Hitler, the man, was a curious psychological case and a deadly one at that. In rising to untold heights of dominance, a position of dizzying power, Hitler’s psychological neuroses were thus naturally spewed forth on the masses and absorbed into the the fabric of the nation to dramatic and dangerous effect. He was a psychologically unhealthy man — this should be obvious.
In rising from the dregs of obscurity into a position of tremendous clout, all of the man’s abrasive fixations and megalomaniac fantasies were ushered onto the world stage. How was it that one man could enact such a spellbinding effect on the German people? What was it about Hitler that eerily had made him such a powerful container for Nazi themes? What exactly were the ingredients that made up the Hitlerian persona? These questions continue to haunt many of us.
The Freudian Dilemma
It does appear that there was something distinctly, uncannily Freudian about Hitler’s childhood years. As a young boy, Hitler suffered from a cruel and domineering father. His father was quick to hit his children and demanded rigid obedience from them. Prone to fits of rage and lacking in a paternal quality, Hitler never loved his father and it should be no surprise why. Being cold, heartless, and exacting, what solidified in the younger Hitler was a seething resentment for this distant, violent, short-tempered figure of a father that never quite evaporated.
In contrast, Hitler adored his mother who was an indulgent, doting presence in his life. She was the reassuring light to her husband’s menacing shadow. Considering Hitler’s scarcity of fond relationships throughout his life, his mother was something like his original love. She was the striking contrast to the too-harsh father. She was all comfort and coddling, and her husband abuse and callousness. In fascinating remarks from Hitler’s sister, Paula, Adolf was unusually tender and devoted to his mother, particularly when she became ill with breast cancer in his teenage years.
When death came for his mother just days before Christmas in 1907, Hitler was immensely grief-stricken, as if something had been extinguished inside of him. His mother’s doctor later recalled that the love Hitler had for his mother was unparalleled, remarking, “I have never witnessed a closer attachment. In all my career, I never saw anyone as prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler.” His mother’s death struck him painfully to the core, so much so that he reportedly carried a portrait of Klara Hitler with him wherever he went, even up to his last fateful days.
The observant of readers will detect the makings of an Oedipus complex in young Hitler’s life. Hatred of his father gnawed at him while simultaneously he nurtured a gripping love for his mother. Starved of a healthy emotional dynamic in his family, this Freudian complex appears quite pronounced when one studies Hitler’s life.
Furthermore, Hitler’s vengefully ambitious spirit could be seen as his vigorous desire to avenge his father’s mistreatment and lack of regard for him. Bolstered by his mother’s grand visions for him, Hitler may have been on a warpath to deal with this clearly combustible mix of hostile feelings towards his father and his undying devotion — even in the grief of her death — for his mother.
Hitler was a very paranoid man. One even gets this impression via glimpsing his face with its unsettling stony stare and icy, beady eyes. He was a terribly anxious person, and naturally, this manifested in obsessive control of his environment.
The grandiose order on display in Germany in Hitlerian times was an iron-fisted outward substantiation of the mistrust and suspicion swirling around his psyche. His personal paranoia likely motivated him in organizing Germany into a body politic that could be dominated and held tightly under control. It is interesting to note how blatantly visible the neuroses of authoritarian leaders tend to bleed into the national atmosphere.
Hitler’s paranoia was in the details — in the scrupulous searches for Jews and in the climate of fear amongst citizens for failing to profess Nazi loyalty. Hitler was a restless and agitated man that was never satisfied. He could never seem to properly relax as most people naturally know how to do and could never, in his ruling years at least, enjoy the finer, delicate details of life. He had no appetite for pleasure or amusement or joy, it seemed. His love-infused regard for his mother seemed to be the only pocket of tenderness he had tucked away inside him.
Hitler’s persistent paranoia was, in part, the source of his hunger for absolutes and for total control. His lust for power and order was not just that — lust — but also something like a dire need that he was desperately clawing at. It was not with straightforward relish and gusto, necessarily, that he took to claiming the pedestal of Germany as Führer.
It was with a fevered urgency, more accurately. One has to admit that Hitler was a highly driven man, especially considering his lowly beginnings as a homeless artist in the Austrian capital. Something had to account for his spectacularly rapid and unprecedented ascendance to the leader of Germany.
Few people, after all, become totalitarian leaders who do not have some kind of closet of neurotic behaviors stuffed away inside of them. And neuroses are highly powerful, not-to-be-underestimated drives that can rocket such men to these sorts of positions.
The danger of unresolved issues and psychopathic behaviors is that they end up being the most potent, propelling ingredients in one’s personality makeup. They override most everything else and tend to contaminate the rest of a person, until the entire being is invaded by the neurotic disease, so to speak.
And so, Hitler’s “secret” paranoia — no doubt originating from painful early-life experiences — could not help but burst into the public arena, suddenly showing up with remarkable, reckless visibility in actual public policy. (Though somehow it seems wrong to describe Hitler’s dictates as “public policy.”)
What is interesting about Hitler’s entire war effort was that he appeared to have disturbingly conflicting aims. Haunted by the “Jewish disease”, he wished to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, and yet concurrent with this, the remainder of Europe also remained a threat — as continental domination was obviously on his mind.
These dual aims can be thought of as internal and external threats, respectively, and they did appear seemingly at odds with each other. On one hand, Hitler had a ravenous desire for expansion and the invading and conquering of European nations; on the other, he was driven to purify populations and thus, contract them. He wished to exterminate threats, put simply, to satisfy his paranoiac impulse.
Though too, he was lured by the gleaming promise of omnipotence, of supreme dominance. He wished to expand the German empire, technically speaking. (And this wish was perhaps less about simplistic attainment but more about vanquishing the constant dread he felt around geopolitical uncertainty and threats.)
