In the 1940s, at the request of the Office of Strategic Services, a former incarnation of the Criminal Intelligence Agency (CIA), a psychiatrist by the name of Walter Langer produced a psychological profile of Hitler, including details about his childhood. Below, I summarize the most salient findings.
Adolf Hitler’s father was described as frequently intoxicated, extremely domineering and ‘tyrannical.’ He showed his children no pity and would beat Adolf very severely indeed, inflicting serious physical harm.
Sometimes when his father was very drunk, Adolf would have to act as his caretaker and collect him from the local tavern and accompany him home, only to be beaten for his trouble. Passages from Mein Kampf suggest Hitler may also have been sexually abused at a young age
It is not surprising then, with this kind of upbringing, Hitler’s relationships with his school peers were frequently hostile. Indeed, also in Mein Kampf, Hitler suggests it was the fierce arguments he would get into with his school contemporaries that helped him to develop his skills as an orator.
On top of having an abusive father, Adolf’s mother was emotionally distant and unavailable so he was essentially emotionally abandoned by her.
At school, Adolf performed very well academically until about the age of eleven when his performance plummeted necessitating him to repeat a year.
WAS HITLER SUFFERING FROM BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER (BPD)?
We cannot answer this question definitively. However, it is certainly true that Hitler suffered experiences during childhood that put him at an elevated risk of developing BPD and also displayed symptoms of the disorder.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is an extremely complex psychological condition. Indeed, it is not infrequently misdiagnosed as some other type of disorder, such as bipolar disorder. For these reasons, there is likely to be a very large number of individuals who have the condition but are not aware of it. To understand this better, let’s look at the general signs that a person may have or develop the disorder.
SIGNS THAT A PERSON MAY BE AT RISK OF DEVELOPING BPD OR MAY ALREADY SUFFER FROM THE DISORDER:
THE TYPE OF PARENT BPD SUFFERERS HAVE:
A person is at increased risk of developing BPD risk if s/he was brought up by parents who:
– shows little emotional or physical affection for the child.
– invalidates/ignores/ minimizes/ derides/ dismisses feelings that are important to the child (eg. ‘Why or you upset? – for god’s sake stop blubbering you little cry-baby’)
– responds inconsistently to the child’s behaviour – gives the child ‘mixed messages’ (this is sometimes referred to as putting the child in a ‘DOUBLE-BIND‘ .
– subjects the child to verbal cruelty – my own mother referred to me as ‘scabby’ (I self-harmed) and ‘poof’ (I was highly sensitive). Often, when I returned home from school, she would glare at me and announce, ‘Oh Christ, the little bastard’s home’. She finally kicked me out when I was thirteen)
– makes the child feel unloved/unwanted.
– expects the child to meet exacting/unobtainable standards – frequently changes expectations of the child.
– hinders the child from developing his/her own identity.
– disputes the child’s version/recall of events if it involves criticism of the parent.
– creates ‘role-reversal’ (i.e. the child is treated as if s/he is the parent’s parent – this is also sometimes referred to as ‘parentification’ of the child; it may include making the child take on responsibilities that are inappropriate for his/her age (for example, I frequently had to act as my mother’s personal counsellor from the age of about ten. She reinforced this by referring to me as her ‘little psychiatrist’).
– makes the child feel on-guard and defensive all the time.
– over-confides in the child (e.g. provides intimate details of sex-life).
– expects the child to be the carer/provider of emotional support.
– expects the child to constantly demonstrate undying loyalty and unconditional love, but DOES NOT RECIPROCATE.
Parents of individuals who go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) in their adult life are typically extremely needy, sensitive (especially to rejection), and inadequate (in as far as they lack the necessary inner resources to be an effective parent).
Often, such a parent is likely to be preoccupied with her own feelings at the expense of those of her baby/child (henceforth I will just use the word ‘child’ to refer to ‘baby or child). This can then frequently lead to the child’s own needs to be soothed and comforted going unmet. This state of affairs can be made even worse if the parent also sometimes takes out her own feelings of stress and anxiety on the baby, perhaps through verbal, or even physical, aggression. Such damaging behaviours by the parent may be triggered by, for example, the child’s continued crying.
Essentially, then, because the parent finds it extremely difficult to constantly give her child’s needs priority over her own (and therefore is likely to treat the child in a very inconsistent manner) the child’s emotional needs remain unsatisfied.
