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The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind by Daniel Pick

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind
by Daniel Pick


The historian and author of The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind, Daniel Pick, tells us what we can learn from attempts to use psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis to understand Nazism.

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind by Daniel Pick

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind
by Daniel Pick

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Your latest book, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind, is a historical study of American and British attempts to use psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis to delve into the motivations of the Nazi leadership and the mentality of the so-called masses. When did the Allies begin these efforts?

There are several starting points, but a key moment occurred in 1943. That was when the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency set up by President Roosevelt, invited the psychoanalyst Walter Langer and Harvard psychologist Henry Murray to produce studies of Adolf Hitler’s mind. It was hoped that psychological profiles of the leader would serve a useful intelligence purpose, although whether they did is another matter.

That was part of the endeavour to harness Freudian thought, alongside other disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, in the war. Many other projects and reports emerged on both sides of the Atlantic seeking to decipher what was going on and to read between the lines. Various psychoanalytic writers were deployed, for example, to study Hitler’s speeches and to speculate about what they might reveal of his mental state. Such analysts were equally concerned to comprehend how and why his persona aroused such massive enthusiasm in the 1930s, and such sustained loyalty in the 1940s.

The British were able to analyse a leading Nazi figure close up, weren’t they, when Hitler’s deputy in the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess, unexpectedly arrived in the country?

That’s right. Hess arrives in 1941, flying across the North Sea, and hoping to meet the Duke of Hamilton and perhaps the King, and to negotiate a peace settlement, bypassing Churchill. But instead he becomes a prisoner of state.

While in custody he is put under the care of army doctors. What I try and show in my book is that a number of the doctors increasingly take an interest in his mental state and come to regard him as an important case, even an exemplar of a fascist personality type at large. They are interested in observing him, trying to make sense of his political attachments and to make some inferences about what drew him to Nazism and to ask about the larger implications of his case study. Questions of “normality” and “abnormality” became central in these investigations.

What conclusions did all these studies about the Nazi mind reach?

There were diverse findings, some of which, to be sure, seem entirely dated. Others have more resonance and also paved the way to new forms of empirical and theoretical study that emerged after the war. A controversial classic of post-war sociology that has many affinities with this wartime literature was Theodor Adorno et al’s The Authoritarian Personality in 1950.

Wartime clinicians sought to probe forms of personality, even to speculate about national character, reviving an old and questionable tradition of thought. The individual profiles of Hitler were perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the belief that you could really get inside the unconscious mind of an individual who was not a patient. It was a case of what Freud had earlier warned against – “wild analysis”, outside the consulting room. But that is not to say they had nothing interesting to say. Moreover, the question of what Hitler represented in the unconscious minds of others was also to generate a variety of hypotheses. For instance, there was an idea that in the Fuhrer someone like Hess found an omnipotent substitute for a tyrannical father figure in his own life and most importantly inside his own mind.

A range of commentators were interested in exploring the psycho-politics of obedience. Here, alongside the question of fear and coercion, powerful forms of excitement and deep identifications and desires were also to be considered. On the one side were studies of the presumed, or recorded thoughts and fantasies of individual people – on the other, an interest in the kinds of fantasies that were mobilised in the culture itself.

World War II proved to be a key period for experiments in and theories of group behaviour, and was to prove a major impetus to the development of the tradition of group therapy after 1945. Many considered the great choreographed festivals of Nazism as a horrifying sign of the times, a demonstration of how the so-called “mass” could come to celebrate its own obedience and subordination to the master. When Leni Riefenstahl made a film about one of the Nuremberg rallies in the 1930s, the title chosen for the work was The Triumph of the Will. From the very opening shots of the movie onwards, the preternatural master will was clearly signalled, as Hitler is shown descending on a plane from the clouds, before eventually speaking to thousands of ecstatic followers.

What were those wartime clinical findings based on? And did they offer any tangible help in the Allied war effort?

