Hitler’s Body and the Body Politic: The Psychosomatic Source of Culture
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology
by Richard Koenigsberg
“When political figures refer to national crises as "cancers," Richard Koenigsberg feels it's no accident. Such expressions echo a nation's hidden belief systems. If you can understand the 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.”
“Koenigsberg's genius has unlocked the secrets of a timeless drama.”
—Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology
From Hitler’s Ideology
“How may we account for the shape and form of specific cultural ideas and ideologies? Why are certain ideas ‘passed along,’ and not others? How may we account for the intensity of affect that is attached to certain ideas?
“We have not dealt adequately with the problem of the causes of the popularity of an ideology within a given culture. Once an ideology has attained a degree of power, conventional explanations may come into play as a means of explaining the continuing power of this ideology.
“These modes of explanation, however, cannot tell us why a given ideology has gained currency within a culture. They cannot explain why some ideas, among all the ideas present within a culture, have been “selected out” and, consequently, ‘passed along’.”
- Defending the Body Politic Against the Force of Disintegration
- Welding the German People into One Body
- Killing Death
- Identification of Self and Nation
- The Nation as an Immortal Self
- The Final Solution as Denial of Death
According to Freud’s theory of psychic determinism, there is no randomness in the life of the mind. Studying dreams, symptoms and slips-of-the-tongue, Freud concluded that whatever is uttered or expressed contains meaning.
I study ideology as the manifest content of a dream—to comprehend the ideology’s latent content, or unconscious meaning. I observe recurring images and metaphors within ideological productions. Through systematic analysis of images and metaphors, it is possible to reveal the deep structure of an ideology.
Based on analysis of the images and metaphors contained within Hitler’s writings and speeches, I have found that his ideology revolved around a fantasy about the body, more precisely, about the German body politic. Nazi actions represented the enactment of this bodily fantasy.
Hitler embraced Germany as an entity that could “live on.” He believed that the German nation had the potential to become immortal, except it contained a force within working to destroy it: the Jew. The Nazi movement constituted a struggle to come to terms with this force of death threatening the life of Germany—by extinguishing it.
Ideologies are structures within society, but why do they exist? I seek to uncover the meanings of ideologies, and the psychic work that they perform. I suggest that ideologies function as vehicles for working through deep-rooted psychological issues. Hitler’s ideology represented the medium through which he attempted to come to terms with the problem of death. Nazism represented a fantasy about Germany as an immortal body.
II. Defending the Body Politic
Against the Force of Disintegration
At the core of Hitler’s perception of reality lay his fantasy of Germany as an actual organism—a “real substance of flesh and blood.” Reflecting on territorial settlements after the First World War, Hitler said that France was “tearing piece after piece out of the flesh of our national body.” He compared Germany’s loss of the Polish Corridor to a “strip of flesh cut from our body,” a national wound that “bleeds continuously and will continue to bleed till the land is returned to us.” He called economics a “living process,” one of the “functions of the body which is the people,” and stated that “so much blood had been drawn off Germany into economic life abroad that the circulation has been stopped.”
Hitler’s mission followed from his experience of Germany as an actual body. The purpose of every idea and institution within a people, Hitler said, was to “maintain the substance of the people in bodily and mental health.” One sought to preserve the “Body formed by the people” in the present—in order to “secure in the future the maintenance of this body which is the people.” Hitler’s ideology revolved around making certain that the German body politic could be perpetuated eternally, that it would “live on.”
What made Hitler’s project of “maintaining the body of the people” difficult was his belief that the nation contained powerful forces working toward its destruction. The Jew was identified as the force of destruction operating within the German body politic: a “ferment of decomposition among people” working to “disintegrate” the body politic. Whereas most peoples or races act to build up societies and nations, Hitler declared that the Jewish class constituted a “dissolver of human culture.”
