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Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 4 The Demand for Purity

November 10, 2021

The third characteristic of a cult is what Lifton called the demand for purity. As noted in the introduction, the summary by the anti-cult activist Rick Ross is the starting point for each of these posts:

The Demand for Purity– The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

The demand for purity, and the inevitable ‘purity tests’ in their various forms are applied not only within a group, upon its own members, but also applied to the outside world. Subjecting certain “out-groups” to a purity test, is crucial to the ‘milieu control’ discussed earlier. It enables a cult or cult-like “in-group” to define itself positively in contrast to an ‘impure’ group. This serves to strengthen identity and community, as well as de-humanise that out-group. The out-group can be excluded, damned, or physically attacked, depending on the nature of the in-group. It also allows any criticism by the out-group to be dismissed out of hand.

Conspiracy Theories

Applying a purity test to an out-group is in fact one of the defining features of a conspiracy theory. Often, the whole of society is simply written off as unworthy– as fools, deviants, barbarians, or dupes of a cabal of parasitic power-seekers or manipulators who control “everything”.

Ultimately, subjecting outsiders to a purity test is not concerned so much with promoting certain ideas or values, but is rather an assertion of power.

This makes any kind of reasoned or critical response to the in-group’s ideology extremely difficult. The out-group has already been condemned as guilty according to criteria that are considered to be so obvious that there is no need for discussion. The judgment has fallen, and the punishment must be carried out. Trying to respond rationally to this completely misses the point. For the in-group this is not about fact checking or reasoned analysis. It’s a power struggle. This war was probably declared by the in-group long before any skeptic or critic had even heard of them.

This is why skeptics and critics nearly always fail to even make a dent in the propaganda of conspiracy theorists. They don’t realise their antagonists are playing a straight forward power game, not a logic game. The points they think they are scoring with their clever analyses of contradictions, logical fallacies and incorrect information count less than nothing for the in-group. Repeated failed attacks merely make the in-group feel and appear stronger.

Sooner or later the purity test that was applied to outsiders begins to be applied to insiders as well. Contradictions and conflicting interpretations within the ideology (inevitable in all conspiracy theories) turn minor squabbles into divisive conflicts. If one particular faction gains the upper hand, some kind of purge within the in-group is almost inevitable. This is especially the case if the group’s membership and influence expanded too swiftly for conflicting opinions to be resolved or filtered out.

In other words, finicky internal squabbles are often far more problematic for such a group than any encounter with factual reality or contradictory ideas from an out-group.

Groups that seek to gain political power over an out-group are a menace to society and a threat to democracy. Ultimately, unless they self-destruct, they can probably only be stopped with force.

Spiritual groups whose members are more focused on their own purity or personal success are more likely to be merely a menace to the group members themselves.

Spiritual Groups & Ideologies Based on Revelation

The apparent absence of purity tests is probably one of the main attractions of modern esoteric spirituality for many people. The absence, at least, of Christian notions of original sin, guilt around sexuality, and prescribed scriptures with the attendant priestly power structures can in many instances be counted as a plus for this broad tent of spiritual ideologies.

It might come as a surprise to some people therefore, that modern esoteric teachings always come with numerous built-in purity tests. Spiritual teachings usually involve some kind of “instructions for living”. Thus, the customer’s success or failure to achieve the desired reward inevitably becomes a form of purity test in itself. It can only be this way with such teachings. They are always presented in black and white language, which eventually drives followers into a corner.

If the customer’s life doesn’t improve, the customer will be accused of failing to follow the instructions properly. There is no other possible explanation within the ideology for the failure. The judgment falls with the full authority of the teacher or inventor of the revelation.

Criticism from outside inevitably faces the same fate. The critic will be dismissed as having failed the purity test and condemned to facing the consequences of their error. To live in misery, to die of cancer for their “negativity” (as one Louise Hay customer told me), or to otherwise go to hell.

Refraining from criticising the teacher or teachings becomes in itself a purity test.

Red Flags & Consumer Protection

* Are group members placed under pressure by the ideology or prescribed activities to conform or perform? What options are available for non-conformity?

* What behaviours and ideas does the ideology explicitly condemn? Is it realistic or even sensible to expect people to refrain from them? What are the consequences for transgressions?

* What is implicitly excluded from the ideology? How do group leaders and members respond to the idea that the teachings might be incomplete or in need of improvement?

* Do members of the in-group reflexively judge critics or anyone who holds a conflicting view according to the groups internal standards or purity rules? (If so, normal reasoned communication with its members will be difficult and will require a good knowledge of the ideology and internal rules.)