Even before Walter Langer and Henry Murray undertook their interpretations of Hitler’s mind in 1943, a huge cache of archival material – reminiscences, interviews, journalistic and diplomatic reports – was amassed. This OSS “Source Book” was a mixed bag of gossip, recollections, reportage and diagnoses. With this rather problematic set of sources, they tried to understand Hitler and Hitler’s appeal, and make predictions about his likely behaviour. They both predict Hitler’s suicide and the scorched earth policy that he pursued. This was prescient, albeit not unique. In a way they make predictions that endorsed the view – which is by then becoming Allied policy anyway – that the war had to be fought until total surrender was achieved.

A panoply of theories emerged. I don’t want to overstate the direct consequences of those reports on Hitler himself. There were links between wartime intelligence work on the so-called “Nazi mind” and post-war American political thought about democracy and liberty. Another legacy lay in the process of de-Nazification attempted by the British and Americans in occupied Germany. One must remember that the fear of the return of fascism was powerful, although increasingly the Cold War began to dominate thinking in the late 1940s.

I was going to ask you what the legacy was of all this work. I can see how it came to be useful in trying to mould post-war Germany, but was this knowledge applied anywhere else? Did it help the West understand authoritarianism better?

This literature ramified after 1945. While it is true that today many historians and social scientists would be doubtful about the way such studies were framed – for instance, the very idea that you could “psychoanalyse” Hitler from afar – it was to prove a stimulus to a post-war tradition of political profiling. Some of the psychoanalytical literature on Nazism had a much longer shelf life. Take the case of the landmark book by the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1941, Escape from Freedom, that explored the fetters that lie inside the subject. It would be interesting to do another study, akin to The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind, on the forms of psychology presupposed in what came to be called “Kremlinology”. By the 1950s, it was also commonplace to twin communism and fascism in the notion of totalitarianism.

Tell us more about Freud’s work on mass psychology.

People often think of psychoanalysis as a theory of the individual – a lot of Freud’s early ideas and writing does indeed emerge from his struggle to make sense of the individual patients he treats. But there is also this other dimension, which is about groups and institutions. Indeed, some of Freud’s papers read like stories about the problems of group hatred, loyalty and love within the psychoanalytical movement itself.

He writes this paper on group or mass psychology after World War I. It was a time when many writers tried to come to terms with the industrialised mass slaughter and to think about what drove nationalism and militarism in the first place. For Freud, the Great War confirmed some of his own ideas about human destructiveness and repetition. It was viewed as evidence of the power of the irrational. A concern with human destructiveness and aggression and the constant propensity to the repetition of pathology was to be a central feature of his thought in the 1920s and 1930s.

Perhaps the most famous and controversial – even then – work in this genre before 1914 had been Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind in the 1890s. He argued that an ever more pressing phenomenon needed to be understood: The power of burgeoning populations, and above all the mass electorate’s propensity to regress to infantile functioning and to be swayed by instincts and passions. Le Bon did sometimes tend to write as though an “elite” might be able to master this crowd, and there was more than a whiff of condescension.

Freud disagreed with the view of this residual herd mentality in people that Le Bon put forward, didn’t he?

Freud was familiar with the literature of the crowd, but he also sought to move beyond it. His book engages with Le Bon but Freud is not satisfied with ideas of feral relapse, or at least not in the idea, familiar in Le Bon and his contemporaries, of some special kind of entity that was nothing less than a special “crowd mind”.

Freud suggested how, within the crowd, processes in the unconscious of individuals are made manifest, or given opportunities – that there is an exposure of something that exists in each of us individually rather than some special thing called “the mass mentality”. He thinks of it more in terms of ordinary longings, desires and identifications. Up until this work, you had the two separate ideas of the individual and of the crowd. Freud makes the point, however, that in a way it is a false distinction. It misunderstands the fact that the individual is also constituted out of social relationships in the first place. Inside our minds, he argued, there is always someone else involved – an “I”, a first person singular, is made out of a “we”: For example, internalised representations of and identifications with parents, among others. Increasingly psychoanalysis explored this complex drama going on inside minds, and the ego’s relationships with others inside ourselves. Here it came to be argued that there is always an unconscious relationship inside us to an “object” or rather a host of objects. It could be an internalised version of another person or, in a more primitive form, bits and pieces of a person or certain qualities. This complication of the relationship of “self” and “other” in this book is well described in Jacqueline Rose’s introduction to a recent re-translation of the book.

