Mother Night: Why People—Even Smart Ones—Believed Howard Campbell | Van Kooten on Mother Night

Rick Van Kooten


Kurt Vonnegut’s first two books, Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, can arguably be categorized as science fiction, but Mother Night is a distinct departure from that genre. I have been an enthusiastic fan of Vonnegut since my younger days, but I admit that of the six texts being considered in the academia of Salo University, I had never read Mother Night, very likely for the reason that it is not science fiction and hence did not attract the attention of a science nerd like myself.

I did find the work thoroughly enjoyable and thought it a uniquely sophisticated way for Vonnegut to display his characteristic satire. Mother Night presents the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. who was recruited by his native U.S. as a double agent to work his way into the Nazi establishment in Germany where he initially is a playwright only to become the chief propagandist of the Nazi machine. He broadcasts information via “mannerisms, pauses, emphases, coughs, seeming stumbles in certain key sentences. Persons I never saw gave me my instructions, told me in which sentences of a broadcast the mannerisms were to appear” (29), the broadcasts being fascist propaganda that he authors, but finds too absurd for people to believe. However, believe them they do (in Germany, and then afterward in America). In the end, he is used by the Germans, Americans, Russians, and even the Israelis, as Campbell bemoans, “The part of me that wanted to tell the truth got turned into an expert liar! . . . The artist in me got turned into ugliness such as the world has rarely seen before” (206). The gist of the story is encapsulated in the clever presentation of the moral of the story in the Introduction, before the story is told: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (v).

But what made the Nazi propaganda so believable despite it seeming so ridiculous to Campbell himself?

It is important to realize the influence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection at this time in history and its application to social Darwinism. A key figure in the rise of social Darwinism was Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin and a polymath from before the turn of the century who was an English Victorian statistician, progressive, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, and proto-geneticist, and psychometrician. Indeed, regarding the latter, he founded psychometrics, the science of measuring mental faculties, and the first to apply statistics to the field of psychology. Vonnegut’s description of the Reverend/Dr. Jones character having “a theory that was all his own—that the teeth of Jews and Negroes proved beyond question that both groups were degenerate” (64) may have been a zany riff on Galton’s work. Galton framed eugenics as solid science and “did not want to have the analysis of racial differences excluded from the science of eugenics.”1

Fritz Lenz, in turn, based his racial eugenics on Galton’s initial work, and published an article in 1933 entitled, “Race as a Principle of Value.” In its preface, Lenz claimed that it contained “all of the important features of National Socialist policy.” Hitler read the book while serving time in Landsberg prison for his role in the Munich Beer-Hall Putsch of 1923, and used it as a scientific justification for his concept of “racial hygiene,” and attempts to exterminate millions of Jews. Hitler later stated, in 1941, “By virtue of an inherent law, these riches belong to him who conquers them. . . . By means of the struggle, the elites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies the incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest.”2 Social Darwinism therefore makes “cultural studies the legitimate heirs of evolutionary biology” according to Hyman commenting on Mother Night.3 Ideas on Darwin’s evolutionary concepts influenced the writings of intellectuals in Germany, America, and many other countries, reaching the “everyman” on the street.

These concepts were then amplified via the wonders of modern communication that allowed Campbell, Hitler, and other Nazi propagandists to make the first use of radio and mass media by a dictatorship to convince people to believe the saneness of their agenda. Campbell made his most impact as a radio broadcaster. As stated by Huxley: “Modern communications give organized people an advantage over masses of disorganized people and provide the means for the political leadership to manipulate the thoughts of the population.”4 This continued with the propagation of the Nazi agenda into America and New York as ingested by Jones and his crew (including listening to recordings), and retransmitted via Jones’ externally supported slick fascist newspaper, The White Christian Minuteman, a part of the German propaganda machine touting the ideas of German eugenics.

B. F. Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, stated that “the man that man has made is the product of the culture man has devised. He has emerged from two quite different processes of evolution: the biological evolution responsible for the human species and the cultural evolution carried out by that species” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 2002), concluding that humans, using operant conditioning and scientific techniques, can influence the evolution of culture.

