Social Madness/Collective Delusion

Based on Jeffrey Herf’s research, it is reasonable to conclude that the Nazis’ beliefs about the Jews—and actions that were generated based on their beliefs—grew out of a paranoid fantasy. Hitler put forth and promoted an idea about the Jews’ character—and the power and danger that they represented—that was, fundamentally, a delusion.

“The Jews” were not an organized group, had no power and constituted no threat to Germany or the German people. This is usually the starting point for my own research (see, for example, Koenigsberg, 2009). I begin with the assumption that Hitler and the Nazis were in the grip of an ideological fantasy or delusion, and then pose the question: “What was the symbolic significance of the Jew within Hitler’s mind and Nazi ideology?” Why did the word or idea “the Jew” evoke such anxiety and rage?

I’ve begun to understand, however, that a “prolegomenon” is necessary before I pose and attempt to answer this question. Many people assume that there must have been something that the Jews did—or were—that evoked such a radical response. It is difficult to imagine or conceive that such monumentally destructive actions proceeded based on nothing, or that they grew out of a fantasy.

People in Western culture are under the spell of another fantasy or delusion, namely the belief that human ideas and actions grow out of rational thought or decision-making. I often ask people (who are not experts on the Nazi period) to guess how many Jews there were in Germany in 1930 out of a German population of approximately 66 million. You—the reader—might like to guess now, before the next paragraph.

I posed this question recently to a highly intelligent, sophisticated graduate student in psychology. She estimated that there were 30 million Jews in Germany in 1930. A prominent anthropologist guessed 20 million. Even when I remind people that most of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust were not Germans, I get guesses like 5 and 10 million.

According to Herf, the 1925 census identified 565,379 Jews in Germany, less than 1% of the population. Ingo Muller (1992) reports that 0.76% of Germans were Jews in 1930, substantially less than 1% of the population.

Another charge made by the Nazis was that the German government had been “riddled” with Jews. However, according to Milton Meltzer (1991), in the 19 cabinets of the Weimar Republic up to 1932, of a total of 237 ministers, only three had been Jews, while four or more were described as “of Jewish descent.” The final few governments preceding Hitler’s had no Jewish ministers.

Herf reports that in the central forum of political representation, the Reichstag, Jews were significantly underrepresented. Of the 577 members of parliament elected on September 14, 1930, 17 were of Jewish origin, and of the 608 members elected on July 31, 1932, 14 were. Herf says that the “notion of vast Jewish power had no factual basis,” and Meltzer concludes that the truth was “the opposite of what Hitler said it was.” Rather than an all-powerful threat, the Jews were the “weakest enemy Hitler could have chosen.” They had “no land of their own, no government, no central authority, no allies, no political weight.”

Despite  these facts, we hesitate to draw the conclusion: that Hitler and the Nazis waged war for no reason at all, that is, on the basis of a paranoid fantasy. Why is it difficult to embrace this truth? Because we are under the dominion of the Enlightenment fantasy of rationality—which continues to dominate the academic world. Even 100 years after Freud, we don’t wish to acknowledge that human beings are driven by irrational, unconscious motives.

One may say that the beliefs and actions of Hitler and the Nazis were irrational; that many Germans were under the spell of a paranoid fantasy. Taking this a step further, Daniel Goldhagen (1996) suggests that the Nazis were in the grip of a “hallucinatory ideology,” and that their writings about Jews were so divorced from reality that anyone reading them might conclude that they were the product of the “collective scribes of an insane asylum.”

Looking at what the Nazis believed—as well as the extraordinarily destructive, horrific things they actually did, it is not difficult to conclude that the Nazis were mad. However, we find it disturbing to say this. In his essay on Nazism (2000), Ronald Aronson reflects upon our hesitance:

The rigorous use of ‘madness’ is deeply disturbing, which is perhaps one reason why it has been so conspicuously avoided in a century rife with madness. The functionalist bias of most systematic thought assumes that there is a reason for every societal act, a more or less rational intention behind political action. It offends the intellect to suggest that there is no reason behind a major policy — or that indeed its reason is profoundly & systematically irrational. ‘Madness’ is even more unsettling in suggesting that we may be living amidst a profound and destructive irrationality.

Terms like mad, or insane, typically are used to characterize individuals. But what are we to say about madness when it takes hold of an entire society? How are we to conceptualize madness that becomes normative within a particular culture?

Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145

22 thoughts on “Social Madness/Collective Delusion

  1. Shirley Rombough, Ph.D.

    This is a short comment. I am familiar with your material about Hitler and the Nazis’ paranoid delusions about the Jews and generally I believe your assertions, having read Adorno and other social scientists’ writings about paranoia and the authoritarian personality. But I take issue with your comments about our delusions about rationality ever since the Enlightenment. Sure, I read Freud and other scientists’ writings about so many of our motivations not being accessible to our consciousness. But rationality is a goal to which we strive, and an honorable goal I believe. Just because so many of our motivations are based on beliefs, fears, delusions, conflicts inaccessible to our conscious mind doesn’t mean we should just recognize humans’ basic irrationality and just give up.

    I’ve sent this article to others I know who are interested in the topic. Thank you for giving us some worthwhile thoughts to consider.


    Dr. Shirley Rombough

    1. Richard Koenigsberg

      What I mean by the delusion of rationality is the belief that you can UNDERSTAND certain phenomena by imagining they are generated by rational motives. In the academic world, people insist upon assuming that many leaders KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING: have certain conscious intentions.

      The delusion is believing that human beings (including human beings in culture) behave based on “rational” motives: consciously thought out plans (when the results are fantastic and bizarre).

