Fanaticism, inextricably connected to human life

Summary of the article “Fanatisme, van alle tijden, in alle mensen”

by Dirk Jansen


In finding my way through stories, studies and literature on the theme of fanaticism it struck me that most of the authors locate fanatic characteristics in distant, impersonal entities (Taliban, Nazis, inquisition etc.). Not much attention is paid to the individual, personal perspective. In the end my conclusion is that fanaticism potentially is an inextricable aspect of every human being.

My interest

My interest in fanaticism was highly actualized when I read Elias Canetti’s experience in Vienna in 1929. As a young, dedicated anti fanatic student he happened to get lost in a crowd that was on its way to set the Palace of Justice on fire. Canetti vanished in the crowd and did not feel any resistance to the fanatic objectives and the violent acts of the crowd.

I realize if this could happen to him, I also could easily be a victim.

Very different meanings

In everyday life many different meanings are hidden behind the term of fanaticism:

  • A friend called me a fanatic when I preferred to go to bed early to prepare myself for a sports match the next day instead of having another drink with him.
  • A newspaper headline mentioned:  “Fanatic man slaughters fellow passengers with axe”
  • A Dutch author ironically defined a fanatic as a person filled with doubts who finally decides to make up his mind.
  • Attacks on the World Trade Center or on the centre of Bagdad are sometimes ascribed to fanatics.

These examples and many others encouraged my search for an unambiguous and still workable definition of fanaticism.

Many discussions and the wisdom in the literature included in the list at the end of this summary form the context of my search for a proper definition.

Definition of fanaticism

My search resulted in four elements that collectively constitute the concept of fanaticism:

  1. people have agreed on one or more clear and simple opinion
  2. they exclude alternative opinions
  3. they feel a passion to convince others
  4. they are prepared to use violence as a tool to convince others

In my view the concept of fanaticism is only applicable if all  four elements are applicable. If e.g. the element of aggression is not present or the people involved are open to consider different opinions we should not speak of fanaticism.

In my search I have focused on the perspective of the participants in the crowd and not on the role of the leader.

Each of the elements needs some elaboration.

Focus on an opinion

Many authors have emphasized the human characteristic to look for the safety of a group in times of uncertainties (Canetti, Arendt, Van der Brink). Leaders could make use of this mechanism to gather these “people looking for certainty” around an appealing and simple opinion/solution. We all know that the introduction of democracy was not Bush’s main motive to invade Iraq and obviously the introduction of Islam is not the most important cause for the terroristic acts of Taliban. And still many people adopt these openly stated opinions. These observations lead me to the following conclusion:

Conclusion 1:
The content of collective opinions tends to be less important than the unifying effect of having a collective opinion.  Sharing such an opinion delivers the safety of participation in a group.


Exclusion of alternatives

In order to defend the group against external influences and to improve the solidarity in the group, the creation of an external enemy is an often applied tool to improve solidarity. As stated earlier, the group is less interested in finding the truth than in maintaining the density and stability of the group. Therefore e.g. a critical attitude of fundamental Islam to western culture or western criticism towards communistic ideology should not be understood as an invitation to an open discussion, but as a strategy to defend the own group.

Conclusion 2:
Exclusion of alternative opinions mainly serves the objective to create an external enemy in order to maintain the density of the group.



A hermit with explicit opinions lacking any communication with others should not be called a fanatic. The moment he seeks contact with the people in a nearby village to convince them of the truth of his opinion, he comes a step closer to my definition of a fanatic. When a group feels such an urge to spread its opinion, this missionary work is considered by Canetti as one of the main characteristics of a fanatic movement. It is not in the first place their firm conviction of  being right to do their missionary work, but the need to grow as a group urges them to do so. The inflow of new participants guarantees the movement new energy and continuity.

Conclusion 3
Missionary work serves the group objective to grow. Growth is the only way to preserve their energy level and their continuity.



In my view a person who is absolutely convinced that the protestant religion is the only true belief – even if he passionately, but peacefully tries to convince others – should not be called a fanatic. He will be a true fanatic at the moment he is prepared to use violence in order to recruit supporters.

Without doubt violence includes physical aggression. However we tend to accept regulated state violence (police, army) as permitted violence. In my view verbal violence in an extremely offensive manner could have a similar negative effect as physical violence.  But judgement of this phenomenon is probably both individually and culturally bound.

Conclusion 4
Fanaticism includes the preparedness to bring in all possible tools including violence to convince others.


How to handle fanaticism

Both Stefan Zweig and Amos Oz had to face fanaticism in their own life. I feel comfortable in their analyses and suggestions to handle this phenomenon:

  • take a step back and evaluate your own behavior and attitude
  • invest in education to strengthen the resistance to fanaticism
  • stimulate everyone to broaden their perspectives and to look beyond the borders of their own interests and daily surroundings

A simple solution is not available because of the complex and  deep-seated motives of fanaticism.

Examples of  tools to stimulate the awareness of our own potential fanaticism exist in:

  • a broad scope of cultural expressions: literature, theatre, film, music
  • education. Schools could have a lot of impact on the awareness of mechanisms of fanaticism in children’s minds.
  • politics could be the starting point, but also protection from fanaticism.
  • practical tests to give an indication of individual susceptibility to fanaticism.

Creative contributions to develop new tools to make us aware of the temptation of fanaticism could be of great help.




Arendt, Hannah, The origins of totalitarianism, 1951

Totalitarisme, Boom 2005

Brink van der, Bert, Fanatisme als ontmenselijking, draft essay 2006

Canetti, Elias, Die Fackel im Ohr, 1980

The torch in my ear, 1982

De fakkel in mijn oor, 1982

Canetti, Elias, Masse und Macht, 1960

Crowds and Power, 1962

Massa en macht, 1976

Haffner, Sebastiaan, Geschichte eines Deutschen, 2000

Het verhaal van een duitser, 2002

Oz, Amos, How to cure a fanatic, 2006

Hoe genees ik een fanaticus, 2007

Zweig, Stefan, Castellio gegen Calvin, 1936

The right to Heresy, 1936

Castellio tegen Calvijn, 1936

Zweig, Stefan, Die Welt von gestern, 1941

The world of yesterday, 1943

De wereld van gisteren, 2008

Zweig, Stefan, Joseph Fouché, 1981

Zweig, Stefan, Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam, 1934

Triumph and tragedy of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1934

Dirk Jansen (1945) is sociologist and Chairman of the Dutch Stefan Zweig Genootschap.