Troops of the 1st Australian Division advance towards the Ypres front line, October 1917. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Before the First World War: what can 1914 tell us about 2014?

Old world decline, rogue empires, killing for God – looking at 1914, we can discover that there are many uncomfortable parallels with our own time.

As we enter the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, many uncomfortable parallels with our own time spring to mind. In 1914 the superpower that dominated the world, controlling the seas and ruling over a global empire of colonies, dominions and dependencies – Britain – was being challenged by a rival that was overtaking it economically and building up armaments on land and sea to assert its claim for a “place in the sun” – Germany. All of this is alarmingly close to the situation today, when America’s global supremacy is increasingly being challenged by the rise of China.

The ideological rivalries between the superpowers now and then look strikingly similar, too, at first glance: on the one hand, Britain then and America now, with their democratic political systems that make governments responsible to legislatures and removable by popular elections; on the other, Germany then and China now, with appointed and irremovable governments responsible only to themselves. A free press and open public on the one hand contrast with a controlled public sphere on the other, in which censorship and the trappings of a police state in effect muzzle the government’s most trenchant critics.

And of course there was, and is, the baleful influence of nationalism, with China’s sabre-rattling over disputed islands today yielding little in rhetorical vehemence to the kaiser’s bombastic speeches asserting German claims in Africa and the Middle East before 1914. The clash of ideologies and religions was evident before 1914, just as it is today, and in both cases concentrated on trouble spots in specific parts of the world.

Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.

Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bul­garia, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Cath­olic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. Just as there have been wars pre­viously in the Middle East (in 1948, 1967 and most recently in 1973), so too there had been wars in the Balkans, between Russia and Turkey in 1877-78 and between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885. So 1914, sometimes known in the region as the third Balkan war, was nothing new for these countries.

All the Balkan powers were heavily armed, buying up the latest weaponry from Europe’s leading manufacturers with loans supplied by the British, French and German governments. All of these countries were politically unstable, with governments being violently overthrown and terrorist organisations such as the Serbian “Black Hand” and the Internal Macedonian Revo­lutionary Organisation flourishing.

The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. They had come close to the brink during the first Balkan war in 1912-13, when Montenegro in alliance with Serbia attacked northern Albania, where there were virtually no Serbs or Montenegrins among the inhabitants. Austria-Hungary demanded Serbia’s with­drawal, Russia began to mobilise in support of the Serbs, and France declared its support for the Russians. The situation was defused only by a British intervention, resulting in an international conference that guaranteed independence for Albania.

The whole episode was an ominous foretaste of what happened in August 1914. With the break-up of the alliance of the Balkan states in 1913, Bulgaria went over to the patronage of the Germans, while Russia’s only client left in the region was Serbia. Serbian ambitions had already prompted Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their substantial population of Serbs, in 1908. It would be just as wrong to dismiss all of this as irrelevant to the ambitions and rivalries of the Great Powers, as Boris Johnson has done recently, as it would be to dismiss the violent antagonisms in today’s Middle East as unimportant to international relations on a wider scale.

And yet the Balkan nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were no more mere puppets of Germany or Russia than the Middle Eastern states of today are puppets of America, Russia or China. As President Obama has discovered, trying to control Israeli governments is no easy task; he might tell the Israelis not to build any new Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank but they carry on regardless. China and Russia might block western attempts to impose sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria and may continue supplying it with arms, but they have not been able to control it or stop its opponents, so they have become willing to explore ways of ending the conflict peaceably; their co-operation in the removal of chemical weapons signals their refusal to back the regime all the way.

China supplies Iran with weapons and with nuclear technology but can do little to mediate its policy in the Middle East, and its approach is tempered by the need to keep up good relations with the United States. Not least because of the growing importance of economic ties with the west, Russia has bowed to international pressure for sanctions on Iran and has curbed its arms supplies to the country. In all of this, there are few indications that the world’s great powers today are being drawn into regional conflicts as closely as they were in 1914.

One important reason for this lies in our changed attitudes to war. In Europe, the wars of the 19th century were limited in duration and scope, and seldom involved more than a handful of combatant nations. All told, deaths in battle between 1815 and 1914 were seven times fewer than combat deaths in the previous century. The wars of German unification in the 1860s, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 and similar conflicts were swiftly resolved by decisive victories for one side or the other. Even the Crimean war of 1854-56 did not move much beyond the hinterland of the Black Sea.

