One Idiot Is One Idiot. Two Idiots Are Two Idiots. Ten Thousand Idiots Are a Political Party

Franz Kafka? Leo Longanesi? Robert Browning? Jean Anouilh? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A derisive remark aimed at politically motivated groups of people has been attributed to the influential short-story writer Franz Kafka. Here is the German version followed by an English translation:

Ein Idiot ist ein Idiot. Zwei Idioten sind zwei Idioten. Zehntausend Idioten sind eine politische Partei.

One idiot is one idiot. Two idiots are two idiots. Ten thousand idiots are a political party.

I have been unable to find a solid citation, and I am skeptical of this attribution. Would you please explore this remark?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the attribution to Kafka. Instead, QI believes that the statement evolved from a remark published in 1947 by Italian satirist and journalist Leo Longanesi within his book “Parliamo dell’Elefante: Frammenti di un Diario” (“Let’s Talk About the Elephant: Fragments of a Diary”). A near match appeared in an entry dated December 15, 1938. Here is the Italian text followed by one possible English translation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Fanfare, bandiere, parate.
Uno stupido è uno stupido. Due stupidi sono due stupidi. Diecimila stupidi sono una forza storica.

Fanfare, flags, parades.
One fool is one fool. Two fools are two fools. Ten thousand fools are a historical force.

During the ensuing decades variants began to circulate in multiple languages. The phrase “historical force” was changed to “political party”, and the ascription was changed to Kafka.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The popular Victorian poet Robert Browning made a thematically related observation in his 1871 work “Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau: Saviour of Society”. The following four lines referred to an event in the New Testament when Roman governor Pontius Pilate evaluated the opinion of a crowd and consequently granted clemency to Barabbas while keeping Jesus as a prisoner: 2

And divers hundred thousand fools may vote
A vote untampered with by one wise man,
And so elect Barabbas deputy
In lieu of his concurrent

In 1947 Leo Longanesi published his diary containing a partial match:

Uno stupido è uno stupido. Due stupidi sono due stupidi. Diecimila stupidi sono una forza storica.

A fool is a fool. Two fools are two fools. Ten thousand fools are a historical force.

In 1959 the French playwright Jean Anouilh released the play “L’Hurluberlu” 3 which was re-titled “The Fighting Cock” in English. 4 During one scene the character known as “The Doctor” endorsed the societal goal of striving for the happiness of the greatest number. The main character known as “The General” was skeptical and expressed an idea that was congruent with the saying under examination. Here is the French followed by an English rendition:

LE GÉNÉRAL. . . . Un imbécile pour vous, c’est sacré?

LE DOCTEUR. Non… Pourquoi?

LE GÉNÉRAL. Deux imbéciles, c’est un imbécile plus un autre imbécile. Ce n’est toujours pas sacré. Et mille imbéciles, c’est neuf cent quatre-vingt-dix-neuf imbéciles plus un autre imbécile en prime. Je ne vois pas au nom de quelle loi du nombre, cette collection d’imbéciles prendrait un caractère de plus en plus sacré au fur et à mesure qu’elle s’accroît!

GENERAL. . . .Tell me, Doctor, is a fool sacred to you?

DOCTOR. No. . . . Why?

GENERAL. Two fools are one fool plus another fool. They’re still not sacred. And a thousand fools are 999 fools plus another for good measure. I fail to see by what mathematical law this agglomeration of fools should become increasingly sacred the larger it becomes.

In 1999 a message containing a collection of quotations appeared in the Italian newsgroup it.fan.studio-vit. One item was similar to the target quotation with three crucial changes: “stupido” was changed to “cretino”; “forza storica” was changed to “partito politico”; the ascription was changed to Franz Kafka. Here is the Italian followed by an English rendition: 5

Un cretino è un cretino. Due cretini sono due cretini. Diecimila cretini sono un partito politico.
(Franz Kafka)

An idiot is an idiot. Two idiots are two idiots. Ten thousand idiots are a political party.
(Franz Kafka)

Variant expressions were circulating in Italian newsgroups during this period. For example, in April 2000 an instance using “cretino” and “forza storica” was posted to the newsgroup it.comp.os.linux.software. No Attribution was specified: 6

Un cretino e’ un cretino, dieci cretini sono dieci cretini, diecimila cretini sono una forza storica.

An idiot is an idiot. Two idiots are two idiots. Ten thousand idiots are a historical force.

In December 2000 an instance that precisely matched Longanesi’s remark in 1947 was posted to the newsgroup it.comp.os.linux.software; however, no attribution was specified: 7

Uno stupido e’ uno stupido, due stupidi sono due stupidi. Diecimila stupidi sono una forza storica.

A fool is a fool. Two fools are two fools. Ten thousand fools are a historical force.

In conclusion, QI believes that Leo Longanesi crafted a closely related remark in Italian using “stupido” and “forza storica”. He wrote it in a diary entry dated December 15, 1938, and he published it in 1947. During the following decades variant statements using “cretino” and “partito politico” circulated in Italian. The attribution shifted from Leo Longanesi to Franz Kafka. Also, the saying entered other languages such as German and English.

(Great thanks to Raúl Alberto Llamas Ruiz, Peter De Cauwer,‎ and Fake History Hunter whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Ruiz also contacted British quotation expert Nigel Rees who pointed to the crucial Leo Longanesi citation. Fake History Hunter referred to Gerald Krieghofer’s helpful research on this topic. Krieghofer identified many citations in multiple languages. Further thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who also pointed to Leo Longanesi’s remark. Additional thanks to discussants Sven Petersen and Erwin Kostedde.)

Notes:

  1. 2017 (First published 1947), Parliamo dell’Elefante: Frammenti di un Diario (Let’s Talk About the Elephant: Fragments of a Diary) by Leo Longanesi, Diary Date: 15 dicembre 1938 (December 15, 1938), Published by Longanesi, Milano, Italy. (Digital Edition)
  2. 1871, Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau: Saviour of Society by Robert Browning, Quote Page 65, Smith, Elder and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1960 (1959 Copyright), L’Hurluberlu ou, Le réactionnaire amoureux par Jean Anouilh, Premier Acte, Quote Page 96 and 97, La Table ronde, Paris. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1960, The Fighting Cock by Jean Anouilh, Adapted by Lucienne Hill, Act 1, Scene 2, Quote Page 61, Coward-McCann, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. Newsgroup message, Timestamp: April 27, 1999, 3:00:00 AM, Newsgroup: it.fan.studio-vit, From: Roliffo, Subject: Hehehehe….. (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 7, 2021) link
  6. Newsgroup message, Timestamp: Apr 25, 2000, 3:00:00 AM, Newsgroup: it.comp.os.linux.software, From: Christian Surchi, Subject: iso-8859-1 in tin… (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 7, 2021) link
  7. Newsgroup message, Timestamp: Dec 5, 2000, 3:00:00 AM, Newsgroup: it.comp.os.linux.iniziare, From: Alessandro Selli, Subject: [REQ] Dove trovo in TO Debian completa? (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 7, 2021) link