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Essay: how far academic perspectives on Adolf Hitler’s psychological state have altered & shifted

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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In my project, I intend to establish how far academic perspectives on Adolf Hitler’s psychological state have altered and shifted. I aim to study this chronologically, beginning in 1950 with the ‘Study of Tyranny’- the novel that changed the way many people thought about the German Fuhrer, who up until that point had been regarded as someone born with inherent evil within them. It became clear to many psychologists throughout history upon reflection that there were many factors that moulded Adolf Hitler into the man he became. They are by no means excusable, however factors such as an abusive father and over-bearing mother offer insight into the thought process of the dictator himself. I aim to use a multitude of criteria in order to evaluate the way Hitler was and still is viewed by academics: whether they applied psychological concepts to Hitler, whether there is a focus on the childhood trauma that he experienced, whether he is often described as solely “evil” and not a product of situation or circumstance. Each paragraph will focus in on a different timeframe, the novels written on Adolf Hitler in this time and the level at which psychological understanding was at. By intermingling all of these factors, a fuller image will be created of the academics and societies view on Hitler at the time, as each writer was constructing a novel for a different period of time and views have hugely altered from 1950 to 2018. After establishing and presenting the basic viewpoints and factors employed by the novelist, I will then go on to explain and evaluate these points in further detail. As I will be doing this with multiple novels per paragraph it is also crucial to compare them. Having novels of a similar era in one paragraph should hopefully display a pattern in the views and I intend to display this effectively so that if my hypothesis is correct, there will be a clear shift in perspectives between paragraphs. As this topic is socially sensitive, everything discovered and evaluated in the project will be purely factual and only the opinions of others, nothing in the project will by any means excuse the actions of Hitler and the sheer scale of the atrocities he committed will not be ignored. Even though, it can be argued that no one is inherently evil and born that way, it is clear to me through this research that Hitler was a man like no other, with hatred that cannot ever be fully explained through the likes of childhood trauma- it is simply no excuse and not fair to people who have endured the same and live perfectly good lives.

The first two studies I will explore are both from the decade 1950, this was a time of major breakthroughs in the field of psychology, it is highly likely that these discoveries and findings impacted the way that the authors structured their novels. In 1952, the year ‘A Study in Tyranny’ was published the very first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was published by the American Psychological Association.This marked the beginning of modern mental illness classification, prior to this, mental disorders were often discarded. Perhaps, the higher awareness for psychological issues within people had already began to filter its way into the way people view and write about ‘evil’ people from history- the prime example being Adolf Hitler (the focus of this project). ‘A Study in Tyranny’ by British historian Alan Bullock was the first major publication based solely on the life of Adolf Hitler. Despite being first published in 1952, Bullock’s novel on the Nazi dictator still remains the best in its field- critic Clive James wrote that “this first one to read is still Alan Bullock’s ‘Hitler A Study in Tyranny and Hitler expert Ian Kershew described the book as a “masterpiece”. It is evident that this is a highly acclaimed and respected novel which provides reliability and makes it a useful source, however the novel seems to provide an extremely factual account of Hitler’s dictatorship and perhaps misses out key factors surrounding his psychological state and how this may have affected his decision-making. The other novel I intend to study throughout this section of my project is ‘The Young Hitler I Knew’ which was published just two years after Bullock’s novel (1954). This is a personal account written by August Kubizek, the lack of historical insight into Hitler in this novel is refreshing as it provides a whole new layer the ‘fuhrer’. These two novels by Bullock and Kubizek focus on two different parts of Hitler’s life; Bullock covers in immense detail the historical perspective of Hitler’s rise to, maintenance of and fall from power, whereas Kubizek covers what are historically known as Hitler’s ‘formative years’, put more simply his childhood and early adult years. In Bullock’s novel, he refers to Hitler as a “cynical manipulator” and as a “fanatic” but he denies any evidence that the dictator was seriously mentally disturbed. I would argue that the novel is starting to show its age as we have learned far more about psychology and the events of World War Two and Hitler’s Third Reich since then, for example in ‘this edition the fate of Martin Bormann is unknown, the number of deaths in the Holocaust was given at 4.2 million, and the whereabouts of Hitler’s remains were undetermined”. Furthermore, the way in which Bullock covers disturbing topics like the Holocaust is very apathetic and indifferent, the extent of anti-Semitism is undermined and perhaps even skipped over in parts of the novel and I would argue that this takes a way a large element of the studies reliability. It is important to note that at this time noticeable proportions of information were missing surrounding Hitler as it was so soon after the end of second World War, however the disinterest in focusing in on Hitler’s psychological state raises questions whilst reading. Even at this time, psychologists were offering diagnoses and explanations of Hitler’s personality, for example Walter Langer who wrote a secret psychoanalytic study of