In the 19th century fear of the upheaval and destruction caused by the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars brought the leading European states together time and again in what was known as the Concert of Europe to resolve potential conflicts through international conferences. Though it was severely damaged in the 1850s and 1860s, the Concert was patched together again in the 1870s, when the Congress of Berlin redrew the map of the Balkans, while another Berlin conference sorted out colonial rivalries (without, needless to say, consulting any of the millions of people about to be colonised) in 1884. These institutions, like the United Nations of today, provided a forum in which diplomats and statesmen could work together to avoid war, and they largely succeeded.

If there is no sign that the UN, for all its inadequacies, is about to collapse, it is not least because the postwar settlement of 1945 rested on a general recognition that international co-operation in all fields had to be stronger than it was under the League of Nations, the UN’s ill-fated predecessor. The destruction caused by the Second World War, with its 50 million or more dead, its ruined cities, its genocides, its widespread negation of civilised values, had a far more powerful effect than the deaths caused by the First World War, which were (with exceptions, notably the genocide of a million or more Armenian civilians, killed by the Turks in 1915) largely confined to troops on active service. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided an additional, ter­rible warning of what would happen if the world went to war again.

In 1914, by contrast, very few people had any idea of the cataclysm that was about to descend on them. Just as admirals thought that the war at sea would be a rerun of the great naval engagements of the past, so the generals thought the war on land would be something like the conflicts of the 1860s, opening with rapid, railway-borne advances to the front, followed by a decisive encounter in which the other side would meet with a shattering defeat; peace would then be concluded after a few weeks or at most a couple of months. Since those days, however, barbed wire, patented in 1874, and the machine-gun, perfected in portable form a decade later, had become standard defensive equipment; at the same time, the internal combustion engine and armour plating were not yet advanced enough to produce tanks that could overcome these obstacles effectively and restore movement to warfare. A few recognised these inconvenient facts, notably the Polish banker Jan Bloch, whose Modern Weapons and Modern War, published at the turn of the century, argued that in the next major war, “the spade will be as important as the rifle” and forecast that the war of the future would be a gridlock in which quick victory would be impossible.

But nobody heeded this prediction, because generals, politicians and civil servants were unable to accept its denial of easy victory. By 1910 at the latest, the idea that a war was coming was shared by many – indeed, generated a momentum towards it. Admiral Jackie Fisher wrote of the atmosphere he created in the Royal Navy after 1902: “We prepared for war in professional hours, talked war, thought war, and hoped for war.” The chief of the German general staff declared in 1912 that war must come “and the sooner the better!”. War in this vision appeared as something not only inevitable, but also positive. A German novelist wrote of August 1914: “At last life had regained an ideal significance. The great virtues of humanity . . . fidelity, patriotism, readiness to die for an ideal . . . were triumphing over the trading and shopkeeping spirit . . . The war would cleanse mankind from all its impurities.” The war appeared as a chance to do something glorious in a prosaic age.

In like vein, British writers enthused about the opportunity that war would present:

To die young, clean, ardent; to die swiftly, in perfect health; to die saving others from death, or worse – disgrace . . . to die and carry with you into the fuller, ampler life beyond, untainted hopes and aspirations, unembittered memories, all the freshness and gladness of May – is that not a cause for joy rather than sorrow?

as Horace Annesley Vachell wrote in The Hill (1905). The war appeared as a release, a liberation of manly energies long pent up, a resolution to all the insoluble problems that had plagued European politics and society in increasing measure since the late 19th century: an escape into a simpler, clearer and more glorious reality.

