Written by Vladimir Moss



     The theories of the early psychoanalysts have been dismissed by most succeeding generations of psychologists as either unverifiable or, in those cases where they have been found capable of testing – simply false. Nevertheless, there is one sphere and one period – the extreme criminality and unprecedented bloodshed of the years 1914-45 – where such theories have remained in vogue as having some partial explanatory value. Let us examine some of these explanations.


     Niall Ferguson writes that in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud “suggested that ‘beside the instinct preserving the organic substance and binding it into ever larger units, there must exist another in antithesis to this, which would seek to dissolve these units and reinstate their antecedent inorganic state; that is to say, the death instinct as well as Eros.’ It was the interaction of the death instinct and the erotic instinct which he now saw as the key to the human psyche: ‘The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man, and … constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture… Eros… aims at binding together single human individuals, then families, then tribes, races, nations into one great unity, that of humanity. Why this has to be done we do not know; it is simply the work of Eros. These masses of men must be bound to one another libidinally; necessity alone, the advantages of common work, would not hold them together.


    ‘The natural instinct of aggressiveness in man, the hostility of each against us all of all against each one, opposes this programme of civilization. The instinct of aggression is the derivative and main representative of the death instinct we have found alongside Eros, sharing his rule over the earth. And now, it seems to me, the meaning of the evolution of culture is no longer a riddle to us. It must present to us the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instincts of life and the instincts of destruction.’


     “Though it is now fashionable to sneer at Freud, there is something to be said for this interpretation – at least with respect to the behaviour of men at war. Today’s neo-Darwinian genetic determinism may be more scientifically respectable than Freud’s mixture of psychoanalysis and amateur anthropology, but the latter seems better able to explain the readiness of millions of men to spend four and a quarter years killing and being killed. (It is certainly hard to see how the deaths of so many men who had not yet married and fathered children could possibly have served the purpose of Dawkins’s ‘selfish genes’.) In particular, there is a need to take seriously Freud’s elision of the desire to kill – ‘the destructive instinct’ – and the lack of desire not to be killed – the striving of ‘every living being… to work its ruin and reduce life to its primal state of inert matter.’


     “There is some evidence to support Freud’s thesis. In June 1914 – before the war in which he would fight had even begun – the ‘Vorticist’ artist Wyndham Lewis wrote: ‘Killing somebody must be the greatest pleasure in existence: either like killing yourself without being interfered with by the instinct of self-preservation – or exterminating the instinct of self-preservation itself.’”[1]


     But there is a problem in seeing Thanatos as an integral part of human nature. Orthodox Christian anthropology has much to say about the thinking, desiring and aggressive faculties of man, and sees them all as positive in their original creation. Even aggression is good if it is turned to its original object – evil and the evil one. Only when, as a result of original sin, it is turned to hatred of man and a suicidal urge to destroy oneself, can we say that it has become evil. But this perverted force should not be seen, as the Freudians see it, as an ineradicable part of that human nature which God created in the beginning as “very good”. Moreover, even the perverted faculty can be turned back to the good. For, as St. Maximus the Confessor says: “For him whose mind is continually with God, even his concupiscence is increased above measure into a divinely burning love; and the entire irascible element is changed into divine charity.”[2]




     How do we explain the mass-worship of the most evil of men by populations previously deemed to be among the most civilized? Moderns refer to a nebulous something called “charisma”. Thus Laurence Rees writes: “Emil Klein, who heard Hitler speak at a beer hall in Munich in the 1920s,.. believes that Hitler ‘gave off such a charisma that people believed whatever he said’.

     “What we learn from eye-witnesses like… Klein is that charisma is first and foremost about making a connection between people. No one can be charismatic alone on a desert island. Charisma is formed in a relationship. As Sir Neville Henderson, British ambassador to Berlin in the 1930s, wrote, Hitler ‘owed his success in the struggle for power to the fact that he was the reflection of their [i.e. his supporters’] subconscious mind, and his ability to express in words what that subconscious mind felt that it wanted.’

