“Deep down we are all tempted to be brainwashers, manipulating the minds of others.” Maarten Derksen uncovers the history of the term ‘menticide’, which emerged as an alternative way to understand brainwashing, and was made popular in Dutch psychiatrist Joost Meerloo’s 1956 The Rape of the Mind.
Of the many colourful figures that populated the brainwashing-period, Joost Abraham Maurits Meerloo is my favourite. He wrote about brainwashing, or ‘menticide’ as he preferred to call it, with passion. He was also as prone to the same hyperbole as Edward Hunter, who popularised the word ‘brainwashing’ during the 1950s. Yet Meerloo’s ideas were broader, deeper, and more radical than Hunter’s. The former’s interests were strikingly varied; the latter’s life and work, dominated by hatred of communism.
Meerloo was a prolific author; he wrote about the psychology of time, and about addiction, telepathy, suicide, and creativity, as well as a host of other subjects. His erudition makes his books about brainwashing a good deal more enjoyable than the breathless journalism of Hunter. But what makes them most interesting is their radical dystopianism. He argued that not only are we all at risk of being brainwashed (Hunter of course said the same), but we are also, deep down, all tempted to be brainwashers, manipulating the minds of others.
Abraham Maurits Meerloo was born in The Hague in 1903. He started calling himself Joost in the Second World War, in order not to raise the suspicion of the occupying forces. His parents were Jewish, but his father rejected any ties with Judaism and as a result young Meerloo always felt an outsider. He studied in Leiden, and received his medical degree there in 1927. During his studies, the psychiatrist Gerbrandus Jelgersma recommended him to a psychoanalyst of his acquaintance, Philip Tuyt, who needed an assistant. In exchange for his work, Meerloo was analysed. He specialised in psychiatry and in 1934 started his own psychiatric practice.
When the German army invaded The Netherlands in May 1940, Meerloo was a medical doctor in the armed forces that briefly resisted the Wehrmacht. After the bombing of Rotterdam and the Dutch surrender that followed on 15 May 1945, he joined the resistance and spent the next two years trying to stay out of the hands of the Germans. He was eventually arrested but made a lucky escape and eventually managed to reach England. The Dutch government in exile made him chief of the army psychological department. In 1946 he moved to New York, where he started a private practice and later worked at Columbia University and the New York School of Psychiatry.
His interest in processes of influence on the mentality of individuals and masses dated from before the war. His ideas developed in the context of the work of the Committee for War-Prophylaxis of the Netherlands Medical Association.[i] The committee had been created in 1931 in the conviction that the role of doctors was not only to treat those who suffered the consequences of war, but also to prevent wars from happening in the first place. Since war-prophylaxis was a “logical consequence of its calling”, the medical world should take it upon itself to “enlighten mankind on the psychological side of the war problem”.[ii] Evidently, psychiatrists in particular had the necessary expertise.
Meerloo was one of the doctors who heeded the call, and he took it upon himself to inform his readers about the psychology of war, producing essays about the psychology of leadership[iii] and anti-semitism.[iv] In 1939, a third essay on the subject appeared, on ‘War and Mass-Psychology’[v]. It was part of a collection of ‘Medical Opinions on War’, published by the Committee.
Meerloo’s contribution to the booklet was modest. He emphasised that the study of social-psychological factors is of crucial importance in understanding the causes of war, but admitted that, at this point, little was known about those factors. In Meerloo’s analysis, mass-psychology combined social-psychological ideas about mass suggestibility with a psychodynamic view of people as beings with repressed tendencies. Moreover, Meerloo subscribed to the same general idea that animated the work of the Committee: that war is a collective mental disease. “The term war-psychosis or war-madness is no exaggeration” he claimed.[vi] To understand the causes of this “international madness” Meerloo called on social psychology to amass sufficient knowledge to be in a position to dispense therapeutic advice.
Meerloo’s experiences in the war – both in occupied Holland and in London – gave further impetus to his thinking about military conflict and the psyche. His war time essays were brought together in book form in Total War and the Human Mind.[vii] The problem of ‘influence’ was still the central topic, in particular the malign form of suggestion known as thought control. In 1951, in an article for the American Journal of Psychiatry, he introduced a new term for it: menticide.