War was also widely seen before 1914 by the upper classes across Europe as an assertion of masculine honour, like a duel, as it were, only on a much bigger scale. Duelling was a common way of avenging real or imagined slights to a man’s honour in virtually every European country at the time. The French politician Georges Clemenceau had fought a duel; so too had the Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin. Duelling was a frequent occurrence among the Junker aristocracy in Germany, and politicians in Austria-Hungary regularly engaged in duels. Only in Britain had they died out: the point of a duel was to vindicate one’s manly honour by standing unmoving as your opponent fired a bullet at you at twenty or thirty paces, and the invention of modern cricket, in which a man was required to face down a different kind of round, hard object as it hurtled towards him from the other end of the wicket, was a satisfactory (and comfortingly legal) substitute. Forcefulness, strength of will, self-assertion and standing firm against an enemy were all part of a code of behaviour of the upper-class men whose actions brought Europe and the world to war in 1914, in contrast to the flexibility and subtlety of the greater statesmen of an earlier generation, such as Bismarck, whose awareness of the precariousness of the German empire’s position in the international order was as great as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s disregard for it.

Such codes of male behaviour appear almost incomprehensible a century later. Politicians of the nuclear age are all too aware of the fragility of the world order. Masculine posturing nowadays earns only ridicule. The horrors of Nazi racism and genocide also put paid to the doctrine of social Darwinism, which had become widely accepted among European elites by the beginning of the 20th century but did not survive the war of 1939-45.


Remember them: wooden crosses recall victims of the 21st-century war in Iraq near Westminster Abbey, London, 2006. Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty.

Yet at the same time, the leaders of almost every European nation in 1914 were racked by anxiety about the future. Germany feared the growing might of Russia; Austria-Hungary was made nervous by the rise of Slav nationalism within its borders; Russia was afraid of further humiliation of the kind it had been forced to endure with its defeat in the war against Japan in 1904-1905. Internally, too, European states were in trouble, with strikes, suffragette campaigns and the threat of civil war in Ireland destabilising Britain; assassinations and labour unrest undermining tsarist autocracy in Russia; and the victory of the Marxist Social Democrats in Germany’s 1912 elections causing a crisis of confidence among the ruling elite.

One might point to the parallel of the present crisis in the eurozone, in which all the participant states hope to avoid a collapse but all are also pursuing their own interests and so differ on how it is to be averted; but the social unrest it has sparked has been confined largely to Greece, and the main states have been able to work together to limit the damage, with the result that collapse, so far, has been avoided.

Still, economic factors played a role in 1914 just as they do today. In France and especially in Britain, national debates opened up about the seemingly unstoppable success of the German economy. And indeed, German industry had already overtaken that of Britain by the eve of the war. It had increased Germany’s share of world industrial production fourfold since 1860, while Britain’s share had sunk by a third. Germany was producing twice as much steel as Britain, and dominated the chemical and electrical industries worldwide through firms such as Siemens, BASF, AEG and many others. In science the theories of Max Planck and Albert Einstein were revolutionising physics, while Robert Koch and his pupils were taking the lead in discovering the causes of one disease after another through their pioneering work in bacteriology. The motor car was a German invention, as was the diesel engine. There are parallels between such anxieties and the worry, sometimes extending to paranoia, in the US today about the rise of China. Yet so far American concerns have not translated into political action. The interventions of the US have been directed not against China’s role in other parts of the world but against medium or small regional powers such as Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before 1914, however, there were many in Germany at least who thought that Ger­man economic and technological growth should, or would, translate into political power on the world scene. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant notion of global power in Europe rested on the possession of overseas colonies. A newly united Germany had largely missed out on the spoils of empire in the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s. The British government was not opposed to recognising Germany’s claim to colonies; in fact, at one point there was a deal in the offing whereby London agreed to the Germans’ acquisition of the ramshackle and poorly defended overseas empire held by the Portuguese.

All this points to a huge difference between the world of 1914 and the one of today. A century ago, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Russia possessed vast colonies with millions of subjects. With its growing power and influence, the United States was also starting to join the club. The First World War was a struggle between empires and one of its products was a repartition of the globe, with Germany’s colonies seized and distributed among the victors.

Colonialism lost all legitimacy after 1945. The early 21st century is witnessing the growth of former colonies such as Brazil, or Nigeria, or India, into major players in the global economic game. In contrast to the decades of the cold war, when international relations were a bipolar system that pitted the Soviet Union against the western powers in direct opposition to each other, we now have a multipolar system. The world has become more like that of the late 19th century, although Britain, despite its vast overseas empire, was nowhere near as dominant as the United States has been since the collapse of communism. Then, too, international relations were constituted as a multipolar system; the difference was that almost all the major competitors were from within Europe itself.

