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The Body Politic: Hitler, Paranoia, and “the Jew” in Modern Germany

by Geoffrey Cocks

Abstract

The Holocaust arose out of the fears and fantasies of Adolf Hitler. But Hitler’s fears and fantasies were complemented by a generalized crisis in Germany having to do with the vicissitudes of the ill and well modern body. It was the experience of illness across the populations of Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe that constituted a dual, dark link between the well and ill self of the modern era and Hitler’s paranoid project for extermination of a created enemy. The project itself was in great measure an act of massive cultural cowardice in the face of the modern morbid, mortal, and sexual body. And the travails of body and mind under the demands of Nazism were of such magnitude that the hypertrophied place of illness in the Third Reich at peace and at war helped generate racist animus against Jews and preempted “Aryan” empathy with the much greater sufferings of Jews and other Nazi “Others.”


On April 26, 1942 Adolf Hitler addressed what would be the last meeting of the Nazi Reichstag. In his speech on what was now a world war, Hitler spoke of ending the decomposition of European peoples by Jewish parasites—and Jewish control over the new wartime alliance of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Analysts with the BBC’s Propaganda Analysis Branch and the Psychological Warfare Division, monitoring the speech on radio, were struck by the degree of morbid paranoia in Hitler’s words about the Jews.

But while British cryptographers already knew in 1941 of mass killings of Jews in the East, the British social scientists did not know that what they were hearing from Berlin in 1942 was an announcement of Hitler’s decision in 1941 to begin implementing the Final Solution. This decision stemmed from Hitler’s conviction that increasing United States support of Great Britain and the Soviet Union was more proof of the world Jewish conspiracy against the Third Reich.

Nazi propaganda linking Jews, Bolsheviks, and Capitalists intensified that summer. Deportation of the European Jews to the East was organized at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. There Reinhard Heydrich spoke in Nazi terms that were both deeply irrational—and discursively modern and medical—of the necessity of eliminating the “germ cell of a new Jewish revival” among those surviving slave labor in Poland. In March, Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary of the “struggle for life and death between the Aryan race and the Jewish bacillus.” Then Hitler’s bellowed coup de mot on the “healthy nature” of National Socialism and its war against the “diseases” spread by the “international poison” of Jewry.(1)

This of course was not the first time—nor would it be the last—that Hitler held forth in obscene, bloody, “clinical” fashion about the Jews. In Mein Kampf (1925), he had claimed that his political vision was formed in 1918 when he confronted the Jewish threat while undergoing treatment in a military hospital for injuries suffered in a gas attack. As Richard Koenigsberg has long argued, Hitler and the Nazis were indulging in a body fantasy that posited the German nation as the rock against which the destructive forces of Jewish decomposition of the “body politic” would dash themselves.

According to Koenigsberg, Hitler’s obsession with collective national immortality constitutes a parallel to Freud’s contemporaneous conception of the struggle between the death instinct and the sexual instinct within each individual. Melanie Klein extended Freud’s theory into the realm of early infantile object relations to argue that “the death instinct evokes fear of annihilation (death) that takes the form of a feeling of persecution.”(2) These feelings are projected outward, onto “good objects” in the form for Hitler of the German nation as health and life and “bad objects” in the form “the Jew” as disease and death.

Hitler’s paranoia regarding the Jews is evident in his April 1942 speech through repeated reference to the Jews embodying the threat to the German nation and “race” of “disintegration,” “decay,” “deterioration,” “impotence,” “annihilation,” “fragmentation,” “exhaustion,” “weakening,” “dissipation,” “paralysis,” “infection,” “pestilence,” “extermination,” “decomposition,” “destruction,” and “corruption.”(3)

The workings of a biological death instinct behind Hitler’s paranoia about the Jews and his fixation on the “immortal” body of Germany were, however, ramified and articulated through compounding dynamics of psyche, self, and society. Hitler’s obsessions, and those of his Nazi brethren, were also consequences of a whole raft of conditions surrounding the historical phenomenon of a modern self and body.

