The man whose name is more or less synonymous with evil remains mysterious. Though we have now passed the 60 year anniversary of his suicide on April 30 1945, shrinks and laypeople alike continue to ponder the mind of the bum turned mega-murderer: What mental pathology can possibly explain his dark endeavors? This entry looks briefly at three professional studies conducted during Adolf Hitler’s tenure, followed by some reflections of an admittedly utter amateur.
Dr. Johan Scharffenberg

Between July and October 1933 the Norwegian psychiatrist Johan Scharffenberg published a series of 16 (!) articles on Hitler’s personality in Arbeiderbladet, an outlet of the Norwegian Labor Party. The 30,000 word tour de force, based on the analysis of public statements and written when Hitler was still widely fawned over in Europe and the US, was eerily prescient. Stressing his messianic delusions of grandeur as well as his fanatical anti-semitism and racialist metaphysics, it concluded ominously:

The cited characteristics may well fit a familiar clinical picture – the paranoid psychopath, or more specifically, the prophet bordering on insanity. Throughout all of history are found instances of this type carrying people along, giving rise to great movements through mental contagion. The stakes are high in Germany now – where is it going with a sick fool for a leader? Fool, or savior? Both fool and savior? That is now the big question in Germany, not just for Germany but for our entire civilization.

Though Germany’s Oslo legation repeatedly tried to make Norwegian authorities silence him, Dr. Scharffenberg continued updating his diagnosis right up to World War II. In April 1939 he published an article tracing Hitler’s messianic fervor back to a revelation by the Virgin Mary, who on November 10 1918 informed the depressed, gas-poisoned infanterist that he was to be Germany’s savior. Not long after, the ‘patient’ finally shut the doctor up. In the summer of 1940, after the April 9 invasion, the latter complained in Arbeiderbladet of censorship “by people hardly my betters in terms of character and intelligence.” Printing anything by Scharffenberg was expressly forbidden after that.

A decade after the 1933 article series, the US intelligence agency OSS (Office of Strategic Services) commissioned two profiles of Hitler in the interest of predicting his behavior. One of the profilers was Dr. Henry A. Murray, a distinguished personality specialist at Harvard.

Dr. Henry A. Murray

Murray’s study remained unknown to the public until it appeared online on the Cornell University Law Library website in April, causing excitement among Hitler scholars worldwide. Although heavy on now defunct psychoanalytic theory and reliant on speculative claims about Hitler’s childhood and sexuality, it is rich in apt observations. Murray’s Hitler is a frightened, effeminate child who compensates for his frailty by trying to conquer the world. The analyst asserts:

Hitler’s personality is an example of the counteractive type, a type that is marked by intense and stubborn efforts (i) to overcome early disabilities, weaknesses and humiliations (wounds to self-esteen [sic]), and sometimes also by efforts (ii) to revenge injuries and insults to pride. This is achieved by means of an Idealego Reaction Formation which involves (i) the repression and denial of the inferior portions of the self, and (ii) strivings to become (or to imagine one has become) the exact opposite, represented by an idealego, or image of a superior self successfully accomplishing the once-impossible feats and thereby curing the wounds of pride and winning general respect, prestige, fame. (2-3)

HitlerMurray adds that these traits, in themselves, are fairly common and in Western culture even admired, but in Adolf Hitler’s case are ‘compulsively extreme’ and based upon a neurotic personality structure. They amount to a pathological urge for dominance and superiority; abnorm aggression and vindictiveness; repression of social characteristics like conscience, compliance, and love; and not least, ‘projection of criticizable elements of the self.’ The latter phenomenon “occurs so constantly in Hitler that it is possible to get a very good idea of the repudiated portions of his own personality by noticing what he condemns in others – treachery, lying, warmongering, etc.” (14)

Regarding how Hitler might respond to defeat, Murray considered it likely that he would fight to the last before committing suicide when all was lost. But if caught alive, he should be denied any ‘heroic’ exit by trial and execution. Instead he should be committed to an insane asylum, his incessant ‘fits and tirades and condemnations’ secretly filmed and broadcast to the public, carrying a message: “This is what happens to crack-brained fanatics who try to dominate the world.” (34)

Dr. Walther C. Langer et als.