The breakdown of this system was one of the main factors leading to the outbreak of war in 1914. Up to 1904-05, Britain had regarded France and Russia as its main rivals for global influence, but as dangerous Anglo-French colonial differences in Africa were settled, and Russia turned away from Asia following its defeat by Japan, the rise of Germany took centre stage and Europe divided itself, along the lines of the later cold war, into two armed and increasingly antagonistic camps. In an atmosphere that fostered largely positive attitudes to war this was an ominous development, and one without parallel in the early 21st century, for all the posturings over Syria or Iran of Russia and China on the one hand and the Nato powers, on the other.

There is another parallel between the two ages. Just as we are in the midst of an era of rapid globalisation today, so in 1914 processes of globalisation were well under way, thanks to the telephone, the steamship, and potentially the aeroplane. Mutual investment by French and German companies created new economic entities that crossed the Rhine. Cultural exchange, tourism, economic interpenetration, all were reaching global dimensions by 1914.

For all the Marxists’ convoluted attempts to prove that the driving forces behind the First World War were economic, the logic of capitalism told against war rather than for it. Yet neither economic rationality nor cultural familiarity proved an obstacle to conflict. The reason for this is not, however, ideological. Nothing could be less plausible than the current attempts of Conservative politicians and writers such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to portray the outbreak of the First World War as a clash between Britain’s liberal democracy and Germany’s authoritarian militarism.

In 1914 40 per cent of adult males in Britain did not have the right to vote; the troops who signed up were not volunteering to defend rights that nearly half of them lacked. All adult males in Germany could vote. The largest political party in Germany, the Marxist SPD, initially opposed the war, voted for war credits only because the government successfully presented the issue as one of defence against tsarist despotism, and was committed to a peace without annexations. By the second half of the war the kaiser had been forced to con­cede democratic reforms in Prussia. Kaiser Wilhelm – erratic, indecisive, unstable – was not Hitler. Imperial Germany was not a dictatorship.

One thing that those who want us to celebrate the First World War as a fight for British values have in common with the Blackadder television series is that all of them focus exclusively on the Western Front. But we need to raise our heads above the trenches and take in the wider dimensions of the war. That one of Britain’s two main allies was the despotic Russia of Tsar Nicholas II should banish any thoughts of the war having been fought in defence of “western liberalism” until Russia’s exit from the war in 1917-18. British propaganda of course portrayed the conflict in moral and ideological terms, rightly pointing to German atrocities in Belgium in the opening weeks, though it quickly came to exaggerate them in the process. However, there were many atrocities in the Balkans and on the Eastern Front, too, and it would be wrong if the commemorations about to begin neglected the wider European and global dimensions of the conflict in a simplistic parroting of the British propaganda of the time.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the world in 1914 and that of 2014 lies, in a way that would have surprised our ancestors of a century ago, in the greater power of religion today to disrupt the inter­national order. Whatever the First World War was about, it was a determinedly secular conflict. Only in the Ottoman empire, and the Balkans, perhaps, did religion play a role, yet even the Armenian genocide was justified by the Turks mainly in ethnic and security terms. The leading combatants in the First World War were pursuing decidedly secular interests.

Absurdly, Nigel Biggar, a professor of theology in Oxford, has leapt into the fray in Standpoint magazine to claim, with all the self-importance of his tribe, that morality – in other words, God – was on the British side in 1914. The argument is irresistibly reminiscent of J C Squire’s epigram of the day: “God heard the embattled nations sing and shout/‘Gott strafe England’ and ‘God save the King!’/God this, God that, and God the other thing –/‘Good God!’ said God, ‘I’ve got my work cut out!’”

Terrorism today may be fuelled mainly by religion, and religious conflicts certainly underpin political tensions in the Middle East, yet despite the belief of some on the Republican right in the US that a war over Israel will lead to Armageddon and the Second Coming, there is no evidence that religion plays a significant role in international relations between the major world powers today. For all the parallels with the nationalist passions that swept Europe in 1914, there is even less evidence that they drove Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary or France to war. Statesmen later claimed that popular pressure propelled them into the conflict, but this was an ex post facto self-justification that should be treated with the scepticism every such claim of this kind deserves.

