Peter Matussek, Paul Matussek, Jan Marbach

Affirming Psychosis. The Mass Appeal of Adolf Hitler


New York et al.: P. Lang 2007

"Eine überaus lesenswerte Studie. ... öffnet zugleich den Blick auf die Bedrohung durch gegenwärtige gesellschaftliche Deformationen. "
Frankfurter Rundschau

"Den Autoren ist eine durchaus spannende Hypothese gelungen .... Interessierte Leser werden das Buch verschlingen."

"Keine Frage: Diese neue Hitler-Biographie ... liefert der Forschung wichtige Anregungen und Impulse. Sie folgt einer schlüssigen Argumentation und ist spannend geschrieben."
SWR 2 Forum Buch

"Es ist die bislang empfehlenswerteste Publikation ihrer Art"
Sächsische Zeitung




The reasons for Hitler’s catastrophic impact in the public sphere have remained

puzzling to this day. We still cannot grasp how this odd, provincial vagrant, who

seemed doomed to failure from the very start, could have risen to power so

abruptly and managed to initiate a human extermination program whose atrocity

is beyond all comprehension.

Although the scholarly literature on Hitler has meanwhile grown to fill entire

libraries, it has not yet gleaned many clues to this dark mystery. For want of an

explanation, the boldest speculations have been, and continue to be, put forward.

Serious scholars who wish to have no part in this tend instead to the resigned

verdict that the causes of Hitler’s hatred of the world and of humanity – as well

as the reasons for the horrifying eagerness of his followers – must remain obscure.

Radical evil, they suggest, is simply incomprehensible.

The present study, which grew out of an interdisciplinary collaboration between

a psychiatrist, a cultural studies scholar, and a sociologist, is not content

with the alternative between speculation and resignation. It investigates the reasons

for the previous difficulties in the interpretation of Hitler and derives from

these the necessity for a new psycho-historical approach, which it implements by

analyzing the course of Hitler’s mania as an interplay of biographical and sociohistorical

factors. In essence, the book discusses the following four theses:

1. Since its inception, the field of Hitler studies has been struggling with a dilemma:

either the Hitler phenomenon is explained on the grounds of his psychological

abnormality – which leaves open the question of how one individual

could have had such tremendous public impact; or, Hitler’s rise is explained on

the grounds of the socio-historical circumstances of his time – whereby there is

still no getting around the recognition that the mass murders would not have been

possible without his pathological will to destruction. Although it is obvious that

both approaches can only advance our understanding by mutually supplementing

each other, they nonetheless continue to stand largely in unreconciled opposition.

The “intentionalist” thesis “no Hitler, no Holocaust” (Himmelfarb 1984) and the

“functionalist” thesis of the “cumulative radicalization” of the Germans (Mommsen

1997) have remained controversial to this day.

2. A new theoretical approach presents itself as a means of closing this everpresent

gap between the socio-historical and the psychopathological orientations

of Hitler studies. This approach has already proven fruitful in the investigation of

psychoses (Paul Matussek 1992, 1997). Essentially, it is based on the observation

that every life history is marked by a polarity between public and private self. A

pathological preponderance of the private self goes hand in hand with depression,

while a schizophrenic structure arises out of a preponderance of the public self.

Empirical studies have shown that the thematic complex of compulsions in the

former group is focused almost exclusively on content of a personal nature; in the

latter group, in contrast, this complex is characterized by the striving for a spectacular

exceptional status within the contemporary historico-political field. This

mark of a schizophrenic structure was extremely pronounced in Hitler.

3. With the help of this new paradigm, it becomes apparent that Hitler’s development

had tended from an early age toward a narcissistic fixation on a grandiose

public self until not a trace remained of the private – including the emotional-

self. A series of deep humiliations engendered an enormous need for compensation

that escalated into a delusional relationship to his environment with all

the characteristics of a paranoid schizophrenic psychosis. In fact, these characteristics

have been often observed before; however, scholars were usually unable to

make the appropriate diagnosis because it has been difficult to explain how a

schizophrenic could operate with such a great degree of success. In the light of

our model, on the other hand, it can be demonstrated that Hitler’s pathologically

hyperbolic mode of relating to the outside world escaped stigmatization because

the historical arena he encountered affirmed his exceptional status. The great extent

to which Hitler was accepted by the masses saved his mania from a complete

break with reality, which would usually lead to clinical consequences in the case

of acute psychoses. Investigations in the field of transcultural psychiatry confirm

that allowing the idiosyncrasies of a schizophrenic the possibility for social integration

leads to an abatement of symptoms—so-called remissions (Jablensky et

al. 1991). In trance cultures, for instance, schizophrenics are honored as mediums

possessing higher powers, and are thus stabilized. Something similar occurred in

Hitler’s case; however, the circumstances were such that the supportiveness of

the social environment, which has a healing effect as rule, led here to a fatal intensification

of the destructive drives. The “Third Reich” set the stage for the

drama of a mutual validation of individual and collective delusions – and in this

context, it was precisely the peculiar vacuity of Hitler’s personality that made it

particularly suitable for projecting superhuman qualities onto it. All cult objects

owe their aura to just such a lack of individuality, which incites the recipient to a

projectionary act of supplementation (Belting 1990, Peter Matussek 1998). In

Hitler’s particular historical and ideological context these supplementary fantasies

were of course nourished predominantly by aggressive and paranoid impulses.