Hitler’s career focused on the struggle to come to terms with the force of destruction or disintegration that he imagined was working within the German body politic. The Nazi movement revolved around building up the nation: improving the health of the body politic and unifying the people so that Germany would never again “capitulate before the ferments of disintegration.” The goal of National Socialism was to maintain the life of Germany—by rescuing her from death.
To bar the spread of the process of disintegration, it was essential, Hitler said, to establish a “clear and clean separation between the two races.” A clear line of demarcation between the healthy, constructive German people, on the one hand, and the sick, destructive Jewish race, on the other, would amount to an “immunization of the German Reich against all disintegrating tendencies.” A nation with a powerful immune system would ward off elements that threatened the life of the body politic.
As the Nazi movement took hold—as Germany recovered her health and strength—Hitler affirmed his determination to protect his achievement. In the future, Hitler insisted, no one would be able to “shatter or tear asunder” the rejuvenated Reich. The Nazi Movement would leave behind a German body politic completely renewed internally, intolerant of anyone who “sins against the nation,” and pitiless against anyone who would attempt once more to “destroy or disintegrate this body politic.”
Politics for Hitler constituted a struggle of “life against death:” a battle between the healthy German nation, and Jews who represented the “demon of the disintegration of peoples, symbol of the unceasing destruction of their life.” By asserting the “national creative will over against the conception of international disintegration,” Hitler believed Germany could survive the threat posed by Judaism.
III. Welding the German People into One Body
Hitler’s ideology derived from his fantasy of the German nation as an enormous body politic consisting of citizens as “cells.” His aspiration was to bring millions of German cells together to create a single, omnipotent organism. By “welding men one to another,” Hitler believed, the German people would transform into a “single block of steel,” thus creating an “unbreakable unity” capable of resisting the force of disintegration.
If the “will and the life-struggle of our people were split into forty or fifty sections,” Hitler said, Germany would fall apart. To achieve national unity, it was necessary to eliminate political organizations working toward “disunion and disintegration.” If Germany succeeded in putting together a “body politic as hard as iron from the conglomeration of parties, associations, unions, concepts of the world and class,” then the nation would never again “break in pieces.” A nation that was totally united would not disintegrate.
The goal of Hitler’s speeches and mass rallies was to persuade millions of people to fuse into a “unity of spirit and will.” To resist forces working toward fragmentation, Hitler implored his people to grow nearer and closer to one another. The German people, he declared, had to be thrown into “the great melting pot, the nation” in order to be “purified and welded one to another.”
IV. Killing Death
Hitler’s ideology revolved around the problem of death. By removing from within the nation any element that might cause weakness or disease, Hitler hoped to create a body politic that could never die. The problem of death, however, contains no solution. Freud’s concept of the death instinct points to the fact that, whatever symbols human beings may construct, organisms inevitably move toward their demise.
Like Hitler, Freud conceived of human existence as a struggle of “life against death.” He observed that while organisms possess a life instinct that works to “preserve living substance and to join it into ever larger units,” living creatures also possess a death instinct, an internal force working to “dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primeval, inorganic states.”
While the aim of the life instinct, Freud said, was is to establish “ever-greater unities and to preserve them thus,” to “bind together”—the aim of the death instinct is to “undo connections and so destroy things.” In the multicellular living organism, the libido meets the death instinct that works to “disintegrate this cellular being and bring each elemental primary organism into a condition of inorganic stability.”
The life or sexual instincts active in each cell, Freud theorized, “take the (other) cells as their object.” They “partly neutralize the death instincts in these cells,” thus preserving their life. The life instinct, in short, acts to force or hold together “portions of living substance” within each organism, neutralizing that other force working to “disintegrate the cellular being.” The life instinct thus prevents the organism from falling into a condition of “inorganic stability.”
Freud’s depiction of the struggle taking place within organisms is nearly identical to Hitler’s description of the struggle occurring within Germany. Where Freud described the death instinct working to “undo connections” and to “disintegrate the cellular being,” Hitler described Jews as “no element of organization,” but rather a “disintegrator of peoples” whose presence caused the “falling to pieces of the organic structure of the nation.” Where Freud understood the death instinct as a force working to “dissolve living units and bring them back to their inorganic states,” Hitler divined a process within the nation that threatened to “dissolve the German people into its basic elements.”
