The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind

Daniel Pick
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012


Door Frederik van Gelder, philosopher, long-time associate of the Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt am Main

What is fascism? The British historian Daniel Pick approaches this question from the psychoanalytic perspective, starting off by focusing his attention on a specific historical episode — the spectacular flight of Hess at the most fateful moment of the war: at the height of the London Blitz, before formal US entry into the war, and on the eve of the German invasion of Russia. He uses newly available archival material on the extensively used ‘psychological profiling’ by the Allies as the basis for an examination of ‘Hitler, Hess, and the Analysts’. It is a focus that makes it possible to pursue two separate strands in the book with a wealth of informative detail, while at the same time painting on a canvas as broad as the twentieth century altogether. The first strand concerns the deployment of top psychoanalysts in the war effort and in military intelligence, in the Nuremberg trials, in the denazification program following on Allied victory, and in post-war reconstruction; the second strand deals with the contribution – if that is what it is – of psychoanalysis to the solution of the ‘Sphinx riddle’ that has confronted the social sciences (and not just the social sciences) ever since: the causes of the European disaster of 1914-1945.[1]

Once one gets into the material, however, one realizes that the title expresses a deep ambivalence that is, as it were, the ‘thesis’ of the author: there isn’t really an entity called the ‘Nazi mind’, and if the contribution of the psychoanalysts to the war effort consisted in the interrogation of high-ranking prisoners of war, then what the ‘analysts’ (this time in scare quotes) were doing was the interrogation of prisoners of war, and not psychoanalysis. (Pick shows convincingly, perhaps a little à contrecœur, that the purely spurious diagnosis of Hess’s ‘madness’ was just what the wartime British Cabinet needed to scotch both Russian and US suspicions that Great Britain was considering a separate peace with Germany.)

A similarly skeptical conclusion emerges regarding the ‘what is fascism’-question. The utility of psychological profiling for something called ‘fascism’ as a serious concept for the social sciences, precursor to a line of thought that leads to the much-criticized military ‘psyops’ of today, was estimated even at the time as close to zero. (The wartime Studies on Prejudice, done by the American Jewish committee headed by Max Horkheimer, as Pick himself shows, took a quite different approach, showing that the integration of psychoanalytic insight into the adjacent disciplines – sociology, economics, politics –  was not to be had without a reconsideration of the ‘logic of the social sciences’ altogether – and that, as far as the empirical results themselves were concerned, the susceptibilities of the US population to the siren song of ideologies of various sorts wasn’t very different from their German counterparts before the war.[2]) If the author himself shows just how problematic this notion of ‘applied’ psychoanalysis is – outside of the clinical setting of analyst/analysand – how objective are and were then these wartime analyses of ‘the Nazi mind’?

The author is both a psychoanalyst and a historian, and the attitude he adopts could be called that of ‘judicious impartiality’. The momentous events of the twentieth century had many players, and the psychoanalysts, if only in a minor role, were most certainly present on the world stage. That is what historians do: they describe the past, and they do so without obviously taking sides. ‘Objectivity is historically relative’ – one could almost hear him say it.

The result is at any rate a book that makes for fascinating reading. Historians have their own tricks of the trade, and the combination of high historical drama – Churchill, Hitler, the Nazis, a valiant Britain fighting for freedom and liberty – interspersed with insight into the depths of the soul, not to say human depravity, is a potent formula.

So how does Pick get from the details of Hess’s wartime ‘psychological profiling’ to, say, postwar United Nations, UNESCO, World Health Organization congresses concerned with post-war reconstruction, with the ‘post-1945’ world altogether?

The case he makes with considerable force is that that the ‘mental health ideal of the Anglo-American world’ which was to become so influential in postwar Europe, can be traced back to an idea of Freud that Anglo-US psychoanalysis adopted with a great deal of enthusiasm, but which their continental counterparts, as soon as the war was over, mostly rejected: the idea that sociology (and by extension the social sciences generally) could be treated as applied psychoanalysis. The conviction, in other words, that terms such as ‘sanity’ and ‘psychosis’ were just as applicable to the social order as they were to individual minds, was not just the basis for the denazification program in the Allied occupation zones, according to Pick, but was formative far beyond that: for the whole debate by a host of international organizations. This ‘psychologization’ of history and politics did not go unchallenged – much of the book is indeed an account of the critics of this ‘triumph of the therapeutic’ – but by tracing out how central this was to Allied reconstruction after 1945 he does offer an explanation for, say, why during the fifties and sixties the political fault lines in Europe so often ran along clearly identifiable ideological oppositions: between those who demanded both social democracy (in the sense of the German soziale Marktwirtschaft) and antidiscrimination, and those, on the other hand, who emphasized antidiscrimination only – while regarding the ‘market’ as something sacrosanct. Psychologism and neo-liberalism, if one follows this view of post-1945 Allied politics, could be an explanation for the unmistakably pejorative tones which to this day ‘welfare state’ has in English. So what does that look like, that ‘talking cure’ picture of ‘the world’?

