Weltanschauung, Religion, der leidenschaftlich-blinde Eider für eine Sache, eine Ideologie.

II.            Fanatismus (lat. fanum = das Heilige), das polit., sozial oder religiös begründete aggressive, intolerante, besserwisserische Verfolgen gesetzter oder geglaubter Ziele, die als absolute, gegen alle sonstigen mögl. Erfahrungen abgeschirmte Normen gelten. Der F., ohne Selbstkritik u. Bezug zu differenzierten Wirklichkeit, tendiert zur Vereinfachung von Problemen u. entwickelt gegenüber Andersgläubigen oder Ungläubigen inquisitor. Züge. Das Studium der Entstehung und Wirkung von Fanatismus ist ein zentraler Bestandtteil der Soziol. Der Massen, die die Zusammenhänge von sozialer Unzufriedenheit u. Leichtgläubigkeit, von Enttäuschung u. Nachahmungsbereitschaft u. von Selbstentsagung (als Folge sozialen Resignierens) u. Selbstaufopferung (Aufgabe in kollektive Massenexistenz) untersucht.

holland-fansIII.           Fanatismus, übersteigert leidenschaftlicher Eifer in der einseitigen Vertretung  einer subjektiven Überzeugung, hat nicht umsonst seinen Namen von (lat.) fanum, dem der Gottheit geweihten Ort, wonach der Fanatiker ursprünglich der von ihr in rasende Begeisterung Versetzte ist. F. ist eine Begleiterscheinung vieler Religionen, vor allem des Islams. In der Geschichte des Christentums gibt es Beispiele genug dafür, dass der Absolutheitsanspruch einer Lehre in F. umschlagen kann. Bekannt ist der f. von Konvertiten als Reaktion unterdrückter Komplexe.


Problem der Begriffsdefinitionen:
Man erkennt, dass auch in den modernen Lexika meist der Fanatismus in die zwei traditionellen Pole eingeteilt wird (Religion/Politik). Der „natürliche“, vielleicht auch gesunde Fanatismus wird nicht erwähnt, oder zumindest nicht mit diesem Begriff bezeichnet. Hat nicht jeder Mensch die Anlage zum Fanatismus? Wie weit haben gerade soziale Massen Anteil an der Fanatisierung des einzelnen Individuums (siehe NS-Zeit). Wovon sind gerade die fanatischen Akteure/Wortführer getrieben? Ist es nicht zu einfach alles auf den religiösen Eifer und die poltische Idee zurück zuführen?

Was haben all die geschichtlichen Phänomene des Fanatismus wie die Französische Revolution, Kommunismus, Nationalsozialismus, Rote-Armee-Fraktion, Islamismus, aber auch extreme Formen des neuzeitlichen Feminismus gmeinsam?

holland-fans2Hinweis: Eigentlicher lat. Ursprung des Begriffes (Opferhaus, Tempel, etc.) ist klar positiv besetzt! Jedoch auch schon am Ursprung fest verbunden mit Religion. Ist vielleicht doch mit jedem Fanatismus der Anspruch auf etwas Heiliges/Einzigartiges/Besonderes verbunden?

Das allgemeine deutsche Wörterbuch bleibt mit seiner einfachen und unbestimmten Definition vielleicht noch am nahesten am Begriff selbst:

Fanatismus: „blind-übertriebener u. unduldsamer Eifer (für eine Überzeugung).“


Noun: fanatism: Excessive intolerance of opposing views

Noun: fanatic:    A person motivated by irrational enthusiasm (as for a cause)
“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject


Fanaticism is an emotion of being filled with excessive, uncritical zeal, particularly for an extreme religious or political cause or in some cases sports, or with an obsessive enthusiasm for a pastime or hobby. (wikipedia) The difference between a fan and a fanatic is that while both have an overwhelming liking or interest in a given subject, behavior of a fanatic will be viewed as violating prevailing social norms, while that of a fan will not violate those norms.



“Bedenkt, dass Fanatiker gefährlicher sind als Schurken. Einen Besessenen kann man niemals zur Vernunft bringen, einen Schurken wohl.” – Voltaire, Potpourri

 „Der Fanatismus ist für den Aberglauben, was das Delirium für das Fieber, was die Raserei für den Zorn ist.“ Voltaire

“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Sir Winston Churchill 

„Ein Radikaler ist ein Mensch, der mit beiden Beinen fest in der Luft steht.“ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

„Fanatismus ist eine Denkstörung.“ Norbert Blüm

„Der Fanatismus ist die einzige “Willensstärke”, zu der auch die Schwachen und Unsicheren gebracht werden können.“  Nietzsche, Fröhliche Wissenschaften ( hier sind von Nietzsche auch wieder hauptsächlich die religiösen „Herdentiere“ gemeint)

„Phlegmatische Naturen sind nur so zu begeistern, daß man sie fanatisiert.“ Nietzsche, Morgenröte.