     “It’s a view confirmed by Konrad Heiden, who heard Hitler speak many times in the 1920s: ‘His speeches begin always with deep pessimism and end in overjoyed redemption, a triumphant happy ending; often they can be refuted by reason, but they follow the far mightier logic of the subconscious, which no refutation can touch… Hitler has given speech to the speechless terror of the modern mass…’”[3]

     However, this is too vague – and too simple. The fact is that for most of their careers both Stalin and Hitler were considered singularly lacking in charisma. Stalin spoke with a heavy Georgian accent and was pockmarked. As for the “Bavarian corporal”, as Hindenburg called him, he was widely despised. And as late as 1928 the Nazis polled just 2.6 per cent of the German electorate.

     “It took the Wall Street Crash and the dire economic crisis of the early 1930s to make millions of Germans responsive to Hitler’s appeal. Suddenly, to people like student Jutta Ruediger, Hitler’s call for a national resurgence made him seem like ‘the bringer of salvation’. So much so that by 1932 the Nazis were suddenly the biggest political party in Germany… Hitler was dismissed as a peripheral figure in 1928, yet lauded by millions in 1933. What changed was not Hitler, but the situation. Economic catastrophe made huge numbers of Germans seek a charismatic ‘saviour’…”[4]

     “… But then Hitler and the Nazis seemed to hit a brick wall – in the shape of President Hindenburg. State Secretary Otto Meissner reported that Hindenburg said to Hitler on 13 August 1932: ‘He [i.e. Hindenburg] could not justify before God, before his conscience or before the Fatherland, the transfer of the whole authority of government to a single party, especially to a party that was biased against people who had different views from their own.’

     “In this crucial period between Hindenburg’s rejection of Hitler’s bid for the chancellorship of Germany, and his final appointment as chancellor in January 1933, two different perceptions of Hitler’s charisma came together… Hitler, during these months, had never been more impressive to devoted followers like Joseph Goebbels. On 13 August 1932, Hitler discussed the consequences of Hindenburg’s rejection with his Nazi colleagues. ‘Hitler holds his nerve,’ recorded Goebbels in his diary. ‘He stands above the machinations. So I love him.’ Hitler exuded confidence that all would come right…”[5 

     And it did – for a time… So it was not simply dire economic circumstances, and the need for a saviour from them, but also overweening self-confidence, that went into the making of Hitler’s “charisma”. And yet this is still not enough to explain his rise. Freud considered it too simple to explain the worship of the masses for their totalitarian leaders simply as the consequence of fear of persecution, or because of political or economic motives. That would be to treat the matter in “far too rational a manner... Libidinal ties are what characterize a group”.[6]

     It is the love of the people for their leader that creates the group and the relationships within the group, which disappear “at the same time as the leader”.[7] (This was true of Nazism, but less so of Stalinism.) “The credulity of love,” said Freud, “is the most fundamental source of authority”.[8]

     Hitler himself came to a similar conclusion about his powers, emphasizing that the masses should stop thinking and surrender themselves to the power of instinct: “The masses are like an animal that obeys its instincts. They do not reach conclusions by reasoning… At a mass meeting, thought is eliminated… Mastery always means the transmission of a stronger will to a weaker one, [which follows] something in the nature of a physical or biological law.”[9]

     Hitler certainly believed in such a law. He refused to marry his mistress, Eva Braun, because he considered that a married man, like a married movie star, exercised less of a libidinal power over his worshippers. Thus when Hitler entered Vienna in 1938, “’the whole city behaved like an aroused woman, vibrating, writhing, moaning and sighing lustfully for orgasm’, wrote one witness, George Clare, who stated that this was no purple passage but an ‘exact description’.”[10]

     Certainly, it seems impossible to explain the passionate love of the Nazi Germans or Soviet Russians for their leaders without invoking some such deep psychological motive – stirred up and exploited by the demonic powers of the spirit world. Let us consider, for example, the quasi-hypnotic effect that Hitler had on the German masses.

