Psychoanalysis of Culture, Ideology and History
Psychoanalytic Review

Koenigsberg, R.A. (1968-1969). Culture and Unconscious Phantasy: Observations on Nazi Germany. Psychoanalytic Review, 55:681-696.


By Richard Koenigsberg


In a previous paper6 it was argued that the origin of social institutions and their tendency to persist in relatively stable form may be understood in terms of the dynamics of unconscious phantasy: they arise as a response to phantasy, and, once defined on the level of cultural reality, function to provide socially acceptable means for acting-out. An analysis of The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus revealed that the institution which he embraced and the ideology which defined it represented a reaction to the Oedipal situation: an attempt to revive the competition with the father and to come into exclusive and permanent possession of the mother. Here, it is hypothesized that the institutional complex and ideology which came to be known as Nazism represented, as well, a particular response to the Oedipal situation: an attempt to defend the mother from the father through destruction of the father.

Nazi Germany has been selected for study because it provides a rather ideal case in support of the general theory: the social structure and ideology of an entire nation were shaped, in great measure, by the phantasies of a single individual. If, through an analysis of Mein Kampf, we are able to uncover the unconscious phantasies which motivated Adolph Hitler and to note the manner in which these phantasies attached themselves to various aspects of the social environment, we will have shed light upon the latent psychological meaning of the program which he sponsored and upon the sources of its appeal for the German people.

The problem of historical determinism should be dealt with at the outset, lest it be assumed that this study represents still another attempt to delineate the “causes” of the Nazi revolution: conventional methodology in history, if we may apply the term “methodology” to the unsystematic, often naive assumptions which guide historical research, may be said to focus upon the question of explanation in terms of the identification of those variables which are sufficient to account for a historical phenomenon. Thus, the historian would ask retrospectively, “What conditions preceding the historical phenomenon in question, had they not existed, and what events preceding it, had they not occurred, would have made the actualization of this phenomenon an impossibility?” The question of explanation, in short, focuses upon historical predisposition.

The purpose of this paper, however is a broader one: to ascertain the nature of Nazism, the latent psychological content upon which the Nazi ideology was constructed and of which it was a function. The more traditional historical questions—why Nazism arose at this particular point in German history, why it arose in Germany and in no other place, what particular occurrences led to its emergence—are not our central concerns. This is not to say, however, that the identification of the psychic meaning of the Nazi movement does not bear importantly upon these more specific questions; before one can accurately identify the conditions which permit a social phenomenon to occur and before one can specify the events which precede it, one must define the nature of the phenomenon in question.

The psychoanalyst, in fact, concerned with the deeper roots of human action, may be permitted to cast a skeptical eye upon the traditional concerns of historians. To use an analogy: The question of why a particular individual attempts suicide, for the psychoanalyst, may be broken down into two parts: (1) What phantasy energized the act and made it psychologically relevant, and (2) What antecedent psychologically significant events increased the probability that these latent tendencies would be activated and seek expression in reality? The psychoanalyst, of course, would not ignore the conditions which preceded the behavioral event, e.g., the availability of sleeping pills, or the absence of other persons. These conditions, however, while necessary antecedents of the suicide attempt (for in the absence of either of these variables the event in question could not have occurred), would not be considered crucial. The psychoanalyst recognizes that behavioral events are a function of more invariant psychological tendencies, that, for example, self-destructive efforts possess an inexorability which, being a function of the strength of these deeper tendencies, render academic an examination of incidental events preceding a suicide attempt. Similarly, he recognizes that predisposing influences are relevant only in terms of their capacity to stimulate these deeper tendencies.

The psychoanalytic approach to the study of history, following this analogy, would focus upon the unconscious meaning of a historical event, upon the latent psychological tendencies which stimulate its activation upon the stage of reality. When historians study the rise of Nazism in terms of the influence of industrialists, who lent financial assistance to the Nazi party, or in terms of the impetus provided by the Junkers, who permitted Hitler to become Chancellor in 1933 with the expectation that he could be exploited for their own purposes, one is reminded of those psychologists (cited by Freud) who studied slips of the tongue in terms of the mental state (sleepiness, drunkenness, lack of attentiveness) preceding their occurrence. In each case, the underlying meaning of an event is ignored in favor of an examination of incidental predispositions.