Meanwhile, in 1914 and after, nationalist passions in the main combatant powers were overwhelmingly the product of the war’s outbreak, not the cause. The war inaugurated three decades of nationalist hatreds in Europe, driven by the need to justify the conflict. They were made worse by what now appears the calamitous policy of national self-determination propagated by President Woodrow Wilson in his “Fourteen Points”. Economic rivalries broke out between the new states created after the war, making it impossible to clear up the financially ruinous consequences of the conflict, first triggering a disastrous inflation and then contributing to the catastrophe of the Slump. Democracies collapsed under the pressure of nationalist passions all over Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The idea of an ethnically homogeneous nation state then caused untold suffering and millions of deaths between 1918 and 1948, as minorities were oppressed, expelled and murdered all over central and eastern Europe.

As we commemorate the First World War, we surely need to focus above all on the lessons to be learned from these tragic experiences. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President John F Kennedy showed that he had paid attention: his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August convinced him that muddle, indecisiveness and poor communication between the leaders of the Great Powers in 1914 had caused the slide into war, and that a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union could be avoided only if he made his position unambiguously clear to Nikita Khrushchev, as indeed he did.

In the early 21st century, however, when the threat of a nuclear conflict between the world’s leading powers has receded, the lesson we need to learn from the catastrophe of 1914 is a different one. Although France, Germany and other participants in the First World War will be telling us to stop a repetition of the disaster by building European unity and understanding, the focus of politicians should really be on the Middle East, the Balkans of the early 21st century, which still threaten to explode into a wider, more dangerous conflagration.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

Ernest Duffoo via Flickr / New Statesman
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Spitting out the Red Pill: Former misogynists reveal how they were radicalised online

Subscribers of Reddit's most notoriously sexist subreddit explain what happens when you change your mind.

João describes swallowing the Red Pill as a feeling greater than winning the lottery.

Aged 17 and a self-described “late bloomer virgin”, he was growing apprehensive about going to college when he stumbled across an online community that seemed to hold all the answers. “I believed in it so much,” the now 24-year-old tells me via Skype from his home in Portugal, “It was such a fantastic thing to me… Back then I used to say that I was so happy about finding out about the Red Pill and pick up artists that I would rather be with them than win the lottery.

“I don't know why I believed so deeply because it really makes no sense.”

Though João experienced two happy years with fellow Red Pillers, his opinions have now drastically changed.  During the course of our half hour conversation, he uses one word exactly twenty times: “cult”.

***

The Red Pill is a philosophy, and reddit.com/r/TheRedPill is its home. The nearly 200,000 subscriber strong subreddit describes itself as a place for the “discussion of sexual strategy in a culture increasingly lacking a positive identity for men.” In itself, perhaps this doesn’t sound too bad.

In practice, to “swallow the Red Pill” is to accept the uncomfortable truth about reality. The phrase comes from 1999’s hit film The Matrix, in which the protagonist Neo must choose between the Red Pill – which would allow him to escape the Matrix but see the real, darker world – and the Blue Pill – continued existence in his comfortable, but ultimately fake, life.

In r/TheRedPill’s instance, the “dark truths” that the subreddit’s subscribers have swallowed are these: feminism is toxic, sexism is fake, men have it harder than women, and everything the media teaches about relationships is a lie. In reality (the argument goes) women don’t want soft-centred men/chocolates; they want to be dominated, controlled, and manipulated. The most extreme Red Pillers even believe that women want to be raped.

“Rejection is not rejection,” reads an extract from the subreddit’s most popular post. “When a woman insults you, belittles you, mocks you, or says something provocative to get a reaction — these are all examples of active tests.” By following the subreddit’s advice, its subscribers are promised a life of successful sexual encounters. If they ignore the Red Pill, they will undoubtedly be rejected, cheated on, and dumped.

“They have theories that are not easy to prove or disprove, they are based on beliefs like all women cheat, they like cheating, and all women are not loyal,” explains João. “There’s this whole conspiracy thing where women are against you, they are this imagined enemy… as well as there's a whole conspiracy that society is against men, that society is anti-male so to speak, that liberals are fucking up society, that feminism is fucking up society.