„Solange es noch Fanatiker in der Welt gibt, ist kein Bubenstück so gräßlich, das nicht irgendein betrogener Wahnsinniger in majorem Dei gloriam zu verüben fähig sein sollte.“ Christoph Martin Wieland

„Abscheuliche Lehren sind diejenigen, welche zum Verbrechen, zum Mord verleiten und Fanatiker hervorbringen.“ Jean-Jaques Rousseau => Rousseau fasst ein wichtiges Motiv des Fanatismus ins Auge: die Gewalt. Sie ist ein zentrale Säule im fanatischen Tempel!

„Wollte nun diese Totalität [ der Religion, K.L.] alle Beziehungen des  Staates ergreifen, so wäre sie Fanatismus, [….] denn der Fanatismus ist nur das, die besonderen  Unterschiede nicht gewähren zu lassen.“  Hegel, Grundlinien des Rechts. Hegel erfasst hier gekonnt die Tendenz der Religion zum Fanatismus.

“Der Fanatismus ist gerade bei den Gebildeten zu Hause.” – Max Stirner, Der Einzige und sein Eigentum

“Mit Fanatikern zu diskutieren heißt, mit einer gegnerischen Mannschaft Tauziehen spielen, die ihr Seilende um einen dicken Baum geschlungen hat.” – Hans Kasper, Fanatismus  =>Kasper zeigt deutlich, dass es beim Fanatismus auch immer um eine Stärkung/Verteidigung der Gruppe nach außen geht, siehe gerade fanatische Islamisten. Diese suchen kein Gespräch mit dem Westen (äußerer Feind!), sondern schirmen sich ab = Kollektiv-Meinung!

Es geht also um eine Abstoßung des Außen, ein Verneinen des Anderen, hierzu Nietzsche: „ Der Fanatiker eines Ideals, welches Fleisch und Blut hat, ist gewöhnlich so lange im Rechte, als er verneint, und er ist furchtbar darin: er kennt das Verneinte so gut wie sich selber, aus dem einfachsten Grunde, dass er von dorther kommt, dort zu Hause ist und sich im Geheimen immer fürchtet, dorthin noch zurückzumüssen, […].“ 

“Zur Abwehr der Zweifel wird die bewusste Einstellung fanatisch, denn Fanatismus ist nichts anderes als überkompensierter Zweifel.” – Carl Gustav Jung, Gesammelte Werke, Band 6, S. 376

Roundtable on Fanaticism

DEF flag-logoeac-LLP_ENEurope has a long history of religious, political, racist and economical fanaticism that has had disastrous effects on the development of the continent. Today, fanatism is present in the tendencies towards nationalism and populism, religious movements, the call for strong leaders, exclusion of outsiders and minorities, intolerance towards different opinions and ways of life etc.

Castrum Peregrini has initiated a European project on the theme of Fanaticism (FIT) to map the theme and collect and create tools for self-awareness .

As part of the first partners meeting we want to invite the interested public, friends of Castrum Peregrini to participate in a roundtable talk and discussion with Ram Manikkalingam (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and Bert van den Brink  (University of Utrecht). Both give an introduction in the subject before they enter into a dialogue involving the public.

Vrijdag, 25 september ’09

20.00 uur

After sunset: Fanaticism!

Ram Manikkalingam
is the founder of the Dialogue Advisory Group, Amsterdam and a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam.  Until recently, he advised the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. He was Senior Advisor on the Peace Process to the previous President of Sri Lanka. He has served as an Advisor with Ambassador rank at the Sri Lanka Mission to the United Nations in New York. Prior to this he was an Advisor on International Security to the Rockefeller Foundation. He has a doctorate in political philosophy and a bachelors degree in Physics, both from MIT.

Bert van den Brink is professor for political and social philosophy at Utrecht University. His research interests are in democracy, power, recognition, pluralism, agonism and liberalism. Among his many publications are The Tragedy of Liberalism, State University of New York Press 2000, Reasons of One’s Own, Ashgate 2004 (ed. with Marc Slors and Maureen SIe) and Recognition and Power, Cambridge University Press 2008 (ed. with David Owen).