As understanding of the human mind has grown, Meerloo pointed out, we have come to realise that “this same human mind can be kneaded like putty in the hands of unscrupulous inquisitors”.[viii] Such psychological intervention, when it is part of a tyrannical system, may be called ‘menticide’. The Nazis had used it to turn resistance fighters into collaborators, the Communists had used it to break Cardinal Mindszenty.[ix] Those were cases of individual menticide, but he argued that there was also the social menticide of propaganda, suggestion and mass-hypnotism, fields in which Goebbels, for example, was an expert. Both individual and social menticide are difficult to resist. Training in auto-hypnosis might help – he had employed this technique himself when he was interrogated by the Germans.[x] Being psychoanalysed could also arm people against menticide, but like auto-hypnosis it was impractical for the vast majority of people. Ultimately, Meerloo argued, the United Nations must outlaw practices of menticide, wherever possible, but for now the best that could be done was to give it a name and draw attention to it.
In a footnote, Meerloo noted that “in the newly authoritarian countries” the term ‘brainwashing’ is used, in particular for techniques to make people loyal to the new regime.[xi] Meerloo did not mention Hunter. Years later, in his autobiography, he would claim priority, because his article appeared “February 8, 1951” and Hunter’s book “a year later”.[xii] In fact, Hunter’s book appeared in 1951 as well, and he had already written for newspapers on the subject of brainwashing in 1950. Where Meerloo picked up the term ‘brainwashing’ is not clear, but it’s possible he read it in one of Hunter’s pieces.
All the same, Meerloo was one of the first to hype brainwashing, even if his term for it – menticide – didn’t really take off. Meerloo went beyond Hunter’s concept of brainwashing in making an explicit connection between menticide and Pavlovian conditioning. As he explained in ‘The Crime of Menticide’, after the resistance of the victim is broken, the second phase of individual menticide consists of making him accept his confession as his own “much as an animal is conditioned to perform tricks”.[xiii] Pavlov would take centre stage in brainwashing discourse in the 1950s, symbolizing the mechanical, repetitive, mindless, inhuman character of the process, and the robot-like human beings it creates – “servile, mechanical instruments”, as Meerloo wrote.[xiv] He emphasized this mechanizing effect again in his testimony as expert witness, in 1954, in the case against Colonel Frank Schwable, one of the American pilots who had been captured by the Chinese and ‘confessed’ to germ warfare. The court should not hold Schwable responsible for his actions, Meerloo argued: any man, including the members of the court, could be made to confess if subjected to this kind of torture. Menticide can turn anyone into a “mechanical imitator of his tormentors.”[xv]
What sets Meerloo apart is his insistence that mechanisation was the cause as well as the effect of brainwashing. He argued in his dystopian magnum opus The Rape of the Mind, that our love of the mechanical, of modern technology, was breeding a society of robots: the viewer, he suggested might become glued to the television, with no will of their own, and no individuality. The machines that we created to serve us threaten to become our masters. In fact, Meerloo went on, totalitarianism is nothing other than this dominance of technology, this mechanisation of our lives and our minds. Russia had already succumbed, but “menticidal forces” were threatening our society too.[xvi]
Meerloo seemed to feel a particular revulsion to television. He had already written about television addiction in 1954, in one of the many brief reports and essays that he wrote for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. Television, he wrote, is not only “a stealer of time”, it leads to real addiction and mental apathy, as shown by three early adolescent cases that he had recently treated.[xvii] Worse, television, with its “hypnotizing, seductive action” hampers individual development, because “every step in personal growth needs isolation, needs inner conversation and deliberation, and a reviewing with the self”.[xviii]
Meerloo’s view of the psyche, including his own, was dominated by the opposition between influence and individuality. People are shaped by all the influences and instructions of their social group and society, but most of them also have “an inner pilot” selecting and reshaping all this material for their own conscious or unconscious ends.[xix] As he wrote in his autobiography: “I am the multitude that lives in me, but I am also that grasping and understanding, creative individual, who uses all his friends to grow into a ripened unity.”[xx] Meerloo portrayed a technological society where the balance between individuality and sociality has been upset, and people have lost the power to control or resist influence. In this dystopian world, influence has run amok. The dominance of the mechanical has weakened conscious, rational individuality to such an extent that we are caught in a play of influences powered by our own unconscious fears and desires. Everyone is a potential manipulator and an unconsciously willing victim at the same time. Social interaction has deteriorated into mental coercion. Control is everywhere, but no one is in control.
