Erik Erikson: A Psychoanalyst Looks at Hitler
How a concerned analyst addressed the rise of totalitarianism in German culture.
Posted Jul 28, 2020
As the 2020 presidential election nears, this new blog will explore the intersection of politics, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis—and the mental health professions’ sometimes checkered past on these issues.
The issue is timely. For four years now, there has been a raging controversy about the mental health and psychological fitness of President Donald Trump. Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at Yale, has prominently and persistently spoken out about the president, recently tweeting to her 78,000 followers that having a “totally mentally incapacitated president, is our reality. It is a threat to national and global security of the highest order.” Lee’s edited book The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (2017), makes much the same case, underlining the risk posed to the country today by what many of the book’s contributors regard as Trump’s malignant narcissism and dangerousness.
Yet professional concern about the safety and mental health of malignant world leaders is not new. Such concerns began with American psychoanalysts who were troubled by the rise of another democratically elected leader: Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1930s. The central conceptual issues remain relevant today.
Walter Langer, a Boston psychologist and psychoanalyst, had witnessed a Nazi rally in Nuremberg and seen Hitler’s troops march into Vienna in 1938. In 1943 Langer and colleagues provided a psychiatric assessment of Hitler to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, a forerunner of the CIA). According to Langer, who never met Hitler but had studied the public record carefully and interviewed people who knew him, Hitler suffered from childhood experiences with a brutal father and an overly tidy mother; his putative early traumas included witnessing his parents’ intercourse. As a result, Hitler became preoccupied with themes of dominance and submission and, according to Langer’s evidence, developed both a fixation with the anal zone and an alleged sexual perversion in adulthood. Like many others, Langer predicted that if cornered, Hitler might die by suicide.
Erik H. Erikson, a psychoanalyst who had understood Hitler’s intentions early, immigrated to the United States in 1933 after the completion of his psychoanalytic training in Vienna. Erikson’s timing was notable. He was well ahead of the large wave of Jewish refugees, including Sigmund and Anna Freud, who fled Europe once Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. (Erikson’s own mother and stepfather were Jewish, but he never knew his biological father and remained ambivalent about his own Jewishness.)
On the voyage to America, Erikson happened to meet George F. Kennan, an influential young American diplomat and future author of the “containment” doctrine, which would later commit the United States to contesting any expansion of Soviet influence. Kennan was impressed with the young psychoanalyst and his work. On the ship, they discussed an essay Erikson was writing about Hitler and his appeal to German youth. Kennan helped Erikson translate the essay into English. One wonders whether Kennan let the American government know about his remarkable find.
Once World War II began, Erikson offered his thoughts on Hitler to the OSS. Unlike the traditionalist Langer, who focused on personal conflicts over sex and aggression, Erikson subtly probed the “fit” between German culture and Hitler’s public personality. In lucid, flexible formulations, he sought to understand Hitler’s appeal as well as his pathology. Could the ominous spell cast by the Fuhrer, especially over German adolescents, be broken?
According to Erikson, the legend of his childhood that Hitler retailed in Mein Kampf was a powerful myth that resonated with German culture. “To study a myth critically,” Erikson said, means “to analyze its images and themes in their relation to the culture area affected.”
As Hitler told it, the essential elements of his childhood were his adoration of his devoted mother and what Erikson saw as “young Adolf’s heroic opposition” to his aged bully of a father. But unlike Walter Langer, Erikson had been learning from then-current cultural anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, A.L. Krober, and Margaret Mead. Erikson believed that in Germany the cultural institutions that traditionally contained adolescent conflicts had broken down—and that this social breakdown facilitated the rise of a tyranny. When Hitler’s rhetoric celebrated the sacred motherland and expressed bitter hatred of the senile old men who led the traditional order in Europe, Erikson understood that his imagery would have special appeal for young Germans. These postwar adolescents had been deprived of their ability to admire their elders and to find a constructive place in society. Hitler, “the adolescent who refused to become a father,” thus functioned not as a substitute father, but as a kind of permissive older brother who did away with conscience and indeed with history.
Said Hitler in Mein Kampf: “Let everything go to pieces, we shall march on. For today Germany is ours; tomorrow, the whole world.” Erikson believed that Germany, hemmed in by other nations and historically vulnerable “to sweeping invasions,” thus gained, in propaganda at least, a mythic hero who promised to put Jews in their place, to reverse German humiliation, and to majestically invade the world.
Erikson revised his essay on Hitler for his well-received book Childhood and Society (1950), publishing the piece alongside his explorations of American identity, of propaganda in Russian film, and of indigenous cultures in America (in particular, the defeated Sioux warriors of the Plains and the Yurok, salmon fishermen of northern California). He also carefully built on Freud’s theory of psychosexual stages in childhood to create an original and lasting exploration of emotional strength through the entire life span, “Eight Ages of Man.”
In the 1960s, a revised edition of Childhood and Society (from which I have quoted) became one of the best-selling books on college campuses, providing humane inspiration for many members of the civil rights and antiwar movements. Of the first edition, psychiatrist Robert Knight said that Erikson had thought his way “far out of the consulting room into the social matrix where people live and are shaped.”
Hitler is mentioned frequently in Lee’s Dangerous Case (“The totalitarian mind is remarkably reproducible,” claims one contributor). But most comments on Donald Trump have followed the path of describing individual pathology—Langer’s approach rather than Erikson’s. Erikson’s emphasis on the interaction of an individual with the surrounding culture often seems missing from the psychiatric and psychoanalytic jabs aimed so often at Trump. One striking exception is Jerrold Post and Stephanie Doucette’s book Dangerous Charisma (2019), which is much concerned to explore not just what the authors see as Trump’s individual pathology but the complex reasons for his strong relationship with his followers. In her contribution to Dangerous Case, Elizabeth Mika also takes pains to specify the key social elements—a tyrant, his supporters, and the onlooking society—that are necessary for tyranny to triumph.
When Erikson introduced “The Legend of Hitler’s Childhood” to a general readership after the war in Childhood and Society, he put eloquently the reasons for the recurring concern that so many psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts continued to have about dangerous public figures in the following decades. The West, Erikson said, “hopes that after some feeding and policing by occupation troops, these same Germans will once more emerge as good customers, easily domesticated … and forever forget the martial foolishness they were once more trapped into.” But forgetting too quickly is a hazard.
Instead, he said, “it is our task to recognize that the black miracle of Nazism was only the German version—superbly planned and superbly bungled—of a universal contemporary potential. The trend persists; Hitler’s ghost is counting on it.”
Next time: CIA mental health experts seek to understand Soviet leadership after World War II.
Erikson, Erik H. (1950/1963). Childhood and Society. Second Edition: Revised and Enlarged. New York: Norton.
Friedman, Lawrence J. (1999). Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner.
Lee, Bandy X. (2020). Tweet of July 24, 2020. Accessed on July 24, 2020 at https://twitter.com/BandyXLee1/status/1286663888273051649.
Martin-Joy, John (2020). Diagnosing from a Distance: Debates over Libel Law, Media, and Psychiatric Ethics from Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Post, Jerrold M., and Stephanie Doucette (2019). Dangerous Charisma: The Political Psychology of Donald Trump and His Followers. New York: Pegasus Books.