So the child of such a parent will experience her as unpredictable and sometimes frightening (when, for example, the child senses the mother’s own anxiety or experiences her hostility). The child and the mother fail to bond adequately, and a kind of psychological barrier forms between them.
This inconsistent, unpredictable, inadequate and stress-/fear- inducing parenting means that the child does not learn how to consistently manage and regulate his own feelings and emotions and will therefore often find them overwhelming and out-of-control. He may become highly sensitized to a perceived potential threat and thus be easily tipped into anger and aggression as a coping/self-defence mechanism (usually this response is operating on an unconscious level).
Indeed, the parenting style may be so damaging that the physical development of the child’s brain structure is adversely affected, leading to him developing acute sensitivity to even minor stress (click here to read my article on how adverse early experience can damage the developing physical brain, leading to acute problems managing feelings of stress, anxiety, fear and other emotions). A child so affected will frequently then go on to be an adult who finds it very difficult to be self-reliant and may thus become a highly dependent personality.
The psychologist Marsha Lineham suggested that children who go on to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) (click here to read my article on this) grow up in what she calls an ‘invalidating environment’. She defines such an environment as one in which the child’s needs and significant experiences go unacknowledged or ignored. The environment may also be one in which the child is unwanted and viewed as a burden or inconvenience.
Of course, such treatment as described above can have a catastrophic effect on the child. Indeed, if the child is seriously affected, these effects can last a lifetime unless proper treatment is sought. I list some of the possible effects on the child once s/he becomes an adult below:
The affected person may:
– suffer severe social anxiety.
– feel inadequate, unlovable, of no value and guilty.
– have pervasive and chronic feelings of emptiness.
– feel incapable of enjoying him/herself (this condition is referred to by psychologists as ‘ANHEDONIA’
– expects always to be betrayed by others/be deeply mistrustful of others.
– have no sense of direction in life
– have serious problems in relationships, perhaps due to ‘repetition-compulsion’ the tendency to seek out relationships in which one is abused in a way similar to how one was abused by parents (this acts on an unconscious level).
– question his/her intuition, judgment and memory as the parent will not accept his/her view of his/her childhood.
– have chunks of childhood missing from memory (for instance, I can remember almost nothing about what happened to me before the age of about eight years).
– have a deep-rooted fear of rejection/abandonment so will not take risks with trying to form relationships.
– have a low tolerance of own mistakes/perfectionism.
– the person may develop (amongst other psychiatric disorders) borderline personality disorder (BPD):
SIGNS OF INCIPIENT BPD IN ADOLESCENTS:
Giving a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) to an adolescent is problematic. However, given the emotional problems I had at that stage in my life, I wish, in retrospect, there had been professional intervention; for one thing, I was deeply depressed, and, in my teens, would cry with a regularity more commonly associated with toddlers (including even bursting into tears in lessons at secondary school). How I would have responded to the idea of such professional intervention at the time, however, is another matter.
Most professionals are reluctant to give an adolescent a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) due largely to the fact that during teenage years personality traits such as rebelliousness, uncertainty regarding identity, fluctuating emotions, changeable relationships, poor decision making, anger and impulsiveness, are, to a degree, a normal part of the developmental stage the young person is at; this complicates and confuses the diagnostic process in relation to BPD.
Also, if the diagnosis is wrong, the adolescent may become unnecessarily stigmatized. Furthermore, young people often resent professional intervention in connection with such a sensitive issue as mental health and may regard such intervention as another stressor. Indeed, if professional intervention is mishandled, it can do yet further substantial damage to the young person’s already rock-bottom self-esteem
How do we know if these the traits referred to above are just symptoms of being an adolescent or whether, instead, they are a sign of something more serious? In order to attempt to resolve this question, clinicians will usually focus on the following three factors :
1) PERSISTENCE OF SYMPTOMS: For example, are there long-standing emotional instability and chronic relationship problems which show no sign of abating or of being resolved?
2) SEVERITY OF SYMPTOMS: For example, is suicidal behaviour or ideation present? Is the self-harming behaviour present? Is anger so extreme that it puts the adolescent, or others, in danger? Is impulsiveness so extreme that it puts the adolescent, or others, in danger?
3) AMOUNT OF DISTRESS CAUSED BY THE SYMPTOMS: For example, is the adolescent in obvious significant emotional pain (perhaps due to loneliness, depression or anxiety)? This is likely to be the most important consideration of all.