The modern self was the product of a Reformation and Enlightenment turn toward individual faith and reason as internal sources of knowledge, obligation, and identity. Like the modern self, the modern body reflected the new bourgeois world of material production, organization, and consumption. And, since the body (and mind) remained susceptible to episodic, acute, and chronic illness (not to mention death), the well-being of the self (often through consumption of highly merchandized medicinal drugs) became in the modern era a matter of significant individual concern as well as subject to increasing social, political, scientific, and medical attention.

Hitler himself was a hypochondriac and surrounded himself with doctors who dosed and treated him for a variety of ills. While the health of most Germans, especially in the lower social classes, remained relatively poor, medicine for the first time could offer treatment, prevention, and cure for a wide range of diseases.  This rendered health a matter of greater expectation, but also rendered it a matter of ongoing hopeful, anxious, and even adversarial management and negotiation among individual, society, and state.

The lived realities of the new modern self and body were even more problematic in Germany than elsewhere in the West. The slaughters and sufferings of the First World War ended in bitter defeat followed by a series of dispiriting postwar economic crises, political conflict, and systematic attention to—and controversy over—the war disabled. Not only had German soldiers suffered from appalling rates of physical and mental casualties, German civilians had been stricken with widespread malnutrition and disease.

The Great War of 1914 was followed by the Great Pandemic of 1918, the Great Inflation of 1923, and the Great Depression of 1929. Well-being of self, body, and mind constituted a social and cultural space of constant concern, action, and policy within a pervasive German system of medical surveillance and control. As in other nations, the male German body was (self-)identified with the strengths and virtues of the nation (from the Latin natio, “that which has been born”). Moreover, the medicalization of society included a tendency among physicians to embrace the ideal of preserving the “eternal” body of the nation in part because of their inability to save in the end the mortal body of the individual.(4) 

These historical conditions demonstrate that Hitler’s obsessions at their source and in their consequences were not just his alone. Consideration of their workings offers a more comprehensive understanding of the motives and behaviors of bystanders to and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Germans as whole, as a result of social, cultural, and medical preoccupation with health and illness, would be receptive—as well as subjected—to Hitler and the Nazis’ hypertrophied racist concern with disease.

Many of these Germans, such as former members of the postwar Freikorps, were radically disposed toward the Nazi obsession with the health and strength of a male body endangered by the emasculating nature of modern industrial warfare, and the alleged danger of international Jewish poison. For its part, the Nazi imposition of “racial health” was itself an act of massive cultural cowardice in the face of the modern morbid, mortal, and sexual body.

The travails of the embodied, minded, and gendered self under the demands of Nazism were of such magnitude that the place of illness consumed space for “Aryan” suffering and preempted empathy for the much greater sufferings of Jews and other Nazi “Others.” Nazi discourse concerning “the Jew” in particular as an agent of disease only heightened fear of this “Other” through fear of illness in an era in Germany that cruelly and consistently placed the body and self in danger. In these ways as in others, therefore, the twelve long years of the short Third Reich sustained modern continuities long manifest in German lands. 

The historical evolution of the modern self, body, and mind on both sides of the fin de siècle was also reflected in the evolution of psychoanalytic theory and practice.  Three particular lines of this psychoanalytic thinking offer deeper insight into both the psychological and social dynamics driving Hitler, Nazis, and Germans into fateful collaboration at the expense of the lives of millions of others.

Freud and Klein posit a universal, internal, biological instinct toward both life and death within the human organism. Subsequent object relations theory and self-psychology stress the importance of dynamics of the unconscious in external relationships with others.

These newer perspectives put much greater emphasis on the historical, social, and cultural contexts surrounding individuals and groups. Heinz Kohut, born in Vienna in 1913, developed a psychology of the (new, bourgeois, and material) self as the result of an early childhood of maternal domination and paternal absence and neglect.  In the 1930s Jacques Lacan began defining the relationship of self with others in terms of the search through language symbols for what is felt to be lacking in the self.

This “lack” is the abyss of personal extinction below the precipice of the unconscious. For Lacan, the focus is not the working of a death instinct toward dissolution, but the deeply irrational existential struggle of the self against the physical reduction of the organism to nothingness. Lacan argues that the M/other is the aim and embodiment of desire for the eternal life of symbiotic infant and mother that can by definition as well as by fact never be satisfied. She is in fact “the Real” of death beyond language, knowledge, and experience that alienates males in particular from the body and its ineffable desire.