It is only when the nature of an historical event is determined, however, that an examination of historical predisposition becomes relevant. Once the underlying psychological dynamics of Nazism have been elucidated, historical questions can be phrased with a new precision and can be answered within a coherent theoretical framework. One might ask, for example, “In what manner did the Treaty of Versailles accentuate Oedipal conflicts among the Germans and make their eventual activation in the forms of the Nazi revolution more likely?” “What, in German social and intellectual history, suggested the particular resolution of the Oedipus complex of which Nazism was a manifestation?” “How did Hitler's presentation of propaganda stimulate the acting-out of Oedipal phantasies?” The only assumption which is made when studying history from this point of view is that certain phantasies are shared, to a lesser or greater extent, by all individuals, and that these phantasies, given the appropriate stimuli, can be translated into social action.


The most important determinant of the single-mindedness and strength of will with which Hitler was to embrace and to propagate Nazism was his capacity to project his Oedipus complex, in a clearcut manner, onto the Nazi ideology. Hitler identified Germany with his mother, and Germany's enemies, particularly the Jews, with his father. His single purpose in life, then, was to serve the former; specifically, to protect her from the aggression of the latter. If Hitler's rhetoric and political maneuvering consistently contained a defensive quality, as if his only desire was to protect Germany and himself from alien threats, it was because for him this situation possessed a psychological reality: the unconscious image of the sadistic father was projected onto social reality, and, thus defining and giving significance to this reality, motivated the belief that Germany was constantly endangered by hostile forces. The ultimately moral quality of Hitler's endeavors, the sense of personal justification and self-righteousness with which he directed the most horrendous acts of terror, was derived precisely from his capacity to view his opponents in terms of the Oedipal father: as sadistic, immoral, intentionally exploitative of the mother, and as deserving, therefore, of destruction.

Throughout Hitler's proclamations, in Mein Kampf and in his speeches, we are provided with evidence for this interpretation. The concrete imagery which he employs, with respect to both Germany and her enemies, enables one to penetrate without particular difficulty to the latent content of his complaints.

In a discussion of the Jewish Viennese press in Mein Kampf, Hitler states that this group, while not intending to interfere directly with conditions within the German Reich, nevertheless, “By placing its fingers on these wounds in the friendliest way, was fulfilling the duty imposed by the spirit of mutual alliance—and now it was poking this finger around in the wound to its heart's content. In such cases, the blood rose to my head.”4a The intensity and directness of the projection, in this instance, is incredible. Germany's “wound”, here, is the mother's vagina; the Jew's interest in “poking his finger around in the wound” refers to the father's sadistic sexual penetration, an occurrence which, though “a duty imposed by the spirit of mutual alliance” (i.e. by marriage), was nevertheless repugnant to Hitler and aroused his fullest anger and moral indignation. (The fact that “the blood rose” to Hitler's head on these occasions indicates, of course, that sexual excitement was elicited as well as anger.)

The identification of Germany with the mother and the Jew with the sadistic father seems to have been shared by the other members of the Nazi party. In an interview, Goebbels responded to the question, “Are the Jews human?” in the following manner; “If somebody hits your mother in the face with a whip, are you going to say, thank you? Is he human? He is not, he is a beast. How many worse things has the Jew done to our mother Germany and is still doing.”7a Once again, the unconscious identification is all but explicit: the Jew, shaped in the image of a brutal father, is seen to be deserving of the most inhuman treatment.*

* Further evidence of the existence of an intense identification between the mother and the German state appears frequently in the Nazi literature. For Hitler, the clarity and specificity of this identification come through when he reveals that he wept for the first time since the death of his mother over Germany's loss of World War I. For the Nazi party, this identification becomes most obvious in the following excerpt from an article in Der Angriff upon the occasion of Mother's Day in 1933: “She, the German mother, is the sole bearer of the German national idea. The idea of ‘mother’ will always be the same as ‘being German.’ What could unite us more strongly than the idea of honoring mother?”7 (Ibid., p. 45)

