[For the first four instalments of this series, see here.]
The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was notorious for his all-encompassing paranoia. And yet, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out in his novel The First Circle, even Stalin was not entirely lacking in the capacity to trust:
Distrust of people was the dominating characteristic of Joseph Djugashvili [Stalin]; it was his only philosophy of life. He had not trusted his own mother; neither had he trusted God, before whom as a young man he had bowed down in His temple. He had not trusted his fellow Party members, especially those with the gift of eloquence. He had not trusted his comrades in exile. He did not trust the peasants to sow their grain or harvest their wheat unless he forced them to do it and watched over them. He did not trust the workers to work unless he laid down their production targets. He did not trust the intellectuals to help the cause rather than to harm it. He did not trust the soldiers and the generals to fight without penal battalions and field security squads. He had never trusted his relatives, his wives or his mistresses. He had not even trusted his children. And how right he had been!
In all his long, suspicion-ridden life he had only trusted one man. That man had shown the whole world that he knew his own mind, knew whom it was expedient to like and whom to hate; and he had always known when to turn round and offer the hand of friendship to those who had been his enemies.
This man, whom Stalin had trusted, was Adolf Hitler.
And so, when Hitler suddenly invaded the Soviet Union, betraying Stalin's trust and their non-aggression treaty (including all the nasty little secret clauses under which they had plotted jointly to enslave Eastern Europe), Stalin
blindly and fanatically refused to believe Hitler was going to attack and even after the Nazi assault began still refused to believe that Hitler had ordered the offensive. [Harrison E. Salisbury, emphases in original.]
Stalin also refused to believe his own spies, such as the astonishing Richard Sorge, who had sent specific and timely warnings of Hitler's plans, complete with smoking-gun evidence in the form of photographs of diplomatic telegrams.
Stalin nevertheless preferred to believe Hitler.
Stalin's island of gullibility in his ocean of paranoia is not exceptional – in fact, it is the rule. For instance, conspiracy theorists today prefer to believe that the likes of Saddam and Osama and Arafat tell the truth while Blair and Bush and Sharon lie. For, despite Solzhenitsyn's understandable mockery, what Stalin trusted uncritically was not Hitler, it was his own explanation (or rather, his own conspiracy-theoretic non-explanation) of what makes the world tick. Hitler was a natural beneficiary though, because he shared the same explanation. And it was Stalin's blind faith in this false world view, his inability to modify it in response to new information, that betrayed him. That is why it is not really very surprising that a person for whose “only philosophy of life” was distrust, came to lay himself wide open to the biggest betrayal of all time.
Paranoids, cynics and conspiracy theorists think of themselves as the most sceptical, the least gullible of the human race, and hence also as the most secure against disappointment. “If you're a pessimist,” the saying goes, “at least you'll never be disappointed”. But that could hardly be more false. Just look at the world of disappointment that Hitler let himself in for when he deduced, from the depths of his cynicism, that Britain was all talk and would never fight. Just look how heartbroken all the cynics and pessimists on today's political scene are whenever things go well in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In reality, such people are not the least gullible in the world but the most. For their approach to understanding the complex and frightening world of human affairs is not characterised by the countless possible explanations that they have vowed to reject, but by the single conspiracy-theoretic mode of explanation that they have vowed to believe regardless of all evidence or experience or argument to the contrary. This is not scepticism in the rational sense of the word, it is faith. They have chosen to put blind faith in their conspiracy theories. But the world punishes blind faith. Tyrants in general tend to be paranoid, yet nevertheless, they nearly always end up disappointed as well. Stalin was relatively lucky in his disappointment: most of them die of it.