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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Pick carefully explains — though he does not ever really evoke — the desperate situation during the interwar period in which sane human beings found themselves. With the European stage ever more dense with charismatic and bloody-minded rulers, pretending to channel the desires and wills of their peoples, the need for explanation — some sort of rational handle on this great upheaval of the irrational — became imperative. Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin; fascism, Nazism and Stalinism, and xenophobism, racism and anti-Semitism were not simply subjects for academic conferences; instead, they represented existential threats to civilization. As a result, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists did not see themselves as afterthoughts of the war effort, nor were they seen as such by political leaders. To the contrary, they were key actors, engaged in the supremely important task of understanding how entire nations could fall under the spell of a madman.

That the answers of these analysts, though they all claimed the Freud mantle, differed so widely, did not undermine their conviction that their pursuit was scientific and useful. In fact, as Pick observes, the era was so steeped in the language of psychoanalysis that it bubbles up in the writings of the movement’s critics. Rebecca West, for example, impatiently dismissed the legion of psychiatrists at Nuremberg as “priests, doctors and warders” wrapped into one, but she nevertheless dipped into psychoanalytic parlance for her journalism. In a tragicomic twist, even the Nazis cited Freud. At Nuremberg, Hans Frank, the former governor of occupied Poland, confided to his psychiatrist that Hitler had difficulty with expressing his emotional needs. To nail home his point, he added, “Sigmund Freud, the last of the great German (sic)psychiatrists… pointed out the relationship between frustrated love and cruelty.” Frank’s future as a therapist was cut short, however, on the gallows at Nuremberg.

Of course, psychoanalysis was not the science it was reputed to be, and the terms it took for granted — the mind, the unconscious or the self — have since shown themselves to be the products of a specific historical mindset. A crucial element to this mindset, Pick notes, is the Jewish background of so many of its proponents and practitioners. So much has been written on this subject, and Pick clearly does not wish to join the bulging bibliography.

Yet his book raises an intriguing notion related, if only distantly, to Gabler’s Hollywood. Celebrated writers on the Nazi mind, like Bruno Bettelheim and Erich Fromm, or lead psychiatrists at Nuremberg, like Leon Goldensohn and Gustave Gilbert, were Jews whose families, or who themselves, were swept up in the 20th century’s waves of anti-Semitic terror. These “key researchers and analysts,” as Pick observes, “were directly the targets of the Nazi racial political fantasies that they studied.”

This neither dismisses nor denigrates the integrity of their work, nor the abiding insights it offers on the nature of evil. But it was also a form of creation that mirrors, in a glass darkly, the achievement of the Hollywood moguls. Whereas the Meyers created a past and present that existed only on Hollywood backlots, the analysts turned to a different kind of fiction to decode a present that all too horrifically was, and a future that must never be.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).


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