It is certainly no accident of history that three decades after his death Adolf Hitler continues to fascinate both historians and the general public. For in the brief span of twelve years (1933 to 1945), this seemingly demonic figure unleashed a flood of hatred, inhumanity, and destruction on Europe unequaled in modern history. Before a stunned and unbelieving world, he harnessed the power of a highly industrialized, tightly disciplined society to his personal relish for anti-Semitism, tribal struggle, and Germanic domination. Alienated from the main currents of Western civilization by his own failures, Hitler tried to restructure European society and culture on radically new, grotesque foundations.
How this man, a misfit by the standards of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, could build such a monument to evil is the critical question that Rudolph Binion seeks to answer in Hitler Among the Germans. Traditional forms of historical analysis, he notes in his introduction, have frequently failed to grasp the full scope of Hitler’s fury and the enormity of his crimes because they are unsuitable for dealing with the irrational side of human motivation. With this in mind, Binion adopts a new mode of analysis based on clinical psychology. The result is a brief interpretative essay which examines the psychological forces at work in Hitler’s personality and German society between 1918 and 1945. Using a conceptual approach which is guided by the study of adult traumas, Binion confidently explains why Hitler became a violent anti-Semite, why he launched a hopeless war against the Soviet Union for living space, and what made the Germans follow Hitler blindly to total destruction. Serious discussion of the details of Hitler’s life and political career as well as a characterization of Nazi Germany are sharply curtailed in order to concentrate on these formative psychological crossroads.
Binion’s thesis is surprisingly simple. The German military defeat in November, 1918, triggered two fateful traumas, one experienced by Hitler privately and the other by the Germans collectively. Hitler’s trauma took place while he was recovering from a poison gas attack at a military hospital in Pasewalk; informed that Germany had surrendered, he collapsed into deep traumatic shock which ended with his vow to enter politics and undo Germany’s defeat. This “hysteria” also forced Hitler to relive the traumatic terminal illness of his mother in 1907, a tragedy which he had attributed subconsciously ever since to her Jewish physician Dr. Bloch. The suppressed loathing that he had harbored for Dr. Bloch as well as his infantile longing for his overindulgent mother now surged to the surface in the form of fanatical anti-Semitism. This psychological crisis marked the decisive turning point in Hitler’s life. From now on his future was irreversibly fixed on avenging Germany’s defeat (his mother’s death) by killing the Jews (Dr. Bloch), a course that led inevitably to Auschwitz and Stalingrad.
Hitler’s trauma coincided with a psychic shock experienced by German society collectively. As with Hitler, the national neurosis that followed the unexpected defeat and the unwanted revolution of 1918 proved too painful either to assimilate or to ignore; consequently, Germany, like Hitler, sought to relive this stinging tragedy in order to replace it with a less agonizing substitute. For most Germans this meant reversing the military defeat and reclaiming the eastern territories won by General Ludendorff in 1916 and 1917. It was thus by feeding Germany’s psychological need to replay World War I that Hitler was able to win the national platform he needed to resolve his own personal neurosis.
Locating the origins of Nazi Germany in a dual trauma is a strikingly original view even for psychohistorians, for it focuses on the relatively untested concept of adult trauma rather than the more familiar psychohistorical themes of childhood frustration or massive alienation. Because his interpretation is unusual and certain to attract the careful scrutiny of psychologists and historians alike, Binion underpins his arguments with impressive, selective evidence. It is, however, at this basic level of evidence that the author’s difficulties begin. A few examples will illustrate the problem. At one point, statements recorded thirty and even fifty years later are accepted without comment as reliable proof that Hitler was not an anti-Semite during World War I. In yet another place, Binion quotes Hitler’s boyhood friend Anton Kubizek without reservation on one page,...
(The entire section is 1873 words.)