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Chapter IV: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

Psychoanalytic Sociology
Richard A. Koenigsberg
Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology

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“An instant classic. With care and caution, Koenigsberg remains close to the data from which he adduces his theory. Koenigsberg's genius has unlocked the secrets of a timeless drama.” —Howard F. Stein, Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology
My initial efforts to develop a psychological approach to the study of culture and history began with two papers, “Culture and Unconscious Fantasy: Observations on Courtly Love” and “Culture and Unconscious Phantasy: Observations on Nazi Germany.”

In the latter paper, I stated that Nazi Germany had been selected as a case study because the ideology and social structure of an entire nation had been “shaped by the phantasies of a single individual.”

I developed these ideas in my first book, Hitler’s Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology (1975). My objective, I said, was to understand the “psychological roots of cultural ideas, beliefs and values,” particular insofar as these are embodied in the “central ideologies of civilized societies.”

Armed with a recent PhD in (experimental) Social Psychology, I stated that my project was an empirical one. I sought to establish psychoanalytic sociology through a series of studies, working from “the ground up” to establish a “base which is solid and can be built upon.”

I observed that—among sociologists—cultural beliefs were viewed as “givens,” and subsequently used to “explain” behavior. According to the concept of cultural determinism, the tendency for an idea to be espoused—its “power”—could be understood in terms of the fact that it was “symbolically transmitted” from one generation to the next.

I suggested that fundamental questions could not be addressed by the traditional sociological model:

  • 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 bound to certain ideas and ideologies?

Conventional sociological thinking began with the “content” of culture, and only then was able to “explain” thought and behavior. It could not, however, supply an explanation for the nature and shape of culture itself.

Hitler’s Ideology would explore the determinants (or causes) of cultural belief systems. I posed the following questions:

  • How may we account for the fact that a particular idea or cultural institution has been perpetuated?
  • How may we account for the specific shape that ideologies and cultural institutions have assumed?
  • How may we account for the intensity of affect associated with certain belief systems?

In order to answer their questions, it was necessary to explore the psychological roots of cultural ideas and belief systems.

Building upon the psychoanalytic concept of phantasy—(or unconscious phantasy)—I theorized that cultural ideas and beliefs represent the social embodiment of primal human phantasies. According to this point of view:

  • A cultural idea is “passed along” insofar as it proves to be a means whereby human beings may express their phantasies and enact them in reality.
  • The form or shape of an ideology reflects the nature of the underlying phantasy that defines it.
  • The intensity of affect with which an ideology is embraced reflects the quantity of affect bound to the underlying phantasy.

I stated that the initial objective of psychoanalytic sociology was to describe the relationship between “cultural beliefs and the phantasies that define and sustain them.” I wanted to illuminate the nature of the transformation whereby “human phantasies come to be embodied in social forms.” And to show how social forms “shape and provide a definition for our phantasies.”

My study would focus on the relationship between belief and phantasy for a single individual. My objective was to examine Hitler’s perception of reality by ascertaining the “nature and shape of his phantasies;” and by observing how these phantasies were “attached to objects in social reality.”

I selected Hitler as a case study for the following reasons:

  • He possessed a consistent, highly cathected belief system.
  • His writing and speeches contained an abundance of “primary process imagery.”
  • Hitler’s belief system was important insofar as his ideas—when acted upon—had a profound impact on world history.

The ultimate purpose of Hitler’s Ideology was to use my data and conclusions to “establish psychoanalytic sociology as a science.”