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

By Robert Zaretsky

Published September 03, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

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.”

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).


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.