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, that 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.
Henry A Murray, a psychologist with expertise in personality also assessed Hitler’s personality during the 1940s. He concluded that Hitler did not have a diagnosable mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar depression but, instead, suffered from counteractive narcissism which, today, is referred to as narcissistic personality disorder. To support his claim he drew attention to Hitler’s intolerance of criticism, his exhibitionism, an intense need for recognition (e.g. how he presented himself at Nuremberg rallies), and his need to display inordinate contempt for, and complete and utter rejection of, those deemed to be ‘other’ (Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, etc.).
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.
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 behavior
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 criticized 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, gypsies 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 internalized the feeling of badness, he could now project this sense of badness onto the Jews, gypsies, 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 a 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 harbor a deep mistrust of other people.
- He developed highly hostile relationships with his school peers.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS DISPLAYED BY HITLER IN ADULTHOOD 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, gypsies, 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.
Indeed, in the book ‘Hitler’s Psychopathology’ Dr Norbert Bromberg and Venus Smallconclude that Hitler did, in fact, suffer from BPD, comorbid with a narcissistic personality disorder. In the book, he suggests that, according to Speer, Hitler’s intellectual development became arrested in 1910 while he was an inhabitant of Vienna and that he had extreme difficulties accepting ideas that were new to him. The book also points to the fact that Hitler saw things in terms of ‘black or white’ and ‘good versus evil’ (this is known as splitting and is a central feature of BPD. Additionally, the book draws our attention to Hitler’s paranoia and acute sensitivity to perceived threats, profound distrust of others, and various obsessions (e.g. with germs).