“I believed everything, everything. And if you didn't believe everything… if you go on Red Pill Reddit and you disagree with someone they either delete your comments or they try to make fun of you and shame you. You can't criticise anything because people will quickly try to diminish you. So I really believed every little thing.”

***

Beliefs such as “all women are evil” and “all women cheat” are what are known as conspiracy stereotypes. Like traditional conspiracy theories, they often rely on cherry-picked evidence. The Red Pill in particular exploits evolutionary psychology to argue that women are wired to want men with a strong “frame”. Much of the subreddit’s misogyny is justified by one of their favourite acronyms, AWALT: “all women are like that”. 

“The movement’s use of evolutionary psychology convinced my rational mind that everything I read was a scientific fact supressed by feminists,” explains Jack, a British 24-year-old former r/TheRedPill subscriber.

“I began to see male victimhood throughout society,” he tells me over Reddit’s messaging service. “It fed the confirmation biases that society was built around men catering to women in return for sex.”

Mike Wood, a lecturer at the University of Winchester and an expert on the psychology behind conspiracy theories, explains that people who believe in conspiracy stereotypes such as AWALT tend to have what is known as a “Manichean” worldview.

“They feel the world is divided into absolute good and absolute evil, and the people behind the conspiracies are of course the absolute evil ones," he said.

Psychologists have a concept, entitativity, which describes the extent to which a group of people are perceived as a single entity. "If you think that a group is entitative, it’s like a swarm of bees or ants," Wood explained. "They’re not just a collection of individuals, they’re actually that a single organism that moves with singular purpose. I think that’s probably likely to be true for groups like the Red Pill, that look at women and see just a flock of harpies.”

Subscribers' experiences in the real world can reinforce their misogynistic views. Trevor*, a 34-year-old former Red Piller, explains how the subreddit led him to towards more extreme views of women.

“When I was 30, I broke up with a woman who just not a very good person,” he tells me over Skype. “I broke up with her one the phone…20, 30 minutes later she shows up [to my apartment] completely hysterical. I remember I had a large metal tin bowl with potatoes on the counter which I was going to cook for dinner or something, and she grabs it, chucks the potatoes all through the apartment… her shirt catches on a corner of a countertop and then she proceeds to tear the rest of it off like Hulk Hogan.”

When Trevor decided to call the police, it was he that ended up arrested. “I went from being in my home peacefully to being in a jail cell all because I’m a man and she's a woman.

“Now that was a very immoral human being who I was dealing with, certainly not all women are like that but that’s another brainwashing technique of the Red Pill, they say that all women are the same…

“It kind of tricks you so you're agreeing about one thing and the next thing you know you're agreeing about all these other things.”

***

These “tricks” aren’t accidental, according to João in Portugal, who now firmly believes that the Red Pill is akin to a cult.

“If you go to Red Pill and you say something that those guys don't really like then they will just delete your comments or just say that you are a ‘mangina’ or a ‘feminist’ or a ‘cuck’," he told me. "They have this social influence mechanism where they pre-emptively invalidate all criticism by criticising people back… and it is typical of cults to do this.” Other Red Pillers I spoke to also mentioned the threat of harassment. 

João also believes the Red Pill preys on those who are easily manipulated – be they young, nerdy, insecure, virgins, or simply going through a difficult time in life. Most of the ex-Red Pillers I spoke to were teenagers when they became involved in the subreddit, and most say they were exceptionally lonely at the time.

Callum*, a 29-year-old from Western Pennsylvania, has a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome and speculates that “a great many” people on the Red Pill are likely on the spectrum. He became involved with the Red Pill at 19. Though he had spent much of his time at school not caring about girls, he became insecure when he started college.

“I worried that I wasn't thin enough, I wasn't tall enough, I wasn't endowed enough,” he tells me over Reddit. “I started getting very bitter about relationships in general. At no point was I ever actually angry or bitter towards women, but I was frustrated with the established societal rules, that men had to put on the show and be the best they could and that women got to pick and choose without trying much themselves, and I wasn't being picked.