Hitler diagnosed him with histrionic personality disorder (hysteria) as early as 1933. Evidently, Bullock wasn’t psychologically qualified by any means, but he fails to provide a full view of the ‘fuhrer’ by skimming over key factors of his life, like his traumatic childhood, and this decreases the validity of his argument. Moreover, Bullock seems to actually praises Hitler and refer to multiple things he did as “achievements”, he quickly follows this up with condemnation of his actions but it must be noted that a possible bias is presented by Alan Bullock. A key example of this is again on page 724 in Bullock’s novel where he acknowledges how Hitler saw the Cold War coming (“No-one, looking back at German anti-Bolshevik propaganda from the era of the Cold War, can fail to be struck by the aptness of much of the argument”). The argument here isn’t that Bullock was a supporter of Hitler, this novel just presents a less harsh and hateful perspective of Hitler which seem to be more common in the present day. This could perhaps work in the novels favour in some ways as he utilises mostly facts rather than being too one-sided. Similarly, in the personal account of a friendship with Hitler in ‘The Young Hitler I Knew’, Kubizek doesn’t demonise Hitler which many people expected as it was written from the 1940s until Hitler’s death. Kubizek does almost the complete opposite, the worst that can be said about him is that he was an ‘egoist’ and ‘somewhat out of touch with reality’. August Kubizek never appeases Hitler for the atrocities he ordered and committed during his time as dictator, however he does reflect fondly on memories they shared together. This extraordinary friendship is portrayed aptly by Kubizek and the underlying tone is bittersweet as there is a clear struggle within the writer and the reader of being able to comprehend how the subject of the novel who seemed so loving and kind also managed to be the most hated man in history. Interestingly, at one point in the novel despite reminiscing on both of their hopes and dreams Kubizek acknowledges what must have been Hitler’s potential for a dictatorship- “behind this shiftless exterior Kubizek constructs what must have been there, although it was not apparent to casual acquaintances: the character of the man who, from these beginnings, without any other natural advantages besides his own personality, became the most powerful and terrible tyrant and conqueror of modern history”. This perspective definitely leans towards an element of psychological disturbance in Hitler’s life. As someone that spent a long period of time with Hitler, before he became the infamous tyrant, Kubizek bore witness to many of the unfortunate things that happened to Hitler, like his devastating rejection from art school and the mistreatment he received as a child. Regardless of the fond memories recalled by Kubizek and the hard life he endured before he came to power, there still fails to be any information that even begins to explain (not excuse) the actions of Hitler. To many psychologists (e.g. Treher who diagnosed him with schizophrenia and Gibbels who diagnosed him with psychotic disorder as a result of physical illness) there is clear evidence of psychological disturbances within Hitler, the cause of it remains unclear, but the most likely factor is the abuse he received from his father. I would argue that Bullock and Kubizek have differing opinions on Hitler and his psychological state. Bullock approaches Hitler with a perspective that often disregards any psychological factors that may have influenced his actions. In terms of the evaluation criteria implemented in this project, Bullock applies no psychological theories or concepts to Hitler and his actions- this was expected of a novelist writing in 1952 due to the lack of awareness and perhaps even sympathy towards mental illness. However, people at time and even before were compiling p of Hitler- most significantly Walter Langer and his ‘secret wartime report’ of Hitler in the ‘Mind of Adolf Hitler’ (1943). Therefore, the viewpoint and conclusion made by Alan Bullock that Hitler was a ‘Machtpolitiker’ (power politician) motivated by power and lust wasn’t just a consequence of limited psychological knowledge but also by strong historical information (transcripts from the Nuremburg Trials). Similarly, Kubizek doesn’t seek to diagnose or mention elements of mental illness, he acknowledges the dictator’s wrongdoings but perhaps he is blinded by the fond memories they shared in their youth. Kubizek however, unlike Bullock, does shed light on the abuse and beatings the young Hitler received from his father Alois Hitler. Biopsychological research by Michael D. De Bellis, MD, MPH and Abigail Zisk A.B. has shown that trauma in childhood is a grave psychosocial, medical, and public policy problem that has serious consequences for its victims and for society. Furthermore, neither of these sources describe Hitler as inherently evil and this is significant as it displays a greater understanding of his decision-making and in Kubizek’s case also his psychological state. Both of these novels create a rather well-rounded perspective on the viewpoint on Hitler from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In this paragraph, there are two more academic perspectives that will be examined; these are George Victor’s ‘Pathology of Evil’ (1999) and Robert G.L Waite’s ‘The Psychopathic God’ (1977). Victor presents the first psychotherapists approach of the project and he utilises a significant quantity of records and documents from Hitler himself and many of his close contacts. George Victor from the outset, is bold in his statements about the dictator, he deems a multitude of ‘personality disorders responsible for the Fuhrer’s ruthless destruction of the Jews’ and places a large proportion of blame on the cruel abuse young Adolf Hitler suffered at the hands of his father. The novelist claims that a consequence of the abuse was Hitler’s desperate desire for revenge, according the Victor’s theory Hitler believed that his abuse was ‘racially sourced’ (from the Jews). If, as this psychoanalyst hypothesises, Hitler viewed the Jews as the source of his childhood abuse, it starts to become slightly more evident as to why