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Are the Germans Paranoiacs? by Nicolas Calas [1947]


In our century, science, history, art are permeated with psychology the way culture, in the nineteenth century was obsessed with biology and in the eighteenth with “nature”. By replacing the fetish of organism and the goddess reason with a new gadget called the unconscious, second-rate minds believe that they have discovered the key of wisdom.

The well-known Swiss psychoanalyst, de Saussure, traces the German fixation on Hitler to the Prussian ideal of a strict father. According to this view, all manifestations of Prussian culture, from the philosophy of Kant to the judicial theories of Jhering, the political ideas of Bismarck and the Führerprinzip, were predetermined by the Prussian family organization.

Another psychoanalyst, a non-Freudian one this time, Erich Fromm, a few years ago enjoyed a wide success with a book in which he explained how the German middle class suffered from a pathological need to escape from freedom. A third psychologist, of the school of Abram Kardiner, Geoffrey Gorer of the Yale Institute of Human Relations, who had been entrusted during the war by the British government to make secret researches, attaches great importance to the toilet training of the Japanese infants. He even believes that the poor opinion of the United States held by prewar Japanese governments resulted from a bad nursery education.

Other psychologists think that paranoid trends were institutionalized in fascist Germany. This is the opinion of Richard Brickner whose theories were seriously discussed two years ago in New York at a congress of psychiatrists. According to still other psychiatrists, however, fascist leaders are not paranoid but show strong symptoms of a compulsion neurosis.

It must not be assumed that once the psychopathological explanation was set rolling that the detectives of the soul were going to limit their diagnosis to Germany and Japan. Professor Edward A. Strecker of the University of Pennsylvania does not hesitate to declare that the isolationists are schizophrenics and prisoners of the thought. Even mild conservatives become the targets of his new psychological offensive, provided they are unfortunate enough to be religious. Partisan Review, a magazine that prides itself for both its radicalism and spirit of independence, under the leadership of the very brilliant Sidney Hook, conducted three years ago a whole campaign to prove that anyone who dared believe in God was the victim of a failure of nerve.

In France, Wladimir Brabovitch, shortly before the war made the important discovery that the precariousness of liberal regimes is attributed to vegetarianism. Apparently insufficient meat provokes a negative response to conditioned reflexes and turn dogs and men into docile subjects of tyrants.

Historical Explanation of Psychologism

This great popularity of psychogenetic explanations of political phenomena comes as the liberal reaction to fascist racial theories. There is good reason why racial theories should have found in Protestant countries a climate favorable to their development. Racial theories are an adaptation to the needs of a scientific-minded environment of the Biblical idea of the chosen race. Ideas of the Old Testament, which had been dramatically revived by left-wing groups of the Reformation, such as the Anabaptists, Pietists and Puritans are still able to stir deep emotions among ardent Protestants. There where the Anabaptist movement has left its mark on the culture of a people, all appeal to the masses will gain strength whenever it is able to reawaken, under a modernized form, the belief that the audience has a special mission to accomplish because it belongs to a chosen people. If, however, this chosen race theory appeals to certain Protestant elements of our time, it is abhorrent to the less sectarian and more liberal minded Protestants who cling, with equal vigor, to democratic individualism which Protestantism has also staunchly defended. In their counter-offensive against fascism it was imperative for the liberal Protestants to develop a theory that would neutralize the devastating political effects of racial theories; they had to oppose indiscriminate mass appeal and bolster individual resistance to collective pressure. Owing to one of those ironic contradictions of which history is full, Protestantism, which has a consequence of individual self-confidence and is an outgrowth of the development of private enterprise, overestimated the psychological strength of man when it abolished confession. Deprived of this means of achieving an inner security [early?] time modern man became a victim of doubt he felt unbearably isolated. The social function of psychoanalysis has been to serve, in a Protestant or atheist world, as a substitute to the Catholic form of Confession. While it is the belief in confession that accounts for the slow progress of psychoanalysis in a Catholic environment, it is the totalitarian hostility to individualism which explains both the boycott and persecution of psychoanalysis in totalitarian states.

If faith in individualism accounts for the confidence psychoanalysts enjoy in democratic countries, an abuse of psychological method of explanations and an over-estimation of psychiatric cures will inevitably provoke strong reactions.

Criticism of Psychological Explanations

The psychological theories by which social phenomena such as fascism and totalitarianism are explained fall into two groups, depth psychology and behaviorism.

