Library of Social Science Book Reviews
Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology
Koenigsberg, Richard A., Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology. New York: Library of Social Science, 1975. 105 pp. $25.00 U.S. (pb.) ISBN 978-0915042-01-2. Review by Richard A. Koenigsberg, Library of Social Science.
Regarding the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt said, “anti-Semitism explains everything—and therefore nothing.” To understand the Holocaust it is necessary to explain anti-Semitism. In Hitler’s Ideology, I seek to illuminate the psychological meaning of Nazi anti-Semitism: the unconscious fantasies that sustained and supported the cultural form. How may we account for the passion that this ideology evoked? Through analysis of images and metaphors contained within Hitler’s writings and speeches, I demonstrate that Hitler’s ideology revolved around a fantasy about Germany as an actual body—containing Jewish microorganisms that had to be removed if the nation was to survive. This study, I hope, lays the foundation for a psychoanalytic approach to the study of ideology, culture and history.
This work deserves to be an instant classic. With care and caution, Koenigsberg remains close to the data from which he adduces his theory. Koenigsberg suggests that what is at stake is larger than an explanation of Hitler, Nazism, or even nationalism: it is, rather, an explanation of culture itself. Koenigsberg's genius has unlocked many of the unconscious secrets of a timeless drama.
—Howard F. Stein, Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology
When political figures refer to national crises as 'cancers,' Richard Koenigsberg feels it's no accident. He feels such expressions are echoes of a nation's hidden belief systems. If you can understand the underlying fantasies that provide politicians with such rhetoric, then you can understand the country. This book presents an ingenious technique for identifying the psychological origins of political and social events.
—The Village Voice
The best critical analysis in English of Hitler's thought.
An imaginative and important work.
—Robert G. L Waite, author, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler
This exciting book provides deep insight into the relationship between components of the human psyche and social policy and endeavor, demonstrating that Hitler's behavior followed as a consequence of his perception of reality. The amount of data Koenigsberg provides is overwhelming. Over five hundred citations are presented in which Hitler speaks of Germany as a living organism and as a national body afflicted with a disintegrating disease, and of the Jew as a deadly poison and a parasite. The implications of what Koenigsberg writes are far-reaching.
—Ronald A. Brauner, The Reconstructionist
Hitler's Ideology is available now through Amazon.com at very special, discounted rates
In Hitler's Ideology, I present a method for uncovering the “deep structure” of ideologies and cultural belief systems. By identifying recurring images and metaphors contained in Hitler's rhetoric, I show how fantasies and other elements of psychic life are projected into ideologies and cultural forms. “The Jew”, for example, was a central component of Hitler's ideology, described typically as a disease, force of disintegration and parasite within the body of the people. Recurring images and metaphors within Hitler's writings and speeches allow one to perceive the core fantasies that structured Hitler's vision of reality and energized historical action.
The central fantasy contained within Hitler's ideology may be summarized as follows:
- The nation is a living organism consisting of the German people, who constitute the substance or “flesh and blood” of this organism.
- This essentially healthy, sound body politic is being attacked by a virulent internal force working toward its destruction.
- The source of the destructive force within the national body is “the Jew” or “the Jewish Bolshevik.”
- Insofar as the purpose of politics is to “maintain the body of the people,” any action is justifiable if it serves to eliminate the force working to destroy Germany.
The objective of Nazism was to take whatever actions necessary to assure that Germany would survive. Hitler’s ideology revolved around “saving Germany from death.” The Nazis ruthlessly committed themselves to destroying the pathogens whose continued presence within the body politic, Hitler believed, would lead to the nation’s demise.
According to Hitler's ideological fantasy, each individual German constituted a cell—forming a gigantic “national organism.” The force of disintegration within Germany, Hitler believed, caused the cellular structure of the nation to fall apart. Hitler devoted his existence to persuading the German people to come together so as to constitute a unified, cohesive body. If the people could “hold together like a single block of steel," then the national body would not succumb to the force of destruction.
II. IDEOLOGY AND FANTASY
Hitler believed in his ideology. His hysteria and passionate rhetoric reflected the depth of his attachment to his own ideas. Hitler was able to persuade millions of others to become passionate about the ideas that moved him. He convinced many Germans that their nation was under attack, whipping his people into a fury, prevailing upon them to rise up to undertake a “life or death struggle” to save the nation.