Let’s move onto your second book now, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich puts the rise of Nazism down to sexual repression, doesn’t he?

One of his key suggestions is that sexuality and politics could be bound together in complex and often disguised ways, and that a huge amount of libido was directed or, as he would have seen it, horrifically misdirected into fascism. Something was “played out” in politics that had to do with very deep frustrations. I think Reich had a strong belief that sexual liberation might lead to greater tolerance and be conducive to anti-fascism. Conversely that repression and frustration might go some way to explaining the attractions of demagogic figures. It was like a very sinister form of sublimation. The German historian Klaus Theweleit took this further in Male Fantasies, published in the 1970s, with an analysis of the torrent of sexual and political hatreds exposed in letters by early Nazi enthusiasts, most notably amongst those who made up armed and often violent organised right-wing gangs or units, notably the Freikorps after 1918.

Freud did not share Reich’s belief that a more sexually liberated culture would lead to a world without human neurosis, although he certainly sought more tolerance for and frank discussion of sexuality. For Freud, conflict is unavoidable – there’s no golden age in the past or future that’s free of conflict.

Freud was never drawn by Bolshevism, whereas Reich, albeit with some reservations, was more smitten by the Soviet experiment. Freud once quipped that he was half a Bolshevik in that he agreed with their pessimistic analysis of now, without their utopian hopes. Reich, together with other “left Freudians” of the interwar period, tried to pull together Freudianism and Marxism. One of the reasons I chose Reich here was to stand in for a whole literature which feels that Marxism and its analysis of social relations is crucial.

Reich’s argument that sexual repression led to the rise of Nazism does sound a little dubious to me. Britain was no less sexually repressed than Germany yet it didn’t embrace fascism.

Yes, evidently history is a great deal more complex than such theories! I am not proselytising for a return to these sometimes catch-all interwar accounts of political causation that might at times have substituted one form of determinism for another. It would be an error to imagine that there could ever be a mono-causal explanation for the “mass psychology of fascism” and we should anyway be wary and attentive to the differences between the analysis of individuals, groups and states.  But that doesn’t mean that Reich is without interest today. What I try and show in my book is something of the range – as well as the problems and challenges – of this literature, and crucially to suggest that this literature itself has a historical context.

One of the things that Reich said very powerfully was that the liberal and Marxist explanations for the rise of fascism have a dimension missing: How to explain the erotic attractions and phobic feelings, and the enjoyment of power and of destruction, of sadism and of masochism, that were so powerfully stirred up. That’s where psychoanalysis is seen as a potential resource.

Can you give us a brief overview of who M

elanie Klein was?

Melanie Klein was a follower of Sigmund Freud who settled in London in the 1920s and became highly influential within – and eventually beyond – British psychoanalysis, as well as controversial. Indeed, her ideas prompted debates at the British Psychoanalytical Society in the 1940s that are often known by the shorthand of “the controversial discussions”.

She was a pioneering figure who tried to develop Freud’s ideas in a number of key areas. She was a major force behind the psychoanalysis of children. She sought to adapt the technique a bit – since small children could not be expected to lie for 50 minutes on a couch and “free associate” – using play, for example, as a means of trying to understand “the inner world”. In turn, her findings about infancy and the minds of children fed back into her accounts of the adult. Her ideas had profound consequences for psychoanalysis itself.

She was a leading innovator in the development of object relations theory, wasn’t she?  She sees our relationships to our parents and our earliest fantasies about our parents as of lasting psychological significance.

