Evil and Id

By Ben Cohen
Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In Freud's Last Session, Mark St. Germain's superlative play about a hypothetical encounter between Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis, there is a telling moment when the founder of psychoanalysis admits that he was slow to grasp the boundless evil of Nazism: "It took near tragedy for me to see Hitler for the monster he is."

The revelation came, he explains to Lewis, when the ‘‘brownshirts’’ of the SA stormed his Vienna apartment and departed with his beloved daughter, Anna, in their custody, leaving Freud to agonize over his daughter’s fate for twelve hours. He concluded that the Nazis would mercilessly crush anyone who stood in their way.

Still, Freud was able to contribute to the anti-Nazi campaign, if only vicariously.  As Daniel Pick describes in his fascinating Pursuit of the Nazi Mind, the unexpected arrival in Britain in May 1941 of Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, provided a prodigious opportunity for Freud’s disciples, who were charged by the Allies with diagnosing the Nazi mentality. 

Landing by parachute unannounced, Hess hoped to engineer a peace settlement to neutralize the Western front, thereby enabling Germany to focus on its offensive against the Soviets. Expecting passage to Churchill's office, Hess was instead placed under the watchful eye of Dr. Henry Dicks, a prominent army psychiatrist. Over the next four years, in Scotland, London, and Wales, Hess became a one-man laboratory for the study of Nazism at the level of the subconscious.

Hess proved an irritating composite of eccentric and neurotic personality types, an infantile baby and an inhuman brute.  Pick describes a man obsessed with herbs and potions, in thrall to the occult ideas of the hyper-nationalist, anti-Semitic Thule Society, which he joined as a young man. He claimed amnesia (“if I got my memory back, I would suffer more”) and saw Jewish conspiracies everywhere he looked.  To top it all off, he was given to tantrums and other histrionic displays, which his captors, in classic British style, tried to soothe with endless cups of tea.

In tracing a period that began with Hess's capture and ended with the Nuremburg Trials, Pick contends that conventional political science was ill-equipped to apprehend the degree of irrationalism that swept through Europe after the First World War. Psychoanalysis filled the void, offering to decipher the impulses behind not just individual Nazis, but the mass allegiance that Nazism drew. In that regard, Pick's other case study, of the American psychoanalyst Walter Langer’s assessment of Hitler, sheds light on the impact of public fealty upon the Führer figure.

Langer's aim, writes Pick, was "to demonstrate how the Nazi leader was infused with the desires of others even as he choreographed the legend, willingly allowing fantastical hopes to be invested in him." Accordingly, he adapted the ideological construct of the "Führerprinzip,” or “leader principle," into a counter-strategy against the Nazis: Hitler's removal, he reckoned, would bring about the downfall of the Third Reich.

But as Pick points out, the conditions of Langer's research missed the critical component of the psychoanalytic approach: direct interaction with the patient. Instead, Langer relied on the copious secondary sources available in the New York Public Library, as well as interviews with some of the Führer's former intimates, like Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, who escaped from Germany after losing favor with the Nazi elite. It was Hanfstaengl who supplied Langer with vignettes about Hitler's sexual proclivities, which the psychoanalyst then applied to his examination of Hitler's anti-Semitism (in Hitler’s rasping denunciations of the Jews as pollutants, Langer saw a "pornographic" quality rooted in Hitler’s own deviant tendencies).

None of this meant, of course, that Nazi leaders were incapable of defending their anti-Semitism. Pick cites Heinrich Himmler's preemption argument, whereby the elimination of the Jews was necessary to prevent them from inflicting irreparable damage. Hess, meanwhile, utilized a technique that is known in the blogging world as "Whataboutery":  confronted with Nazi atrocities, he would draw a moral equivalence with the actions of the Allies. Questioned by his British interlocutors about the function of the concentration camps, Hess pouted: "You should know, you invented them" (a reference to British internment policies during the Boer War of 1899). Such armchair (if you will) "forensic analysis," Pick notes, was similarly employed by the defendants at Nuremberg—just as it is today, one might add, by the leaders of Syria and Iran. 

But other Nazis were less open than Hess.  Pick describes the similarly-named Rudolf Höss, an Auschwitz commandant who appeared at Nuremburg, as someone incapable of entering into "psychological discourse." The Commandant, the short personal testimony that Höss wrote while awaiting execution, confirms this: the author appears a self-pitying dullard, fixated on the technical details of his task, utterly lacking in moral imagination or empathy (at least toward his fellow humans; he evidently felt quite differently toward horses).

Still, it would be wrong to conclude that there was no content to Höss’s anti-Semitism—that, as Ian Buruma memorably formulates in the book’s afterword, he would have exterminated brunettes with equally mindless devotion had he been so ordered. The worldview of the Nazi Party, of which Höss was an early supporter, pivoted on anti-Semitism, and without Höss’s willing imbibition of that sentiment, it is doubtful that he would have been so diligent in carrying out his orders.

Both Pick's meticulously researched book and Höss’s memoir make grim reading. Yet glimmers of the human capacity to challenge evil make a redeeming appearance. Pick relates the story of a British army sergeant who, when asked by his commanding officer what he made of Hess's arrival in Britain, answered, "He sees which way [the war is] going, sir."  We can only be thankful that even as the Allies were at their weakest, for every Hess and every Höss, there were also men such as that sergeant.  

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York.

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