Building the Nazi Mindset

By Beisel, David R. | The Journal of Psychohistory, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Building the Nazi Mindset


Beisel, David R., The Journal of Psychohistory


Many things had to take place for the Third Reich to happen. Many more had to occur for it to become one of history's most murderous regimes. How and why this took place are two of the twentieth century's great enigmas.

Those unfamiliar with the history of Nazi Germany often find this news surprising. Presumptions of near-complete mastery of the causes of Nazi evil are understandable since an enormous scholarly literature exists on Hitler, the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Holocaust. Much of it directly addresses this question.

Despite this enormous scholarly output, a number of prominent intellectuals still claim the Third Reich's evil was so horrific as to be beyond human comprehension, arguing it can never be understood. We know what they mean. Yet clearly the hard work of thousands of historians over the last seventy years has answered some central questions despite the protestations of these intellectuals, though specialists know many aspects of the story remain elusive while others remain only partly understood.

One dimension of our incomplete psychological understanding of Nazi Germany is the question of exactly how it built a consensus for Hitler's murderous agenda. How could a group of murderous thugs with bizarre pseudo-scientific ideas take over one of the most civilized countries in Europe then transform it into a society that under cover of a civilized façade carried out murderous and sadistic acts beyond imagining? Though that question has been raised so often it can begin to sound banal it remains crucial to our understanding of the entire Nazi enterprise.

The media and public sometimes give far too facile answers to this complex phenomenon. Statements like, "They were crazy," beg the question and are essentially meaningless. People who give the "crazy" diagnosis usually aren't psychiatrists, nor are they normally consulting the DSMIV when they say it. Even if they were, questions remain about which psychosis was at work and how and why it was collectively manifested.

When I mention these points to my students they often reply, "Well, it was crazy to kill the Jews." That in turn raises the issue of other genocides. Was in fact the nineteenth-century genocide of Native Americans "crazy"? Was the genocide of the Irish by the English during the Potato Famine of 1849 "crazy"? What of Turks and Armenians, Tutsi and Hutu? And so forth.

Sometimes scholars, psychologists and psychological historians too, have joined narrative historians in being too quick to pass easy judgments, though often quite sophisticated ones. They do this by identifying one or another factor - the fundamental barbarity of human nature, inevitable stupidity arising from mass society, the pressures of the civilizing process itself, the authoritarian family, German childrearing, some vaguely defined "eliminationist" impulse buried deep in the German soul - as the crucial piece, the deciding factor. (1) Clearly, anti-Semitic traditions are important, as is the power of propaganda, not to mention the humiliating military defeat of 1918, the humiliating Versailles Treaty, the humiliating occupation of the Ruhr, massive unemployment in the Great Depression, the rise of the Communist Party in Germany, and so on.

These and the several other social, psychological, intellectual, political and economic forces that propelled the Nazis to power are well documented, as are the later moves to totalitarian control. None need elaborating here.

What's less well understood is the precise ways in which Nazis manipulated Germans (and Germans manipulated themselves) into moving away from their long-standing intellectual, moral, and ethical traditions, though many historians have studied this process too.

Justifications were clearly necessary. Enemies had to be dehumanized and demonized, work Hitler and others had been doing for years. It's well known how, just after the Nazis came to power, Hitler opportunistically used the Reichstag fire to outlaw the Communist Party, a first step in eventually outlawing all political parties except the Nazis. …

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