One never quite knows, with Pick, how much is gentle irony, how much is meant seriously; to what degree this is an objective account of the vulgarized Freud of so much of Allied thinking during post-war reconstruction, and to what extent he is using his own material to explore just where the ‘bounds of sense’ are with psychoanalysis. Take for instance Keynes’ farsighted The Economic Consequences of the Peace of 1919, which has been re-discovered as a key text for an understanding of what went wrong at Versailles in 1919. Keynes criticizes Wilsonian free market liberalism for the way in which, at the very moment Europe was in chaos, when a non-punitive reparations policy (and perhaps the imposition of a constitutional monarchy on the British model) would have had widespread support (and perhaps have robbed the far right of the issues with which they would later undermine the Weimar Republic), the only thing that the American president could come up with were liberal platitudes. As Pick puts it, summarizing Keynes, ‘between them the former Allies had produced a settlement that would not only cripple the vanquished power economically, […] but would also have disastrous knock-on consequences for the rest of Europe. Keynes identified not only diplomatic illusions but also something bordering on delusional thought amongst the victors.’ (p. 92) Quite apart from a certain vagueness about just where those ‘illusions’ are to be located, the idea that Keynes’s book is a ‘remarkable intervention here with regard to the group-psychological interactions at Versailles’ (p. 92) is something close to slapstick. (A truly risible image: Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson in group therapy with the thirty-six-year-old junior British treasury official as ‘analyst’, exploring their respective ‘inner child’.)

One needs to resist the temptation to lampoon this. One of the great unresolved questions facing the postwar world, no less fateful for our generation than the one posed by ‘Versailles’, was and is the question of the causes of WWII, the Holocaust, what’s to be done to prevent more of the same. One only needs to browse a bit through some of the documents upon which the European Union is based to realize how central that question was – and once again has become. As the unresolved legacy of 1918 and 1945 – militarism, nationalism, weapons technology, all the rest – is passed on from generation to generation, the growing urgency of that ‘why?’ does not diminish, but is matched rather by the increasing ability of the mass media to push it off the public agenda.

Pick at any rate leaves the reader in no doubt about just what the weaknesses are of such a ‘psychologizing’ approach to history:

Even some of those sympathetic to the application of psychoanalysis observed ‘[the] inherent evidentiary problems of psychohistory: the difficulty of gathering data on childhood; the resultant danger of circular reasoning in hypothesising antecedents from adult words and actions; the absence of personal contact enjoyed by the psychoanalyst; the misuses of subjectivity; the danger of reductionism; the question of whether psychoanalytic theory is valid for other times and places (and indeed, whether the application of any contemporary model can illuminate the special “mentalities” of earlier periods.’)[3]

And yet the problem remains that Pick sees psychoanalysis as a ‘factor’, as ‘an important resource in the culture’ (p. 270) while leaving its truth content out of account. Pick understands his brief as ‘applying’ psychoanalysis to history, exploring where this gets us, but his procedure is based on the premise that this can be done while ignoring the epistemological issues this raises.

How badly this lets him down can be shown in his account of the group of scholars who did exactly that – trace out the difference between psychoanalysis and historiography, trace out the epistemology – namely the Frankfurt School. The main figures are all there: Horkheimer and Adorno, Marcuse, Fromm; the historians Martin Jay and Rolf Wiggershaus, several of the more peripheral figures, or of a later generation: Krakauer, Zaretsky, Brunner. And yet, while registering the weaknesses of an abstract, a ‘psychologistic’ approach to history, that is exactly how he depicts the Frankfurt School itself, as one more reductionist conception of the past:

A key aim of the Studies in Prejudice was to bring together social science, history, and political theory in order to provide a deeper understanding of modern ideologies and practices, above all of Nazism. Many of the Frankfurt School stalwarts produced work under the auspices of this project, as did looser affiliates of the group such as Bruno Bettelheim. Characteristically, studies combined research on social background and psychological traits with analysis of ideological convictions. Psychoanalytical concepts were then brought to bear to understand the irrational aspects of political beliefs. The Authoritarian Personality exemplified this approach. It attempted to apply something of the methodology and theory of the talking cure. Dauntingly long and replete with many scales and measures, the book was organized around an underlying theory of mental life derived in the main from Freud. (p. 224)

Missing from this account is that the ‘underlying theory of mental life’ referred to here owed every bit as much to Lukács, to the idealism/materialism distinction of Left Hegelianism, than it did to Freud; that the ‘irrational aspects of political beliefs’ owed as least as much (according to Horkheimer and Adorno) to the ‘ideology’ of Science and Technology (a later Habermas title) than it owed to ‘authoritarianism’ as a purely individual, a purely clinically diagnosable affliction. If the Studies in Prejudice is an application of ‘the talking cure’, as suggested here, then this is a ‘talking cure’ that takes its point of departure from Horkheimer’s very un-Freudian dictum ‘Wer […] vom Kapitalismus nicht reden will, sollte auch vom Faschismus schweigen.’[4]

That is, to use Pick’s own terminology, he ‘projects’ onto the Frankfurt School the very ‘psychologization’ of history which they were rejecting on the basis of arguments coming from Kant, Hegel, Marx, Max Weber and Lukács, that is, on the basis of the ‘materialism-idealism’ distinction of continental philosophy.[5]

It was exactly that – Horkheimer and Adorno’s rejection of sociology as ‘applied psychoanalysis’ – which was the point of several influential Adorno papers of the sixties.[6] (‘Whoever conceives, with Freud, Sociology as “applied psychoanalysis”, falls victim, however enlightened the intentions may be, to ideology.’[7]) The context makes clear that it was above all Mitscherlich’s Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern that Adorno was criticizing[8], but beyond that the whole genre of ‘psychohistory’.