Only individuality allows us to rise above this web of influence. We must raise our children to be independent, creative and critical, we must seek intelligent conversation rather than mindless consumption, we must challenge ourselves to strengthen our resolve, and we must learn to reflect on social processes and be aware of their inherently coercive nature. “Moral culture begins and ends with the individual”.[xxi]
The Rape of the Mind was widely read and appreciated as a thoughtful, worrying contribution to the debate about thought control, confirming Meerloo’s status as an authority on the subject. Reviewers did note that he did not always provide evidence for his claims. Psychologist Edgar Schein called it a “vivid, often highly insightful, but seldom closely reasoned account”.[xxii] Sociologist Arthur Field praised it as a “valuable, if shocking, description of recent cases” of thought control, but added that the theoretical framework was “poorly documented”.[xxiii] That seems a fair characterisation of Meerloo’s style of writing. He freely drew on his erudition, his professional experience as a psychiatrist, and his personal adventures with a totalitarian regime, without bothering too much with references to sources or evidence. He simply leaned on his authority as a medical doctor.
In the autobiography that he wrote in the early 1970s Meerloo devoted the most pages to his exploits in and immediately after the war, but towards the end he inserted a translated version of his 1951 article on menticide. He added that he thought its message about the dangers of menticide was still as relevant and urgent as it had been in the 1950s, and he regretted the fact that the public’s attention had moved on to other matters in the 1960s.
In fact, to this day, Meerloo’s work is eagerly read by some crusaders against various forms of thought control. The “conspiracy realists” of Progressive Press call his ideas “critical to defending one’s freedom of thought from the endless campaigns of corporations and power structures”,[xxiv] and American libertarians find in him a kindred spirit.[xxv] He has been recruited to provide supposed insight into the methods of “the Barack H. Obama regime”;[xxvi] it has also been said that if all the people fighting Scientology would read Meerloo’s books, “they would be far more successful and we would lose far fewer good soldiers for truth in this information war”.[xxvii] I’m not sure Meerloo would have supported all these causes, and he would certainly have worried about their enthusiastic use of internet technology, but whoever is fighting the manipulations of a sinister power can still find inspiration and confirmation in The Rape of the Mind.
Maarten Derksen lectures on the Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen. His recent book, Histories of Human Engineering: Tact and Technology, includes a chapter on the Cold War brainwashing phenomenon. Read more on his blog, Tact and Technology.
[i] Paul De Nooijer, ‘Arts En Oorlog: De Commissie Inzake Oorlogsprofylaxis’, Medisch Contact, 20 June 1980.
[ii] J. Roorda, ‘Preface’, in Medical Opinions on War (Amsterdam: Netherlands Medical Association (Committee for War-Prophylaxis) by Elsevier, 1939), 5.
[iii] A.M. Meerloo, ‘Leider En Geleide. Bijdrage Tot de Psychologie van Het Leiderschap’, Mens En Maatschappij 10, no. 3 (1 June 1934): 197–210.
[iv] A.M. Meerloo, ‘Over Haat En Collectieve Haat. (Een Poging Tot Begrijpen van Het Anti-Semietisme)’, Mens En Maatschappij 11, no. 5 (1 October 1935): 352–64.
[v] A. M. Meerloo, ‘War and Mass-Psychology’, in Medical Opinions on War (Amsterdam: Netherlands Medical Association (Committee for War-Prophylaxis) by Elsevier, 1939), 39–42.
[vi] Meerloo, 41.
[vii] Joost Abraham Maurits Meerloo, Total War and the Human Mind: A Psychologist’s Experiences in Occupied Holland ([New York]: International Universities Press, 1945).
[viii] Joost A. M. Meerloo, ‘The Crime of Menticide’, American Journal of Psychiatry 107, no. 8 (1 February 1951): 595.