Because of the problems entailed in diagnosing a young person with BPD, clinicians tend much to prefer making a diagnosis of the adolescent having ‘borderline personality traits.’ This means that the young person shows some behaviours similar to those found in adults with BPD (which go beyond the normal range of behaviours one typically finds in teenagers and young people), but it is too early to make a definite diagnosis of BPD.
WHAT ARE THE POSITIVE ASPECTS OF RECEIVING A DIAGNOSIS?
It is important to point out that, despite the problems noted above, receiving the professional intervention and diagnosis can bring potentially tremendous, even life-saving (ten per cent of BPD sufferers end up killing themselves), benefits.
There is strong evidence that making an early diagnosis reduces the risk of the development of full-blown BPD as an adult, as well as reducing the risk of the development of co-morbidities such as addictions and self-harm.
In short, then, early intervention can save the adolescent from an adulthood of profound emotional pain, despair and loss.
WHAT KIND OF SYMPTOMS NEED TO BE LOOKED OUT FOR IN THE ADOLESCENT?
The symptoms to look out for are similar to the symptoms that an adult sufferer of BPD would display. However, in adolescents, the fluctuations in mood may be even more extreme and dramatic than those of an adult with BPD. Because of this, adolescents who are later diagnosed as having BPD have not infrequently initially been misdiagnosed as having bipolar disorder.
At present dialectical behaviour therapy, or DBT is the main treatment provided to adolescents, though it is a form of DBT that has been specially adapted for young people.
The treatment given to adolescents with BPD traits differs from that given to adults with BPD. FAMILY INVOLVEMENT WITH THE TREATMENT IS CRUCIAL as adolescents are, in general, more psychologically enmeshed with their families than are adults. Also, the family may be the main source of the young person’s stress, or, indeed, paradoxically, his main source of support as well.
Furthermore, the social context in which an adolescent finds him/herself (friends, acquaintances, peers etc) is a vital part of his/her life and goes a long way towards moulding the young person’s sense of his own identity. It is again crucial, therefore, that clinicians gain a good understanding of how this may be affecting the adolescent.
Another way in which DBT for young people differs from DBT given to adults is that, whilst adults are encouraged to take ‘full ownership’ of their illness, most adolescents will not realize that one of the main causes of their own problems is likely to stem from their more extreme behaviour; this can be because they have not yet had enough adverse as evidence for the connection (whereas an adult, for example, may have lost his home, family, job, friends etc. as a consequence of his/her BPD).
Instead of seeing the link between their behaviours and their predicament, adolescents are far more likely to EXTERNALIZE their problems (for example, blame them on others, although, of course, this may be partly or pretty much wholly correct in some circumstances).
It follows from the above that the adolescent should not be blamed for his behaviour as, for one thing, this is likely to have the effect of yet further diminishing his self-esteem which will, in turn, almost inevitably increase the level of problem behaviours. Instead, the focus should be on trying to understand the root causes of the problem behaviours and rectifying, as far as possible, these.
Parents need to attend the DBT sessions along with their child where they, too, will be informed and educated about BPD as well as trained in the skills that the young person is trained in to manage BPD symptoms.
It is important for the adolescent to understand that if he is diagnosed with having BPD traits that its symptoms have, hitherto, been out of his control. It also needs to be acknowledged that it is the young person’s deeply painful and distressing emotions which lie behind his behaviour, not malice.
Whilst borderline personality disorder (BPD) can be diagnosed in adolescents, some clinicians may be reluctant to do so; I summarize some of the main reasons for this below :
– Symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD) may overlap lap to some degree with non-pathological (‘normal’) adolescent behaviours which can somewhat muddy the waters when it comes to attempting to make a clear, unambiguous and unequivocal diagnosis.
– The personality of the adolescent is still developing and is not yet fully formed
– Although it is less the case now than it was (in even the relatively recent past) a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is still often perceived as being stigmatizing and can potentially make the adolescent feel yet worse about himself/herself when his/her self-esteem and sense of self-worth is already extremely low (low self-esteem and a low sense of self-worth are hallmark symptoms of BPD).
However, some individuals also feel a great sense of relief to have a diagnosis as it helps them to understand the root causes of their dysfunctional behaviours and therefore feel less guilty (feelings of intense, irrational guilt are another hallmark symptom of BPD).
Also, of course, an accurate diagnosis helps to ensure appropriate and effective treatment is given (see RISK OF SUICIDE below); at present, the most effective treatment for BPD is considered to be dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT). Whilst DBT is a therapy that was initially developed in order to help to treat adults with BPD, it is possible to adapt it to the needs of the adolescent. However, the majority of clinicians are still reluctant to make the diagnosis of BPD in young people who are under the age of eighteen years.