In the early pages of Mein Kampf, Hider discusses his conflict with his father with respect to the choice of a career. While his father wanted him to pursue a career in the civil service, and thus to follow in his footsteps, Hitler stubbornly refused to abide by this choice; instead, he wished to become an artist, a career which, perhaps more than any other, was distasteful to his father. The consequences of this argument, Hitler reports, were not pleasant: “The old man grew embittered, and, much as I loved him, so did I.”4b In this passage, by insisting that he loves his father, Hitler defends himself against hostility toward him. At the same time, however, his contempt finds expression when he refers to him as the “old man.” In fact, Hitler's attitude toward him, or at least the manner in which he phrased his hostility, was rooted in a reality-situation: his father was an old man. When the conflict over a career choice occurred, Hitler's father was sixty-five, while he was twelve. His mother at this time, however, was only forty-two. Throughout his career, the image of Hitler's opponents is forged in the image of his father: as old as impotent, on the one hand, unworthy of a noble cause, and on the other, as treacherous and sadistic, ruthlessly exploitive of the “young Reich.”*

Hitler's father that in the midst of this adolescent struggle. One may speculate that his sense of omnipotence, his feeling that his enemies would be ultimately destroyed, was related to this experience.

Significantly, Hitler's discussion of his conflict with his father appears in Mein Kampf directly preceding his discussion of his discovery of Nationalism. It is a? if Hitler is defending himself, following the revival of Oedipal wishes and conflicts in adolescence, by projecting his impulses onto national units. Once this has taken place, once the struggle has been removed from its immediate, guilt-laden arena, Hitler's wishes can be expressed, as for example, when Hitler is angrily critical toward the Habsburg monarchy in Austria. Lamenting that this “old monarchy” is stifling, “The elemental cry of the German-Austrian people for union with the German mother-country,”4c he is protesting his father's interference with his love for, and desire for union with, his mother. When he condemns, “The unholy alliance of the young Reich and the Austrian sham-state,”4d he is objecting to the marriage of his young mother to his old father. And when he professes “ardent love for my German-Austrian homeland, deep hatred for the Austrian state,'”4d the Oedipus complex finds expression in its classic form. Hitler's capacity to project his deepest aspirations and fears onto distinct cultural elements, and to experience these abstractions with an intensity appropriate to the original objects of his love and hatred, may be considered to lie at the root of his efficacy as a historical figure.

Hitler's lack of respect for his father is expressed once again when he reports experiencing “profound distaste for the profession which my father had chosen for me,”4e a profession toward which, in fact, Hitler's father had devoted his entire life and directed his highest aspirations. This lack of respect, manifesting itself here in a refusal to embrace his father's profession, was one aspect of a more general motive: a global refusal to identify with his father. Conceiving of his father as an “old man,” whose ideals were petty and whose life had been wasted in a position of little consequence, Hitler experienced contempt. And in the knowledge that this inconsequential old man forced himself upon his beloved, youthful mother, Hitler experienced rage. This refusal to identify with his father, representing contempt for his father's role in the world and a disavowal of his father's treatment of his mother, was paralleled by compassion for his mother, and led Hitler to identify with her plight. That Hitler identified the Jews with the Oedipal father, and consequently desired to protect mother-Germany from the sexual advances of the former, may be seen in the following excerpts from Mein Kampf: He calls the Jew the “seducer of the people”;4f he claims that the Jew is “The cold-hearted calculating director of the vice-traffic in the scum of the big city”;4g and, finally, he states that, if Germans emphasized physical beauty to a greater extent, “The seduction of hundreds of thousands of girls by bow-legged, repulsive Jewish bastards would not be possible.”4h

The intensity of Hitler's hostility toward the Jews, therefore, upon whom Hitler's feelings toward his father found most direct expression, must be understood in terms of the intensity of his identification with his mother. Any attack upon mother-Germany, any threat to her integrity or to her moral purity, was experienced as an attack upon Hitler himself, on the deepest level, as anal rape. Thus, Hitler perceives the Jewish danger in terms of a destructive foreign body becoming embedded in the body of Germany. Hitler's preoccupation with will-power and masculinity, particularly in the form of physical well-being, may be understood as a defense against these passive fears.

Hitler's choice of the Jews as the object upon which his hostility was to find its most intense and persistent expression may be understood in terms of their appropriateness as a symbol of his father.* Like him, they represented an object which, though ancient and apparently impotent, was, perhaps, ultimately indestructable, destined to maintain its position in spite of all adversaries. The Jews, that is to say, in their historical capacity for survival, were able to embrace Hitler's fear that, in the long run perhaps, the Oedipal battle would prove to be futile; that his father, though an old man, could not be defeated. This comes through clearly when, in a rare moment of self-doubt and anguish, Hitler ponders “the fearful question (of) whether inscrutable Destiny did not with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation.”4i Support for this interpretation may be deduced from the following: destiny or “fate” is identified throughout Mein Kampf with mother-figures, i.e., with a Goddess. The previous passage, in light of this, may be translated to read, “Perhaps, finally, mother will prefer father to myself.”