* Likewise, do group members tend to respond to external criticism in an identical fashion? Ideologies that paint the world as black and white, (or positive and negative, in the case of law of attraction scams), offer believers only a very limited vocabulary which shuns critical thinking and often simple human honesty, and therefore leaves only very few options for responding to non-compliant ideas. Usually they will simply attack the critic in terms of the internal purity test.

* Does the teacher follow the rules and apply the teachings in their own life? If not, it’s a good sign that the rules and expectations are unrealistic. (This is usually easy enough to find out if it’s a local group, simply by asking around. Dirt has a way of spreading through a community — even group members often know the truth and choose to ignore it.)


Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 3 – Mystical Manipulation

October 6, 2021

This is the third post in the series on manipulative persuasion, considering the eight aspects identified by psychologist Robert Lifton. As noted in the introduction, the second of these was summarised by the anti-cult activist Rick Ross:

Mystical Manipulation — The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.

The performance of apparent miracles through deliberate and pre-planned deception is of course well known in religious and spiritual history. Such deceits, however, always involve a certain tawdriness as well as the risk of exposure.

More commonly today, mystical manipulation takes on the form referred to in the final sentence above– the interpretation of happenstance and coincidences in a manner that aggrandises the teachings, or the teacher.

Unlike deliberate deception and magic tricks, this form of manipulation entails little chance of exposure, and requires no set-up. “Everything happens for a reason”, or — more esoterically — “There are no coincidences.” Therefore, the Universe has guided you to join this group, to read this book, or to listen to this bloated goon promote his product.

There has never been an easier sales pitch. You can know that you need this product simply because you’ve seen it! …….At this portentous moment.

It even comes with a built-in escape clause: if the product fails, well, that also happens for a reason — the customer simply failed to follow the instructions properly, or gave up too soon. Bruce Lipton calls such people “spiritual drop-outs” (rather than victims).

There is of course a degree of truth in the idea that our thoughts and emotions affect the way we experience the world and influence events. Similar ideas appear in various traditions and religions, though usually not in such deterministic terms. However, what makes this modern version unique is that the idea has now been transformed into a product, often with a complete business plan attached to it.

In the 1950s Norman Vincent Peale developed his “Power of Positive Thinking” scam, which itself was derived from various early forms of the idea that prayer can be used as an earthly power for earthly gains. The subsequent New Age “law of attraction” is exactly the same thing, only using quantum physics instead of Jesus.

The highly successful film The Secret by Rhonda Byrne added further layers to it, including an entirely fabricated history. (The supposed “secret” was claimed to have been known and used by the likes of Plato, Newton, Emerson and Einstein, despite fact that it has either nothing to do with or directly contradicts neo-Platonism, Alchemy, and every aspect of classical and modern physics. Even the quote from Emerson that opens the film was simply made up.)

Byrne, according to the film, was deeply unhappy. Her life was going nowhere and her father had just died. Then her five year old daughter gave her a book with a note saying “This will help, Mama.” The film implies, with the use of subliminal images, that the child was mystically inspired by Byrne’s dead father to give her the book.

This is a smart move by the film makers. No one thinks of critically analysing a child’s gift, and the viewer watches Byrne’s reaction without realising that the film is modeling a sequence of behaviours that the viewer will soon find themselves replicating.

Byrne examines the book’s contents and begins to wonder if maybe she has created her own sadness, and maybe she can attract happiness into her life if she follows the instructions. She goes online to check the origins of the book and is awe struck when she (supposedly) discovers the book’s (utterly fabricated) history. She winds up lying on a bed having an erotic encounter with the idea of The Secret, represented by Albert Einstein’s image. Afterwards she goes online again to see if anyone else today knows the same Secret that Einstein and all the Great Men of History knew. And she finds them! (At this point, five minutes into the film, there is a grating shift to the mundane and bombastic presentations of the long list of law of attraction scammers who appear in the film.)

Mapped out here is the sequence of behaviours that the viewer will unwittingly find themselves replicating, only with a few of the roles switched. Instead of receiving The Secret as a gift from a child, they have got it as a gift from whoever told them about it and sent them the link — when the film was freely available for a period online, as gift “from the very rich people who have discovered how to use this secret and are sharing it freely with everyone” (to quote the person who sent the link to me!).

