The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the Analysts

August 30, 2012

The recent trial of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who went on a killing spree that left 77 people dead, focused very specifically on the defendant's state of mind. Was he deranged? Or was he entirely sane when he murdered in cold blood? This is not the first time that such questions have been posed of those responsible for horrendous crimes.

Looking back to the trials of the defeated Nazi leaders at Nuremberg in 1945-46, lawyers and psychologists tried to understand what made these men tick. Indeed, part of the enduring fascination with this dark period in German history is the difficulty of explaining how a civilised, modern nation could be susceptible to the murderous ideology of Nazism.

Both at the time of the trials and since, it has been far more palatable to believe that there is an invisible line that separates us from murderers, who are psychologically damaged individuals. It is understandably an uncomfortable thought that anyone might be capable of extreme violence if placed in the right circumstances.

During the Second World War, Allied intelligence officers were keen to build a psychological profile of their enemy. In war, they reasoned, it could help them to understand the Nazis' military strategy and to anticipate their next move. And, as German defeat became ever more likely, understanding "the Nazi mind" became ever more important in plans to re-educate and "denazify" ordinary Germans after the war. The unexpected arrival in Scotland of Hitler's right-hand man Rudolf Hess provided an unparalleled opportunity for British analysts to unpack the Nazi way of thinking.

In a baffling set of circumstances, Hess "went rogue" in May 1941. Unbeknown to the other Nazi leaders, he donned a Luftwaffe uniform and flew alone from Germany to Scotland with the aim of suing for peace between Britain and Germany. He was immediately incarcerated and brought in for questioning. Soon, however, interest in Hess turned medical. The question of his underlying mental state was the focus.

Prior to his capture, it was well known that Hess regularly consulted astrologers, herbal specialists and dietitians. The fact that his pockets were bulging with pills and exotic potions on his arrival in the UK further underlined his eccentricity. What could be learned from Hess' obsessive preoccupation with his health? What could be learned from his behaviour more generally? Henry Dicks was the British Army doctor charged with finding answers to these questions.

By looking at how Dicks treated Hess and by analysing the conclusions that he drew, Daniel Pick's work is revealing of wider contemporary trends in the field of psychoanalysis. The "talking cure" pioneered by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century was still very much in vogue, although psychoanalysts were not just interested in what patients said but also what they conveyed unconsciously while talking. Pick's research is not just confined to the fascinating interaction between Hess and Dicks, however. It builds a broader picture of how psychoanalysis was used more widely during and after the Second World War to understand the psychology of the typical Nazi mind.

Pick focuses too on the efforts of the Office of Strategic Services, the US intelligence organisation, to piece together a psychological portrait of the Nazi leader. Owing to Hitler's widespread popularity, analysts in the OSS believed that understanding Hitler's mind was the first step to unlocking the psychology of the German people at large.

Unlike many spurious and sensationalist efforts on this subject, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind successfully shows how analysts at the time set out to make sense of the Nazi leadership's motives and actions, and crucially reveals how complex and puzzling their findings were to interpret.

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the Analysts

By Daniel Pick, Oxford University Press, 368pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780199541683, Published 14 June 2012

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