Please reserve a seat by dropping us an e-mail


FIT – working conference

FIT – Fanaticism Indicator Test

Project launch – first partners meeting – working conference

Castrum Peregrini and Goethe Institut in association with the Dialogue Advisory Group

Amsterdam 25 and 26 September 2009

Working language: English

As a practical conclusion drawn from the project application we suggest to work in three strands:

1)         on the general theme of fanaticism

2)         on the local/regional aspects of fanaticism (specific situation and practice of the involved partner organisations): couleur local; collection of best practice

3)         on measurement tools: the Fanaticism Indicator Test – development of methodology, questionnaire and online application

These three aspects give structure to all our project meetings, so that strand 1 is an ongoing discussion across all meetings (to be documented online) leading to a final (publishable) conclusion. Strand 2 highlights the situation of the partner institution hosting a meeting and the work of strand 3 would develop in-between the meetings by a working group set up during the first meeting. They would present and discuss their proceedings during all project meetings.

Ram Manikkalingam will follow the whole conference as an observer and will give critical feedback in the end.

Friday, 25 September

Castrum Peregrini, Herengracht 401

For project partners only:



Welcome by Lars Ebert
Introduction in weekend schedule and housekeeping announcements
Presentation of project objectives

Introduction of project partners (15 minutes maximum each)

Coffee break

Workshop: Problems and practice of involved partner institutions. (10 minutes each); Presentation and discussion. Chaired by Joachim Umlauf, director Goethe Institut Amsterdam

End of first session

Dinner at Brasserie Harkema (


20h00 – public part
Roundtable talk on Fanaticism 

Ram Manikkalingam (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and Bert van den Brink  (University of Utrecht) will both give an introduction in the subject before they enter into a dialogue involving the public.


Saturday 26 September

Castrum Peregrini, Herengracht 401

Workshop (Strand 1)
Joachim Umlauf, director Goethe Institut, Amsterdam
Definition of Fanaticism (in: Anthropology, Sociology, History, Literature, Performing Arts, Fine Arts etc.)

when and why does one gets fanatic?
why is one individual more vulnerable than the other?
what is needed to realise one has tendencies towards fanaticism?
when can you call somebody fanatic?

Coffee break

Workshop (Strand 3)
Presentation and discussion of the existing (Dutch) FIT, the ‘Weerbaarheidsmeter’;
Dirk Jansen, Chair Stefan Zweig Society

Lunch break (see list with suggested lunchrooms)

Goethe Institut, Herengracht 470

Breakout groups:

1) task force: Fanaticism Indicator Test; Dirk Jansen and Michael Defuster (Strand 3)

2) task force: collecting and making accessible of best practice; Lars Ebert and Joachim Umlauf (Strand 2)

Coffee break

Feedback by Ram Manikkalingam and discussion

End of afternoon sessions; meeting of responsible representatives of partner institutions to define date and agenda of next meetings. Signing of co-operation agreement.

Dinner at Goethe Institute

Film screening The Wave, with presentation of didactic material

LLPafbeelding kleurDAG

Fanaticism, inextricably connected to human life

Summary of the article “Fanatisme, van alle tijden, in alle mensen”

by Dirk Jansen


In finding my way through stories, studies and literature on the theme of fanaticism it struck me that most of the authors locate fanatic characteristics in distant, impersonal entities (Taliban, Nazis, inquisition etc.). Not much attention is paid to the individual, personal perspective. In the end my conclusion is that fanaticism potentially is an inextricable aspect of every human being.

My interest

My interest in fanaticism was highly actualized when I read Elias Canetti’s experience in Vienna in 1929. As a young, dedicated anti fanatic student he happened to get lost in a crowd that was on its way to set the Palace of Justice on fire. Canetti vanished in the crowd and did not feel any resistance to the fanatic objectives and the violent acts of the crowd.

I realize if this could happen to him, I also could easily be a victim.

Very different meanings

In everyday life many different meanings are hidden behind the term of fanaticism:

  • A friend called me a fanatic when I preferred to go to bed early to prepare myself for a sports match the next day instead of having another drink with him.
  • A newspaper headline mentioned:  “Fanatic man slaughters fellow passengers with axe”
  • A Dutch author ironically defined a fanatic as a person filled with doubts who finally decides to make up his mind.
  • Attacks on the World Trade Center or on the centre of Bagdad are sometimes ascribed to fanatics.

These examples and many others encouraged my search for an unambiguous and still workable definition of fanaticism.

Many discussions and the wisdom in the literature included in the list at the end of this summary form the context of my search for a proper definition.

Definition of fanaticism

My search resulted in four elements that collectively constitute the concept of fanaticism:

  1. people have agreed on one or more clear and simple opinion
  2. they exclude alternative opinions
  3. they feel a passion to convince others
  4. they are prepared to use violence as a tool to convince others

In my view the concept of fanaticism is only applicable if all  four elements are applicable. If e.g. the element of aggression is not present or the people involved are open to consider different opinions we should not speak of fanaticism.