What kind of person critically evaluates a gift, for heavens sake? (As I was also asked by the same person!) Thus the viewer is drawn personally into the drama and storyline of the film. They don’t need to go online to research it because Byrne did all that for them and told them what is there. All they need to do is watch the rest of the film, or a bit of it, and send it — as a gift — to someone else. (To someone whose life could be spiritually improved by becoming extremely wealthy.)

There is an even deeper aspect to mystical manipulation being practiced here, though less deliberate.

This “law of attraction” ideology leads customers to see the world as nothing more than “a vast mail-order catalogue” (to quote the scammer Joe Vitale in the film)– no mystery, no ethics or morality. Just the belief that you are entitled to grab whatever comes within reach. If you can get your hands on it, it means you deserve it. If anyone gets hurt by the grabbing, it’s their own fault for not manifesting a better fate for themselves.

The mindset that this kind of thinking inevitably leads to is similar to that of a psychopath or sociopath. It purifies it however, by labeling it “spiritual”.

Same with all the various forms of charismatic miracle churches. the dominating behaviour of the leader is excused as being inspired by a higher source or purpose. In effect, however, this form of mystical manipulation merely opens a space for the leader to establish dominance, by switching off the normal psychological defenses and protection mechanisms.


  • If a teacher claims to be able to create their own reality using the law of attraction, it is a red flag if you see them get handcuffed and dragged off to prison.
Detective Ross Diskin & James Ray: not much attraction, plenty of law
  • Related to this, how does a law of attraction-style teacher deal with unfortunate events in their own life? Do they accept responsibility and try to alter their thoughts and actions, or do they ignore their own prior teachings? James Ray, for example, paid 5 million dollars for a team of lawyers to argue the whole thing was an accident over which he had no control.
  • Does the teacher merely look to outsiders like a dangerous psychopath because they are acting according to the higher laws of the spirit, or are they really genuinely dangerous? Their apparent arrogance, mania, and indifference to the suffering of others might actually genuine.
  • A sales pitch that appeals to pity and reveals private details that it would be impolite to question should be seen as a red flag. Watch especially for the hard sell to be linked to the emotional high point of the mystically manipulative story.
  • The ‘riches-to-rags-to-riches’ formula is so ubiquitous as a sales pitch among known scammers that it can be treated as a red flag. Where possible check the facts, and note any absence of evidence. Best of all, find earlier versions of the story and note the changes.
  • Does the author claim that God more or less wrote their book? Okay…. But what would you think of the same contents if they were simply presented without all the divine fanfare? The same holds of course for contents dictated by angels or aliens or ascended masters or spirit guides, etc.
  • Is the teacher really as rich as they present themselves to be, or are they merely driving a rented Limo, wearing a rented suit, and just winging it?

Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 2 – Milieu Control

August 29, 2021

The first of Robert Lifton’s “elements of brain washing” to be considered is milieu control. To recount, here is the brief summary of the process from the introductory post.

Milieu Control — This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

Spiritual teachings offer an entire system– not only a mental world within which a person can live, but also a social network as well. Being in a group of like-minded people reinforces not only the ideas and values of the group, but also the group’s social hierarchy.

Likewise, such a system grants a person a sense of belonging, possibly a new sense of identity, and perhaps most importantly some kind of special status that may have been absent for them in the outside world. All this can be an immense relief for someone whose life previously lacked the various structures necessary for a healthy life. Where a group turns cultish is when the leaders start intervening in the social interactions of its members, both inside and outside the group.

Full blown cults like Scientology control the social contacts of cult members by intervening physically in the lives of its members and preventing contact to those deemed unclean. This is done quite overtly, and is only possible when a member is deeply engaged with, or somehow indebted to the group.

A far more subtle or indirect form of milieu control however, occurs far more commonly than may be suspected. The effects here can be just as damaging as with more overt forms of control, but the processes are much harder to recognise. It may even take place without any deliberate intention to do so on the part of the teacher or group.

It’s worth looking more deeply at this aspect.

Milieu Control as a Built-In Feature of Spiritual Teachings

All scams or swindles start off looking relatively ‘normal’ and then draw the subject step by step deeper and deeper into the net. Spiritual teachings are by their nature well suited to this process. As with a normal pedagogical course, the easier steps come first, which build upon the client’s previous knowledge and expectations. Then new information (and perhaps new behavioural habits as well) are slowly introduced.

First comes Step A, which looks more or less normal. Nothing unexpected. Step B follows naturally from Step A, and likewise is still within a person’s expectations. Step C follows logically from Step B, but it is probably a bit less familiar. Step D follows logically from C, but had it been introduced before A, it would probably have struck the client as odd.