4. Hitler was thus able to achieve the realization of his delusional ideas only

thanks to the social environment’s affirmation of them. In order to comprehend

this aspect of the interplay we must take a closer look at the contemporary cultural

and socio-historical circumstances. The literature on this topic has also been

extensive. We rely on recent findings without repeating them here in detail.

Rather, we concentrate on aspects that have been previously neglected in the

relevant scholarship. In the context of our analysis, this includes in particular the

fact that the mass acceptance that stabilized Hitler’s psychosis was rooted in a

pathological accord between biographical and social motivations: in both cases,

the desire to ward off feelings of shame. The “Führer” feared nothing more than

turning himself into a laughing stock by his strange phantasms of grandeur, and

his individual craving for compensation encountered at the end of World War I a

people that felt shamed and humiliated in its inflated national pride. The personal

grounds for Hitler’s pathologically hyperbolic self-presentation were masked by

the popular ideology of antisemitism, and it was this interplay that first led to the

destructive concentration of forces that ended in collective mass murder.

We do not intend for these theses to imply that the Hitler phenomenon can be

entirely rationalized. It would be an illusion to believe that the course of history

is an event whose intellectual comprehension can escape the violence that according

to Adorno “vitiates such thinking in real terms” (1951, p. 94). Conversely,

the old maxim still holds: Whoever doesn’t learn from history is condemned

to repeat it. The misleading term Vergangenheitsbewältigung [“overcoming

the past”] does not find its fulfilment in the final assessment of a bottom

line, but rather only in the ceaseless efforts to enrich our remembrance of the past

through interpretation, and so to remain on guard against the dangers of a recurrence

of comparable processes.

In full knowledge that it is impossible to resolve completely the question of

the origins of the Nazi terror, we nevertheless hope that our theses will open up a

wider horizon for the discussion surrounding the remembrance of the Holocaust.

Our new psycho-historical approach to the investigation of Hitler seeks to avoid

the one-sidedness of a mode that is either purely social-historical or purely psychiatric,

and aims to heighten the awareness of the above-mentioned interactions,

whose cultural-anthropological predisposition makes it possible for them to recur

at any time. The question of guilt is in no sense relativized by this approach; it is

precisely the combination of a cultural analysis with an analysis of personality

that eschews the erroneous consequence of minimizing the historical responsibility

of the Germans with allusions to the diminished accountability of the protagonists.

Why this is the case will be demonstrated extensively in the concluding


The object of our book, then, is not a pathography in the clinical sense. Psychiatric

terminology is used only insofar as it is necessary to elucidate the interplay

of individual and cultural factors, which we address in conjunction with the

broad concept of “schizophrenic structure.” But the origins of this analysis do go

back to a psychiatric concern: the improvement of therapy for schizophrenic psychoses

(Paul Matussek 1976). With the current, one-sided preference toward biochemical

treatments, we are in danger of losing sight of those aspects of mental

illness that relate to a patient’s life history and circumstances. Ultimately, this

also impairs the effectiveness of the pharmaceutical cure. And thus, the question

of the psycho-historical factors of schizophrenia has prompted us to investigate it

in the example of a particularly prominent case. The dynamic of Hitler’s delusional

career highlights particularly clearly the interplay of individual and social


I wrote the present study in close collaboration with Paul Matussek, using the

psychiatric diagnostic models developed by him during his many years of clinical

experience. Paul Matussek died in June of 2003, shortly after the publication of

the German and Italian editions. In the days prior to his death he repeatedly expressed

the wish that our book would also be made available to the Englishspeaking

audience, so that it could be acknowledged as a German contribution to

the international field of Hitler research. And thanks to the continued commitment

of the Peter Lang publishing house, I am now in the fortunate position of

being able to fulfill this quite literally final wish. Out of respect for our joint effort

I have left the original content unchanged. This means that some four years

of the most recent Hitler research have not been taken into account. However, in

reviewing the current literature, I have ascertained that it tends to confirm rather

than relativize the positions we have argued. Readers familiar with the field may

judge for themselves whether I am correct in my assessment.

As before, we would like to thank the numerous colleagues and friends, witnesses

and experts who stood by us throughout the course of the project with encouragement

and constructive criticism. We are tremendously grateful to them –

in particular, to Jan Marbach who provided preliminary materials relating to the

socio-historical aspects of our subject; to Yvonne Kult, whose assistance during

the research phase was invaluable; and especially to Anna Brailovsky for her

great commitment and enthusiasm in the translation of our book. In addition we

would like to thank John Becker, Hartmut Böhme, and Klaus Köhle for reading

drafts of the manuscript as well as Jörg Bankmann and Bardia Khadjavi-Gontard

of the Stiftung für analytische Psychiatrie for their generous support, without

which this project could not have been realized.

June 20006 Peter Matussek