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A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler: His Life & Legend. Walter C. Langer, US Office of Strategic Services (1943/1944)

A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler is of historic value to students of personality and of psychoanalysis. Historians have questioned the validity of its sources; the contemporary reader will be amused by the explicit focus on psychosexual development; several of the report’s conclusions are dubious at best; its terminology varies widely from those of contemporary psychopathology. Nonetheless, the Analysis offers plausible reconstructions of Hitler’s history and self-image, and constitutes an imaginative reconstruction of Hitler’s psychological economy.

The U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a WW2 intelligence agency, commissioned psychoanalyst Walter C. Langer to undertake A Psychological Analysis; in 1972, this report formed the basis for a book, The Mind of Adolf Hitler. This six-part report delves into Hitler’s early life and current behaviour to reconstruct various Hitlers: “Hitler as he believes himself to be”; “Hitler as the German people know him”; “Hitler as he knows himself”; etc. While relying on informants whom historians have discredited (notably Hermann Rauschning), and parsing Hitler’s mind and development in the outmoded terms of psychoanalysis, this report nonetheless plausibly reconstructs and illuminates little-explored crannies of Hitler’s childhood, youth, and current (1943) mental landscape. If the report’s factual accuracy is questionable, its psychological insight is undeniable. It constitutes a plausible reconstruction of Hitler’s life and mind. Most notably, several of the report’s predictions regarding “Hitler’s Probable Behaviour in the Future” (the final section) proved spot-on.

The first few sections assemble facts about Hitler’s behaviour from intimates. Over the course of the Third Reich, several former Nazis, and other intimates of Hitler’s, fled Germany; the “Hitler Source Book” of raw materials, on which the Analysis draws, quotes extensively from these interviewees, as well as from books and speeches by Hitler and his associates. These associates include: Hermann Rauschning, governor of the Free City of Danzig (one of the bones Hitler picked with Poland on the road to war), and briefly a Nazi, who later claimed to have known Hitler intimately; Ernst Hanfstaengl, a German-American who funded the NSDAP in the 1920s, introduced Hitler to influential Germans, and fled when he fell out of Hitler’s favour; and Karl Henry von Wiegand, one of the first journalists to interview Hitler and to take his threat seriously. Excerpts from Hitler’s own writings, most notably My New Order, his collection of speeches, also constitute a main source for Analysis.

The report offers a few bold, broad conclusions in each section, backing up each conclusion with masses of evidence in the form of (a) interviewees’ impressions and (b) commentaries on Hitler’s own words.

So, for instance, in the section entitled “Hitler as he knows himself to be,” we learn that Hitler sincerely believes that providence has chosen him to make Germany great again. He is the right man in the right place and time; and it can’t be for nothing that he has escaped numerous close shaves with death from childhood onwards. He prides himself on his hardness, believing that he is a second Christ, sent to institute on earth a new code of morality, based on hardness. This Hitler admires Christ: not Christ the loving, but the Christ who lay about himself with a flail to cleanse his father’s temple of those who were polluting its precincts.

“Hitler as the German people know him” examines the meticulously constructed public Hitler whom most Germans know: the well-manicured, studio-photographed, expertly-staged Hitler of official photos, Party Day appearances, and postage stamps. Hitler recognises (explicitly, in many conversations), that the crowd has feminine attributes: desiring domination and direction. Accordingly, Hitler the demagogue plays the crowd as expertly as a Don Juan treats a woman. This public Hitler has superhuman willpower, purity, and compassion for his own kind. He is a substitute father, son, lover, or husband to every German who has lost such a figure from their own families. This Hitler, the issue of his own preternatural intuition married to the machinery of his Propaganda Ministry, is invulnerable: never wearing a helmet, even when touring the front in an open car.

“Hitler as his associates know him” presents a man who is in all but name a patient of bipolar disorder (this term doesn’t appear in the Analysis): fluctuating between periods of tireless activity, quick and clear thinking, and good temper – and periods of crippling indecision, solitude, and avoidance of work. This Hitler, known only to top party officials, is a quick observer with remarkable memory, an expert judge of men, skilled at drawing and maintaining the loyalty of associates whose abilities complement his own, and capable on momentous occasions of acting as if he does really have a sixth sense. He is also short-tempered, excessively subservient to authority, loquacious, and plagued with anxieties.

This section also contains a long and illuminating list of Hitler’s strengths: from his recognition of the importance of the masses in any political movement; to his recognition of the feminine characteristics of the mob (a phenomenon, incidentally, that has drawn attention from philosophers and psychologists including CMG Le Bon); the ability to mine and articulate his listeners’ most repressed desires (which associates including Otto Strasser have commented on elsewhere: e.g. “He spoke from our heart”); his recognition of the loneliness of the modern individual, and his/her desire to serve, in a group, a noble purpose; and his uncanny political and tactical intuition.

“Hitler as he knows himself” delves into Hitler’s childhood. The Analysis flirts with persistent claims that Hitler’s mother’s father was Jewish, before concluding that, either way, this speculation is not indispensable to the Hitler self-image that this report is painting. More usefully, the report explores the ill-health and early childhood mortality in Hitler’s immediate family, en route to putting up a substantial claim: that, from childhood on, Hitler absorbed, initially through his mother, the idea that he was special. Three, possibly four of his siblings died young; he himself was spared; he began to believe that he must’ve been spared for a special mission.