“When I turned to the Red Pill subreddit I immediately felt like I figured it out. Like a cult, they give you a few obvious truths (men should be more confident, work towards physical fitness, women aren't divine perfect beings to be worshipped but flawed people, etc.). I definitely think that this enabled me to slide into accepting the more toxic beliefs of the subreddit.

“Any time someone said something outright sexist or alarming, too much for me, others would interject and say that those are just being angry and we should let them vent.”

***

Over the last year, the Red Pill subreddit has become a home for other hateful beliefs. A year ago, the alt-right’s most vocal figurehead, Milo Yiannopoulous, did an AMA (“ask me anything”) on the sub. It is now commonly accepted that the alt-right recruited men from the Red Pill and attempted to radicalise them. In fact, the alt-right has become so conflated with the Red Pill that this month a brand new subreddit – the Red Pill Right – had to be made. “My focus with this new sub is to keep us from diluting the discussion of sexual strategy on our main sub,” wrote its creator.

But how has a place designed for discussions about sex and women become so radically political?

“That is the power of the ideology,” explains Jack, the British Red Piller. “It gives you a lens that brings out the most cynical explanation of social activities…  For a while, it seemed as if a blindfold was lifted and I saw manipulation everywhere.”

Jack became involved with the Red Pill when he was 23, and had been single for a “long” time. “I was numb, lonely and desperate,” he says. “It was a terrible time in my life.”

Though Jack only spent two months on the subreddit, he quickly fell in with anti-feminist and libertarian rhetoric. “An uncomfortable misogynistic streak grew within me,” he says. “At one point [I] thought that Donald Trump was a good candidate for President.”

Like many of the places we frequent online, the Red Pill has become an echo chamber. The psychologist I spoke to, Mike Wood, told me this can lead to people adopting more and more extreme views. "If you’re in some sort of a group that defines itself by its opinions, then people will get more and more polarised over time," he says. "Individuals will try to conform to what the group mandates.” This is true of not just the Red Pill, but its opponents. While radical feminists on Tumblr, for example, become more extreme in their views, so too does the subreddit. In many ways, the extremes of each group justify one another's existence in their minds. 

“People within the group will try to get social approval from other members of the group,” Wood continues. “So they’ll play to that standard that they’re supposed to live up to – and then people will take it further because they reason ‘If I’m more extreme about this then I will get more approval’, so the norms of the group shift over time.”

Jack’s story aligns with this. “Trump represented everything that the Red Pill told me to value at the time in a mainstream political candidate: anti-PC, anti-feminist and social Darwinist policy,” he says. Those aspects of Trump that he still found unpalatable, or racist, he accepted as "a price to pay for the other stuff".

***

There exists another misogynistic subreddit which is, in fact, deeper and darker than the Red Pill. Reddit.com/r/Incels is a place for “involuntary celibates” – people who are struggling to lose their virginity – to talk. In theory, once again, this is not terrible. In practice, however, the nearly 10,000 subscriber strong group breeds bitterness towards women, and a hatred of “Chads” – men who are romantically successful. Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara student who killed six people in 2014, considered himself an incel.

For Callum, the Red Piller from Western Pennsylvania, this subreddit spoke more specifically to his own situation. “The feelings of inferiority and utter hopelessness are indescribable and the worst things I have ever felt in my life,” he says. “I think that outsiders looking in just deem these people very bitter and angry and don't understand the long process it takes to get there… It takes a long and drawn out battle with yourself that those people have lost.

“It's listening to the voices in your head, telling you how shit you are, telling you that you will never be wanted, never be normal, all your friends and family are laughing at you behind your back at failing at the easy task of finding a girlfriend. You are a walking shame to your gender. Nothing you can do can overshadow such laughable inferiority. You are nothing.”

A meme from r/Incels

It is easy to see how the inferiority complex of Incels and the superiority complex of Red Pillers both in turn breed hatred and contempt. However, some subscribers to the subreddits manage to avoid being radicalised. From those I spoke to, it seems this is more likely if they have pre-existing political beliefs or circumstances that contradict the theories of the group. 

Tim*, a 22-year-old from New Zealand, believes that r/Incels didn’t lead him to become a misogynist because he was already interested in progressive and feminist politics. He found the sub when he was 16, after growing frustrated with the advice on Red Pill and other sites. As a self-described “nerdy” young man, Tim felt anxious about how relationships worked.