When Richard Brickner and his followers accuse Germany of being dominated by paranoid types and list among paranoid characteristics the tendency toward megalomania, the sense of mission and the tendency toward exaggeration, the historian may well wonder if psychologists have not simply invented a new equalitarian theory to justify their predilection for intellectual and political mediocrity. Without megalomania neither the Pyramids nor the Cathedrals nor Rockefeller Center would have ever been erected; without a sense of mission humanity would be deprived of the services of Saint Augustin and Martin Luther. As A. A. Brill has correctly remarked: “All successful rulers who attained their position through their own effort were preponderantly schizoid… In some great men the schizoid factors furnish the necessary perseverance toward the attainment of great objects”.

If psychiatrists had a knowledge of history they would have seen that doctors of the body and the soul did not wait for Freud and Jung before accusing their opponents of falling the victims of mental diseases.

In our time mental diseases have become a substitute for witchery. Already in the beginning of the nineteenth century a Jesuit alienist Hartmann Griser, diagnosed Luther as a “maniac burdened with endogenous neurosis inclining to autochthonous ideas and complexes”. The vocabulary is slightly outdated, but the accusation does not differ essentially from those brandished upon similar occasions by our psychiatrists.

The difficulties psychology is face with each time it attempts to explain historical phenomena, such as fascism, is not overcome either by shifting the emphasis from schizoid or paranoid personality traits to the dialectics of the Oedipal Complex. If Kant’s obsessive devotion to duty can be accounted for in terms of a fixation on a too severe father or of an over-strict toilet training, we still find ourselves at a loss to explain how this same Kant became an admirer of Rousseau and the French Revolution and why he defended the cause of a European commonwealth of nations. If, as it seems obvious, the criterion of a father fixation is too limited to explain the philosophic and political ideas of Kant, this objection holds good also when it comes to explain psychologically a collective phenomenon such as the Prussian mentality or the fascist ideology. If, a severe father and a strict toilet training are bad things and engender a totalitarian mode of life, then liberal minded psychologists should object to seeing listed among the champions of democracy men like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, for their devotion to duty was at least equal to that of Kant and other Prussian heroes and might therefore also be explained in terms of a father fixation. If the psychologists would reply to this that there are cases when a father fixation is good, then to explain the bad by a father fixation ceases to be a true explanation.

Untenable also are the premises upon which Erich Fromm develops his escape-from-freedom theory. Viewed from the angle of depth psychology, that is to say of psychology of the unconscious, there can be no such thing as a “feeling of freedom” Schleiermacher believed to exist. Psychoanalytically speaking one cannot wish to escape from freedom and can only wish to escape from a situation in which our freedom is jeopardized. This means that we wish to free ourselves from an unpleasant situation such as imprisonment, obligation or state of anxiety. What we seek is to liberate ourselves from physical, psychological or moral fetters, something entirely different from this alleged escape from freedom. If instead Fromm had put the emphasis on freedom from anxiety – the only psychological basis on which the need to escape from freedom can be grounded upon – he would have been obliged to admit that during the critical years following the first World War, the Germans were faced with sufficient economic difficulties to justify the most acute state of anxiety. It is unnecessary therefore to seek to explain psychogenetically an anxiety whose origin is political and economic.

Equally misleading and unfortunate is the use of the term “failure of nerve” to explain the ideologies of religious minded people. If Sidney Hook had limited himself to saying that Christian authors believe that, without a sense of failure, we cannot properly appraise human undertakings, he would have been correct. It is not because a man believes in the Christian theory of guilt and in the ensuing sense of failure, that he automatically becomes the victim of a failure of nerve. Atheism could theoretically also be explained by a failure of nerve. According to Saint Chrysostom, not to distinguish the divine from the human is a sign of weakness and in one of his famous homilies which modern mystics like to quote, he urges man “to chase away from him all worldly care”. No one could claim this to be ab easy task but to accuse those who attempt to dot it of “failure of nerve” is to fall victim of an unpardonable confusion.

It is hardly necessary to refute the behavioristic theory according to which our faith in freedom can be conditioned by food. Certainly hunger can be so acute as to paralyze action, but it would be […] indeed to draw from this the conclusion that despots can subjugate populations by controlling their diet. Discontent is not only provoked by famine or inadequate nutrition but also by conditions of work. So far no despot has ever found the secret how to increase production without handling the whip, and flogging stimulates conditioned reflexes which no vegetarian diet will overcome.