How can we account for this remarkable similarity between Freud’s theory and Hitler’s ideology? I hypothesize that both derived from experiences, observations and perceptions. Freud experienced or observed a force of disintegration acting within his own mind/body and that of his patients, and developed his theory of the death instinct, theorizing that the force working toward death emanated from the inner world. Hitler similarly experienced or observed a force of disintegration. Unlike Freud, Hitler believed that the force working toward death emanated from the outer, rather than inner, world.
Rudolf Hess often declared at mass rallies, “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler.” Hitler deeply identified his own body with the German body politic. One may hypothesize that he relocated his body in the body politic, leading him to experience his own death instinct in the form of his belief that the German nation was disintegrating.
Living organisms eventually disintegrate and die. Hitler aspired to create in Germany a unique kind of organism that did not contain a death instinct—and therefore was capable of living forever. Hitler’s odyssey constituted a struggle to defeat the death instinct, that is, to overcome the force of disintegration he imagined was working to destroy Germany. He aspired to shape Germany into an organism that would never die.
V. Identification of Self and Nation
Nazism was an extreme form of nationalism insisting on radical identification between self and nation. Hitler asked his people to acknowledge and embrace their profound dependence upon Germany:
Our Nation is not just an idea in which you have no part; you yourself support the nation; to it you belong; you cannot separate yourself from it; your life is bound up with the life of your whole people; the nation is not merely the root of your strength, it is the root of your very life.
Hitler’s oratory focused upon persuading Germans that they could not separate their own lives from the life of their nation. He insisted that each German individual fuse his body with the body politic.
It is important to note that although Hitler spoke of “the German people,” he was not referring to actual human beings. When Hitler asserts that “the individual is transitory, the people is permanent,” it is clear that the concept of the individual and that of the people are separate. Indeed, the idea of the individual and the idea of the people are in opposition to one another. Individuals are organisms that eventually die. “The people,” on the other hand, is a different kind of organism—a body politic capable of living forever.
Hitler stated that the liberal Weltanschauung, in its deification of the single individual, must lead to the “destruction of the people.” National Socialism, on the other hand, desired to “safeguard the people” if necessary, even “at the expense of the individual.” Hitler posed the question, “What is life?” and responded by asserting, “Life is the Nation.” Individuals had to die, but “beyond the life of the individual is the nation.” Hitler was not referring to actual individuals when he spoke of the “German People.” What does it mean to say that “the people” will live on though individuals die?
Melanie Klein hypothesizes that anxiety arises from the “operation of the death instinct within the organism.” The death instinct evokes fear of annihilation, which takes the form of a feeling of persecution. In other words, we don’t experience death as coming from within. Rather, we push the death instinct outward—so that the fear of death returns as paranoia. The struggle to defeat death, consequently, becomes transformed into a struggle to defeat dangerous objects in the external world.
However, just as the ego attaches the death instinct to objects in the external world, so does the ego attach itself to objects in the external world that become “representatives of the life instinct.” By virtue of gratification received by the good object, the organism repeatedly “breaks through states of disintegration.” “Good objects” in the external world, in other words, become a bulwark against destructive or bad objects. In Hitler’s world, the good object, Germany, would do battle against the bad object, the Jew.
Klein’s theory, like Freud’s, evokes Hitler’s vision of a world where bodies struggle against the tendency to fragment or fall apart. Like Freud and Hitler, Klein conceived of the struggle to master death as the central theme of existence. Klein observed that the ego acts to displace this internal struggle into the outer world.
Just as the death instinct is projected outward, leading to the creation of bad objects, so Klein believed that human beings externalized the life instinct to create “good objects.” The struggle of “life against death,” therefore, initially a conflict occurring within the organism, is transformed into a struggle between good and bad objects in the outer world.
