This was 1917, less than a hundred years ago, at a time when Europe as a whole was mad. In the midst of the Great War, the vision provided solace. Whether miracle (as the Catholic Church has said), meteorological or optic event (everyone was encouraged to look at the sun), or comforting group delusion, I'll let you decide.

Group delusions and the collective experience of miracles, like individual madness and the experience of mystics, occur in every culture and at every time. In the late 1980s, a climatologist named Iben Browning predicted that on December 3, 1990, an earthquake would occur along the New Madrid fault line that runs through parts of the American Midwest. Schools were closed. Employees stayed home from work. Perfectly sane people rigged their cars with generators and tied their hot water heaters to their walls with cup hooks. Insurance adjusters were writing up earthquake riders for months before the predicted event. And even skeptics stockpiled water for Y2K.

The point is that sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between reality and illusion, and a group won't help you decide. Charles Mackay, author of an 1841 book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, wrote that people go mad quite easily in groups but come to their senses slowly, one by one.

We are particularly susceptible to group delusions during moments of profound historical change. And throughout history, such delusions have been the cause of war and bloodshed. The theologian Paul Tillich called the destructive fervor that sometimes overtakes societies “demonic.” Stronger than the psychological term “mass hysteria,” the demonic, Tillich explained, often makes its appeal by using forms, symbols, and even liturgies borrowed from religious traditions.

A failed suicide bomber, trying to describe the attraction of martyrdom, spoke of feeling as though he were literally floating or swimming between this world and paradise; such quasi-religious ecstatic experiences are kindled, first, by the dynamics of a crowd. At times when everyday life is difficult, when the world is changing and the old paradigms are falling apart, people seem to want the manic ecstasy that gives meaning, the burning certainty that relieves them of their messy personal freedom and will reveal, once and for all, the real truth. A girl involved in Hitler Youth wrote in her diary after a meeting that it was as though "a torch had been thrown into my heart and it continued to flame and blaze..."


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