She contributed greatly to thought about the “inner world”, about the kinds of figures or fragmented “objects” that exist in our own minds and to explore what we do to them in fantasy. For Klein, even when we are consciously thinking about something, there is also a domain of unconscious fantasy at stake. It became a convention to spell fantasy with a ‘ph’ in psychoanalytic thought, to emphasise this unconscious aspect. Moreover, Klein argues that there’s always a dimension of unconscious processes that colour our relationship to what we call “reality”. We relate to figures outside of ourselves – to social processes and to politics, for example – but this is also coloured by fantasies.

I chose Love, Hate and Reparation because it’s aimed at a general audience. It was originally a set of lectures that she and her close colleague Joan Riviere set out in order to map out some of her core theories. It is an accessible starting point and the book also has a sense of vitality and even of urgency. There’s a real feeling from Klein and her group of needing to try to communicate these ideas to a wider audience and to make them useful and immediate. What one picks up in the book is the primary concern with internal reality, but it’s also a book that is shaped by and had implications for the sense of political crisis and the rise of extremism in Europe.

What’s so interesting in this literature is this movement between different kinds of reality. We now have access to Klein’s archive – which contains many of her clinical notes. Putting that together with her published writings, you get such a vivid sense of her struggle to understand psychic life and of the presence of wartime history – for instance, there are many references in the archived notes to Hitler, war, bombing and destruction. She documented the private terrors of the night, or the dreamscapes of many of her patients, and also captured the profound anxieties of life itself in this period.

Let’s move to your fourth book now, which is a collection of conversations between an American psychiatrist and the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg. What do they tell us?

This book is based on the notes of the psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn who was with the US Army at Nuremberg. I chose it because it typifies a literature that emerged immediately after the war at the international military tribunal in Germany. I wanted to highlight the role the “psy” professions – psychoanalysis, psychiatry and psychology – played at Nuremberg, which followed on from that earlier endeavour to profile Nazi leaders at the OSS. At Nuremberg there was a direct attempt to bring psychologists and clinicians face-to-face with the men who were standing trial. There was indeed something of a psychiatric lobby group campaigning for access to the prisoners, and suggesting that this was a unique opportunity to try to understand them. On one occasion they were termed “psychological treasure”.

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Part of what my book is trying to show is how these clinicians believed that this endeavour to understand Nazism was a necessary ingredient in trying to eradicate or contain it – it wasn’t enough to defeat Nazism militarily but you had to go “inside it” to see what it was all about. Again, we need to recognise the methodologically problematic assumptions in such literature, but also to historicise it and to see what remains alive in it.

This book is simply transcripts of interviews, isn’t it? I don’t think he makes any major psychological or psychiatric interpretations of individual motivations.

It includes many cameo descriptions of these prisoners and their statements and conversations. One needs to read it alongside the works by other psychiatrists who interviewed the Nazi leaders – for instance, the US army psychologist Gustave Gilbert, who published his Nuremberg Diary.

Goldensohn’s work shows the interaction of the psychiatrists and the prisoners – the latter start to feed them information, get absorbed in the process and participate in this construction of case material. So it’s not just the psychiatrist looking at the prisoners and how they behave in the courtroom, but entering into a conversation in which the prisoners contribute their own thoughts. What I’m trying to describe in my book is this interaction in making these “cases”. In similar ways, I examine how Rudolf Hess participates in the construction of his own psychiatric story. Some of the émigré Nazi or ex-Nazi figures that talked to Walter Langer about Hitler are also feeding in information and interpretations, which then in turn influences the way in which the Allies understand the Nazi mind. The question is: Who’s putting what into whom?

Your final pick is a controversial book by the German American political theorist Hannah Arendt who reported the trial of Eichmann for The New Yorker magazine. Tell us more.