– Because BPD has its roots in childhood experience, it is likely that some clinicians are worried about diagnosing BPD in the adolescent in case the parents may regard it as a negative judgment upon them and therefore become upset or angry.
However, if the parents’ behaviour has seriously damaged their child, then alerting them to the fact may galvanize them into making a concerted effort to improve the manner in which they treat the young person (sadly, of course, this can’t be guaranteed; indeed. abusive parents may feel humiliated and take it out on the child).
– Because BPD sufferers tend to be gravely misunderstood, even by those entrusted with their care and treatment, some clinicians may be reluctant to diagnose adolescents with BPD in case it results in them being treated with prejudice and discriminated against by other clinicians they may come into contact with in later life,
THE RISK OF SUICIDE :
It is vital to remember that one in ten (yes, 10%) of individuals with BPD end up dying by suicide. This statistic demonstrates the vital importance of the earliest possible therapeutic intervention for those suffering from this profoundly painful and complex condition. Clearly, a prerequisite to effective treatment is a sensitive, timely and accurate diagnosis.
SYMPTOMS OF BPD IN ADULTHOOD:
Diagnosing borderline personality disorder (BPD) is often regarded as controversial. However, currently, borderline personality disorder is most commonly diagnosed by psychiatrists according to the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (usually referred to as DSM V and sometimes informally and, perhaps, a little disparagingly, described as ‘The Psychiatrists’ Bible).
The NINE criteria from the DSM V for the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (BPD) are listed below.
1) Extreme fluctuations in emotions
2) Outbursts of explosive anger
3) Intense fear of abandonment which can lead to frantic efforts to maintain a relationship
4) Impulsive behaviour
5) Self-harm (e.g. cutting the skin with sharp objects, burning skin with cigarettes)
6) Unstable self-concept / weak sense of own identity
7) Chronic and profound feelings of ’emptiness’ (often leading to excessive eating/ consumption of alcohol/ illicit drug-taking etc ‘to fill the void’)
9) Highly volatile and intense relationships
NB These symptoms must have been stable characteristics present for at least six months
AND, TO BE DIAGNOSED WITH BPD: the individual must suffer from AT LEAST FIVE of the symptoms listed. (N.B. BPD can’t be self-diagnosed – only a suitably qualified professional can make such a diagnosis).
PSYCHOLOGICAL PROFILE OF HITLER AS AN ADULT
Hitler’s moods were highly unstable, and he was prone to be overtaken by paroxysms of rage apropos very little. For example, he was susceptible to outbursts of uncontrolled anger if he sensed the merest hint that someone might oppose him or if someone contradicted or criticised him. At such times, he would shout and scream, go red in the face, bang his fists against the walls and sometimes even ‘foam at the mouth’ in the form of saliva collecting at its corners.
He could work for several days foregoing sleep and, according to Langer, suffered from a sleep disorder. As regards substances, he is reported as using both sedatives and amphetamines.
He likely suffered from paranoia having, as he did, an intense, irrational hatred of Jews, the mentally ill, gipsies and homosexuals. Langer suggests that Hitler’s deep hatred of these groups provided him with an outlet to vent the pent up intense aggression caused by his childhood experiences and allowed him to reverse the position of the victim he was forced to take as a child: now, instead of being the victim of violence, he could finally take control and be the perpetrator of it. Made to feel like a bad person as a child by his father, and having internalised the feeling of badness, he could now project this sense of badness onto the Jews, gipsies, mentally ill and homosexuals; in his mind, they were now the evil wrong-doers, not he.
Furthermore, he was unable to trust anyone. He also had a deep fear of being betrayed and was unable to form deep and meaningful friendships which resulted in a profound sense of loneliness.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PROCESSES OF DEINDIVIDUATION, DEHUMANIZATION,
Reimann and Zimbardo are of the view that Hitler was psychologically enabled to do what he did due to two main psychological functions: deindividuation and dehumanization.
Deindividuation occurs when a person sees himself as part of a group which effectively makes him anonymous and frees him of feelings of personal responsibility.
Dehumanization, on the other hand, occurs when a person sees other individuals as less than human (Reimann and Zimbardo) refer to this process, metaphorically, as a ‘cortical cataract’ resulting in an inability to see another’s humanity.