     The 1934 Nuremberg rally, writes Martin Gilbert, “had seemed to Hitler the ideal vehicle for nationwide propaganda, using documentary film with artistic presentation. He entrusted this task to a former actress and fiction film maker, Leni Riefenstahl, who worked to turn the 1934 rally into an epic paean of praise for the ‘Leader’. Her film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willes) was finished in 1935, and gave German audiences an almost mystical view of Hitler’s charismatic appeal: the film opens with Hitler in an aeroplane flying to Nuremberg, and descending through the clouds to the city and the rally, where the Nazi Party officials proclaim repeatedly: ‘Hitler is Germany, the Party is Germany, thus Germany is Hitler and the Party is Germany’. The film historian Charles Musser writes: ‘The exchange of looks and salutes creates a bond of obedience between these different levels, one in which the identity of the self is only found through identifying with the nation and the Party. In the process, Hitler and the various troops are eroticized by Riefestahl’s adoring vision.’”[11]

     We see a similar process taking place in Stalinist Russia. “Consider this diary entry written by a witness of Stalin’s visit to a young communist congress in April 1936: ‘And HE stood, a little weary, pensive and stately. One could feel the tremendous habit of power, the force of it, and at the same time something feminine and soft. I look about: Everybody had fallen in love with this gentle, inspired, laughing face. To see him, simply to see him, was happiness for all of us’.”[12] Again, a Lithuanian writer wrote: “I approached Stalin’s portrait, took it off the wall, placed it on the table and, resting my head in my hands, I gazed and meditated. What should I do? The Leader’s face, as always so serene, his eyes so clear-sighted, they penetrated into the distance. It seems that his penetrating look pierces my little room and goes out to embrace the entire globe… With my every fibre, every nerve, every drop of blood I feel that, at this moment, nothing exists in this entire world but this dear and beloved face.”[13]

     The masses’ eroticization of their leaders went together with their own brutalization - eros with thanatos. For, as Richard Pipes writes, “perhaps the most fundamental affinity among the three totalitarian movements lay in the realm of psychology: Communism, Fascism and National Socialism exacerbated and exploited popular resentments – class, racial, and ethnic – to win mass support and to reinforce the claim that they, not the democratically elected governments, expressed the true will of the people. All three appealed to the emotion of hate.”[14] Thus anti-war films, such as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, were mocked in Germany, and violence and hardness were exalted over tenderness and compassion. “Hitler rejected ‘the loathsome humanitarian morality’, which he followed Nietzsche in seeing as a mask for people’s defects: ‘In the end, only the urge for self-preservation can conquer. Beneath it is so-called humanity, the expression of a mixture of stupidity, cowardice, and know-it-all conceit, will melt like snow in the March sun. Mankind has grown great in eternal struggle, and only in eternal peace does it perish.’…”[15]

     The same moral revaluation, the same emphasis on violence and steely hardness (Stalin comes from the Russian word for “steel”) was taking place in Stalinist Russia. Thus “Nadezhda Mandelstam described how ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was identified with ‘bourgeois’ morality: ‘A number of terms such as ‘honour’ and ‘conscience’ went out of use at this time – concepts like these were easily discredited, now the right formula had been found.’ She noticed that people were going through a metamorphosis: ‘a process of turning into wood – that is what comes over those who lose their sense of values’.”[16]


     Psychoanalysis attributes a cardinal importance to childhood conflicts and traumas in the explanation of behaviour. Thus Erich Fromm argued that Stalin, like Hitler, was a narcissist. As Alan Bullock writes: “’Narcissism’ is a concept originally formulated by Freud in relation to early infancy, but one which is now accepted more broadly to describe a personality disorder in which the natural development of relationships to the external world has failed to take place. In such a state only the person himself, his needs, feelings and thoughts, everything and everybody pertaining to him are experienced as fully real, while everybody and everything else lacks reality or interest.


     “Fromm argues that some degree of narcissism can be considered an occupational illness among political leaders in proportion to their conviction of a providential mission and their claim to infallibility of judgement and a monopoly of power. When such claims are raised to the level demanded by a Hitler or a Stalin at the height of their power, any challenge will be perceived as a threat to their private image of themselves as much as to their public image, and they will react by going to any lengths to suppress it.