The Theory of Cultural Patterns

No one has more vigorously criticized this mania to interpret psychologically social phenomena than has Ruth Benedict. In a paper called Culture and the Deviant, she points out that we cannot […] what is normal because we do not possess uniform standards of judgment. The normal, she adds, is a variant of the concept of the good and what is good is determined by the body social’s cultural patterns.

While the main error of the psychological social theories is to take it for granted that a certain type of behavior is good, the viewpoint of cultural relativism is that by declaring that we cannot  […] what is good, we are deprived of the opportunity of finding our way out of the moral crisis of today. Nor is it helpful to identify the normal with the good. For instance, a given society may consider it good to follow the Führerprinzip which does not mean that it would be normal for everyone to aim at becoming a Führer. Only an exceptional being could be granted this privilege. From here onward it would be easy for a psychologist to prove that what is exceptional is not normal.

Like all theories which seek to explain functional processes, the theory of cultural patterns cannot account for the disintegration of the pattern and the breakdown of civilizations. Even if we do accept the view that the cultural pattern which developed Nazi ideology was good when envisaged from a particular angle, still we are faced with the necessity of identifying the evil which caused the system to collapse. In a world dominated by the principle of exchange, commerce of goods and ideas, the problems arising from intercommunication between civilizations and cultures take precedence over cultural patterns and make it necessary to adjust these patterns to the dynamics of change.

In spite of its limitations, the theory of cultural patterns is not to be lightly dismissed for it tackles with greater rigor than do the psychological theories the problem of irrational traits – a term sociologically less equivocal than the terms evil, abnormal or unconscious. Edward Sapir has shown that the unconscious behavior of peoples is often predetermined by linguistic, religious or artistic cultural patterns. If we want therefore to understand the irrational Nazi behavior we will have first to explain it in terms of a cultural pattern which was responsible for the development of the moral ideas of the Germans. Historically this pattern must be a religious one for it is the functions of religious to provide the community with rules of moral conduct.

The German Cultural Pattern

The most crucial event in the formation of modern Germany’s moral character was the Reformation. Out of it sprung the three decisive movements of German political life, liberalism, socialism and national-socialism. If it was not for Luther’s faith in the individual and his eloquent defense of free will, the most inspired writing on freedom coming from Kant and Hegel, Goethe and Schiller would probably never have seen the light of day. It is not possible to over-emphasize the contribution of outstanding German writers and philosophers to the cause of individual freedom. If it is the work of Luther, the moralist, which is at the source of both German and Protestant liberalism, Luther, the political reformer, must be seen as the father of that spirit of nationalism which was to give birth to a Bismarck. While German nationalism narrowed the meaning of the Reformation, socialism internationalized it. The ideas Karl Marx expressed in his German Ideology should be interpreted historically as an atheistic adaptation of Protestant humanism.

Lastly, for the national socialists, Luther, the mystic, serves as a link between medieval German mysticism and the teachings of the romantic nationalist, Schleiermacher and Wagner.

The study of German culture reveals the existence of three fundamental religious cultural patterns, Catholicism, Lutheranism and Anabaptism. To be properly comprehended the great moral crisis Germany went through in the sixteenth century must be grasped in its totality and as a complex phenomenon. Ideologically it has two poles of attraction, Lutheran reformism and revolutionary Anabaptism. Why Lutheranism triumphed and Anabaptism was crushed, only to be revived later, first it the form of Pietism, then in that of romantic nationalism and finally in the form of National Socialism, will have to be analyzed historically as it cannot be accounted for in the narrow limits of the field of cultural patterns.  For the same reason the failure of democratic Protestantism and revolutionary Marxism to defeat National Socialism will have to be analyzed by a method that can explain the rise and fall of cultural patterns, which is the historical method.


If the German nation has not always followed the cultural patterns out of which National Socialism was born this implies that the fate of Germany is not inevitably linked to the destiny of national socialism and that therefore the German people do not need foreign educators, therapists and technicians to teach them the use of new cultural patterns by means of which they are to achieve their salvation.