“I'm not very good at following my nose in those sorts of situations,” he says. “I can't dance for instance, because I have no idea what specifically to do, so anything without a ‘rulebook’ is pretty much impossible for me.

“I spent so long searching for my ‘rulebook’ until I realised that it's doesn't exist, no one seems to have any clue what makes a relationship happen. It kinda drives you mad thinking like that, that you're the only person in the world who doesn't ‘get it’. That's where places like r/Incels come in.”

Tim says that the fact he has always been friends with women might have meant he wasn’t convinced by the group’s misogyny. “It's possible to accept that you'll be alone forever, and accept that you're very unhappy about that, without becoming hateful or misogynistic. But it seems like everyone kind of forgets that,” he says.

Louis*, a 19-year-old from Albany, New York, joined r/Incels aged 16, and does feel that it made him more bitter and misanthropic. “You feel the world actively hates you so you need to hate it back,” he says. Nonetheless, he stopped frequenting the subreddit when, like the Red Pill, it began spreading extreme right-wing beliefs. “The alt-right is how I broke from incels as the racism sort of woke me up to the reality of it,” explains Louis, who is black.

***

Each of the Redditors I spoke to has a different reason for leaving the Red Pill.

João and Jack were both influenced by Mark Manson, author of Models: Attract Women Through Honesty. “Most of what he talks about is the mind-set to care for oneself and strive to improve. Hate is energy better spent finding and enjoying activities you love,” says Jack, who also began reading about feminism.

João says he left the Red Pill because he was attracting girls that were “emotionally damaged” and not “mentally healthy”. He also felt like its advice didn’t really work. “I was going out to bars to talk to women and I would have to talk with like literally like 100 girls just to pick up one, so the whole thing is a numbers game, a probability thing,” he says. He now considers himself a feminist and has a “fantastic girlfriend” who he has been with for nearly three years.

For Callum, it took “a series of psychedelic trips” to begin getting out of both the Red Pill and Incels. “The very idea of gender was alien to me when tripping hard enough,” he says. When I ask him how he feels about women now, he says: “I still hold on to the belief that women enjoy a major advantage in the dating world even though they suffer disadvantages in other parts of life." Nevertheless he now sees women as "scared, flawed, imperfect humans just like I am".

***

Not everyone who has left the Red Pill, then, did so because of some feminist revelation. Trevor, the man who ended up in a police cell after a confrontation with his ex, still holds many of the subreddit’s beliefs.

“Look, a lot of what they say is true unfortunately,” he says. “So it isn’t really a question of I don’t believe any of that any more, it's just I don’t believe it’s useful to continuously expose myself to that sort of stuff.” Although Trevor says the Red Pill helped him to “bed an unusually high number of women”, he now desires deeper relationships and hopes one day to start a family.  

Trevor has only been out of the subreddit for a few months, and it isn’t apparent whether his views will slowly change. As it stands, however, he believes that both women and men are destroying society, that the Red Pill and feminism are equally toxic, and that women who sleep around are "indirectly contributing to the depopulation of the white race".  

“I’m roommates with some Muslim people here, some Algerians, two girls and a guy, and these people take themselves more seriously," he says. "They kind of understand the importance of the tribe and community and family."

There is one Red Pill belief, however, that Trevor has completely shunned. “One thing I do believe is you can show a little vulnerability to your significant other,” he says. “A little, a little.”

***

No one still active on the Red Pill would admit that they are simply lonely, young, or vulnerable. The group is exceptionally hostile to outsiders, and the toxic beliefs on the subreddit easily inspire revulsion and hatred on first sight. But we are perhaps as guilty of considering Red Pillers a complete entity as they are considering all women to be joined together in some evil mission. In reality, there are many complex stories behind the subreddit, with some ex-users even claiming that they were struggling to come to terms with the fact they were gay or trans. 

Every man on the Red Pill has a different story. However, each of them do have striking similarities. The main one is anger. Like the name of the subreddit itself, it is blazing red. We must understand the psychology behind the philosophy not to condone it, but to better tackle the poisonous spider slowly infecting those across the web. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.