People devalue the power of Hitler's ideas, claiming they are irrational, inconsistent, devoid of intellectual content, etc. They underestimate the impact of Hitler's ideology because they are under the spell of the fantasy of “rationality.” Ideas do not have to be true to be believed. It is simply necessary that they evoke an emotional response from the people to whom they are conveyed.
Politicians articulate their own emotions and fantasies through the vehicle of ideas that they put forth upon the public stage. If a politician is to be successful, the ideas he conveys must resonate with the populace. The leader's words must evoke emotions and fantasies within his audience that are not unlike the emotions and fantasies that his words evoke within himself.
What was it Hitler said that so excited the German people? What emotions and fantasies were conveyed by the words he spoke? How was it possible for Hitler to galvanize so many people to perform such radical acts?
Metaphors and images within the rhetoric of political leaders contain, evoke and bring forth latent fantasies into reality. An ideology constitutes a modus operandi allowing unconscious fantasies to be activated and externalized into the world. Ideologies “capture” or harness energy contained within latent desires or fantasies, making this energy available for concerted, societal action.
III. WHAT DO IDEOLOGIES DO?
In “The Jewish Parasite,” Alexander Bein notes that in Nazi ideology words “assume a definite biological aspect.” The original character of the word “parasite” for example—as a mere simile and comparison—gradually was effaced and replaced by parasite “in its actual meaning as a biological organism.”
The rise of Nazism is an example of the “social construction of reality.” Hitler described Jews as parasites, bacteria and viruses. Nazi ideology was constructed on the fantasy of Germany as a “living organism” containing the Jew as a disease that threatened to kill the nation. Bein observes that the language inherent in the images and similes used to describe the Jew gained such power over the German people so as to make “image and reality one.” Genocide was undertaken as a form of immunology: to kill off pathogenic cells in order to save the national organism.
Nazi ideology presented Jews as corroding and poisonous parasites everywhere infesting and striving to “destroy the body of the German people as a whole and each individual German with a demonic power, driven by their law of existence as parasites, bacilli and vermin.” This depiction of the Jew, Bein says, “paralyzed to a large extent any internal resistance on the part of the masses.” The metaphor of the Jews as “bacilli not to be negotiated with but to be exterminated” could, in the atmosphere of bio-mythology, “become a horrible reality.”
What does it mean to say that Germany was a “body containing Jewish bacteria”? This metaphor is manifest content containing latent meaning. Analysis of recurring images within a leader's rhetoric allows one to uncover the unconscious fantasies that are the source of the ideology. To seek to discover the meaning of an ideology is to attempt to understand why it exists.
Social theory does not often address the reasons why certain ideologies exist. People speak of “dominant discourses.” But the question is: why do specific discourses become dominant? To answer this question, I suggest a psychological approach. What does this particular ideology do for the people who embrace it? What role does the ideology play in the psychic life of its adherents?
Culture is not a domain separate from human beings. Ideologies exist to the extent that people produce, espouse and perpetuate them. Ideologies are created by human beings for human beings. Ideologies perform psychic work, allowing people to encounter, work through and attempt to master fundamental desires, fantasies, conflicts and existential dilemmas.
To comprehend the rise of Hitler, for example, one must uncover the sources Nazism’s appeal. Why did millions of Germans become hysterical when Hitler spoke? Why were men like Goebbels and Himmler mesmerized by Hitler's words? Hitler's ideas touched a deep chord. His ideology drew forth and crystallized latent desires and fantasies, allowing them to manifest as social reality.
IV. THE GERMAN BODY POLITIC AND THE DENIAL OF DEATH
Hitler's ideology was a radical form of nationalism revolving around the fantasy of the German body politic in a state of disintegration. Insofar as Hitler identified so profoundly with his nation, he experienced Germany's disintegration as his own. Hitler was unable to separate political perceptions from perception of his inner state of being. He articulated inner states of being through his ideology.
What is this ideology of nationalism, still so powerful that we barely recognize it as or call it an ideology? A line in America the Beautiful: “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesty above the fruited plain!” Nationalism revolves around the quest for narcissistic omnipotence. The ego of the nationalist seeks to expand by imagining that it is fused with a vast geographical territory: the entire “space” of national life.