In my search I have focused on the perspective of the participants in the crowd and not on the role of the leader.

Each of the elements needs some elaboration.

Focus on an opinion

Many authors have emphasized the human characteristic to look for the safety of a group in times of uncertainties (Canetti, Arendt, Van der Brink). Leaders could make use of this mechanism to gather these “people looking for certainty” around an appealing and simple opinion/solution. We all know that the introduction of democracy was not Bush’s main motive to invade Iraq and obviously the introduction of Islam is not the most important cause for the terroristic acts of Taliban. And still many people adopt these openly stated opinions. These observations lead me to the following conclusion:

Conclusion 1:
The content of collective opinions tends to be less important than the unifying effect of having a collective opinion.  Sharing such an opinion delivers the safety of participation in a group.


Exclusion of alternatives

In order to defend the group against external influences and to improve the solidarity in the group, the creation of an external enemy is an often applied tool to improve solidarity. As stated earlier, the group is less interested in finding the truth than in maintaining the density and stability of the group. Therefore e.g. a critical attitude of fundamental Islam to western culture or western criticism towards communistic ideology should not be understood as an invitation to an open discussion, but as a strategy to defend the own group.

Conclusion 2:
Exclusion of alternative opinions mainly serves the objective to create an external enemy in order to maintain the density of the group.



A hermit with explicit opinions lacking any communication with others should not be called a fanatic. The moment he seeks contact with the people in a nearby village to convince them of the truth of his opinion, he comes a step closer to my definition of a fanatic. When a group feels such an urge to spread its opinion, this missionary work is considered by Canetti as one of the main characteristics of a fanatic movement. It is not in the first place their firm conviction of  being right to do their missionary work, but the need to grow as a group urges them to do so. The inflow of new participants guarantees the movement new energy and continuity.

Conclusion 3
Missionary work serves the group objective to grow. Growth is the only way to preserve their energy level and their continuity.



In my view a person who is absolutely convinced that the protestant religion is the only true belief – even if he passionately, but peacefully tries to convince others – should not be called a fanatic. He will be a true fanatic at the moment he is prepared to use violence in order to recruit supporters.

Without doubt violence includes physical aggression. However we tend to accept regulated state violence (police, army) as permitted violence. In my view verbal violence in an extremely offensive manner could have a similar negative effect as physical violence.  But judgement of this phenomenon is probably both individually and culturally bound.

Conclusion 4
Fanaticism includes the preparedness to bring in all possible tools including violence to convince others.


How to handle fanaticism

Both Stefan Zweig and Amos Oz had to face fanaticism in their own life. I feel comfortable in their analyses and suggestions to handle this phenomenon:

  • take a step back and evaluate your own behavior and attitude
  • invest in education to strengthen the resistance to fanaticism
  • stimulate everyone to broaden their perspectives and to look beyond the borders of their own interests and daily surroundings

A simple solution is not available because of the complex and  deep-seated motives of fanaticism.

Examples of  tools to stimulate the awareness of our own potential fanaticism exist in:

  • a broad scope of cultural expressions: literature, theatre, film, music
  • education. Schools could have a lot of impact on the awareness of mechanisms of fanaticism in children’s minds.
  • politics could be the starting point, but also protection from fanaticism.
  • practical tests to give an indication of individual susceptibility to fanaticism.

Creative contributions to develop new tools to make us aware of the temptation of fanaticism could be of great help.




Arendt, Hannah, The origins of totalitarianism, 1951

Totalitarisme, Boom 2005

Brink van der, Bert, Fanatisme als ontmenselijking, draft essay 2006

Canetti, Elias, Die Fackel im Ohr, 1980

The torch in my ear, 1982

De fakkel in mijn oor, 1982

Canetti, Elias, Masse und Macht, 1960

Crowds and Power, 1962

Massa en macht, 1976

Haffner, Sebastiaan, Geschichte eines Deutschen, 2000

Het verhaal van een duitser, 2002

Oz, Amos, How to cure a fanatic, 2006

Hoe genees ik een fanaticus, 2007

Zweig, Stefan, Castellio gegen Calvin, 1936

The right to Heresy, 1936

Castellio tegen Calvijn, 1936

Zweig, Stefan, Die Welt von gestern, 1941

The world of yesterday, 1943

De wereld van gisteren, 2008

Zweig, Stefan, Joseph Fouché, 1981

Zweig, Stefan, Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam, 1934

Triumph and tragedy of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1934

Dirk Jansen (1945) is sociologist and Chairman of the Dutch Stefan Zweig Genootschap.