With a confidence trick, the client realises at some point that their money is gone, along with the scammer. With spiritual teachings, unfortunately, such a rude awakening is unlikely to be so sudden or so clear. (Many spiritual ideologies are already prepared to deal with dissatisfaction, routinely instructing customers to “take that which resonates”, and ignore the red flags.)

A common — and easy — scam to fall for is network marketing (or multi-level marketing). These are very popular among spiritual marketeers. People are instructed to sell the product to their friends and often get to attend “free” courses in (manipulative) marketing, specifically dealing with how to pitch a sale to friends, family, and colleagues. This of course interrupts and disturbs the client’s social life — first their closest associates, and finally people they used to know in previous decades receive a call out of the blue inviting them for a coffee and a chat about a “great opportunity”.

Soon enough, the scam burns out, (as it requires, of course, the market population grow exponentially to the point of becoming infinite), which leaves the top one or two percent with a handsome profit and the rest with their former friends crossing the road when they see them.

A more dangerous scam involves “positive thinking” and “motivational speaking”. Here the product is a set of prescribed ideas and behaviours, promising to transform the life of the practitioner. As the client progresses through the graded steps (often in the form of courses or events that are graded by price as well — from the “free introductory seminar”, through to extravagantly expensive “advanced” courses) they become increasingly committed. Accordingly, they begin to limit or eliminate friendships and social contacts with those who don’t measure up to the new behavioural requirements. They begin to implement their own form of milieu control themselves.

Work colleagues, perhaps, notice that the person’s language has altered slightly. For example a person who has taken on board belief in the “Law of Attraction” or “Positive Thinking”, might start insisting that their colleagues “focus on the positive”. Initially it sounds like something anyone might say, but there is an odd tone to it. The ideology behind it is the profoundly manipulative idea that “thoughts become things” — leading people to believe they can magically “attract” the objects and events they focus upon. Embedded in this puerile and egotistical ideology is the impulse to avoid people who are “negative”, and eventually to exclude such people from one’s life, for fear of becoming infected by their “negativity”. Criticism of the ideology itself is explicitly deemed “negative”.

Their former friends find their behaviour suddenly irritating, and attempts to talk to them on points of disagreement simply run into a wall. The member of the in-group has taken so many steps, that any simple point of disagreement strikes against a dozen hidden beliefs all at once. (The member is at Step F or G, while their friends are still trying to talk them out of Step A.)

The swiftly escalating disagreements that result from someone unwittingly blundering into such an ideological cliff-face, function effectively as a form of milieu control.

Friends must decide either to avoid discussing such issues, or to distance themselves from each other. Either way the conflict is not resolved, and the (more or less) cult-ish belief remains intact.

This is one of the most important consequences of milieu control: exclusion of criticism — criticism which could have helped a client retrace their steps and find their way back to their initial “Step A” and figure out from there exactly where things got weird. But with criticism and critics excluded or rendered “negative”, the client is blocked from retracing their steps and reconsidering their current position according to different standards from the ones insisted upon by their in-group leader.

This kind of milieu control is not necessarily deliberate, but it is an inevitable result of ideas that are developed in isolation without reference to an out-group.

Furthermore, spiritual groups often maintain constant attacks on aspects of the out-group, for example against science, or morals, or ethnicities. While not overtly preventing contact between in- and out-group, this nevertheless places limits on the amount and nature of any such contacts. It limits exposure to critical perspectives, and effectively divides believers from non-believers.

Moreover, members of the out-group who find the ideas irritating simply exclude themselves.

Milieu Control Protects a Hierarchy

A cult is not merely a milieu, but above all, a hierarchy. Status inside the in-group is measured differently to outside. Indeed, this is one of the great attractions a cultish group holds. (In political movements of course, this attraction is especially powerful.)

The danger here of abuse of underlings by superiors under the protection of isolation is clear and extreme. Humans, like all other mammals, have a reflexive submissive response to any perceived authority figure. If access to all comparative authority figures has been removed, an authority figure can become seen as a god. The dangers for abuse and exploitation, for public shaming and unnecessary suffering, do not need to be spelled out here.

Less immediately obvious is the likelihood that the in-group will come to see itself as superior to certain out-groups. Sadly, this likelihood increases according to the grandiosity of the in-group’s claims about itself. As noted elsewhere on this website, followers of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, for example, consider the “white race” superior to all others, and see themselves as the best of the best.