Typically, when this process occurs, a ‘them and us’ situation develops in which the oppressed group is viewed, by those that oppress them, as homogeneously ‘evil’ and ‘other’, fundamentally and intrinsically separate entities from their oppressors.
Indeed, the Nazis referred to the Jews as Untermenschen, which means subhuman.
DEHUMANIZATION, DEINDIVIDUALIZATION AND THE RELEVANCE OF THE FRONTAL CORTEX, AMYGDALA AND BRAIN STEM
Reimann and Zimbardo also proposed that the psychological process of deindividuation is linked to under-activity in the medial ventral prefrontal cortex which can result in disinhibition, impaired rationality, aggression and poor decision making.
Furthermore, this reduced activity in the medial ventral prefrontal cortex is in turn linked to overactivity in the amygdala and brain stem which increases the emotions of anger and fear, both of which fuel the psychological process of deindividuation. Such emotions can then activate the brain stem, giving rise to the physiological state of fight/flight.
As we have seen in many other posts that I have published on this site, severe and protracted childhood trauma can damage the development of all 3 of the brain regions referred to above, namely the prefrontal cortex, brain stem and amygdala.
ALICE MILLER’S VIEW OF THE EFFECTS OF HITLER’S CHILDHOOD
Alice Miller, the internationally renowned psychoanalyst and author of books such as The Drama Of Being A Child and The Roots Of Violence argues that Hitler was a victim of what she calls ‘poisonous pedagogy’ which is a dysfunctional form of parenting involving manipulation, excessive control and breaking the child’s will (often through the use of corporal punishment) which causes the child to develop profound feelings of shame, fear, guilt and intolerance.
In an interview, Miller suggests that Hitler his treatment of Jews, Gypsies, the mentally ill and homosexuals were essentially motivated (on an unconscious level) by a desire for revenge against his father.
REVISITING THE QUESTION OF WHETHER HITLER SUFFERED FROM BPD WITH REFERENCE TO THE ABOVE
From the above, we can see that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Adolf Hitler may well have suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD) I list the main evidence below:
FACTORS RELATING TO HITLER’S CHILDHOOD THAT WOULD HAVE INCREASED HIS LIKELIHOOD OF GOING ON TO DEVELOP BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER (BPD) IN LATER LIFE:
- He had a father who psychologically and physically abused him
- He was ‘parentified’ (i.e. had to act as his father’s caretaker by escorting him home from taverns when he (the father) was inebriated
- He was emotionally neglected by his mother.
- He was made to feel unloved and unwanted by his parents
- His father was domineering and controlling
- He was made to feel constantly on guard due to the constant threat of his father becoming physically aggressive.
- His emotional needs as a child were unmet.
- He suddenly started failing at school from the age of eleven having previously attained a high level of academic performance.
- The treatment he received from his parents is very likely to have damaged his ability to regulate and control his emotions.
- The treatment he received from his parents as a child is very likely to have made him highly sensitive to any perceived threat.
- The treatment he received from his parents as a child is very likely to make him highly sensitive to any hint that he might be betrayed.
- The treatment he received from his parents as a child is very likely to have led him to harbour a deep mistrust of other people.
- He developed highly hostile relationships with his school peers.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS DISPLAYED BY HITLER IN ADULTHOOD WHICH SUGGEST THAT HE MIGHT HAVE DEVELOPED BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER(BPD):
- He had extremely volatile emotions
- He was prone to outbursts of furious, uncontrollable rage
- He suffered from mood swings
- He relied on sedatives and amphetamines
- He was unable to trust other people.
- He could not tolerate criticism
- He had a paranoid fear of Jews, homosexuals, gipsies and the mentally ill.
- His relationships with others were highly vulnerable
- He could not form close, meaningful friendships
- He carried with him a profound sense of loneliness.
Of course, the diagnosis of BPD was not even recognized during Hitler’s lifetime and it is, anyway, not possible for anyone to make a definitive diagnosis of his psychological condition now. However, it is certainly true that certain factors associated with Hitler’s childhood increased his risk of developing what we would today refer to as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and that he displayed signs in adulthood that suggest such a diagnosis, had it existed at the time, would not have been wholly inappropriate.
Reimann, Martin, Zimbardo, Philip 2011/12/01 The Dark Side of Social Encounters: Prospects for a Neuroscience of Human Evil DO – 10.1037/a0024654 Personality, Emotion, & Dysfunction
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Childhoodtraumarecovery.com is reader-supported. When you buy through links on this site, I may earn an affiliate commission.