In the 1970s Nancy Chodorow theorized that the infant boy has particular difficulty in differentiating and forming a sovereign self because he desires (re)union with the woman who has dominated his early life. But it is from her that he must divorce his self in order to shape and retain a male identity. The result is the compensatory male need to dominate and abuse women out of conflicts over their own endangered masculine identity.(5)      

These psychoanalytic insights are particularly valuable for understanding the ways in which Hitler’s paranoia intertwined with that of his fraught time and place. The most striking and significant of these connections was with fellow veterans of the First World War radicalized along the same extreme, brutal nationalist lines as Hitler himself. Nazis such as Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann, Reinhard Heydrich, and Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss came from the ranks of the Freikorps, militias composed of unemployed war veterans that battled Communists and other foes between 1918 and 1923.  

The copious autobiographical literature of the Freikorps is marked by violent politicized fantasies about women and women’s bodies. This discourse betrays hypersexualized gender anxiety over the desired but smothering and annihilating interiority of the female body. This anxiety, which reinforces and is reinforced by hatred for Jews (“effeminate”), Communists (“the Red flood”), and other “un-German” entities, represents the deep dread that arises in the pre-Oedipal struggle of the fledgling self.

It is a dread, ultimately, of dissolution—of being swallowed and engulfed, which is why Freikorps texts overflow with terrifying images of floods of female bodily fluids.(6) These fantasies are an extreme instance of Chodorow’s argument that males have a more difficult task than females in reconciling the desire for a sovereign self-separate from the mother with the ongoing infantile wish for union with her. Such dynamics also inform male violence toward women, who embody the deepest wish that is also the greatest threat.

Defensiveness regarding a hypermasculine identity, common at this time in the West but especially strong in Prussian military and German national culture, had been heightened by an industrial and commercial society that vitiated gender as a reassuring marker of inferiority and superiority. Male feelings of superiority were also eroded by industrial warfare between 1914 and 1918.

War, supposedly the prime arena of manly decisiveness and control, was revealed as an indeterminate, chaotic morass of helplessness and slaughter that bred among men the hysteria believed the exclusive weakness of women. Thus the paranoia of Hitler and the Nazis regarding the Jews was not born of traditional and newly racialized anti-Semitism or of the death instinct alone, but was an exaggerated and often pathological form of allied fantasies and fears stemming from common human experience with self and others from the earliest years onward.

The body of “The Jew” was the one most socially available for projection because of longstanding outlier status in Germany and the West. And that Jews were for Nazis also a disease organism was reflective not only of the new racial variety of anti-Semitism but also of the modern era’s foregrounding of the health and illness of the body.

When it comes to the motives and behavior of Germans in general inside the Third Reich, the experience and discourse of the modern embodied and minded self-took place within the context of the Nazi insistence on incorporation into the racial community (Volksgemeinschaft), an appeal that had special resonance for many young Germans in particular.

What is perhaps surprising is that the modern self—even as now officially designated antagonist of the racial community—did anything but disappear under National Socialism. The Nazis had to channel their commands and exhortations through millions of individuals, including themselves, who had been acculturated and socialized into the modern conception, practice, and rhetoric of a largely autonomous self of material need and desire.

 And Nazi racism, for all its illusory biological collectivism, was inherently flattering to individual members of the “Master Race.” The regime itself propagandized “great personalities” of Nazi leadership, character, and performance. Such a self-aggrandizing culture allowed each “Aryan” to internalize a version of the individual conscience characteristic of the modern that—as “personality” (Persönlichkeit)—was constantly fertilized by Nazi propaganda as well as weeded by Nazi terror.(7)  

The German populace also had to confront issues illness and health in the context of newly Nazified institutional insistence on racial purity and productivity. Annual Health Reports issued by the German regional medical officers from the mid-1920s to 1945 reflect heightened and variable dynamics of threat, anxiety, constraint, and agency regarding the state of one’s health. In working out a living relationship with Nazi expectations and demands, the modern morbid and mortal self in its millions in Germany in this way too served as prop for Nazism as well as problem.