* Once again, it should be noted that we are concerned here with a psychological explanation. The fact of Hitler's anti-Semitism may be explained, in part, in terms of the tradition of German anti-Semitism: the Jews provided a culturally acceptable, a “natural” outlet for his hostility. The nature of this anti-semitism, however, is a psychological problem: what were the contours of the transference-neurosis, that is, in what manner did specific characteristics of the Jews provide an appropriate focus, a point of reception, for Hitler's unconscious phantasies? A further discussion of the relationship between socio-historical explanations of cultural phenomena and psychological ones will appear later.

The mass murder of the Jewish people, then, must be understood in terms of the psychology of Hitler, and, of course, must be viewed as one of the central facts of the Nazi phenomenon. The idea that Hitler consciously “used” anti-Semitism in order to realize the more profound goals of Nazism,9 that it represented, for him, a propaganda tool designed to unite the German people against a common enemy, reflects a misunderstanding of the psychological forces which compel men to project their personal lives upon the stage of history. Hitler's anti-Semitism was part and parcel of his total motivational structure: it was inextricably bound with his espousal of the Nazi ideology, as well as with his behavior as Führer of Germany.

When Alfred Rosenberg says, “Conscience is a Jewish invention. Like circumcision it is a mutilation of the human being,”8a he reveals the essential meaning of Nazi anti-Semitism: the threatening father, once external, now internalized in the form of the conscience, is made external once again in the form of the Jew, and thus may be coped with. The destruction of the Jew, therefore, is a symbolic destruction of the Oedipal father, an effort at warding off the fear of mutilation. The Jewish practice of circumcision, of course, served to intensify the identification of this group with the Oedipal father. Hitler's imagery on several occasions suggests the idea of the castrating Jew. At one point, in a speech, he declares, “We will not let the Jews slit our gullets.”5a And, in another speech, he says, “It is not necessary to be an enemy of the Jew for him one day to drag you to the scaffold.”5b

How is the Nazi to destroy the father? Essentially, by defying him, by gaining the courage to inflict upon him the punishment which he had threatened upon oneself. One must shed guilt, Hitler says, in order to gain the strength to “ruthlessly … prune off the wild shoots and tear out the weeds,”4j—that is, to perform the act of castration upon another. In fact, in Hitler's rise to power, the idea which sustained his followers in their most difficult moments, his greatest promise, was that one day the enemies of the Nazi party would be destroyed by castration. Journalist Johann von Leers, himself a Nazi, reports that he and his comrades were filled with a sense of exhilaration, “… when Hitler uttered the wonderful words that sprang from the hearts of all of us, the lofty promise of expiation: then heads will roll.”3a

The essence of the Nazi revolution, then, was a revolt against the father, a desire to avenge oneself, in the name of the mother, against the indignities and humiliations suffered at his hands. Identification with Hitler enabled the German people to shed their guilt, to find the strength to rise up against all symbols of unacceptable paternal authority: the Jews, the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic, the League of Nations. Hitler, it seems, understood his function. In an early speech he states that the process of Jewish economic exploitation will end only when a leader seizes power and “Finds other comrades and fans into flame the passions which have been held in check and looses them against the deceivers.”5a Hitler's task was to free and to mobilize the latent aggression of the German people, ultimately directed toward the father, by encouraging its projection upon Germany's enemies. The self-righteous anger experienced by the child upon his perception of the father's sexual exploitation of the mother was to be liberated and to be used in the “defense” of Germany. Thus, Hitler is constantly playing the role of an unjustly treated victim, of a man who, tormented by unbearable oppressors, has no other alternative but to rise up in self-defense and destroy them. The Jew, of course, plays the role of tormentor for Hitler through his career; even in the final days of his life, “International Jewry” is held to be responsible for his predicaments, in this case, for his ultimate failure and defeat. The emphasized oppressor, however, is often dictated by the historical situation, and therefore shifts at various points in Hitler's career. At different times the Communists, the Treaty of Versailles, and foreign nations are held to be responsible for perpetrating injury upon Germany, and are thus subject to attack. Hitler's histrionics, which consisted of violent, almost epileptic outbursts of moralistic rage, and which were designed to convince his enemies that he meant business, were deeply rooted in his character: it was necessary for him to convince himself that an injustice had been committed, that Germany or the Nazi party had been maligned or mistreated, before he could fully mobilize his aggression. When his id could be aligned with his superego, when his destructive impulses could be seen as just and proper, only then could he act in full confidence.7 The German people, symbolic, for Hitler, of his mother, are seen to be continually in a state of warding off attack; always, therefore, it is Hitler's purpose to destroy the attackers.