And yet, at the very same time, Hitler balked at the — to his thinking, anyways — problematic peoples contained within his own country. Jews most prominent among them, he was overcome with a frenzied urgency to “cleanse” the German Reich, to purify its inhabitants. Hitler’s concentration camps were the horrible landmarks of just this wretched hysteria for the purging of humans.
And how strangely contradictory was it all? That at the same time Hitler wished to expand, he also wished to contract? If people, to him, needed to be dominated but they were simultaneously more than likely threats, then what was Hitler’s aim anyway? Addition and then subtraction? Spreading and then swallowing up? Would anybody at all be left, if he had been given more time? It’s a horrifying notion to consider, and even more drastically apocalyptic than what he had already accomplished in the years he was in power.
Again, it should be said, that at the helm of every totalitarian nation is a deeply paranoid leader who, time and again, goes to war with his citizenry, violently crushing threats or suspicious persons. Across history is evidence of these men with splintered souls and tragic backstories. Hitler is a glaring portrait of just one of these men, wildly insecure of suspicions and intolerant of threats to frankly, alarming extremes.
Present in Hitler was one of the most destructive emotions known to mankind — resentment. Perhaps stemming partly from his bitter family life as the child of a cruel father who regarded his son with disdain, Hitler also cultivated this bitter, virulent strain of feeling from his many years as a struggling artist and generally invisible person.
With lofty dreams of becoming a professional artist, at eighteen, he applied to an art institute but was rejected, not just once, but again the following year. Incidentally, this was sadly the same year that his mother had passed. His dreams of achieving eminence in Vienna started to crumble and Hitler slid into destitution and obscurity. He never did achieve the recognition he was after.
It seems strange to consider that a murderous dictator whom the rest of the world shivers in revulsion at once labored over detailed little paintings, scratching out intricate pencil drawings of grand mountains and majestic castles, perhaps thoughtfully wielding a paintbrush, softly filling in the pale blue of an early morning sky.
Unfortunate life experiences and time calloused the man, it appears, calcified all that he had left of benevolence and humaneness. Because tragically, Hitler never resolved his issues. It would be years before his warped worldview and tremendous knack for intensifying venomous sentiment made their way onto the world stage, but in the time being, he silently lurked the Viennese streets, alone and unhappy, simmering with resentment that would one day explode from his pulpit as leader of the German nation.
Feelings of his own inferiority continued to plague him, as they had followed him nearly his entire life. His inferiority was not exactly the meek, resigned variety but a quiet, glacial one woven through poisonously by rage and revenge.
Eventually, however, the advent of WWI rescued him and Hitler dutifully trotted off to war with most of his contemporaries. It should come as no surprise that in war, Hitler found an outlet for his aggression, and also, the galvanizing purpose he was so devoid of in his wandering, unproductive years in Vienna that he found he was hungry for. That experience no doubt profoundly marked him for what was to come next.
When the war ended some four years after it had begun, in a stunning defeat nonetheless, Hitler felt this loss intimately and to great effect. His rage at the unthinkable defeat and the loose, aimless direction that Germany headed in the following years was given time to accrete.
The fast exchange of the orderly, flagrantly efficient German war machine of WWI for the embarrassing ineffectual disarray after the war’s termination was a shock to the system. Hitler — and presumably, many others — felt themselves personally robbed of dignity. In retrospect, it is pretty calamitous that the strength of Hitler’s personal situation, defeated and angry as he was, coincided so well with his nation’s fate in the war’s aftermath. Hitler had a pretty convenient foothold in his rise to power.
And so, in Hitler’s rise to power, his resentment for a weak Germany and his resentment for the apparently evil Jews took center stage. Unfortunately, the masses can respond terribly ardently to resentment and so it came to be that again, one of Hitler’s major vices, silently bred in his own subconscious, was given a conduit to an entire national population. It is scary how easily a leader’s personal issues can be grafted onto the masses and how much this can affect the entire course of history.
Resentment is quite tightly tied in with revenge and what was Hitler’s mission, after all, but a vengeful unleashing of his rage, paranoia, and resentment on the rest of the world? Those that operate from revenge, it should be said, are always doing so from a very personal place, from the very intimate place of one’s own psychology. There is always a reason for revenge and one can always locate it in the psychological landscape of a person. Rarely is revenge superficial and situational in context. Rather, it can be thought of as connected to some theme latently buried in one’s mind.
This last point may strike some as a little odd. But I cannot help but think that some of the strange inhumanness of Hitler is due to his sadly twisted worldview best described as “crude Darwinian simplicity”. “Survival-of-the-fittest” does not sound too out-of-place in Hitler’s Germany, does it?
Hitler shared, in some ways, the cold scientism of Karl Marx and his “struggle of the classes”. With similar exactitude, Hitler put forth something along the lines of “struggle of the races”, embodied in his Aryan ideal and his bluntly outright rejection of the Jewish race.
Hitler saw a world of power and powerlessness. His was a gray, cold world. There was no warmth or color or humanity. He had devolved into a shell of a person with a frightening urge to attain absolute power, and to thus, avenge his own private torments of powerlessness and impotence. His dread of inferiority likely drove him to the extremes of Nietzschean will-to-power.
In some ways, this Darwinian conception of people and the world at large probably took root in childhood. Stuck with a father who, crucially, did not ladle out justice fairly, but was cruel and unfair, likely kindled in the young Hitler a belief in the world as a hostile place. Such is the natural consequence of fathers who are not the proper arbiters of justice when their children are young — their offspring nearly always retain some residual damage from this misfortune.
Thus, Hitler learned that there were perhaps no merits in practicing justice if one could get their hands on force. And the rest, tragically, was history.