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Analysing the Nazi mind

14 Aug, 2012
Rudolf Hess as a child

Rudolf Hess as a child

A new book by Professor Daniel Pick shines a light on a neglected aspect of the Allies’ work to win the War. 

Whether it’s collecting scrap metal, living with rationing or the mobilisation of women into the factories, fields and airbases, the ‘War effort’ of World War II is familiar to most of us. Now, in ‘The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the analysts’, Professor Daniel Pick from Birkbeck, university of London, explores a neglected part of this effort: the Allies’ intellectual endeavours to track the Nazi state of mind during and after the War.

“The book is essentially an exploration of the way psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry were used in the War by the British and the Americans,” says Pick. Indeed, just as, albeit on a larger scale, scientists and mathematicians came together to work on decoding at Bletchley Park or on the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, Pick tells how anthropologists, political scientists, economists, historians, psychoanalysts and psychologists were united in a joint urgent mission to understand more about Nazism.

Pick provides a broad look at the role of the ‘psy’ professions but also focuses on two case studies in this book. One of these is the British Army’s attempts to understand the behaviour and mental state of the Deputy Führer, Rudolf Hess. In 1941 – apparently on a peace mission – Hess flew from Germany to Scotland, where he was captured and imprisoned, before being moved to England (spending a brief spell in the Tower of London) and Wales.

“There was some idea that you glean things from Hess that could be of interest from an intelligence point of view, but gradually his diplomatic significance decreases,” says Pick. “His importance as another kind of case study increased, though, as he became one of a number of many German prisoners who were also being studied in psychological terms.”

Analytical approach

Pick’s broad approach, based around the ‘psy’ professions, reflects his own varied training. He followed an English literature degree with a PhD in history and many years of teaching, and now works in what he describes as “cultural and intellectual history”. He has also trained as a psychoanalyst at the British Psychoanalytical Society.

“It was partly a personal wish to explore the field more, to have analysis myself, of course, and – eventually – to have direct experience of working as a clinician, but also I thought that psychoanalysis could give a different perspective that would enrich the way I understand research and the historical past.”

Does he expect any criticism of his approach? “There’s been a lot of debate among historians about whether psychoanalysis and psychology ought to have a place in historical methodology, whether it’s good or bad practice to draw on the insights about the unconscious minds and unconscious fantasy when thinking about the historical past.”

Work that has applied psychoanalysis to the past has often been seen (sometimes correctly) to make certain oversimplifying assumptions, such as ignoring the cultural context, Pick explains. “I think, however, a lot of very diverse work got conflated into one thing. So, I wanted to show how the use of psychoanalysis developed historically, explore the variety of what was done and ask how mindful the researchers in the War and its aftermath were of cultural difference, history and politics, as well as the life of the mind.”

Professor Daniel Pick

Professor Daniel Pick

What might we take from his book for the world today? “I think that the things the people were interested in during and after the War are not simply dead-and-buried issues. The concern with unconscious fantasies and how they are mobilised in politics remains a live issue in many ways today. Moreover, the use of ‘projection’ (for example, the denigration of out-groups into whom the unwanted aspects of humanity are put) and how an ‘us’ and ‘them’ gets created remain evident enough in a host of other contexts,” says Pick.

While some of the terminology has changed, the fundamental psychosocial and psychopolitical problems with which the Allied analysts grappled remain, he adds.

“Many of the things that were seen in an extreme form during the War go on being of acute concern now. For example, people talk about a ‘dog-whistle’ effect in politics, which appeals to people’s most base feelings. Also, there might be something in which the leaders themselves get pulled along unconsciously in megalomaniac fantasies or omnipotent delusions.”

Past and present

While interested in affinities between past and present, Pick is quick to emphasise that it would be wrong to imply that the moral behaviour of all modern states is equally abhorrent, or to imply that the world of Nazi concentration camps should be equated with more recent state-sanctioned atrocities. Each case needs to be understood in its historical context. “Nonetheless,” he adds, “some of the processes that might have led members of the Nazi party to comply with some of the most horrendous crimes against humanity are not things that ceased to exist in 1945.”

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess, and the analysts by Daniel Pick was published by Oxford University Press in early June.

Daniel Pick is among the speakers at the Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism conference at Wellcome Collection, 21-22 September 2012.

This feature also appears in issue 71 of ‘Wellcome News’.

Image credits: Top: Oxford University Press. Bottom: Matchbox video.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 Sep, 2015 10:20 am

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