Mr. Wegert and Mr. Landmesser: People, Numbers and the Tipping Point

(Story and commentaries on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Skin in the Game)


In the photo, as Irene Eckler says, is her father, August Landmesser. And the photograph she speaks about is one of the most famous ever. It shows thousands of people attending a stately launch of a German military training ship Horst Wessel on June 13th 1936, with their hands raised in the Nazi salute, while one of the shipyard workers stands however with his arms crossed on the chest. It is known that the day was one of the Sundays when ceremonies of this kind were habitually arranged in the Hamburg Blohm und Voß shipyard, in order to avoid disruptions in the course of working days. Rudolf Hess, a high representative of the Nazi party, spoke at this political rally where even Adolf Hitler himself was present. The crowd cheered and cheered, since Rudolf Hess was one of the best speakers and impellers, yet August Landmesser held his arms crossed, showing his resistance and rebelliousness.

Launching of Horst Wessel in 1936

The history goes on, as the plot is developing. Sixty years later, Irene Eckler publishes a book about the demise of her family in Nazi Germany and reveals to the public that the person in the photograph is her father. August became a member Hitler’s party as a very young man, believing that was easier way to get a job in the crisis-crushed economy of the country. Her mother Irma, with whom the shipyard worker fell in love, was Jewish, and August and she did not get officially married because of the law that criminalized marriages between Aryans and non-Aryans, which came into force in 1935. August did not give up on his love, he left the party, and he and Irma had two daughters. The consequence of this tenacity was that they both ended first in jail, then Irma starved to death in one of the concentration camps, whereas her illegal husband was killed in a battle somewhere in Croatia.

Not long after Irene Eckler’s publicly claimed that her father was in the photo, another family, this time of Gustav Wegert, discreetly had come onto the stage. Gustav Wegert, a lad known as a stubborn, honest, big and sturdy man, was also one of workers in Hamburg shipyard at the time. In the middle of Nazi Germany, to all those Heil Hitler greetings, Gustav would unexpectedly respond with Guten Tag, in a bold and provocative manner. Gustav was also a devoted Christian, and he felt that a believer should be in church, not at a political rally, on a Sunday. If the photo is indeed that of Gustav Wegert, as his son says, and not of August Landmesser, all the pieces come in place together yet again: there is a man with a strong and resiliant attitude, unwilling to greet anyone with the official Nazi salute and reluctant to give up his church time and his respect for divine order to the benefit of corrupted political ideas, the man who folded his arms across his chest as a sign of his resistance. And indeed, Gustav Wegert physically does resemble the man in the photo, perhaps even more than August Landmesser. But again, to be fair enough, what’s in a name, as Shakespeare would say, and is it really important which one of the two men is in the picture? Because of the love for a woman, or God, because of the sense of order, honesty and honor, they both were lonely rebels in the midst of this blinded crowd.

August Landmesser

An unconfirmed story goes that there were some others who did not raise their hand in the Nazi salute at the gathering. How many of them? And how many Gustavs and Augusts should have been there to stop this epochal madness? Two of them, it turned out, was not enough. So, how many?


Let’s imagine, now, a much more benevolent gathering: a family lunch. Our daughter is also there, and daughters are known for being stubborn, although warmhearted creatures. She decided not to eat GMO foods. She is persistent and she does not accept compromises. After a while, our family gave up, and we accepted her attitude. In order not to cook double meals, we switched to non-GMOs food approach as well. It is a simple solution because we can accept her choice, while she is not able to accept ours.

Knowing that we have an uncompromising daughter when it comes to food, our neighbors and friends, when we get together, serve us exclusively non-GMO meals. If our daughter and our family were significantly incorporated into a community even a local food distributor would notice that non-GMO food is in greater demand, and would change his food selection accordingly. If daughters such as ours were represented everywhere in at least a small percentage, and at the level of the district, municipality, city, region, province and state, no matter how relatively small number of the non-GMO daughters exist, they would have a disproportionate, asymmetrically strong influence. Finally, non-GMO food would become dozens of times more present in the stores and would outnumber the population of its true supporters. Daughter’s minority choice, due to her persistence and general acceptability of the attitude, acts asymmetrically and powerfully.

