WWJS/What Would Jung Say?: Diagnosing Dictators

The American Psychiatric Association’s “Goldwater Rule” deems it unethical to diagnose Donald Trump’s mental health at a distance. In its strictest interpretation, it’s a virtual gag order on any public proclamations from its members about the mental health of a public official. Nevertheless, armchair psychologists like me know a DSM text-book case of a narcissist prone to gaslighting behavior when we see it. Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychotherapy, had no qualms when it appeared that the leader of Germany might be mad. In addition to participating in unsuccessful plots to have Hitler declared so, he agreed to a magazine interview in 1939, “Diagnosing the Dictators,” to provide his professional view of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. He also diagnosed the German people as a whole as having been seized by Hitler, their seizer, who released the archetypal berserker energies of Wotan, an ancestral god Teutonic god of ward and wind. “Their house,” and their consciousness, he wrote in an essay first published in 1936, had been “filled with a mighty rushing wind,” from its source in the collective German unconscious.
Jung’s interview by H.R. Knickerbocker appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine’s January 1939, issue. The magazine was then named the Hearst Cosmopolitan-International Magazine with a much different aim than that of the current magazine to define the sexual behaviors and accouterments of the “Cosmo woman.” Knickerbocker was an American journalist and foreign correspondent whose book about Russia under Stalin had won the Pulitzer Prize. At the time that he interviewed Jung, he had already been expelled from Germany for reporting truthfully about the rise of Nazism.
Knickerbocker began the interview by posing a thought experiment to Jung: “What would happen if you were to lock Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin in a room together and give them one loaf of bread and one pitcher of water to last them a week? Who would get all the food and water, or would they divide it?”
Jung responded mildly that he doubted they would divide it. He went on to categorize Hitler as a kind of “medicine man” personality type, who would hold himself aloof and have nothing to do with the quarrel, in actuality helpless without his German people. In contrast, he categorized Mussolini and Stalin as having the personality of physically powerful chieftains. They would likely dispute possession of the food and drink, and being “rougher and tougher” than Hitler, would probably get all of it. Medicine men like Hitler, Jung said, were strong only if they commanded armies.
The value that Jung placed on creativity in personality development was on display. He contrasted Stalin unfavorably with Lenin because Lenin had torn down the whole structure of feudal and bourgeois society and replaced it with his own creation. Stalin was instead a “conquistador . . . not even creatively destructive,” a dictator who “simply put his teeth into what Lenin created and devoured it.” Stalin was just a brute, a shrewd peasant, a latter-day version of Genghis Khan, an instinctive powerful beast, who reminded Jung of a Siberian tiger with his powerful neck, the sweeping mustaches, and “the smile of a cat which has been eating cream.”
Some admiration came out in Jung’s depiction of Mussolini who he thought resembled Stalin in the fundamental pattern of his personality but was more mentally interesting and the warmest and most human of the three. He discerned “a certain style, a certain format of an original man with good taste in certain matters” in Mussolini, in his choice of the title “Il Duce,” in not deposing the king who was allowed to live on as a figurehead, and in what Jung thought was a less harsh treatment of Italian Jews. (My ancestors would likely not have agreed with this last statement.) Jung mentioned being entertained when he observed Mussolini’s first practicing the Nazi goose-step and enjoying with “the zest of a child at the circus.”
Hitler, the medicine man, the myth, was the most interesting of all to Jung — with a body that wasn’t physically strong and a “dreamy look” Jung attributed to a seer. “There is no question but that Hitler belongs in the category of the truly mystic medicine man . . . Hitler’s power is not political, it’s magic.” The source of Hitler’s magic according to Jung was the exceptional access from his unconsciousness to his consciousness as well as the fact that he allowed himself to be moved by it as if “listening to a stream of suggestions in a whispered voice from a mysterious source.” Hitler himself frequently referred to as “his Voice,” which Jung identified as direct communication from his unconscious. This sounds eerily familiar although the source of the Voice that speaks to Trump is decidedly less mysterious.
What made Hitler uncanny and psychologically fascinating to Jung was his lack of human presence. “Hitler made upon me the impression of a sort of scaffolding, of wood covered with cloth, an automaton with a mask, like a robot, or a mask of a robot. . . You know you would never be able to talk to that man; because there is nobody there. . . Hitler does not rule Germany. He is simply the exponent of the trend of things . . . the mirror of every German’s unconscious.”

Jung also provides a cautionary tale about the maintenance of professional reputations by psychiatrists at any cost under a government sliding toward totalitarianism on a slope greased by an Aryan supremacist ideology. Jung, a German Swiss, was safe in his stone tower in neutral Switzerland in the run-up and horrors of World War II. He could have tended solely to his dreams and active imagination and to those of his Swiss patients, but instead, he quietly lent his support to two unsuccessful plots to have Hitler declared insane and reportedly provided information to British Intelligence.
But Jung also chose to continue his leadership of an international psychoanalytic society that was based in and dominated by Germany throughout the 1930s, the time when the Nazis imposed Gleichgeschaltung, regulations to ensure conformity to Nazi values in the organization of civil society. Although Jung later claimed that he remained in this position to maintain the position of psychoanalysis and to help Jewish psychoanalysts, he only managed to include a few loopholes as he presided over the expulsions that spelled a loss of legitimacy and livelihood in Germany.
More disturbingly, he conformed his thinking and public statements with the Nazi push to undermine the legitimacy of work done by Jewish scientists and other professionals. Just as Einstein’s theories were discredited and banned as “Jewish physics,” Jung declared the work of Freud, Adler, and other Jewish psychoanalysts to be “Jewish psychology,” irrelevant to the German/Aryan psyche. Even Jung’s conceptualization of the Collective Unconscious took on a racial aspect. He determined that it included a layer that was national/societal, which served as a cultural filter between a universal human Collective Unconscious and the contents of individual unconsciousness that might emerge into consciousness. Thus, the vast ocean of archetypal images and characters accessible through dreams and the “woke” imaginations of individuals on hero quests were restricted to what was within the boundaries of what had been inherited from the ancestors in their bloodline. Jung has been hailed as a “man of the depths,” instead of being a “man of his times.” His new emphasis on inheritance, however, allied him with other “men of their times” — scientists who enabled and often led the charge to apply evolutionary theory to justify and enforce miscegenation laws and sterilization of those deemed mentally unfit in America and murder of both “inferior” races and the “mentally disabled” in Germany.