Likewise, for a great many promoters of “alternative medicine”, modern science is openly demeaned as an inferior out-group. Information from scientists is disregarded due to its “materialism” (or more bizarrely, a supposed failure to include a nonsense version of quantum physics). So too is it common for fanatical religious groups to see the whole of society as inferior, leading to anything from hectoring non-believers in the street, to terrorism.

To sum up, milieu control can be achieved without explicit regulations and without necessarily being intended. The important factor is that an in-group member is in some sense isolated from information or activities that would dis-confirm the in-group’s ideology and power structures.

Red Flags & Consumer Protection

* As noted earlier, joining a spiritual (or political) group can affect one’s perception of one’s own identity and social status. A red flag would be if such changes make membership of other groups more difficult.

* Spiritual groups frequently emphasise a break with the past. This may be done in a manner that is more or less symbolic, but it can also be a pretext can be a pretext for intervening in the social life of members or hindering social connections with the out-group. Any measure that hinders or restricts social contacts should be consciously noted.

* Any special interest group can easily look a bit odd from the outside, with its specialist jargon and various rituals and customs. A warning sign for members of the in-group is when they lose the ability to see their in-group through the eyes of an outsider. Losing the ability to orient one’s self to the values and the out-group — even if those values are questionable — can indicate that the in-group member is now completely dependent on the value system and internal authority figures of the in-group. Normal defense mechanisms and perceptions of personal boundaries and safety may have been breached, leaving the member vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

* Does the in-group perceive the rest of the world as an out-group? This holds the same dangers noted in the previous point, and is especially true in cultish groups dealing with alternative medicine. In this case, the whole of modern science, especially medical and biological sciences, are treated as an ideological enemy. Along with losing the benefits of modern medicine, all standards for critical judgment and consumer protection are also excluded.

* The mere concept of consumer protection is foreign to any cult or cult-like group. For the reasons noted earlier, its members see themselves (and group leaders) as special — and not as customers. Protecting their own special status is no doubt a strong motivation in protecting an authority figure from criticism.

Part 3 will be posted soon.


Groups, Cults, & the “8 Elements of Brainwashing”: Part 1- Introduction, advantages and disadvantages of the terminology

August 15, 2021

The term brainwashing became popular in the 1950s following the work of psychologist Robert Lifton. US prisoners of war in Korea had undergone a forced ‘re-education’ program which appeared to have altered not only their behaviour, but also their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes.

In trying to figure out how such dramatic effects were achieved, Lifton identified eight different processes by which the Koreans appeared to have been using. These processes have been subsequently re-formulated to apply to other forms of manipulation, such as religious cults and other cult-like organisations. I will be considering them especially in the light of various spiritual groups and teachings, but these considerations are clearly relevant to the suddenly emergence of radical political groups in mainstream politics.

The anti-cult activist, Rick Ross gives a useful summary of how each of these eight processes functions in a cult-like setting. Here is a link to the 8 minute video, but a summary of the relevant points appears below. Each of these processes will be considered in a series of blogposts.

Before starting however, it is worth noting a few difficulties with Ross’s approach.

First, these eight processes are not exclusive to cults. In fact many are present in some form in all social groupings, for better or worse– including the family, among friends, sports clubs, businesses. This is because these processes also have advantages and can in many ways be essential to human interaction and psychological health. Similarly, their presence in cults is not necessarily always negative. A cult — even a very cultish one — may well be better for some people than a coercive or manipulative family or institution. (Rick Ross has a tendency to disregard this possibility.)

Second, it is all too easy to write off members of a supposed cult as dupes. The whole idea of a confidence trick is that it is difficult to perceive, especially early on. It is very often simply a matter of chance, rather than gullibility that determines whether or not one gets drawn into a cultish group. Skeptics tend to assume that falling for a con is merely due to a failure to apply the list of logical fallacies. They forget that if people are under stress or in a situation where they feel powerless or helpless, they are more likely to trust a stranger, or hope for a sudden radical improvement in their lives. Skeptics also tend to forget that not everyone trusts science to the same degree that they claim to, and also forget that in many crises, a rational scientific or statistics based approach is not always useful.

Similarly, a skilled con-artist is one who can mimic all the signals that indicate trustworthiness. Anyone can fall for one.

Third, it is wrong to assume that all cult-like groups are deliberately and consciously running a scam, and that all cult-like leaders and teachers are some kind of evil genius. This in turn can affect the way victims are seen — as gullible freaks who were already outsiders and ‘losers’ anyway, and therefore deserve to have been scammed, or who can be ridiculed if they don’t submit to being ‘rescued’ and giving up their cultish beliefs and becoming ‘normal’ again.