Yes, she sat in on some of the trial in Jerusalem. I should say, however, that she has been criticised for not sitting through the whole of it – she only observed parts and drew her conclusions from those, and some feel she did so too avidly and partially. I chose this book because the Eichmann trial was such an important chapter in the history of the pursuit of the Nazi mind, not simply because the background circumstances, involving Eichmann’s seizure in Latin America by Israeli agents, and the fact of his being put on trial in Jerusalem rather than in an international court were so controversial. The trial focused public attention on the individual high bureaucrat who had such personal responsibility in the Final Solution. There was, in a way, this enigma of what went on in Eichmann’s mind. Arendt writes about some of the psychiatrists who encountered Eichmann. What’s fascinating in her account is this sense of the clinicians being very puzzled by him. One of them talks about the strange unconscious impact Eichmann has on him – in short, who uses his own feelings of disturbance as part of his “material” or at least response to the man.

I wanted to highlight this book, however, partly because it’s provoked a number of other books about the Nazi mentality, and also because it marks a different moment in the literature. The most famous phrase here was “the banality of evil”. Arendt doesn’t mean, of course, that the outcomes were banal or that Nazism was banal, but she’s interested in a state of apparent inner emptiness, inside the mind of officialdom. It’s what some people think of as a state of so-called “bureaucratic automatism”. That’s controversial and some people have reinterpreted Arendt’s report and wondered if behind this apparent blankness and moral vacuity there’s something characterised by massive hatred and sadism that masquerades as something else.

Post-war, one strand of thinking continued to present the Nazi decision-makers as a crowd of freaks or madmen, late exemplars of what Michel Foucault once traced as the psychiatric discourse of the “abnormal”. Here the war criminals are presented as aberrant monsters, exceptional sadistic individuals, who stand apart from the rest of us. Another strand focuses much more on the mass psychology we discussed earlier. Then there is another tradition still, which is alarming in a different way, which is about a more blind and subservient evacuation of the mind itself into what Arendt calls this banality, when you will just do what you are told or even gleefully take a lead role, as if you are on autopilot and ordinary morality or humanity have no purchase, or at least shrink inwards in mad ways. An obscene form of officialdom to be sure, but it is the world of “just doing my job”. That’s not an exhaustive list of the strands of thought, of course, but it does suggest some of the ways the discussion about Nazi mentality developed. Each of these strands was to produce debate and critique.

Yes, Arendt questions whether evil is always a deliberate act or whether it can be done without thought.

She’s interested in the utter dehumanisation that could lead to such absorption in the logistical details – for instance, the concentration upon the smooth running of the trains [to the concentration camps]. Claude Lanzmann caught that horror all too well in his remarkable film Shoah. Arendt did not confine her attention to Nazism, to be sure, but it represented a kind of limit case of what was possible. Arendt is not really a psychoanalytical writer – on the contrary, she has no truck with Freudianism as such. Yet there are some considerable affinities between her attempt to understand the psychosocial dimension of fascism and totalitarianism, and the contemporaneous psychoanalytical literature.

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It’s also worth mentioning that Arendt’s account came out in roughly the same period that the American psychologist Stanley Milgram had been conducting experiments in New Haven. Milgram was a researcher at Yale University and concocted a famous experiment in which volunteers take part in an exercise in which they are required to turn up the pain levels on a subject – in fact, for the purposes of his experiment, an actor – behind a glass screen. He published it later as Obedience to Authority. The volunteers are told to do it when an authority figure tells them to turn the dial, and very many of them chose not to question the order, happy to oblige. What he alarmingly finds is how many people – albeit to various degrees of extremity – will simply obey orders despite the consequences.

June 28, 2012

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Daniel Pick

Daniel Pick

Daniel Pick is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is also a psychoanalyst and a fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society. His books include War Machine, Faces of Degeneration, Svengali’s Web and Rome or Death. His latest is The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts

Daniel Pick

Daniel Pick

Daniel Pick is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is also a psychoanalyst and a fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society. His books include War Machine, Faces of Degeneration, Svengali’s Web and Rome or Death. His latest is The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts