One of the lessons that reinforced by reading Clive James‘s massive tome Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time is that self-deception is not the preserve of stupidity. Clever people are just as capable of getting things wrong in a big way. Take Joseph Goebbels, for example, who, though clever, was capable of thinking himself too clever by half.
As the end neared the only reproach Goebbels made against Hitler was that the Führer had not been sufficiently true to himself, having allowed himself to be surrounded by a gang of opportunists, time-servers and mediocrities. There was certainly some truth in that. Goebbels had good reason to believe of himself as the genuine Nazi article. The comedy lies in his unintentional revelation of what being a genuine Nazi entailed. One thing it entailed was a huge incapacitating overestimation of the world’s tolerance for Nazi policies of territorial aggression and mass murder. Goebbels was right to believe that Stalin threatened civilization in the West with a similar disaster. But he was wrong to believe that the Western allies, when they realized this, would see Nazi Germany as a bastion against the threat. He couldn’t let it occur to him that the unlikely global alliance against Nazi Germany was held together by the existence of Nazi Germany itself, and would be maintained until Nazi Germany was gone. For him it was a thought too simple to be grasped. He was too clever for that.