Hitler's skill at appeasing influential persons and representatives of important groups is likewise rooted deeply in his character: it represented his manner of defending himself against his father, of warding off, through any possible means, a threatening object. As the objects of Hitler's tactics came to believe his declarations of helplessness and peaceful intentions, as they were persuaded, in effect, of his impotence, Hitler's contempt, and soon his aggression, were mobilized. It is interesting to note that Hitler's most difficult moments occurred when he was not able to resolve his ambivalence toward authority in terms of disrespect, contempt and hostility. Thus, his hesitancy in making himself Chancellor of Germany in the early thirties may be understood in the light of his admiration for Hindenburg. And his difficulty in feeling entirely justified in attacking Great Britain, his wish to come to an understanding with that country rather than to be forced into a position of aggression (an attitude which probably played a role in Germany's inability to conquer her) may be understood in terms of the high esteem in which he held that nation, particularly with respect to the worldwide empire which Great Britain represented. One may predict, retrospectively, that had Hitler been confronted earlier with a representative of authority who would not have been fooled by his hysteria and “antic-madness,” had he been confronted with an opponent clever enough to recognize his latent potency and to confront him in man-to-man combat, he would have been stricken with anxiety and perhaps prevented from acting-out his conflicts.

The identification of the German people with the will of Hitler, while facilitating the liberation of Oedipal aggression, represented, as well, a submission to the father. Thus, total obedience with respect to the “good father,” Hitler, was necessary if one was to be permitted to express aggression toward the externalized “bad-father” imagoes. That is, the internalization of the demands and ideals of Hitler was a prerequisite for the release of impulses toward Germany's “enemies.” When Hitler says, in one of his speeches, “There is no single dictator (in Germany), but ten thousand, each in his own place,”5d he is expressing a psychological truth: through identification with Hitler, the German people were made free of the “blemish of conscience,” and could act as ruthlessly as dictators. The essence of Nazism is, perhaps, captured when Hitler remarks in a speech, “The babling of Mr. Churchill or Mr. Eden doesn't mean a thing to the German people. At best, it makes them laugh.”5e Here is Hitler leading the Germans in the infantile defiance of authority.


One must conclude, following this analysis, that Hitler's phantasies were projected onto social reality, and that, accepted and shared by the German people, they came to define this reality. And, once this definition of reality had received “consensual validation,” the Germans were provided with a ready-made form for the acting-out of Oedipal conflicts. The extent to which Hitler's personal whims came to define the social structure of Germany is one of the central points of Hannah Arendt's study, Eichmann in Jerusalem. She observes that the shape of the Nazi state was eventually dictated by Hitler's oral pronouncements, and that Eichmann, indeed, in doing his duty, “Not only obeyed orders, he obeyed the law.”1a*

Arendt's conclusions concerning Eichmann's “normalcy,” however, must be disputed here: the fact that a pattern of behavior represents a cultural norm does not mean that the individual who embraces this pattern is psychologically normal. Indeed, the theoretical perspective offered in this paper indicates the manner in which cultural norms may come to be defined in terms of pathological, unresolved conflicts. A fully developed psychoanalytic study of culture would involve an evaluation of institutions in terms of the degree of pathology embodied in them, an estimate of the extent to which unresolved conflicts are reflected in and contained by projective systems.

Our study of Courtly Love led to the conclusion that social institutions, while coming to represent objective and more or less permanent structures, have their origin in infantile phantasies and derive their form from them. Once more, the persistence of social institutions may be understood in terms of their capacity to provide stable and reliable outlets for the phantasies which initially define them. In this paper, our hypothesis has been confirmed: the structure of German society came to be defined in terms of a particular infantile complex which, having its origins in the person of Hitler, was shared by the German people and came to be acted out by them.