[ix] The fiercely anti-communist Hungarian cardinal Mindszenty was arrested in 1948. In a show trial several months later Mindszenty, seemingly drugged, confessed to conspiracy and treason.
[x] Joost Abraham Maurits Meerloo, Een mond vol spijkers: een psycholoog op het oorlogspad (Wassenaar: Servire, 1975).
[xi] Meerloo, ‘The Crime of Menticide’, 595.
[xii] Meerloo, Een mond vol spijkers, 205.
[xiii] Meerloo, ‘The Crime of Menticide’, 596.
[xiv] Meerloo, 595.
[xv] Meerloo quoted in Deseret News, March 10, 1954.
[xvi] J.A.M. Meerloo, The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing (Cleveland, OH, US: The World Publishing Company, 1956), 35.
[xvii] J.A.M. Meerloo, ‘Television Addiction and Reactive Apathy’, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 120, no. 3–4 (1954): 291.
[xviii] Meerloo, 291.
[xix] Meerloo, Een mond vol spijkers, 3.
[xx] Meerloo, 3.
[xxi] Meerloo, The Rape of the Mind, 294.
[xxii] Edgar H Schein, ‘Knuckling Under.’, Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews 2, no. 5 (1957): 140.
[xxiii] Arthur Jordan Field, review of Review of The Rape of the Mind, by Joost A. M. Meerloo, American Journal of Sociology 63, no. 1 (1957): 106–7.
[xxv] ‘Joost Meerloo « The Burning Platform’, 11 March 2015, http://www.theburningplatform.com/tag/joost-meerloo/.
[xxvi] See the poster’s commentary at https://archive.org/details/DelusionAndMassDelusion-ByAMMeerloo.
De Nooijer, Paul. ‘Arts En Oorlog: De Commissie Inzake Oorlogsprofylaxis’. Medisch Contact, 20 June 1980.
Field, Arthur Jordan. Review of Review of The Rape of the Mind, by Joost A. M. Meerloo. American Journal of Sociology 63, no. 1 (1957): 106–7.
‘Joost Meerloo « The Burning Platform’, 11 March 2015. http://www.theburningplatform.com/tag/joost-meerloo/.
Lerma, Arnie. ‘RAPE OF THE MIND – Joost A. M. Meerloo’. Accessed 2 December 2013. http://www.lermanet.com/scientology/.
Meerloo, A. M. ‘War and Mass-Psychology’. In Medical Opinions on War, 39–42. Amsterdam: Netherlands Medical Association (Committee for War-Prophylaxis) by Elsevier, 1939.
Meerloo, A.M. ‘Leider En Geleide. Bijdrage Tot de Psychologie van Het Leiderschap’. Mens En Maatschappij 10, no. 3 (1 June 1934): 197–210.
———. ‘Over Haat En Collectieve Haat. (Een Poging Tot Begrijpen van Het Anti-Semietisme)’. Mens En Maatschappij 11, no. 5 (1 October 1935): 352–64.
Meerloo, J.A.M. ‘Television Addiction and Reactive Apathy’. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 120, no. 3–4 (1954): 290–91.
———. The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing. Cleveland, OH, US: The World Publishing Company, 1956.
Meerloo, Joost A. M. ‘The Crime of Menticide’. American Journal of Psychiatry 107, no. 8 (1 February 1951): 594–98.
Meerloo, Joost Abraham Maurits. Een mond vol spijkers: een psycholoog op het oorlogspad. Wassenaar: Servire, 1975.
———. Total War and the Human Mind: A Psychologist’s Experiences in Occupied Holland. [New York]: International Universities Press, 1945.
‘ProgressivePress.Com – Books and DVD’s Exposing 9/11 and the “NWO”’. Accessed 8 January 2018. http://www.progressivepress.com/index.html#rpmd.
Roorda, J. ‘Preface’. In Medical Opinions on War, 5–6. Amsterdam: Netherlands Medical Association (Committee for War-Prophylaxis) by Elsevier, 1939.
Schein, Edgar H. ‘Knuckling Under.’ Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews 2, no. 5 (1957): 140–41.