Then we get a diagnosis of Hitler’s psychopathology:

“There was unanimous agreement among the four psychoanalysts who have studied the material that Hitler is an hysteric bordering on schizophrenia – and not a paranoiac, as is so frequently supposed. This means that he is not insane in the commonly accepted sense of the term, but neurotic. He has not lost complete contact with the world about him, and is still striving to make some kind of psychological adjustment which will give him a feeling of security in his social group. It also means that there is a definite moral component in his character no matter how deeply it may be buried or how seriously it has been distorted.”

Outmoded terminology notwithstanding, this portrait of Hitler as a man equipped with a moral compass, but compelled by his twisted ideology to act against it, holds up to portraits of him from contemporary biographies – and also helps explain his behaviour (extreme sensitivity to criticism, ranting at others while refusing to accept any blame himself, his paranoia about assassination attempts) and his ill-health in the later war years (John Toland’s biography of Hitler quotes Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge’s impression that Hitler’s sick body seemed to be trying to stop his mind from making further disastrous decisions).

The most interesting subsection offers a tantalising hypothesis, the type that a contemporary scientist would shrink from: that Hitler’s political activities represent him solving, in a macrocosm, his childhood difficulties in his parental relationships. Hitler has reimagined his abusive, elderly, promiscuous father as the hated, decaying, ethnically mixed Austro-Hungarian empire that must be destroyed. (Hitler’s intense hatred of this empire, in his own writings, is in fact hard to understand in impersonal terms.) Meanwhile, he reimagines his beloved, vigorous, pure mother as the beloved, promising, pure-blooded Germany that must be saved. (Correspondingly, the passion Hitler repeatedly expressed for Germany often jars on one as almost sexual.) “Unconsciously Hitler is not dealing with nations composed of millions of individuals, but is trying to solve his personal conflicts and rectify the injustices of his childhood.” This speculation, though unfalsifiable, illuminates the interiority of a man, who, though on many subjects he was for much of his career very reasonable and realistic, entertained about nations and nationalities opinions so passionate, inflexible, and incurably wrong that he began a war that cost tens of millions of lives, and devastated his own nation.

The Analysis is not very well-organised. The reader continually encounters a tantalising speculation, e.g. on Hitler’s childhood or sexuality – only to be told this will be explored in a later section. The logic of the organisational scheme is as follows: first, the report compiles all that is known about Hitler on relevant aspects: his self-concept, his bouts of energy and laziness, his relations with associates and with women, his attitude to sickness and death etc.; next, on this basis, and by drawing on case studies of psychiatric patients presenting similar features, the report attempts a reconstruction of Hitler’s skimpily documented early life, and his “lost years” in Vienna pre-Great War, in order to explain his current behaviour. This organisational scheme, though scientifically defensible, makes for awkward reading with its numerous shifts in chronology and subject.

The report’s predictions, in the report’s final section, proved startlingly accurate. Analysis predicted that, if the war turns decisively against him, Hitler was likely to resort to suicide, as a means of maintaining his legend after his death; and that he would likely to try to destroy the world along with himself: “There is a danger that the Great Redeemer may, if failure looms, become the Great Destroyer.” Both predictions proved accurate.

The Analysis steers clear of the problem inherent in any psychopathological approach to Hitler: By ‘explaining away’ mass atrocities as the product of one individual’s psychopathology, don’t we trivialise, even excuse, these atrocities? The Analysis avoids this problem altogether: it is not concerned with morality, only with psychology. This is a wartime psychological study of the enemies’ leader; the report’s ostensible aim is to understand Hitler’s past and present in order to predict his future behaviour.

A broader aim, however, is declared towards the end. The Analysis aims to understand Hitler as a product of his context; it acknowledges that Hitler is not as unique as his enemies would like to think him:

“…Hitler, the leader of these activities, became regarded as a madman, if not inhuman. Such a conclusion, concerning the nature of our enemy, may be satisfactory… to the man in the street. It gives him a feeling of satisfaction… Having classified an incomprehensible individual in this way, he feels that the problem is solved. All we need to do is to eliminate the madman… and the world will again return to a normal state of affairs. This naive view, however, is wholly inadequate for those who are delegated to conduct the war against Germany or for those who will be delegated to deal with the situation when the war is over. They cannot content themselves with simply regarding Hitler as a personal devil and condemning him to an Eternal Hell in order that the remainder of the world may live in peace and quiet.”

It is this aim that makes the Analysis worth reading today. Its aim is not to artificially humanise Hitler and thus explain his crimes away; rather, it is to understand his genesis so that we may all participate in preventing the rise of another such phenomenon as Nazism.


PORTFOLIO of published and upcoming works

Read A Psychological Analysis of Adolf Hitler for free here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier, my reading more critical, my books more accessible. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Try switching to soft copy today.

I’ve been reading a fair bit about Hitler and the Third Reich for a novel. This post closes, for now, the Third Reich chapter of this blog; next Sunday I will switch back to regular programming, i.e. mostly book reviews of novels, and my own published fiction.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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