The old chestnut of Hitler’s mental state has re-emerged. Angela heard some interesting takes on it at a London conference
WERE THE Nazis mad? Was Hitler possessed by some demon of the mind, which enabled him to carry a nation with him in his genocidal campaigns?
The answer is often a lazy ‘yes’. Collectively we cannot accept that such inhumanity to fellow creatures could be a sustained campaign for a whole nation.
But Jose Brunner of Tel Aviv University begs to differ: madness would have undermined the project. An incompetent or weak mind could not have sustained the huge undertaking which was the Second World War, and the extermination of whole races of people.
“Why do people say the Nazis were mad?” Brunner challenged a conference on totalitarianism in London. ‘They could not have prosecuted a war of that magnitude, over all those years, if madness was the prevailing condition.”
Likewise, says Brunner, a philosophy professor, the comfortably dismissive notion of Hitler as a madman distinct from society does not wash with his career. “If Hitler had been just mad, he would have lived his life in a garret, would never have been able to do what he did.”
Also director of the German history institute at Tel Aviv, Brunner was addressing a gathering of historians, philosophers and psychoanalysts at the Wellcome Centre in London. They had come together to consider the links between totalitarianism and psychoanalysis.
The Holocaust and the Nazi regime were major themes. The 20th century history of psychoanalysis – and in particular how it took root in the United States due to the arrival of many Jewish analysts, fleeing the storm in Europe – was largely seen through the prism of the Holocaust. A key organizer, Daniel Pick of Birkbeck College and the British Psychoanalytical Society, has just published a book on the conundrum of the Nazi mind and the motivation for the Third Reich.
The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind uses, naturally, the case of Rudolf Hess as one key to the thought processes behind Auschwitz. (Hess was the senior Nazi who was captured after he parachuted into Scotland in 1943, and spent the rest of the war at Spandau prison camp. There was little doubt that he was mentally ill, with even Churchill weighing in to comment that Hess was a “medical not a criminal case”).
Pick’s book also contains some fascinating material assembled by the OSS, one of the precursors of the CIA, who ‘profiled’ leading Nazis from a distance during the war. Some studies were done at closer quarters during the Nuremberg trials.
But were they certifiably mad? You’ll have to read Pick’s conclusions, but there is certain merit in Jose Brunner’s argument.
On the subject of a more contemporary horror, the debate raged both inside and outside the Norwegian court-room where Anders Behring Breivik stood trial for the murder of 77 people in July 2011. An eminent London psychiatrist told this writer, “Breivik is not necessarily mad because of what he did. He just made different choices.” And the court, in the end, decided that Breivik was sane.
There has been a recent manifestation of interest in Hitler, the Nazis and their inner workings. As well as Pick’s work, Laurence Rees’s book and BBC series, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, has just been published. It’s not immediately obvious why this has re-emerged at this time. It is 73 years since the Second World War was under way, although coming up to a tidier 70 years, in December, since the attack on Pearl Harbour which sanctioned the US entry to the conflict.
Whatever the immediate cause, the fascination with the evil of Hitler and his henchmen will remain. The darkness lurks within human beings: we crave to know what causes it to escape.