     “So far psychiatrists have paid much less attention to Stalin than to Hitler. Lack of evidence is part of the reason. There has been no parallel in the case of the Soviet Union to the capture of documents and interrogation of witnesses that followed the defeat of Germany. But more important is the striking contrast in temperament and style between the two men: the flamboyant Hitler, displaying a lack of restraint and extravagance of speech which for long made it difficult for many to take him seriously, in contrast to the reserved Stalin, who owed his rise to power to his success, not in exploiting, but in concealing his personality, and was underestimated for the opposite reason – because many failed to recognize his ambition and ruthlessness. Nor surprisingly, it is the first rather than the second who has caught the psychiatrists’ attention. All the more interesting then is the suggestion that underlying the contrast there was a common narcissistic obsession with themselves.


     “There is one other insight, which Stalin’s American biographer, Robert Tucker, has adopted from Karen Horney’s work on neurosis. He suggests that his father’s brutal treatment of Stalin, particularly the beatings which he inflicted on the boy, and on the boy’s mother in his presence, produced the basic anxiety, the sense of being isolated in a hostile world, which can lead a child to develop a neurotic personality. Searching for firm ground on which to build an inner security, someone who in his childhood had experienced such anxiety might naturally search for inner security by forming an idealistic image of himself and then adopting this as his true identity. ‘From then on his energies are invested in the increasing effort to prove the ideal self in action and gain others’ affirmation of it.’ In Stalin’s case, this fits his identification with the Caucasian outlaw-hero, whose name he assumed, and later with Lenin, the revolutionary hero, on whom he fashioned his own ‘revolutionary persona’, with the name of Stalin, ‘man of steel’, which echoed Lenin’s own pseudonym…


     “The earliest recorded diagnosis of Stalin as paranoid appears to have been made in December 1927, when an international scientific conference met in Moscow. A leading Russian neuropathologist, Professor Vladimir Bekhterev from Leningrad, made a great impression on the foreign delegates and attracted the attention of Stalin, who asked Bekhterev to pay him a visit. After the interview (22 December 1927) Bekhterev told his assistant Mnukhin that Stalin was a typical case of severe paranoia [more precisely: “a paranoiac with a withered arm”] and that a dangerous man was now at the head of the Soviet Union. The fact that Bekhterev was suddenly taken ill and died while still in his hotel has inevitably led to the suspicion that Stalin had him poisoned. Whether this is true or not, when the report of Bekhterev’s diagnosis was repeated in Liternaturnaia Gazeta in September 1988, it was accepted as correct by a leading Soviet psychiatrist, Professor E.A. Lichko.”[17]




     And yet Donald Rayfield may be right that “psychopaths of Stalin’s order arise so rarely in history that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer”.[18] In such cases, psychiatry needs to be supplemented with demonology, and in the essentially religious idea that a nation that has abandoned its faith and given in to the most primitive passions of envy, lust and hatred will be easily invaded and taken over by Satan.

     The demonic nature of the Russian revolution hardly needs demonstrating. Many reported that the coming of Soviet power was as if the country had been invaded by demons, and there were many incidents in which demonic activity was almost palpable. Thus the Catacomb Christian P.M. writes: “I want to tell about the miracles of God of which I was a witness. In our village they closed the church and made it into a club. And then they declared that they would be showing a film – this was the first opening of the club. In the church everything was as it had been before, even the iconostasis was standing with its icons. They put in benches, hung up a screen and began to show the film. About half an hour passed, and then suddenly the people began to shout. Those who were at the back jumped up and rushed towards the exit, while those in front fell on the floor or crawled under the benches. What had happened? As many people later recounted, the holy Great Martyr George came out of an icon that was on the iconostasis on a horse, and taking a spear, galloped at the people, who began to flee in fear. But that was not the end of it. Somehow they got at any rate some of the people together again and continued to show the film. It was being shown by a mechanic and his assistant. And suddenly up in the choir they began to sing the Cherubic hymn – and so loudly that the film was scarcely audible. At that point they decided that some believers had climbed up and wanted to interrupt the showing of the film.  So about seven members of the Komsomol and the assistant climbed up in order to catch them all and bring them down. But then they said that when they had climbed up the stairs the singing stopped, and they rejoiced – the believers had got frightened and fallen silent. But when they climbed up into the choir they saw that it was empty. They stood in bewilderment and could not understand how the singers could have run away. And then suddenly in the midst of them unseen singers began to sing the Cherubic hymn. Pursued by an unknown fear, they rushed to get out, not knowing the way, pushing and shoving each other. The assistant mechanic, who was running in front, suddenly fell down, and everyone ran over him since there was no other way because of the narrowness of the place. Having run down, they rushed out into the street. Now the showing was finally abandoned. The assistant mechanic was ill for a month and died, while the mechanic left, and nobody wanted to go to work in the club as a mechanic for any money. So from that time they stopped having a cinema in it.”[19]

