The Jews Who Plumbed Hitler’s Brain

Exiled Shrinks Led Wartime Effort to Get Inside Fuhrer's Head

It Took the Jews: Hitler reportedly had difficulty expressing his emotional needs.
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It Took the Jews: Hitler reportedly had difficulty expressing his emotional needs.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published September 03, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the Analysts
By Daniel Pick
Oxford University Press, 368 pages, $35

More than 20 years ago, Neal Gabler declared that Hollywood was the creation of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. In his remarkable book “An Empire of Their Own,” Gabler in fact suggested that the Meyers and Zukors, carrying the accents and memories of their Jewish European origins, conjured not just the American film industry, but also “America” itself — a certain idea of America, to be precise, an idealized version of the country they had only just met.

“The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind,” it turns out, is not a war film produced by Hollywood during the 1940s. But Daniel Pick’s engrossing book nevertheless brings to mind Gabler’s work. His study focuses on the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, many of whom were Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, who were enlisted in the Allied effort to plumb the mind of Hitler and his henchmen. Applying Freudian analysis to subjects they never met, much less interviewed on a couch in their office for years, these immigrants invented a certain idea of Hitler.

Their creation, it seems, bore as close a resemblance to the real man as MGM’s “How the West Was Won” bears to the actual winning of the West.

Fittingly, the leading character in Pick’s account, Rudolf Hess, has been the subject of several films. (The best-known is “Wild Geese II,” a 1985 Hollywood film that starred a mentally frail Laurence Olivier in the role of Hess.) In May 1941, Hess, a member of Hitler’s closest circle, piloted an airplane to Great Britain and bailed out over Scotland. Though Hess presented himself as an honest broker between Germany and Great Britain, his astonished hosts instead concluded that he was a lunatic. Expecting to be welcomed by the highest echelons of the British government, Hess instead found himself labeled “an interesting diagnostic problem.” Quite literally, a Nazi basket case had dropped unexpectedly from the sky — the perfect specimen for better understanding the psychological underpinnings of Nazi fanaticism.

Over the course of Hess’s wartime imprisonment, his behavior grew increasingly bizarre. He suffered from a wide range of ailments, swung wildly in his moods and believed that the British were trying to poison him. Inevitably, his words and actions were no longer seen as the expressions of a merely criminal or evil man; they were now considered to be signs of mental illness. Though other diagnostic approaches existed, Freud had paved the great highway to the unconscious. This was especially true in Great Britain and America, particularly during the interwar period and the great migration of Jewish professionals from Central and Eastern Europe. The team that examined Hess, led by Henry Dicks — whose own roots were partly Jewish — was steeped in Freud; the case study they published in 1947, “The Case of Rudolf Hess,” borrowed heavily, if not exclusively, from the vocabulary of psychoanalysis.

Dicks and his team, it appears, rarely wondered about the conditions in which they studied Hess. To what degree were his symptoms the result of his captivity? Had Hess’s imprisonment helped to either create or cultivate elements of his hysterical behavior, his paranoid claims or delusional rants? Nor were Dicks and his team reluctant to move to the general case from the particular. The team’s profile of Hess frequently bled into a profile of an entire people, a diagnostic sounding of the German character that had allowed Hitler to happen. Hess was decidedly exotic, yet he nevertheless represented a culture that favored a “sado-masochistic, dominant-submissive cleavage or duality. The inability to resist successfully the father’s power, and the feeling of weakness or inferiority so created, [is] apt to result in a persistence of adolescent hero-fantasies.”


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