To see the development of a nation as the inevitable consequence of the unrolling of a pre-existing cultural pattern or as the outcome of the predominance of a psychotic or neurotic archetype suffering from schizoid misrepresentations of reality or neurotic complexes, implies that the inhabitants of this culturally condemned nation will have to be treated as if they were sick men and needed to be cured and re-educated. Education, in the last analysis is nothing else but politics applied to children, or to those who are legally assimilated to them. Before deciding to treat the Germans as children we should have to prove that during the twelve years of Nazi rule the German people lost all sense of what is good and that their conquerors, or at least one of them, possesses this wisdom. How avoid seeing that, for any one nation to claim this would be tantamount to identifying herself with a chosen race? Although we do not know what is good, we do know that certain things are bad. Among them we can list fear and concentration camps, slave labor and hunger. No one can furthermore deny that National Socialism had made an extensive use of these evil elements. There must, therefore, exist a method of reasoning by which we can pass a political judgment on deeds whose main characteristic is to be part of a political action such as is the Nazi political program.

It is pain which is the common denominator of hunger and fear. If, as we know hunger and fear are political weapons, this means that pain also can be used as a political weapon. It was employed with an appalling frequency and terrifying refinement by the Inquisition and is again being used prolifically in our century by totalitarian regimes. In contrast to political fanatics, Utopians of all times have dreamed of a world free from pain. Between the two extremes stands the moralizing philosopher who sees in pain a sting to activity. Max Horkheimer, who has studied this problem with deep insight, is correct in saying that in a divided society pain is both the archetype of labor and its organon.  “It was always the best teacher to bring men to reason. Pain leads the resistant and wayward, the phantast and Utopian back to himself. It reduces them to their body, to part of their body. Pain levels and equalizes everything, man and man, man and animal. It absorbs the entire life of the being whom it racks, reducing him to a husk of pain… Fascism has reinstated pain on its throne… The contradiction between what is is requested of man and what can be offered to him has become so striking, the ideology so thin, the discontents in civilization so great that they must be compensated through annihilation of those who do not conform, political enemies, Jews, asocial persons, the insane. The new order of fascism is reason revealing itself as unreason”. The abuse of the policy of pain as was to be expected, transformed the lands ruled by Fascism into an inferno. The abuse of any major political weapon, like all abuses is unreasonable. As Horkheimer says, pain by reducing man to the body mutilates the ego. What greater affliction could befall mankind? Thus it came to be that by an abuse of power fascist reason revealed itself as unreason.

In the light of this study it is clear that what Germany needs is above all to be freed from insufferable pain, the pain of hunger and exhaustion, of fear and excessive guilt – “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. Instead of this, what do we see? Judges and psychotherapists draw lists of political taboos with that self-assurance with which Moses lays down rules for the treatment of lepers and adulterers. The question is not whether the mental lepers should be hanged, thrown in a concentration camp or an insane asylum. All who theorize on this problem on the basis of complexes and patterns are but weaving a tissue of useless folly. The intellectuals who suggest punishments, cures and reeducation as a panacea for the ills of Germany are in their turn guilty of an abuse of power. It is immaterial to know whether the inventors of these remedies are themselves schizoids, who misrepresent reality, or if they suffer from a failure of nerve. What counts is the fact that the intellectual betrays the confidence the public shows in him when he uses his particular tools, words and ideas, for wrong purposes. Politics have been correctly defined as the culture of the masses, as it is through politics that the conscious behavior of the collectivity can be developed. By substituting for the judgment of the people the judgment of a special court, such as the one that functioned in Nuremberg, or by the judgment and reports of psychiatrists and their missions and congresses, is an evidence that in these matters an undemocratic line is now being followed. The idea that the fate of the German people is not to be decided according to the will of the most interested body politic, the people of Germany and the people of Europe, but according to the decrees of a professional elite, has a marked political character. Furthermore, the ably conducted campaign led to convince the public that the eradication of fascism is not a political problem but a technical one for specialists to handle on the basis of subtle psychological criteria, has the most serious political implications and should be vigorously denounced in the name of culture. It is a form of political obscurantism as it leads democracy to abdicate some of her most vital prerogatives for the benefit of an elite. When political, judicial and educational decisions affecting the masses are taken by a handful of specialists, it is a symptom that oligarchy – not to be confused with fascism – has a very good chance of eventually substituting itself for a more democratic form of government.


NICOLAS CALAS, a Greek born in Switzerland, published his first book on art and surrealism, Foyers d’Incendie, in Paris just before the war. He now lives in New York and is an American citizen. He has written articles on art for Horizon, View, Tomorrow Magazine, and at present is completing a book of essays on the moral crisis in today’s world which is to be entitled The New Prometheus.

Modern Review, june 1947



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