The ideology of nationalism suggests that the entirety of one's country—its history, people and accomplishments—exist within the self. Nationalism implies the absence of a boundary between self and country. According to this ideology, self and nation are inextricably bound. To be a “man without a country” seems inconceivable.
However, if the ego's wish for narcissistic expansion is projected into the idea of one's nation, so is the ego's vulnerability and tendency toward fragmentation. Hitler externalized anxiety into the idea of Germany and believed his nation was in danger of disintegrating. He experienced the idea of death (his own death) as a perception that Germany—the body politic with which he identified his own body—was falling apart.
Contemporary theorists focus on how language shapes thought; how discourse structures the body. However, language and discourse also are vehicles through which mind and body are externalized. Each of us possesses a force of disintegration operating within (what Freud called the death instinct). Hitler experienced and articulated the idea of death in the form of a belief that his nation was disintegrating. The Nazi project was to defeat Germany's force of disintegration—to overcome death by creating a body politic that could live forever.
One way human beings deal with the issue of mortality is through the creation of nations or “omnipotent bodies politic”: entities that seem to exist in a dimension separate from organic existence. We project the idea of our small, frail bodies into the idea of these imaginary, omnipotent bodies and imagine that we will “live on” as if contained within them.
Hitler promoted an ideology revolving around the denial of death. At the core of Nazism was Hitler’s fantasy that if the bodies of individual Germans could fuse to create a single body politic, then the nation would never die. If the German people were united (massed together as cells of an organism) to create one, indestructible body, then the country could live forever. In this typical nationalist fantasy, the nation or body politic is an entity that exists above and beyond the lives or bodies of particular individuals.
In spite of his effort to embrace Germany as “vesture for the eternal” (Fichte), Hitler's sense of death continued to return in the form of a perception that the national body was in the process of disintegrating or decomposing. Hitler projected the idea of death into the idea of the Jew. The German body politic could become immortal if not for the Jewish principle of death operating within it.
The fundamental purpose of Nazi ideology was to split off the idea of death and locate it in a symbolic representation, the Jew. Hitler and the Nazis promoted the ideology of anti-Semitism in the struggle to which they committed themselves against death. Having projected into the Jew the idea that bodies become diseased and die, this struggle took the form of an effort to “kill off” the symbolic object into which the idea of death had been projected.
V. THE PSYCHIC FUNCTION OF IDEOLOGY
Recent social theory tends to view thought and motivation as originating in structures outside the self. Indeed, some insist that mind and self are nothing but the “discourses that push and pull us.” I pose questions about the sources and meanings of ideologies. Who has created ideologies, and why do they exist? Why have particular discourses been “selected out” (from among the multitude of ideas that people put forth) to become elements of culture? Why do certain ideologies evoke such passion?
In order to answer these questions, we need to articulate the meaning of culturally constituted ideas; to delineate the psychic work these ideas perform for the people who embrace them. In asking why ideologies exist, one seeks to uncover the symbolic meaning of cultural belief systems. I hypothesize that ideologies or discourses are embraced and perpetuated (become elements of culture) to the extent that they perform psychic functions for human beings.
Social theory suggests that what is “out there” in culture (the “symbolic order”) constitutes an independent, autonomous domain that imposes itself on human beings, but is separate from us. This perspective, to me, seems delusional. Who creates language and discourse? Who other than human beings are responsible for the nature and shape of the entire panoply of ideas, material objects and social arrangements that we call culture?
Examine cultural forms such as symphonies, light bulbs and air conditioners, and it is not difficult to acknowledge that human beings are the source: to say that these inventions represent a response to our desires and fantasies. These cultural artifacts came into being because they fulfilled human needs; because some human beings wanted symphonies, light bulbs and air conditioners to exist.
I theorize that war and genocide—like symphonies, light bulbs and air conditioners—exist because they represent the fulfillment of psychological needs. It is difficult for people to say that cultural inventions such as war and genocide exist because they provide psychological gratification. We shy away from the idea that ideologies that generate war and genocide articulate human desires and fantasies. We prefer to imagine that war and genocide come from a place outside the self.
Hitler's ideology constituted a modus operandi for himself and the German people, bringing forth latent fantasies and desires onto the stage of social reality. Hitler created “history” to the extent that he harnessed these latent desires and fantasies, focusing them through the lens of his ideology. His rhetoric—the metaphors and images contained within his speeches—functioned to evoke the shared fantasies of the German people.