That said, these ‘eight elements of brainwashing’ can deepen an understanding of how cults work, figure out at what point a group, teaching or teacher becomes dangerous, and help one get an insight into how relatively normal forms of social interaction can be so manipulated to dismantle psychological defenses.

Each post will include a section on how to recognise red flags and detect at what point a group stops being in one’s own best interests.

Summary — The Eight Elements of Brainwashing

1. Milieu Control — This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation — The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.

3. Demand for Purity — The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession — Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science — The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language — The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person — Members’ personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence — The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.

The second post, Milieu Control can be found here.

Posted by Yakaru


More Weird Stuff from Berlin: the former East

December 25, 2018

This is second post about what an extraordinary city Berlin is. I emphasise the “weird” aspect of it because you often stumble on things that you don’t register at first sight, simply because they are unexpected or unusual, but are seen by those who live there as unremarkable. (See the earlier post for a long string of such items.)

A perceptual sequence is well known I think, by everyone who has moved to Berlin from outside of Germany: certain objects are simply not perceived for months or years, despite being in plain view. They don’t fit any mental category, yet are kind of just ‘part of the furniture’. Then one day, some part of the brain suddenly sends up a signal saying WTF is that thing???? Then you research it and find out that, yep, it’s exactly what it looks like — but why didn’t I notice it before? It usually implicates — simultaneously — Nazis, Communists, the US military, hippies, Prussians, and mundane everyday life amidst prior exceptional circumstances. There is a multi-dimensional aspect that is highly unusual. I know of no other city that is quite like it.

After having gone through this process a few dozen times, one realises that Berlin’s history is not best discovered by visiting the Berlin Wall or Nazi buildings or the main tourist attractions, but simply by opening one’s eyes in which ever area you find yourself, and looking for the first thing that strikes you as a bit odd…

As noted previously, I left moved to Germany from Australia in 2000 (in my early 30s). I had already visited Germany in the 1990s and lived in Cologne (in western Germany) for 6 months. This time, however, I wound up living permanently in Berlin (eastern Germany).

As someone who grew up in a rather isolated place (Tasmania), simply being in Germany was a real buzz. I’d always been fascinated by German culture, read up on the history, and loved Goethe and other poets. As a youth I’d been deeply touched and influenced by the works of authors such as Heinrich Böll and Arthur Koestler. (The latter wrote absolutely riveting accounts of his life in Berlin as a Jewish communist in the 1930s.)

But when I finally moved to Berlin, instead of living in the city I wound up living with my girlfriend 50km south of the city, in the countryside at a place called Zesch am See, near a nice lake in the middle of a rather nondescript pine forest. I was glad to be making a new start in a new country, but I must admit I was a little disappointed: I’d hoped to land somewhere a bit more interesting than a little farming village in the middle of nowhere.

On the other hand, I found it good to be able to wander off into the forest and just get used to suddenly being on the other side of the world.

I’d heard that the nearby town of Wünsdorf had been a garrison for 40,000 Russian soldiers — this was of course in the former East Germany: a country that had ten years earlier simply ceased to exist. The Russians had ultimately moved out in 1994, and had left things pretty much as they were. And that’s pretty much how it had stayed.

The whole township was in large part a ghost town. Large apartment buildings, which had formerly housed soldiers, stood at the side of the road: windows smashed, tattered curtains flapping in the breeze.

Soldiers’ apartments, Wünsdorf, abandoned in 1994 (all pics are crappy author photos unless stated)

The surrounding forest had been used for military training and was crisscrossed with roads made of quickly laid concrete slabs, more suited to tanks than wheeled vehicles. And as forests go, it is nothing spectacular — very flat and mostly just pines and birch. The soil is so sandy that once the birches attain a certain height, they simply topple over. But for someone used to living close to nature (me, that is), this pine forest was very inviting, and I started exploring that instead.

One of the many concrete roads in the forest for military use

One day, on the edge of the forest I came across an abandoned villa, slowly crumbling and overgrown with vines. As I walked around it, a doe and her fawn suddenly erupted from a shed ran off into the forest. No one comes here….

Around the next corner I came upon a huge open space — a parade ground, with weeds sprouting through the cracks between the concrete slabs. There would have been enough space for several thousand soldiers to assemble here.

At the front of the parade ground stood an enormous statue of Lenin, striking a trade mark dramatic pose and staring with defiant boldness at the dandelions.

Recent photo of renovated house & statue (credit unknown: source)

….Well that was unexpected….