The sociological argument that culture may be seen as constituting an independent reality and may be defined apart from any given individual is a valid one and may be applied to the case of Nazi Germany in the following manner: persons born into German society, once Hitler had consolidated his power, were confronted with an objective structure of meaning; that is, the social system as it had come to be defined possessed a massive weight as it impinged upon the psyche of any given individual, and the view of reality which it carried came to be embraced as the only possible reality. The phantastic view of the world which had been created by Hitler came to be objectivated: it came to possess the quality of something external and objective, and it impressed itself upon the individual in a coercive manner. The Nazi ideology came to be accepted as the only possible interpretation of reality; to the young German who had been exposed to no other social order, as “common sense.”

But one must object to the common sociological assumption that “The fallacy of psychological interpretations of sociocultural phenomena consists in the assumption that the subjective psychological experience correlated with the institution has brought the institution into existence.”10a As our studies have indicated, a subjective psychological experience may very well bring an institution into existence. A phantasy, shared by the members of a culture, may be activated by a leader and, once projected onto social reality, may provide the energy for the creation of a social institution and constitute the ultimate determinant of its shape. This comment, however, should direct our attention to certain methodological problems, the clarification of which may make it possible for sociologists to benefit from the psychoanalytic perspective without feeling that they are betraying their discipline. Clearly, the psychological approach to the study of culture is not contradictory to the sociological approach. For example, the probability of a collective phantasy becoming objectivated is dependent upon the previous history of social institutions in the cultural unit being investigated. That is, the type of infantile complex which can be accommodated by a given culture and the nature of the projective system which a phantasy can elicit are functions of the historical variables. The questions of why the Jews were chosen as projective objects, why the Germans were so prone to adopt the mythology of racial superiority, and why externalized national aggression was credited with such validity by the German people, must be answered, at least on one level, in terms of sociology. Even if the basic character of Americans and Germans had been similar in the twenties,* even if Americans had been subjected to similar national humiliations, and even if a demagogue of Hitler's talents had emerged, it is unlikely that an ideology such as Nazism could have taken root in the United States: the practice of unrestrained and overt attacks upon racial minorities and the policy of unjustified national aggression were incompatible with American tradition. This is not to say that historical tendencies cannot be reversed. A psychic trauma on a national scale may cause a culture to break with its tradition, or to embrace cultural elements which previously were of minor significance. It is merely by way of acknowledging the fact that once a projective system becomes objectivated at some point in a culture's history, it tends to perpetuate itself on a cognitive basis regardless of psychological changes.

* We have not been concerned here with the “basic personality structure” or “national character” of cultural groups. It is obvious, however, that the tendency to be attracted to a particular phantasy system, the tendency to embrace a particular social institution, is a function of the character types which predominate within a population, as well as of a nation's previous cultural history. A complete study of a cultural phenomenon would seek to make coherent the relationship between basic personality structure (determined by family structure, economic roles, etc.) and projective system, and to trace their reciprocal effects through history.

The psychological approach, however, must be considered fundamental: though we may be forced to be content with a socio-historical understanding of an institution in any given instance, its origins having been obscured by time or lack of data, our exposition, ultimately, must focus upon latent content. When we have been able to observe social institutions in statu nascendi, this approach has been fruitful: the complex of institutions which we call Nazism, as well as the system of social relations known as Courtly Love, have been seen to be rooted in and shaped by coherent underlying phantasies which, in each case, were derived from the Oedipus complex. In order to further distinguish between the study of the latent meaning of social institutions, which is the concern of this paper, and the study of institutions in terms of individual psychology, one may note that an institution may come to gratify needs other than those which motivated its invention and defined it. That is, once an institution has been objectivated in a culture, it may come to be correlated, for any given individual, with subjective psychological experiences other than those which originally shaped it.


One of the tasks of a psychoanalytic sociology would be to discriminate between institutions on the basis of the different forms in which the Oedipus complex is projected. On the basis of two completed studies, certain sketchy comparative observations can be made.

In Courtly Love the Oedipal competition with the father is projected onto reality, the courtly lover attempts to undo the original defeat by winning the hand of the lady, and by maintaining sole possession of her love, in spite of competition. The emphasis in this institution, clearly, is upon the mother rather than upon the father. The latter is to be defeated only by implication, that is, in his loss of the lady to the courtly lover; there is no effort to destroy the father per se.

