Monday, December 12, 2011

Hitler on the Couch

As I promised last week, a study on Hitler. My starting point was Nassir Ghaemi’s recent “A First-Rate Madness,” which raised the extraordinary proposition that Hitler was far more “normal” than we give him credit for. What Ghaemi was driving at was that evil is not the exclusive domain of people with twisted minds. Perfectly normal individuals are as capable of gross inhumanities, or for that matter being royal pains in the ass.

In a piece in August, Reckoning with Evil, I laid out Ghaemi’s position, namely that until 1937 Hitler’s bipolar (his depressions and manias are well-documented) “seemed manageable.” Moreover, his hypomania appeared to benefit him in a way that influenced his rise to power, “fueling his charisma, his resilience, and political creativity.”

Then a quack physician put him on a cocktail of amphetamines and barbiturates that turned him into a raving maniac. Next thing, he was invading Poland. By 1943, he was receiving multiple daily injections, totally out of touch with reality, and was impossible to get along with.

Ghaemi’s analysis begged an alternative viewpoint, which sent me to Barbara Oakley’s “Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend.” As I reported in five previous pieces, Dr Oakley sees “borderpath” tendencies as the driving force of Machiavellian personalities, what she terms as the “successfully sinister.” Thus, a supreme Machiavellian such as Chairman Mao - responsible for more than 70 million deaths - deployed a vast range of psycho/sociopath, borderline, narcissistic, and paranoid traits to his considerable advantage, managing to die in bed at age 82, venerated as a God-figure.

Dr Oakley sees Hitler cut from similar cloth. Her main source is an OSS analysis prepared by a leading Freudian psychoanalyst, Walter Langer, during World War II. Dr Langer’s research was exhaustive, totaling 11,000 pages, and from this he created a criminal profile that is still regarded as authoritative.

Dr Langer characterizes Hitler as a “neurotic psychopath.” Ghaemi in a footnote takes issue with this diagnosis (his only reference to Langer), though it is clear the label is only a starting point. A quick Google search turned up an excellent piece, Getting Inside Hitler’s Head, by military journalist Brian John Murphy, and it is instructive to go off his account ...

As a child, Hitler learned how to manipulate his mother by staging temper tantrums until she caved in. Hitler carried over the same behavior into adulthood. His screaming raging fits were the stuff of legend, and throughout his career he was able to deploy these outbursts to his advantage. His public speeches - an extreme departure from standard German oratory - can be viewed as scripted tantrums that bent the masses to his will.

His father’s death at age 12 appeared to have a lot to do with turning him into an angry young man. Soon after, his performance in school plummeted and later he dropped out. As a down-and-out young man in Vienna, he became a rabid anti-Semite and extreme pan-Germanic xenophobe, unfortunately very “normal” for the time. Soon he found his calling in the trenches on the Western Front.

Hitler’s taste for war may have resulted in two Iron Crosses, but it also completely spooked his superiors, who vowed never to make him an officer. He failed to bond with his fellow soldiers, and avoided women. His later associations with women were characterized by sexual deviances and callous behavior. Six of his former lady friends attempted suicide. Two succeeded.

After the war, Hitler’s bitterness over Germany apparently being sold out by traitors fit right in with the sentiment of the day. In no time, he hit his stride as a political rabble-rouser, deploying his strange charisma, bitter misanthropy, and inexhaustible energy to stunning effect. Along the way, he spied on his socialist-leaning comrades-in-arms in the trenches, and succeeded in getting some of them hanged.

Exhibit A in Hitler’s psychopathy, of course, is Mein Kampf, written in prison following a failed populist uprising where he fired a pistol inside a beer hall. There his pathology is revealed in his own words, not to mention his demented thinking regarding Jews and other non-Aryans. It’s all there, except the “final solution,” and that can easily be inferred. By the time Hitler completed his blood-stained ascendance to total power as Chancellor in 1933, there was nothing standing in the way. That same year, he spoke with his military leaders about “conquest for Lebensraum” (interpretation: invading Poland). At his first cabinet meeting that year, he prioritized military spending.

Thus, by the time Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he had a massive and well-equipped army and air force at his disposal, which he had already deployed beginning in 1936 to re-occupy the Rhineland and in support of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, plus to annex Austria and a piece of Czechoslovakia.

According to Murphy’s piece:

The Hitler Langer profiled was a man with a boundlessly grandiose concept of himself. Langer said Hitler believed fate set him apart as a superman, a chosen one, the messiah of a future German empire, who was infallible except for when he had engaged in what he called “the Jewish Christ-creed with its effeminate pity-ethics.” When crossed, Hitler wanted retribution that was godlike in its devastation.

Dr Oakley in “Evil Genes” pays considerable attention to delusional thinking, a trait common amongst conspiracy theorists, who are capable of maintaining their crackpot beliefs with great conviction in complete defiance of the facts. Hitler, needless to say, could always rationalize as legitimate his every action, no matter how bizarre and contrary to human nature.

Murphy notes that Langer’s analysis was made without reference to Hitler’s massive methamphetamine consumption, which only came to light after World War II. Clearly, Hitler’s drug cocktail greatly worsened his pathology. According to Murphy:

Witnesses describe the 56-year-old Hitler in 1945 as a shuffling old man wearing a uniform spotted with food and grasping for a handhold every few steps. His left hand trembled violently. Cake crumbs clung to the corners of his mouth. The bags under his eyes were swollen and dark. He drooled. ... By April 1945 he had little left physically or mentally.

So, did Hitler’s quack physician light “a fuse that exploded the entire world,” as Ghaemi maintains, or would Hitler have invaded Poland, anyway? Suppose he had been able to push ahead with his irrational ambitions, but in a far more rational and drug-free state of mind? Would the Nazis have actually won the Second World War?

Very scary thought.

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