According to Jung’s explanation, Wotan was like a psychic channel that could be temporarily dammed in the German unconsciousness, but which periodically overtopped the dam and broke free into consciousness, overwhelming rationality, empathy, and compassion in the entire nation of people. If this were true, Trump’s German ancestry could be the source of his ability to dog-whistle and channel that power in his followers and to serve as their mirror in ways that are unconscious, thus uncontrollable. But while some of Trump’s followers invoke Nazi ideology for white supremacy and anti-Semitism, being white in America is not even a matter of purity of Aryan bloodlines. Trump himself is only German on his father’s side, Scottish on his mother’s side. America is still a democracy with a president elected by less than half the voters with thoughtful citizens who appear immune to such a seizure, despite the repeated attacks on facts and rationality and attempts to legitimize racism and misogyny.
More importantly, scientists have demonstrated many times over that the ideology of racial superiority has no basis in biology. Certainly, no shred of evidence existed during Jung’s time that anything psychic could be inherited, much less a propensity for violence and hatred that might be excused as being completely out of rational control and fated. Ironically, however, the first evidence that psychic experiences in one generation can be passed on to future generations came from studies of the descendants of the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. The stress of life in Nazi concentration camps during the survivor generation resulted in an altered pattern of response to stress involving levels of stress hormones in their children. Children who had never been exposed to the original trauma were more vulnerable and less able to cope with stress than their parents, a conclusion with implications for other historical traumas inflicted on Native Americans and African-Americans and any trauma inflicted on young children such as separation from their aspiring immigrant parents and confinement in camps.
The debate about nature versus nurture is on-going within psychology about the cause-and-effect relationships that shape personalities and trigger or heal mental illnesses. What seems clear from the research on multi-generational trauma is that when nurture is replaced by traumatic violence — whether physical and psychological — it can influence how the genetic inheritance of even physiological coping mechanisms play out. Jung’s notion of a healing conversation between the imaginative consciousness of every individual and an ocean of unconscious riches that emerge in symbols remains tantalizing, but one that will likely never be fully grounded in biology. A chasm still exists, thankfully, between understanding how and where human cognition and the processing of emotions and memories take place in the human brain and sufficient understanding to complete control over what we think, feel, remember, or dream about.
Perhaps the Collective Unconscious still provides a useful metaphor, however, for patterns of life experiences and emotions that all people share by virtue of being human. “It wasn’t me, something uncontrollable (Wotan!) overcame me,” on the other hand, should be retired as an excuse for hateful behavior and violence by individuals whose behavior American society tolerates. FaceBook might consider Wotan worship as a form of hate speech.

Regardless of what it’s our genes, which of them are turned on or off, how our mother or father treated us, or the configuration of stars and planets we were born under, we all inherit history and the consequences of the dictatorships of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler. Jung’s only advice in 1939 for saving democracy in the West was to not even try to stop Hitler or the German people from the compulsion to realize their destiny. Instead, the therapeutic strategy he recommended for the future of democracy was diversion.
“I say — let him go East,” Jung said. “Let him go to Russia. That’s the logical cure for Hitler.” History did prove Jung right, in part. Hitler’s Eastern front foundered on the steppes of Russia, but it was America’s entry into the war that helped turn the tide decisively. Trump’s ideology and tacit alliance with the current regime in Russia likely portends a very different future for Western democracy if Trump’s brand of dictatorship is unchecked.
Following the Sudetenland Crisis in fall, 1938, Jung made stronger comments about Hitler and Nazi Germany in interviews. But the effects of his early leadership in normalizing a murderous totalitarian society by providing a psychological basis for it was long-lasting. We don’t need to be card-carrying members of the American Psychiatric Society and come up with the proper DSM label for Donald Trump to compare his speech and his actions with the playbook of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini and their followers. They are moving our government and us, the people, toward acceptance and support of totalitarianism. In modern times, the absolute power of totalitarian governments has thrived on the unfounded notion of the superiority of a selective group of people — scapegoating and “othering” groups of people to blame for social and economic stresses, as a justification of discrimination, violence, and murder. Dictators have successfully invoked the destiny of a great and purified nation. Labeling the mental complexes of dictators is somewhat irrelevant. The Nazis eventually came for the psychoanalysts and those that survived did so by becoming complicit with their ideology.
If Trump was in the room with Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, (or Putin, Kim Jong-Un, and Bolsonaro) would he make a deal to share the bread and the water, ending up with the lion’s share for himself? Would he even need the American people or his command of American armies to empower him to seize it?

Marilyn Sigman, Entangled

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Author, Entangled: People & Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, 2020 Burroughs Medal. Retired environmental/science educator. More: alaskasciencelit.net

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Marilyn Sigman

Marilyn Sigman

Author, Entangled: People & Ecological Change in Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, 2020 Burroughs Medal. Retired environmental/science educator. More: alaskasciencelit.net

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