Most tragically, issues of individual body and mind also shaped popular response to Nazi vilification and persecution of racial enemies. And they did so in three ways. First, in looking out for preservation of the self, individual Germans supplied the bodies, minds, and energies the Nazi state required for conquest, enslavement, and extermination. Second, proliferating threats to individual well-being during the war in particular left little or no space for empathy with those advertised by the regime as mortal enemies of the nation.

Third, while the Nazis were more popular for their appeal to unity and hope than in their incitement to hatred and violence, the former appeal served the latter obsession by promoting internalization of the “self-love and other hate” at the bottom of Nazi ideology.(8) This was especially the case with the Jews, who were defined by Hitler and the Nazi regime not just as mortal enemies but also as morbid ones. The traditional evocation of a mortal threat is one that is fully external and thus manageably separate and identifiable.

The monolithic Nazi fantasy of “the Jew” as morbid enemy additionally carried with it the disturbingly intimate quality of an internal process of invisibly unmanageable weakening and eventual destruction. This morbid imagery spoke to Germans’ modern anxiety about body and self-beset by mortal peril from within and without. Such “dis-ease” was projected onto Jews as “disease” in the context of Nazi culture dominated by fantasies of wholeness and purity and ongoing modern private and public concern with health and illness of body and mind.

These fantasies and this culture were in turn rooted in the self from infancy onward in the same psychological dynamics that divide the world into comfortable but fragile “bipolar images of difference [such as] health vs. disease, good vs. evil, white vs. black.”(9)  While the workings of a “death instinct” certainly lay behind the obsessions of Hitler and the Nazis, other layers of psyche and society were involved in the acting out of these obsessions. The desires and dangers inhabiting and surrounding individual Germans’ bodies, minds, and selves contributed variously and decisively to Hitlers now murderously activated paranoid fantasy of “the Jew.”

Notes

(1) Max Domarus, ed., Hitler: Reden und Proklamationen 1932-1945 (Wiesbaden, 1973), 2:1868; Steven Morris, “Adolf Hitler’s ‘Messiah Complex’ Studied in Secret British Intelligence Report,” Guardian, May 3, 2012; Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich at War, 1939-1945 (New York, 2009), pp. 242-69. Portions of this essay from Geoffrey Campbell Cocks, The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany (Oxford, 2012).

(2) Richard Koenigsberg, “Hitler’s Body and the Body Politic,” October 12, 2004, p. 4 (online); Richard Koenigsberg, “Genocide as Immunology: The Psychosomatic Source of Culture,” n.d. (online); Richard A. Koenigsberg, Hitler’s Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology (New York, 1975).

(3) Domarus, Hitler Reden, 2:1866-69

(4) Detlev J. K. Peukert, “The Genesis of the ‘Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science,” in David Crew (ed.), Nazism and German Society (London, 1994), 282; George L. Mosse, Nationalism and Sexuality: Respectability and Abnormal Sexuality in Modern Europe (New York 1986), pp. 64-65; George L. Mosse, The Image of Man: The Creation of Modern Masculinity (New York, 1996), pp. 7, 9, 27, 53; Fritz Redlich, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (New York, 1999), pp. 17, 138, 248-51, 288-90, 333, 343.

(5) Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley, 1978), 181, 196, 198-99, 214; Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Minneapolis, 2004), pp. 100, 102-3, 106-28, 162-64; Judith Kegan Gardiner, “Self Psychology as Feminist Theory,” Signs 12 (1987): 764.

(6) Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies: Women Floods Bodies History, trans. Stephen Conway et al. (Minneapolis, 1987), 8-9, 25, 131, 179-80, 192, 201, 283, 285, 299, 304, 308, 342, 346-50, 380, 392, 404, 407, 410, 415, 421.

(7) Moritz Föllmer, “Was Nazism Collectivistic?” Journal of Modern History 82 (2010): 61-62, 72-73, 82; Thomas A. Kohut, A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven, 2012).

(8) Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge, Mass., 2003), 10.

(9) Sander Gilman, Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS, (Ithaca, 1988), p. 5; Linda Schulte-Sasse, Entertaining the Third Reich: Illusions of Wholeness in Nazi Cinema (Durham, NC, 1996), pp. 7, 8, 17-43.