Political Violence as Collective Psychopathology
by Richard Koenigsberg
Excerpts from Part I of the essay, “Hitler, Germany and Masochistic Group Death” appear below.
Click here to read the complete paper.
According to historian Michael Geyer, in the last four months of the war in 1945, nearly 500,000 German soldiers died per month. This was probably the most concentrated incidence of mass-slaughter in the history of the human race.

Historian Richard Bessel states that the “distillation of Nazism lay in the senseless destruction of human life.” Geyer states that Goebbels and Hitler “deliberately prepared for death—their own and that of the nation.” Their strategy of ideologization and mobilization served the purpose of “preparing the soldier to die.”

Well over 200 million people were killed in the twentieth century as a result of political violence generated by nations. Episodes of mass slaughter are given names like war, genocide, democide, social annihilation and murder by government. It seems as though the world has been living through an epidemic, or malignant disease.

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski states that the 20th century was dominated by the “politics of organized insanity.” Yet nowhere does one find a systematic concept of psychopathology to characterize the monumentally destructive, often bizarre events of political history.

In the privacy of a movie theater—witnessing the carnage, absurdity and futility of battle—people often think to themselves, “War is insane.” But what happens when people leave the theater? Where are studies of the “war disorder”?

Roger Griffin, an authority on Fascism, summarizes his conclusions about Nazi destructiveness on his website: “Since so many millions were involved in Nazism and the Holocaust, this can’t be explained in terms of madness or pathology: Something more basic had to be involved.” Why the a priori assumption that just because millions of people are involved, a social movement cannot be characterized as a form of madness or pathology?

Upon assuming power as Chancellor in 1933, Hitler immediately began fantasizing about the Second World War—which would necessitate the death of millions of German men. In one of a series of conversations with Herman Rauschning in the mid-30s, he stated that he would be prepared for the “blood sacrifice of another German generation;” that he would not hesitate to take the deaths of 2 or 3 million German soldiers on his conscience “fully aware of the heaviness of sacrifice.” In planning for war, Hitler was preparing for the slaughter of German soldiers.

I am going to cite during the course of this paper an article written by psychiatrist Stuart Twemlow and psychologist George Hough published in the journal Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Looking at group dynamics from a clinical perspective, the authors develop the concept of a “psychotic fantasy of masochistic group death” and show how a leader can be both the “victim and perpetrator of a large group’s masochistic unconscious wishes and yearnings.”

The Nazi movement was highly effective in preparing young Germans for the Holocaust that Hitler had in store for them. Each Nazi organization was required to declare an “oath of allegiance.” At age ten, Hitler Youth members swore that they were ready and willing to “give up their lives” for Adolf Hitler. Soldiers upon joining the army vowed that they were prepared to “offer their lives at any time.” The SS-man famously pledged that he would be “obedient unto death.” The essence of being a Nazi, in short, was the promise to die when Hitler asked one to.

As the attack against Russia began, German General von Rundstedt (see Baird, 1975) admonished his soldiers to emulate the examples of their First World War brothers and to die in the same way, to be as “strong, unswerving and obedient, to go happily and as a matter of course to his death." As war on the Eastern Front progressed, Goebbels was satisfied to note that German soldiers “go into battle with devotion, like congregations going into service." German soldiers did not rebel: they went like sheep to the slaughter.

Historians agree that the tide of war had shifted irrevocably against Germany in the fall of 1942 at the latest with the Battle of Stalingrad and, what’s more, that the German military and Nazi leadership were perfectly aware of this situation. The military effort in summer 1942 to reverse this fate failed and hence the war was lost. In his Nuremberg memorandum, Jodl summed up: “Earlier than any other person in the world, Hitler sensed and knew that the war was lost.”

Hitler was unwilling, however, to negotiate, preferring rather a “fight unto death.” Geyer concludes that the German machinery of destruction and annihilation went into high gear “at the very moment the war was lost.” In short, the German nation mobilized in a total war effort and the Wehrmacht fought for three additional years—despite the knowledge that this effort would make no difference to the war’s eventual outcome.

In the last four months of the war in 1945, nearly 500,000 German soldiers died per month. This was probably the most concentrated incidence of mass-slaughter in the history of the human race. It would appear that by the end of the Second World War, Hitler had actualized the fantasy he set forth in the mid-30s when he declared that he would not shrink from the sacrifice of millions of German men.

Twemblow and Hough suggest that a social movement’s momentum derives from the fantasy of masochistic submission to a leader. The ultimate behavioral enactment of the fantasy of masochistic submission is group death. Let us briefly examine how Hitler and Goebbels motivated the German people.

Joseph Goebbels delivered his most famous speech before a packed crowd on February 18, 1943. He asked the hysterical crowd whether they believed in their Fuehrer and the total victory of German arms. An ear-splitting “Ja!”—“Yes!”—was the reply. Goebbels screamed, “Do you want total war? Do you want it, if necessary, more total and more radical than we could ever imagine today?” Whereupon pandemonium broke out. “Now, Volk,” Goebbels screamed, “arise and storm, break loose.”

Twemblow and Hough claim that a charismatic leader can inspire his followers to actualize a psychotic and co-created fantasy of masochistic group death. Group members heroically choose to die rather than be crushed by enemy forces closing in. The leader is like a pied piper who leads the community of the faithful precisely where they have “unconsciously directed him to lead them.”

In a speech on June 5, 1943, Goebbels declared, “Millions of German soldiers today have to be ready to die on the battlefield for their people.” On Hitler’s 56th birthday on April 20, 1945—just before the end of the war—Goebbels stated that the German people would remain loyal to their Fuehrer no matter what: “We will never desert him, no matter how desperate and dangerous the hour. We stand with him, as he stands with us—in Germanic loyalty as we have sworn. We do not need to tell him, for he knows and must know: Fuehrer command! We will follow.”

Geyer concludes that collective death as a deliberate gambit was “very much at the heart of the Nazi politics of self-destruction.” The SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps extolled the heroic death of the soldiers at Stalingrad and asked civilians to follow their example: “Their passage is like the path into a land from which there is no return. This is their call: that we all proceed into the land in which they dwell.”

In Nazism and War (2004), historian Richard Bessel reports that by the end of March 1945, there were an estimated 19 million Germans who were refugees. The disaster reached such proportions that one could speak, Bessel says, of the “destruction of German society. “The chaos and extreme violence of the Second World War turned Europe into a gigantic prison and sea of blood. The distillation of Nazism, he says, lay in the “senseless destruction of human life.” Geyer states that Goebbels and Hitler “deliberately prepared for death—their own and that of the nation.” Their strategy of ideologization and mobilization during the war served the purpose of “preparing the soldier to die.”

The end of this massive project of national self-destruction occurred only with the suicides of those who had orchestrated it. On April 30, 1945, Hitler poisoned his dog, gave a cyanide tablet to his wife Eva Braun, and then killed himself. The next day, Joseph Goebbels’ wife, Magda, crushed cyanide capsules into the mouths of her six children, killing them all. Then, Joseph and Magda Goebbels committed suicide.