….The Russian Revolution, Lenin, Stalin, had been for me things that I read about in books: abstractions from the other side of the world; mythical figures from a past and unknowable age. Yet here was Lenin standing all alone before an abandoned parade ground at the edge of the forest, frozen in time.

It had all ended so quickly. The Russians packed up what they could after 40 years and were sent back to a place that for many wasn’t home.

Here is some footage (from You Tube) of their final parade (in fact their first and only public parade), with many somber and confused faces among the military.

After the Russians left, buildings slowly began to be renovated and rented out. Young families began moving in, living amidst the military junk, decaying buildings and…. these things….

Winkel’ type bunker (source)

This rather distinctive feature of the domestic landscape is a particular type of bunker. About half a dozen of them are to be found in this area. And, I found out, they weren’t left behind by the Russians but by the Nazis.

This whole area had been a military command center, with a massive underground communications center. The attack on Poland and Eastern Europe was coordinated from here.

1942 (source: wikipedia)

…..Ok, so maybe this wasn’t just a dull farming village in the middle of nowhere after all, but rather an epicenter of European and world history. So that’s what all those hurriedly laid concrete roads were for. They did all seem to be heading eastwards, come to think of it.


First Panzer Regiment Wünsdorf 1935 (source)

But not only did the war on Eastern Europe start here, it ended here too. The Russian Army stormed through this area in 1945. It was one of the last lines of resistance of defense before Berlin. While riding my bicycle through the forest I often came across long trenches.

Trench (2015)

Some trenches were deeper: tanks were parked in these, angled upwards and simply blasted away in the general direction of the advancing Russians.

Trench (apparently) for tanks (as far as I can tell)

The Germans stored munitions by burying them at certain locations. You can still come across them while wandering about in the forest. If you’re lucky, they’ve already been discovered by someone else and safely emptied, like the one shown below.

Probably a munitions cache

The Russians left a lot of stuff in the forest too. Plenty of unexploded munitions and military equipment that was just dumped. Who knows what this is in the photo below — it is a hole that used to have something in it, left either by the Russians or Germans.

Mysterious hole of some kind

I can’t express how weird it was to be riding my bicycle around in this forest and coming to terms with having moved to the other side of the world with no plan other than knowing I was here to stay. It was certainly nice to be in such a nice forest, with nice lakes….

Swimming, camping, fishing ‘verboten’ here, due to unspecified ‘dangers’

…But why did they often have warning signs telling people not to swim in them?

One lake I came across, was near an overgrown mansion (no doubt originally built by some Prussian officer) and with numerous wooden jetties around its shore. But all the jetties had been carefully smashed at the entrance. I assume the Russians had dumped something in that lake and were thoughtful enough to advise people not to swim or fish in it. At another place in the forest was area where all the trees for a 50 square meter radius were all dead.

Local authorities have helpfully colour-coded areas of forest: blue is safe enough to enter at own risk, red is danger, though red is a bad colour for signs as it is prone to getting bleached, as in the sign below. There is also a ‘yellow’ designation, for ‘extreme danger’.

‘Stop! Former military training area! Danger area, explosives, entry prohibited, (designated red)’ (2015)

I recall signs with a line drawing of a landmine, and a notice that ‘if you find anything that looks like this, please call the number below’. These seem to have disappeared, so I guess the minefields have since been cleared.

Revisiting a couple of years ago, I was struck by the fact that I’d walked past this thing probably a hundred times. I’d noticed it but it never struck me as being in any way noteworthy. It was just another thing that was there.

Next to main rail crossing, Wünsdorf

But on returning more than a decade later, I immediately wondered why I didn’t instantly recognise it for exactly what it so obviously is. A Nazi built guard box-thing to monitor the entrance from the train station. Had the Russians built it, it would of course have been made of concrete, like everything else they built in the area, and would have looked like this thing which I had initially thought was some kind of ventilation shaft or something–

Russian built pill-box near a gate, Wünsdorf

And that’s the end of this post. I was going to write a whole lot more, but I’m already over 1500 words. There are two more posts coming in this series: one on trying to understand what life was like in the German Democratic Republic, the other about the aforementioned one-time Berlin resident, Arthur Koestler. Thanks for reading.


There are lots of really weird things in Berlin

August 18, 2018

It’s been longer than I was expecting since I last posted something. I moved to a different city late last year — from Berlin, where I lived for nearly 20 years, to Cologne. It took about 8 months to find a new apartment, and I still don’t have the internet connected.