Hitler’s Nazi movement constituted a political process whose fundamental purpose was to effect radical separation between the life and death instincts. The German nation became the external representation of the life instinct; whereas the Jew became the external representation of the death instinct. Hitler’s political career reflected a furious, maniacal struggle to keep the good object (the nation) separate from the bad object (the Jew).
One would suppose that the personal struggle to exist—in the face of internal and external threats—is sufficiently arduous without having to add the challenge of maintaining the life of a second body, one’s nation or “body politic.” Why did Hitler project the struggle of life against death into the political arena?
For this was the Nazi project: that of maintaining the life of the body politic in the face of perceived threats to its existence. Why were the Nazis willing to sacrifice their own lives and those of millions of others in the name of this project? To explain how and why people transfer the struggle to maintain their own lives or bodies into the struggle to maintain the life of the body politic, additional explanatory concepts are required.
VI. The Nation as Immortal Self
The death instinct is often represented as the most obscure of concepts. In actuality, the idea is quite simple. The death instinct points to the breakdown that occurs within all organisms, a process that accelerates with aging. The death instinct refers to the aging process: the gradual breakdown of our bodies. As we age, our bodies grow weaker, less resilient, and more susceptible to disease.
People tend to think of death as what occurs after contracting a fatal disease, suggesting that if one did not become ill, one might live forever. The idea of the death instinct draws attention to the fact that our bodies are continually breaking down. As we age, it’s extremely unpleasant to realize that we are moving toward our demise.
Ernest Becker hypothesized (in The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil) that denial of death lies at the source of culture building and of the creation of ideological systems. According to Becker, human beings attach desperately to symbolic systems that contain the promise or possibility of “living on” after one dies. The ego attaches to an ideology, equating self-perpetuation with perpetuation of the ideology with which it identifies. Human beings bind to “immortality systems” that they defend hysterically and violently.
For Hitler, Germany was the immortal object with which he identified. Denial of death took the form of attempting to forge an indestructible body politic that could live forever. Ordinary organisms break down or disintegrate. The Nazis imagined that they could shape a German nation that would become a different kind of organism. They would create a body politic that did not contain a death instinct and therefore could live forever.
Hitler’s ideology revolved around “maintaining the life of the nation.” While individual Germans died, the German nation would “live on.” Hitler’s dream of ceaseless existence—his fantasy of immortality—was projected into the idea of the never-ending existence of Germany.
The cultural impulse often is directed toward building monuments—for example, megaliths and pyramids—which survive longer than the individual human’s life span. Hitler relished the creation of monumental buildings to “strengthen the National Socialist State.” Since “we believe in the eternity of this Reich,” Hitler proclaimed, “these works of ours shall also be eternal.”
Buildings, however, were only a symbol of the “eternity of the Reich.” The fundamental meaning of immortality, for Hitler, was that of “a people which lives forever.” Nazi ideology was designed to lead the individual “away from the personal to the eternal.” Though men come and men die, Hitler declared, “This community shall last forever.”
We now understand what Hitler meant when he said that National Socialism strove to “safeguard the people as such, if necessary at the expense of the individual.” The term “the people” has nothing to do with actual human beings. Rather, this term symbolized the idea of a national community that could live forever. Nazism meant renunciation of individual life in the name of devotion to the immortal community. Individuals come and go, but “a people” could last forever.
Johann Fichte was a prominent German nationalist writing in the early 19th century. In his “Addresses to the German Nation” (1807), he articulated the idea of the nation as a container for an immortal self. Fichte wrote that life as “mere continuance of changing existence,” never has had any value for the “noble-minded man.” Rather, the noble-minded man embraces life only as the “source of what is permanent.” Permanence is promised to this man by the “continuous and independent existence of his nation.” The “devouring flame of higher patriotism,” Fichte said, embraces the nation as “vesture for the eternal.”