Surprisingly, this fantastic scenario about the terror of a daughter is already taking place: non-GMO food (or organic, with similar logic and legitimacy) has been acquiring an increasing share of the food market year after year. It is true that it is the hype of healthy eating that creates this trend, but the trend is also helped by the strange mathematics of numbers: someone’s minority position gradually becomes a norm for the majority. This happens not only because of a persistent and consistent individual who represents the position, but also because of the acceptability of their position for the majority. Here is an example: in the UK, 70% of lamb meat imported from New Zealand is halal, while 51% of lamb meat in the country is processed according to halal rules. Muslims, however, make only five percent of the population there, responsible for 20% of lamb consumption. Their minority attitude toward dietary rules was disproportionately manifested compared to their population participation. If the halal mark was sufficiently value-neutral — even though there are people who look at Islam and any of its regulations in an unfavorable manner — this new norm could possibly be 100% accomplished. The preceding lines convey the ideas from the chapter “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority” from the book Skin in the Game by essayist and professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book was still in progress when this text was written, and Taleb openly published its sections on the Facebook, offering them to the readers and welcoming their comments. In the core of Taleb’s explication there is an insight that stubborn minority choices, if acceptable for the majority, are an extremely important mechanism of social change. The examples he quotes are sometimes entertaining: even the prohibition in America was a minority choice, even the famous Bertrand Russell lost his professorship, for allegedly propagating immorality, due to the protests of only one but extremely persistent woman. Some time ago the author of these lines showed that even the suffragettes movement, as it seems, had only a minority support among women themselves. These minority victories were won because of persistence, courage and energy that accompanied them. Of course, these were not the only necessary prerequisites. These choices, at the same time, must have had “permeability” in one direction, while being “under the veto” in the other. So, for example, a dedicated vegetarian cannot be persuaded by anyone to eat meat. It is in his ideological credo, in his “religion,” under a firm and undefeated taboo, but vice versa is not the case — non-vegetarians could adhere to the rules of a vegetarian diet. Taleb also recounts some humorous situations: people with disabilities are able to use exclusively assigned toilets, while people without disabilities can use both those and common ones. The ‘disabled’ toilets, however, do not appeal to them: their logic goes that they associate such toilets to a car-park space?! However, people with disabilities do not go to a mall, or a restaurant, to park in public toilets.

Tipping point

Taleb is, furthermore, leaving no doubt — all the moral norms of a society are not the product of a consensus in it, but rather the effect of minority choices. The same is the case with human rights. Apparently, our idea of ​​evolution as a process of maturation of the society is totally unfounded? Yes, that is exactly the case, says Taleb: societies do not fundamentally evolve through consensus, voting, majority elections, panel discussions and scientific conferences, but only through a few persistent individuals who are sufficient to create changes within a society. It is necessary for them to operate with the rule of the asymmetric power of choice (minority rule), with the preconditions of sufficient diffusion or influence of these individuals in the society and the general acceptability of the change. This stubborn minority can be also a guardian of the society, not allowing it to accept devastating norms. Even when 95% of the population is ready to adopt them, a tiny minority by persistence and influence could prevent their legitimization. These are the peculiarities of non-linear, complex systems, such as our human society. In them, the influence of a fragment is not necessarily proportionate to its position or size, nor is the interaction of more such elements, or factors, equal to their simple sum. At one point it progresses to a tipping point, and the system enters new values ​​and norms.

So where is this tipping point, and how precisely can it be located? Or, returning to the beginning of the text, how many Wegerts and Landmessers were needed to start the mechanism of a curative change, so that the German society establishes a veto for the crimes which were about to start? This “calculation” is duplicating the logic of the needed percentage of population in the sociological phenomenon of racial segregation in American housing. As noted in the nineteen-fifties, the migration of black families to white neighborhoods had led to the migration of racially most intolerant local residents, starting to deteriorate the previously set up ratio/balance of whites and non-whites. When this occurred, even some slightly more tolerant families decided to move, thereby further changing the racial structure. Then, the same decision (moving out) would finally affect even more racially tolerant families. At one point, this migration would have reached a decisive, tipping point, after which the white population flight would be massive, with no possible return to the previous condition. Although the original explanation of this situation has its drawbacks and inaccuracies, the tipping point is undoubtedly occurring in similar situations or contexts, but it is not possible to be precisely predicted. In fact, as Taleb said, the minority rule, i.e. the fact of the asymmetric power of the minority choice, is found and displayed everywhere, in its various forms of appearances, and persistent/intolerant/headstrong minority individuals (some racists, or some like our daughter, regardless) shape and direct human society.

So, Mr. Wegert and Mr. Landmesser, no one knows how to figure out the exact number of people like you that were necessary to stop the coming agony. Just the two of you was clearly not enough. But three? No one can say now: if there had been as many, only then we would have known the answer.

Like what you read? Give Predrag Brajovic a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.