     Similar incidents were reported in Nazi Germany. Thus “two British guests at a Hitler rally in Berlin in 1934, seated in a stadium just feet behind him, watched him captivate his listeners with the familiar rising passion and jarring voice. ‘Then an amazing thing happened,’ continued the account: ‘[we] both saw a blue flash of lightning come out of Hitler’s back… We were surprised that those of us close behind Hitler had not all been struck dead.’ The two men afterwards discussed whether Hitler was actually possessed at certain moments by the Devil: ‘We came to the conclusion that he was.’”[20]

     Freud’s former disciple Karl Jung declared in 1945 that the cause of the German people’s surrender to Nazism was demon-possession: “Germany has always been a country of psychological catastrophes: the Reformation, the peasant and religious [30-year] wars. Under the National Socialists the pressure of the demons increased to such an extent that human beings that fell under their power were turned into sleep-walking super-men, the first of whom was Hitler, who infected all the others with the same. All the Nazi leaders were possessed in the literal sense of the word... Ten percent of the German population today is hopelessly psychopathic…”[21]

     This demonic psychopathy had deep roots in German history. Already in the 1840s the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote: “A drama will be enacted in Germany compared with which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity may have restrained the martial ardour of the Teutons for a time, but it did not destroy it. Now that the restraining talisman, the cross, has rotted away, the old frenzied madness will break out again.”

     Indeed: when the Cross rots away in the hands of hypocritical and faithless Christians, then no amount of civilization or art or science or rationality will save a people from complete possession by the enemy of mankind…


March 25 / April 7, 2017.

Annunciation of the Most Holy Mother of God.

[1] Ferguson, The Pity of War, 1914-1918, London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 358-359.

[2] St. Maximus the Confessor, Second Century on Charity, 48.

[3] Rees, “The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler”, BBC History Magazine, vol. 13, N 10, October, 2012, pp. 20-21.

[4] Rees, op. cit., pp. 21-22, 24.

[5] Rees, op. cit., p. 22.

[6] Freud, Group Psychology, p. 103; in Philip Rieff, Freud; The Mind of the Moralist, University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 233.

[7] Freud, Group Psychology, p. 94; in Rieff, op. cit., p. 235.

[8] Freud, Three Essays, p. 150; in Rieff, op. cit., p. 237.

[9] Richard Overy, The Dictators, London: Penguin Books, 2005, p. 19.

[10] Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley. A Panorama of the 1930s, London: Pimlico, 2001, p. 459.

[11] Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, vol. 2: 1933-1951, London: HarperCollins, 1998, p. 83. Italics mine (V.M.).

[12] Overy, op. cit., p. 129.

[13] Quoted in Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century,London: Jonathan Cape, 1999, p. 253.

[14] Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, London: Fontana, 1995, p. 262. My italics (V.M.).

[15] Glover, op. cit., p. 326.

[16] Glover, op. cit., pp. 260-261.

[17] Bullock, Stalin and Hitler, London: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 10-12, 401.

[18] Rayfield, “A Georgian Caliban”, Review of Stalin, vol. I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin, Literary Review, November, 2014, p. 25.

[19] Tserkovnie Vedomosti Russkia Istinno-Pravoslavnia Tserkve,

[20] Overy, op. cit., pp. 13-14.

[21] Jung, “The Post-War Psychological Problems of Germany”,

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