To further deepen the understanding of how the masses could believe the Nazi messaging, there is the beautiful quote from Campbell describing that agenda as a Descartes-like machine:


I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.

The boss G-man concluded wrongly that there were no teeth on the gears in the mind of Jones. “You’re completely crazy,” he said.

Jones wasn’t completely crazy. The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately, that are exquisitely machined. . . .

The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases. The willful filing off of gear teeth, the willful doing without certain obvious pieces of information – That was how a household as contradictory as one composed of Jones, Father Keeley, Vice-Bundesfuehrer Krapptaer, and the Black Fuehrer could exist in relative harmony . . .

That is the closest I can come to explaining the legions, the nations of lunatics I’ve seen in my time. And for me to attempt such a mechanical explanation is perhaps a reflection of the father whose son I was. Am. When I pause to think about it, which is rarely, I am, after all, the son of an engineer (225).


These “missing teeth” allow Campbell to play the dual role of spreading propaganda while at the same time serving the Americans as a double agent to improve his odds for survival. But how can intelligent or smart people also be duped? Michael Shermer—a personal hero of mine who leads the Skeptical Inquirer publication—expounds on this in his 1997 book:

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. That is to say, most of us most of the time come to our beliefs for a variety of reasons having little to do with empirical evidence and logical reasoning (that, presumably, smart people are better at employing). Rather, such variables as genetic predispositions, parental predilections, sibling influences, peer pressures, educational experiences, and life impressions all shape the personality preferences and emotional inclinations that, in conjunction with numerous social and cultural influences, lead us to make certain belief choices. Rarely do any of us sit down before a table of facts, weigh them pro and con, and choose the most logical and rational belief, regardless of what we previously believed. Instead, the facts of the world come to us through the colored filters of the theories, hypotheses, hunches, biases, and prejudices we have accumulated through our lifetime. We then sort through the body of data and select those most confirming what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away those that are disconfirming. All of us do this, of course, but smart people are better at it through both talent and training. Some beliefs really are more logical, rational, and supported by the evidence than others, of course, but it is not my purpose here to judge the validity of beliefs; rather, I am interested in the question of how we came to them in the first place, and how we hold on to them in the face of either no evidence or contradictory evidence.5

This fits in nicely with the gears analogy, i.e., intelligent people can give a solid defense to others and themselves of why they have filed away certain teeth—ignoring obvious truths but not via evidence-based tests—in the gears of the machine of their belief system. Vonnegut’s Nazis are not simply dumb or delusional. They are deeply committed to facts, but they have willfully removed certain parts of their mental machinery, especially those parts that would allow them to recognize that they have done so.

This allows a contrast with others of how Campbell uses his facts:


Eichmann cannot distinguish between right and wrong—that not only right and wrong, but truth and falsehood, hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, comedy and tragedy, are all processed by Eichmann’s mind indiscriminately, like birdshot through a bugle.

My case is different. I always know when I tell a lie, am capable of imagining the cruel consequences of anybody’s believing my lies, know cruelty is wrong. I could no more lie without noticing it than I could unknowingly pass a kidney stone (166).



. . . never have I willfully destroyed a tooth on a gear of my thinking machine. Never have I said to myself, “This fact I can do without” (225).

So one sees different levels or selection of the incorporation of facts into ones’ own personal or inner truth. This is particularly relevant in our current “post-truth” era, but also sobering in that the mere assemblage of facts does not shield us from bad beliefs, and more troubling, how do we know ourselves when we are using them honestly?


  1. G. McGinnis. Mythlore. Nazis, Mythology, And Totalitarian Minds in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, 2007).
  2. Hitler’s Table Talk: His Private Conversations, p. 51.
  3. Hyman, Stanley E. The Ritual View of Myth and the Mythic.
  4. Huxley, Aldus. Brave New World Revisited.
  5. Shermer, M., Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 2007.