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Know your enemy

By John Woodley - posted Thursday, 28 June 2007

Social instability often provides fertile ground for the development of conspiracy theories. Historical examples abound, and the growth of Fascism in the 1930s is an outstanding example.

The confusion, social and economic disruption and feeling of helplessness experienced by many in Europe led them to abandon the experiment in democracy in many nations and to opt, instead, to follow those strong leaders who promised to lead them out of the mire of the Great Depression.

Leaders such as Adolph Hitler provided not only a way out of unemployment and economic depression by arming the nation for war, but also, enemies to blame for all the nations woes. Hitler’s “enemies” included the Communists, the nations’ leaders who had surrendered at the end of the Great War, those who were not of pure Aryan blood and, above all, the Jews.


In Australia, where the Depression also was causing great social division and hardship, John Thomas Lang, the Premier of New South Wales during the 1930s, promised to end unemployment by adopting an extensive program of public works and other kinds of support for the poor and disadvantaged. However, he was seen by the conservative establishment as a left-leaning, “monster of wickedness, hell-bent on the destruction of all private property and public honour”.

Those who felt threatened by his policies banded together in an organisation known as the New Guard, a quasi-military, quasi-secret band of “right thinking” young men from the wealthier suburbs sworn to preserve the country from “Langism”.

The point is that all conspiracy theories depend on the identification of an enemy as the threat around which the conspiracy revolves. Indeed, many political and religious movements and individuals are able to define themselves only by contrast with an enemy.

They seem unable to describe adequately what they are for, until they have identified those ideas and people or organisations they are against. Often the description of the enemy they oppose and fear is more a creation of their need for an enemy than a description of reality. Without an enemy to threaten those they want to control and influence by their particular conspiracy theory, such movements lose much of their potency. However, once an enemy has been identified, vilification, brutalisation and then elimination of the enemy becomes possible.

It is not necessary for the enemy to be the actual cause of the frustration people feel, but it is important that the enemy can be identified as the “other”. An example of how this works, in recent years in Australian politics, has been the Pauline Hanson phenomenon, although she certainly was not the first to use the strategy.

It was not only Jack Lang in the 1930s who became the focus for the anger of many people. After World War II, many political and religious movements, including in Australia, used the notion of the enemy as an effective tool in campaigning. Some will remember the “reds under the bed” scares from the 1950s up until the 1980s and 1990s and the demise of Soviet Communism.


The threat of Communism was linked also to the various uprisings in Asia during this period, so that Australia became involved in wars in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. In many political campaigns the threat of the “Yellow Peril” as part of the Communist plan for world domination was used as an effective political strategy. The paranoia thus created was effective in maintaining cross-party support for such policies as “The White Australia” policy.

In Queensland, from the 1960s through to the 1980s, the tenuous link made between Communism and the Labor Party by successive National (formerly Country Party) and Liberal Party Coalition governments was an effective tool to keep the Labor Party out of government for many years. Of course, internal “warfare” within the Labor Party and the labour movement generally, and a sophisticated gerrymander helped.

In 1989, following the Fitzgerald Inquiry into political and police corruption, the Goss Labor government was elected. Its election followed the sacking of Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen as premier and subsequent unrest within the National-Liberal Party Coalition. Sir Joh had, for many years, made effective use of the notion of the enemy as a political tool in many election campaigns. It was not only the Labor Party that was the target, but any one who opposed him.

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About the Author

Rev John Woodley is a Uniting Church minister who served as a Senator (for the Australian Democrats) from 1993 to 2001. Since resigning from the Senate, John has been active in the Uniting Church's Queensland Centre for Social Justice.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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