Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

A Conversation on Europe's Suicidal Embrace with Hitler

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

A Conversation on Europe's Suicidal Embrace with Hitler

Article excerpt

PHE (Paul H. Elovitz): Why did you decide to write a book on the origins of the second World War when there are already so many studies on the subject? How would you describe your work as a historian?

DRB (David R. Beisel): Those are really good questions because there's such an enormous literature on the subject. As a historian looking at the diplomacy of the interwar years I was struck by the incongruities, the inconsistencies, between what people said and what they did. This disparity is usually passed over by historians who explain Britain and France's appeasement policy by a kind of rationalization, rather than looking at the realities. Let me give you a couple examples of the inconsistencies.

In the first instance, Neville Chamberlain, the architect of appeasement, is usually seen as a person trying to reconcile Germany's aggressive attitudes and Hitler's aggressive goals with a wish to maintain peace to prevent World War I from happening a second time around. He felt a new war would mean the end of Western Civilization, which wasn't far from the mark, and would cause the deaths of millions and millions of people, also on the mark. Resisting Hitler and Mussolini-and the Japanese in the Far East-would mean rearming when Britain's economy was in difficult shape as a result of the Great Depression, and so on. These are some of the well known traditional explanations offered by traditional historians.

Yet when you look at what Chamberlain actually said, the record is clear that he was not naive by any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact, he said repeatedly from 1931 on through 1939, right up to the outbreak of the war, that Hitler was an aggressor, that Hitler was a bully, that Hitler's intentions were clear, and the only thing that bullies understand is force. And it wasn't Chamberlain alone. In addition to declaring that only force could stop him, the British and French appeasers continually called Hitler "the mad chancellor." It seemed to me that here's a clear case of someone calling someone crazy, then attempting to rationally deal with them, which doesn't make much logical sense.

Historians don't usually mention, let alone emphasize, Chamberlain's take on Hitler. That's one reason why I've given four pages or so in the book to listing all the times in Chamberlain's diaries, letters, and private and public statements when he spoke of Hitler-as-bully and mentioned that only force could stop him. It seemed to me that something else was at work beyond the rationalizations traditional historians and Chamberlain himself, along with other defenders of the appeasement policy offered then and since, something irrational, something unconscious, something overlooked.

Another reason I began my research was to present psychological and psychohistorical methods to a wider public. Most psychohistorians and psychological historians utilize psychoanalytic psychology almost exclusively. There's a reason for that-because of its explanatory power. But there's more to psychohistory and psychological research, and to the psychological social sciences, than just psychoanalysis. A number of theories had been developed in psychohistory over the course of the last 15-20 years, which I began to see as helpful to understanding the irrationality of diplomacy in the interwar years. Consequently, I was interested in presenting to a wider public a number of different psychological takes on leadership; on the relationship between followers and leaders; on questions of method; on how one teases irrational thoughts and irrational behaviors from the historical documents; and so on. It was meant as a kind of introductory lecture, addressed particularly to historians and general readers as well as psychohistorians. I try at every point where I move into those theories to take a paragraph or two to explain what their underlying premises are before looking toward the empirical evidence. A key method is to let the documents speak for themselves-to the extent they can. …

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