The promise of a life extending beyond the period here on earth, Fichte observes—“that alone it is which can inspire men even unto death for the fatherland.” In other words, one is willing to devote oneself to one’s country, even to die for it, because one’s nation holds the promise of immortality. One’s nation represents the idea of the eternal contained within everyday reality, that which persists even as individuals die.
Human beings aspire to affect the course of history. Belief in the “eternal continuance of one’s influence on this earth” is founded in the hope of the “eternal continuance of the people from which one has developed.” Belief in the immortality of one’s nation provides inspiration, allowing us to “plan what is permanent.” to imagine our own life as an eternal life. The desire to comprehend one’s own life as an eternal life is the bond that “unites one’s own nation in a most intimate fashion with oneself.”
Driven by the denial of death and wish for immortality, people identify with their nations as “vesture for the eternal.” Human beings aspire to fuse with this object: bind their small bodies to an “omnipotent” body politic. Hitler waged a furious struggle to “maintain the life of the people” because he imagined that his own life and that of his people were one and the same. Hitler’s fantasy was that he would “live on” as part of the German nation and its history.
Many social movements are sustained by this dream of immortality. What distinguished Hitler’s ideology was the extent to which the idea of immortality was conceived in physical or bodily terms. Hitler’s fantasy revolved around the perpetuation of Germany as an actual body (politic). Hitler stated that what he had “called into life in these years”—his Nazi movement—would not be “an end in itself,” since “all can and will be transient.” What would endure was the “permanent element,” that is, the “substance of flesh and blood which we call the German people.”
The Nazi movement, Hitler insisted, did not regard position or standing in life as decisive, since such considerations “fade into insignificance before the millennia. Such things come—and go.” That which abided was the “substance itself —a substance of flesh and blood—our people.” It was the substance of the people, Hitler declared, that “truly exists, that remains,” and it was to this substance of the people that one should “feel oneself to be responsible.”
Hitler was not satisfied with the idea of the nation as an abstraction, or “imagined community”, or social construction. He was an early embodiment theorist. According to his theory, Germany was a real body, a genuine “substance” of flesh and blood. It was to this actual body—the immortal body politic—than Hitler devoted his existence.
VII. The Final Solution as Denial of Death
Hitler’s project was to create a people so closely united—fused together—that they could think, feel and act as a single organism. Such a body politic would be indestructible, not only in the present, but in the future as well. Hitler and the Nazis devoted their lives toward creating an organism that would be different from all other organisms. They aspired to fashion a body (politic) that was so healthy and powerful that it would not succumb to death.
The Jew in Hitler’s ideology was a force working to destroy Germany. National Socialism was the attempt to come to terms with this destructive force. The “Final Solution”—the concluding phase of Hitler’s struggle against death—represented a form of radical surgery whose purpose was to “remove” Germany’s death instinct. By eliminating the Jew, Hitler hoped to quash the process of disintegration.
Despite Hitler’s efforts to create a perfectly healthy nation, Hitler’s own death instinct continually returned in the form of his belief that Germany was disintegrating. Hitler projected the struggle of “life against death” into the political arena, and waged a furious battle to “maintain the body of the people.” He aspired to defeat death by embracing the idea of a body politic that could live forever.
The “Jew” represented Hitler’s experience and perception of his own death instinct: recognition or realization that all bodies die. In spite of Hitler’s struggle to deny death, he could not entirely repress the voice within that spoke the truth. Still, Hitler refused to heed this inner voice declaring that all bodies die. Rather, hearing this voice, Hitler became infuriated, enraged. To embrace the truth, Hitler would have had to acknowledge that his Nazi project had been in vain; that he had devoted his life to an illusion.
Therefore, in a climactic act of manic determination, Hitler initiated the Final Solution: a struggle to destroy death—the Jew—once and for all. Hitler insisted that Germany would not die; that the body politic could live on forever. Genocide represented Hitler’s final attempt to solve the problem of death by destroying Jews, who symbolized the death-instinct—the reality that bodies eventually disintegrate.