The better known study from 1943 was by the OSS’ own Dr. Walther C. Langer, assisted by Murray and two other colleagues, Hurr and Lawin. Like Murray’s it was done without the benefit of Scharffenberg’s ground-breaking work, which it parallels on many points. Made the basis of a book in 1972 and available online, it is absorbing reading not least for its wealth of biographical data about Der Führer. Read and shudder when finding commonalities with yourself!

Below is part of the conclusion:

There was unanimous agreement among the four psychoanalysts who have studied the material that Hitler is an hysteric bordering on schizophrenia and not a paranoiac as is so frequently supposed. This means that he is not insane in the commonly accepted sense of the term, but neurotic. He has not lost complete contact with the world about him and is still striving to make some kind of psychological adjustment which will give him a feeling of security in his social group. It also means that there is a definite moral component in his character no matter how deeply it may be buried or how seriously it has been distorted.

With this diagnosis established, we are in a position to make a number of surmises concerning the conscious mental processes which ordinarily take place in Hitler’s mind. These form the nucleus of the “Hitler”; he consciously knows and must live with. It is in all probability not a happy “Hitler” but one harrassed [sic] by fears, anxieties, doubts, misgivings, uncertainties, condemnations, feelings of loneliness and of guilt. From our experience with other hysterics we are probably on firm ground when we suppose that Hitler’s mind is like a “battle-royal” most of the time with many conflicting and contradictory forces and impulses pulling him this way and that.


As one surveys Hitler’s behavior patterns, as his close associates observe them, one gets the distinct impression that this is not one person but two which inhabit the same body and alternate back and forth. The one is a very soft, sentimental and indecisive individual who has little drive and wants nothing quite so much as to be amused, liked and looked after. The other is just the opposite – hard, cruel and decisive with an abundant reservoir of energy at his command – who knows what he wants and is ready to go after it and get it regardless of costs. It is the first Hitler who weeps profusely at the death of his canary, and the second Hitler who cries in open court: “Heads will roll”. It is the first Hitler who cannot bring himself to discharge an assistant and it is the second Hitler who can order the murder of hundreds including his best friends and can say with great conviction: “There will be no peace in the land until a body hangs from every lamp-post”. It is the first Hitler who spends his evenings watching movies or going cabarets [sic] and it is the second Hitler who works for days on end with little or no sleep, making plans which will affect the destiny of nations. (128-30)

Taking stock: a pathological narcissist?

As noted by the neo-Freudian psychiatrist Erich Fromm (1900-1980), Langer et als.’ profile is highly suggestive of the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) – a diagnosis not introduced until 1977. The same can be said of the other two studies we have looked at.

Hitler speaksLike Narcissus in Ovid’s tale, a person suffering from NPD is in love, not with himself, but with a certain reflection of himself. That image is a grandiose one, compensating for deeply felt shortcomings of his ‘true’ or nuclear self, which is experienced as vulnerable to a menacing outer world. It also requires constant validation from outside (‘narcissistic supply’). To satisfy this vital psychological need, the pathological narcissist is prepared to lie and manipulate whenever necessary, having little or no empathy for his victims. Though reacting to criticism with rage, he prefers vilification, which he interprets in a self-serving way, to being ignored – an intolerable prospect, as it would bring him face to face with his inadequate inner self.

In Hitler’s case it is natural to suppose that he despised above all his own personal weakness, projecting it onto others and pitching it against a constructed persona of steely strength. And indeed, his habit of underestimating his enemies’ resolve (Britain, the USSR, the US) factored large in his ultimate defeat. At the same time, he saw the world as filled with insidious ploys and plots (‘the Versailles betrayal,’ ‘the Jewish world conspiracy’) to be avenged or quashed by his heroic public self. That is the paranoid tinge of which Scharffenberg warned in 1933, when it was already well on its way to gripping a nation.

If applying psychiatric notions to political entities makes any sense – which is admittedly open to doubt – we may perhaps generalize this characterization to the form of government for which Hitler stood. In his essay ‘Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,’ Umberto Eco suggests that as perceived by fascist regimes, “the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”

Since we have hardly seen the last of fascism, let us hope he is right.

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