Hitler would possess such a strong hatred for them. It doesn’t necessarily explain by any means how he could view a genocide on a colossal scale as acceptable, however, alongside various personality disorders (insomnia, paranoia, hysteria) and physical ailments like syphilis, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s (all of which he was rumoured to have contracted). It is also argued by Victor, like it is by the majority of Nazi Germany historians, that the World War One German defeat and the Treaty of Versailles was a huge trigger for the Nazi dictator. Despite this being a popular theory, rather than just showing how this was the point that Hitler decided to take action, Victor also indicates that this was a time where Hitler’s mental health was suffering hugely, especially after being temporarily blinded at the end of World War One. Very much like Victor’s psychoanalysis of Hitler, Robert G.L. Waite also presents a psychological profile in his novel ‘The Psychopathic God’. Waite’s novel is regarded as the third major psychological novel to appear within the 1970s on Adolf Hitler. The reliability in terms of psychological profiling within both ‘Pathology of Evil’ and ‘The Psychopathic God’ is high as neither of them are of autobiographical style, they instead offer a multitude of ‘psychological dimensions’, which is exactly the genre of novel need in order to compile a valid view on the change in academic perspectives on Hitler’s mental state. Waite claims that this book is written in order to “supplement rather than replace biographies such as Alan Bullock’s Study of Tyranny which he regards as indispensable”.  An element of Waite’s novel which was extremely refreshing compared to the other books studied in this project. He homes in on the daily life of Hitler- the parts of his career that traditional historians often disregarded. Throughout ‘The Psychopathic God, Hitler is shown to be a ‘pathetically maladjusted man’ and as the definition of contrast. He was a vegetarian who worried hugely about his diet but also ate a huge amount of sweets and he was a rather ‘effeminate’ man with ‘latent homosexual feelings who compensated with an exaggerated posture of hardness and brutality’. This therefore presents a feeling that Hitler was in a state of mania throughout his dictatorship. This may seem obvious to many because of how deluded and extreme his plans, such as the ‘Final Solution’ (the Nazi plan for the extermination of all Jews) however, many others regard Hitler as a cold and calculated man driven solely by his racial hatred for the Jews. Even his basis for detesting Jewish people is warped, he bases it off his hatred for his father and intense anti-Semitic propaganda, written by what Waite describes as ‘intellectual cranks’ like George Lang von Liebenfels and Guido von List, from the time. All of this information combined starts to portray Hitler as not only a manic leader, but also as one with little political knowledge or substance and everything he stood for was based off his own delusions. This heavily links to the diagnosis of schizophrenia he has received from a multitude of psychologists since his death, most notably Coolidge, Davis and Segal in 2007. A similarity between both ‘Pathology of Evil’ and ‘The Psychopathic God’ is there interest the roots of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, both of their analyses are effective as they narrow their focus to a specific part of Hitler’s life rather than attempting to account for everything he did in the span of his life. The most interesting and recently developed conclusion they both reach to an extent (mostly Victor) is that not only was his anti-Semitism sourced from a hatred of his faintly Jewish and abusive father but also from Hitler’s significant self-hatred. This alludes to Hitler’s multiple personality and mental health disorders. The idea that perhaps a psychological disturbance such as self-hatred as a consequence of either schizophrenia, depression, hysteria, borderline personality disorder (George Victor’s diagnosis) is a key feature in the novelists’ analysis of Hitler displays how academic perspectives have evidently changed over time. Alan Bullock presented a historical academic perspective without any psychological substance, he even went onto argue against Hitler suffering from anything related to mental health and that everything he did was orchestrated for a rational reason. Kubzek, even though he didn’t necessarily disregard anything that his childhood friend may have suffered from and even touched upon the abuse Hitler suffered from as a child. However, he didn’t blame any of Hitler’s problems as a child for his actions as Germany’s ‘fuhrer’ and this acts as a clear drawback for Kubizek’s novel. It is clear from these texts that academic opinions on Hitler’s psychological state were experiencing a shift perspective. Victor and Waite illuminate the changing field of psychology and how that impacts the outlook society and professionals have on individuals from history. The viewpoint on Hitler has evidently experienced elements of change from when Bullock published his novel in 1950 to when Victor published his novel in 1999. The development of understanding of Hitler’s mental state and all of the possible illnesses he could have suffered from offers an alternate insight into the dictator’s mind and life. It doesn’t necessarily explain why he committed such atrocities; the trauma he suffered as a child and the rejection he faced in early adulthood could never account for the evil being he became, however the professional opinions provided by Waite and Victor allow historians and society to comprehend why Hitler rationalised his actions (even if no one else can). This standpoint is one that neither Bullock nor Kubizek even refer to in their works, therefore it is obvious that an advance in the way people approach Hitler’s psyche has occurred.

The final two texts that are presenting the most modern perspectives on Adolf Hitler’s psychological state in this project are Frederick C. Redlich’s ‘Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet’ and D. Doyle’s ‘Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler’ (2005).

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