The problem is ‘historical’ in a sense not covered in this book. The so-called analytic/continental divide in philosophy extends also to psychoanalysis, and most especially to the question of medical causation. For Ernest Jones, and hence for the Anglo-US psychoanalytic mainstream, symbolism in the specifically psychoanalytic sense is subordinated to a medical nosology based in biology – and is not (this question of symbolism), regarded as relevant for a discussion of the natural science paradigm itself.

Not so in the continental tradition, where the transcendentalism/materialism (or ‘subject/object’) distinction was, from the outset, much more capable of assimilating Freud’s discoveries than the natural science paradigm was in Great Britain or the United States. Is the making of a judgment of the type ‘A causes B’ a hypothesis concerning an objective state of affairs, or is it an adult ‘competence’ on the model of a ‘language game’, the ‘correctness’ of which can only be judged by other competent speakers of the same language community and culture? Ernest Jones and hence the GB-US psychoanalytic mainstream (following Hume and analytic philosophy in this) opted for the first alternative, with dissenters from Kleinians and later the Lacanians, whereas their continental colleagues, closer to Kant and the ‘a priori’ tradition, mostly chose the second. Since Pick does not deal with the history of psychoanalysis itself, the impression left with the reader is that what is meant by that phrase, the talking cure, is, at least amongst psychoanalysts, uncontroversial, and that the idea of ‘applying’ psychoanalysis is as unproblematic in the clinical setting as it is in the wider world. The Kleinians, the Lacanians, and indeed the Frankfurt School would beg to differ. If one follows the Anglo-Saxon tradition, then ‘applied’ psychoanalysis is unremarkable and routine; if one follows the continental tradition, then ‘applied’ psychoanalysis is an example of that ‘instrumental reason’ which psychoanalysts must put behind them, an example of (Habermas’s words) a ‘scientistic self-misunderstanding’ that stands in the way of a better grasp of their own field.

Under wartime conditions, the analysts, like everyone else – including for that matter the Frankfurt School – threw their full weight, unequivocally, into winning the war against Fascism – and rightly so. The question which this poses for subsequent generations, however, is whether the ‘militarization of psychoanalysis’ that Pick documents was an unavoidable evil that subsequent generations would have to put behind them, or whether the purely instrumental conception of psychoanalysis that prevailed at the time (presupposed by that ‘applied’) is worth retaining.

Pick sees both the necessity of the wartime ‘militarization’ of psychoanalysis and the impossibility of accepting the theoretical principles upon which this was ostensibly based. It would have been nice if he had been able to see in the Frankfurt School kindred spirits – as far as his own project is concerned – rather than one more example of that ‘triumph of the therapeutic’ which he justly criticizes.


[1] The author has devoted several other volumes to this topic: Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848-c.1918, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989; War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, Yale University Press, London, 1993; Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2000. Rome or Death: The Obsessions of General Garibaldi, Cape, New Jersey, 2005; Dreams and History: The Interpretation of Dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis , Routledge, London, 2004.

[2] The ‘Anti-Semitism among American Labor’ study of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, carried out during the war in the US, was withheld from publication since ‘the conclusions of the study were so damaging to American labor that the Institute […] was hesitant about broadcasting its findings.’ (Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination, Little, Brown and Company, Boston/Toronto, p. 225.) c.f. Catherine Collomp (2011): “‘Anti-Semitism among American Labor’: a study by the refugee scholars of the Frankfurt School of Sociology at the end of World War II” in Labor History, 52, nr. 4.

[3] Pick, p. 331, quote from Geoffrey Cocks and Travis L. Crosby (eds.), Psycho/History: Readings in the Method of Psychology, Psychoanalysis and History, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1978.

[4] ‘Whoever is reluctant to speak of Capitalism should remain silent about Fascism.’ Max Horkheimer, Gesammelte Schriften vol. 4, Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1985, p. 309.

[5] Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, ‘The Materiality of Reason – On the Possibility of Critical Theory today’, in press.

[6] T.W. Adorno, Gesammelte Schriften, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1972, vol. 8, p. 20 ff.

[7] ‘Postscriptum’ in ibid. p. 89.

[8] Reimut Reiche, ‘Grenzen der Psychoanalyse’, in Triebschicksal der Gesellschaft, Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurt am Main, 2004.