In Nazism, the Oedipal struggle is similarly revived. Here, however, the primary concern is the destruction of the father, and, by implication, the defense of the mother. The Nazi's idealization and willingness to make sacrifices for the German state (the projected mother), while similar to the courtly lover's idealization and willingness to make sacrifices for the lady, is focused upon protection rather than possession. The elimination of the father, therefore, represents an end in itself. One might say that in Courtly Love the incestuous wish for the mother is more overt and the destructive impulses toward the father more disguised, whereas in Nazism this situation is reversed.*

* In neither case, of course, is the true nature of the impulse and the object accessible to consciousness. The projective-object is of a derivative, transference nature, and acting-out can occur without the appropriate anxiety.

The psychological distinction made here between Courtly Love and Nazism, the former concerned with the possession of the mother, the latter focused upon the destruction of the father, is reflected in the difference between the attitudes of Capellanus and Hitler with respect to the idea of equality.

In Courtly Love, the idea that “character is more important than birth,” which represented an important aspect of the total ideology, seems to have been rooted psychologically in the wish to deny the significance of paternal priority, that is, to reduce the stature of the father such that, in one's competition with him, one would, at least, stand a chance. This primitive forerunner of democratic conceptions, in short, seems to have functioned as a levelling device, designed to enhance the courtly lover's confidence in his ability to win the love of the lady.

Hitler's hostility toward democracy, on the other hand, his feeling that the idea of equality, by preventing the individual genius from becoming manifest, represented a cultural abomination, may be understood in terms of his wish to triumph over his father. The democratic principle, while preventing the domination of the father, prevents, as well, the absolute victory of the superior son.

For Capellanus, then, whose primary wish is the possession of the mother, the idea of equality serves its purpose: it reduces the idea of the father's absolute power, and increases his confidence in his ability to win the lady. For Hitler, however, who is concerned with the destruction of the father, this idea is not sufficient: while it serves to put one on an equal footing with the father, it does not leave room for his defeat.


An unexpected source of confirmatory evidence for our interpretation appears in Hitler's own brief account of the psychological development of German youth. This account, if it may be taken to be a reflection of Hitler's personal experience, strongly supports the psychological picture of him which we have drawn; and, if it may be considered to have a more general validity, it permits one to make certain inferences concerning the relationship between the typical childhood of the German and his resultant predisposition to embrace the Nazi ideology.

Discussing the family life of the German proletariat, Hitler's attention is drawn to the quarrels between parents; he observes that they often take the form of “Brutal attacks of the father against the mother.”4k In a previous passage, as if to account for the impact resulting from the witnessing of these attacks, Hitler points out that, at the age of three, “The first impressions are made on the consciousness of the child,”4l and adds, in what is probably a personal reference, “Talented persons retain traces of memory from this period to an advanced old age.” 4l As he traces the child's development, Hitler continues to emphasize the sadistic treatment of the mother by the father, and, with reference to the child's observation of “drunken beatings,” states, “At the age of six the pitiable little boy suspects the existence of things which can inspire an adult with nothing but horror.”4k

The consistency between our interpretation of the nature of Nazi mentality and Hitler's account of the psychology of German youth becomes clear in his statement that, as a result of his harsh experiences, “The three-year-old child has become a fifteen-year-old despiser of authority.”


1 Arendt, H. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press, 1963. (a) p. 120.

2 Bullock, A. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper, 1952.

3 Heiden, K. Der Fuehrer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. (a) p. 406.

4 Hitler, A. Mein Kampf. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. (a) p. 54; (b) p. 10; (c) p. 13; (d) p. 16; (e) p. 17; (f) p. 61; (g) p. 59; (h) p. 412; (i) p. 64; (j) p. 30; (k) p. 32; (l) p. 31.

5 Hitler, A. My New Order. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1941. (a) p. 42; (b) p. 19; (c) p. 35; (d) p. 159; (e) p. 847.

6 Koenigsberg, R. A. Culture and Unconscious Fantasy: Observations on Courtly Love. Psychoanal. Rev., Vol. 54, No. 1, 1967.

7 Reich, W. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Orgone Institute Press, 1946. (a) p. 50; (b) p. 45.

8 Rosenberg, A. Memoirs. New York: Ziff Davis, 1949. (a) p. 247.

9 Snell, J. (Ed.). The Nazi Revolution. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1959.

10 White, L. A. The Science of Culture. New York: Grove Press, 1949. (a) p. 135.