I’m happy here in Cologne, but I found that for the first time in my life I actually miss the place where I was previously living. Berlin was the first place I ever really felt at home in, (I was actually born in Australia, where I lived till adulthood), but it is also just such a fascinating and utterly weird city.

In terms of its history, Berlin is itself a living museum. Germans, and especially Berliners, are usually just horrified by or numb to the various bizarre things that one encounters at virtually every street corner, but for outsiders like me, it is usually fascinating, mind-blowingly weird, and only occasionally horrifying.

Read the rest of this entry ?


A Personal Memory

September 24, 2017

So there is me, I guess about 23 years old, attending the wedding of my first girlfriend. We’d remained friends after I’d unceremoniously dumped her. I genuinely loved and respected her, and kinda needed her, and gained her trust and then ended it. Neil Young’s song Down By The River sums up a lot of it.

I was relieved when she met someone else and they decided to get married. She introduced me to the guy — a really decent fellow — and she was relieved when I told her I thought he was really really great. (For some reason she’d gained the impression that I have very severe judgments about people…… Me?)

But I genuinely thought he was good fellow, and I was quite happy to attend her wedding. It really didn’t hurt. I really wanted her to be happy and was relieved I hadn’t ruined her life by leaving her. But I was also only 23, and was witnessing a great life event for someone I was close to. It was kinda intense.

Her brother (who was as mad as a hatter and quite violent and of whom I was a bit scared) was strutting about with a video camera (it was still considered gauche to do that in those days) and I was trying duck behind people to avoid being filmed. I didn’t want what ever look was on my face to be preserved for ever on film. (As it happened, an aunt of hers who later borrowed the only copy of the video cleverly taped an episode of a popular soap opera over it, destroying it for ever.)

After the ceremony, I asked my best friend for a cigarette, (I was a non-smoker). He seemed very glad to be able to help, and gave me one. I went off behind the church and had a smoke to calm my nerves. I remember thinking it was like having a local anesthetic and watching someone cut your arm off. I doesn’t hurt, but….. holy heck!

Then she was walking towards me in front of the church, about to leave in the wedding car with all the streamers and everything. I embraced her and kissed her and wished her everything good. And then she got into the car with that guy and they drove off.

I could feel something like a band between us, connecting us, and wondered if she felt it too. I wondered if, while she felt herself being whisked away on a new path, into a new life, if she felt an old connection still…. and a band that was connecting me to her, that was stretching…. and tearing…. until it finally snapped.

I walked back to my car, through the graveyard. Tasmania is far enough south to have a long twilight, where it takes ages to get dark after the sun has gone down. This night was cloudless, and the sky was a stunning deep dark sapphire blue. As I walked, I gazed out into it.

I noticed that although stars were visible, I didn’t want to look at them like I normally would. I just wanted to look into that endless deep deep blue. All my thoughts and emotions were silenced by it. And then suddenly a line of a song I’d learned as a teenager suddenly popped into my head.

Blue blue windows behind the stars…

It’s from Neil Young’s Helpless. A song I’d played in my bedroom on the guitar a million times but had never thought about the words.

I guess Winnipeg, Neil’s hometown in Canada, must be about the same northern latitude as Tasmania is southerly. And Neil had seen that same deep sapphire blue, looked between the stars, and gazed endlessly into it. But he’d also found words to describe it: blue blue windows behind the stars….

I walked and just gazed, with that string of words in my head, in awe. Someone else has seen this too.

But the mind, being what it is, wanted to interrupt my reverie and bring me back to the world of prose. The next lines of the song wanted to crank through, and like all Neil Young songs, genius is always laid side by side with inexcusable cliche. I tried to stop it, but in trying, I’d lost that magical feeling of the infinite.

Ok, just let it wind through. Blue blue windows behind the stars, yellow moon on the rise. That’s stupid. There’s no yellow moon. It doesn’t fit at all. Not even meterologically. Stupid forced rhyme Neil. Big birds flying across the skies. Nope. None of them either. Throwing shadows on our eyes. Dreadful, cliched….

Leave us helpless, helpless, helpless…. Babe can you hear me now. The chains are locked and tied across the door. Babe, can you sing with me somehow?

…..So that’s what it was all about. The brain pulled all this up, because the song had resonated in a way I’d never consciously grasped. And it let me feel whatever weird mix of emotions it was, and I could just let it all out in tears. A nameless longing, a loneliness, mirrored not in the stars but in the windows behind them, just sailing out and out…. And a song putting it all into three or four lines, and even hiding it behind some cliches to protect it.

And the knowledge that another person had felt all this too.