      I suggest that one does seek rationality, but CONSCIOUSNESS (versus unconsciousness).

  2. Dr. Jaswant Guzder

    The commentary on collective madness in the recent entry on social or collective delusions is highly relevant to current issues and worth further elaboration. When W.G. Sebald suggested implicitly in his writings that the silence in post war Germany was an “illness” of memory, i.e. a distorted denial of the intentions of the collective to demonize a minority and actively “forget”, i.e. remain silent rather than deconstruct the implication of the delusion. He was suggesting that the illness of denial of the delusion was a strategy of repressed memory that left him as young German feeling “ill” and led to his self-exile to England where he invented the Sebaldian novel.

    When we consider the very seminal work of Sven Lindquist (Exterminate the Brutes and other works), on the post-colonial realities of suppressed collective memory that was an active strategy of power and dominance in colonial empire building, we have another writer who examines the potency of the collective delusions. Collectives indeed concrete mythologies to avoid accountability for rape, pillage, theft and decimation of weaker groups who are demonized in the interest of building a grandiosity and self-idealization of the dominant group.

    Individually we might refer to this a manic defense or an avoidance of mourning and reparation. Certainly the issue for cultural studies is the continued repetition of the same delusions and the dangerous implications for human rights of minorities all over the world.

    Currently in a democratic context of Quebec in Canada we are experience such a collective process. The independence movement in Quebec has a champion in the current political minority government who have presented a bill (the Charte of Values) as an “enlightened” process to promote a homogenous Quebec francophone culture embedded in its own historical legacy of defeat on the Plains of Abraham (the colonial defeat of the French by the British) and the struggle of the francophone population to free itself from the constraints of the Catholic church and recoup its colonial past by creating a French nation embattled in North American “sea of Anglophones”.

    At one time Quebecois politicians felt it was politically correct to speak of “pure line” or pure blooded descendants of the original francophone settlers denying that in fact there had been racial mixing of First Nations with earlier colonials. They asserted that the majority culture of the francophones was threatened by the minorities in the province. I would suggest the current government that has moved to legislate the exclusion of minorities (i.e. people who wear kippas, turbans, headscarves, etc.) from the practice of medicine, education, day care and government positions in the province is an example of a delusion by the collective that a very small number of citizens of the province (a handful of Sikh, Jewish and Islamic professionals) are a threat to the identity of the overwhelming majority of francophone Quebecers. Similar suppression minority rights evident in modern China (e.g. oppression of Tibetans, etc.), India’s denial of the 1984 massacre of Sikhs after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi or amongst any number of developing nations.

    However the lessons of the Jewish holocaust is the significance of unfinished work on memory and racism that is evident in modern Europe and modern North American context as well, whether we use the example of First Nations or aboriginal genocides, or French suppression of its colonial legacy in Algeria, etc. Denial of collective strategies that reinforce the power of dominant cultural groups are inherently resisting the uncovering of historical legacies that undermine the untenable delusions of majority dominance.

    The implications for human rights within democracies are contemporary challenges that the authors of the blog are pursuing. I applaud your scholarly efforts to deconstruct these levels of repression and denial as they are an important process of looking at silencing and the role of memory as “illnesses” underlying collective processes that might generate new atrocities and serious violations of rights.

  3. Zofia Czajkowska

    Dear Dr. Koenigsberg,

    I do not believe that based on the actions and beliefs of Germans during the Nazi-rule period “it is not difficult to conclude that the Nazis were mad”. “Madness”, understood as mental illness, a psychotic break from reality does not apply in situations where a substantial portion of individuals from a given group share their beliefs, no matter how irrational or fantastic (e.g. it is inappropriate to deem a person mentally ill if they are fervent believers in the dogma of their religion, whatever it may be, no matter how seemingly irrational or bizarre those beliefs may seem). A common belief within a group becomes a norm, and as such, the act of believing is not abnormal, therefore the postulate that all Nazi Germans were “mad” or “insane” does not apply. It is true that it seems irrational that Hitler would choose Jews as his greatest enemies based on the actual power they held within the German society in the 1930s however, it does make sense on a different level (it is perhaps rational on a less conscious level).

    Germany lost WWI and couldn’t stand up to the actual world powers who had won and imposed reparations on them so they needed a scapegoat that was weak enough that could be blamed and effectively overpowered to start rebuilding the collective sense of self-worth of the population, who had lost and suffered great humiliation and poverty. Who could fulfill that role better than a minority living among them nobody really knew very well and would stand up for (as the Jewish Germans tended to stick together and did not fully assimilate), about which there had been, for centuries, a plethora of negative, sometimes fantastic and cruel beliefs?

    Our need to explain the actions of the Nazis is in fact our human need to feel good about ourselves and if Nazis were normal, sane people, then nothing separates us from them and that scares us. It is psychologically protective for us to believe that something must have been wrong with them, but it does not apply to us. Philosophers and psychologists have been pondering the question of human nature for millennia and there is no one answer that anybody can agree on. I personally believe that humans do not have a good or bad nature – we have the capacity to act to further human welfare as well as to destroy it and THAT is our nature (for examples that support this position, please, look up Zimbardo’s study on prison guards or Milgram’s experiment on people giving painful electric shocks to others).

    I wish you all the best in your studies!

    Kindest regards from a doctoral psychology student at McGill

    1. Orion Anderson


      Thank you for this useful response.

      YOU SAY: “‘Madness’, understood as mental illness, a psychotic break from reality does not apply in situations where a substantial portion of individuals from a given group share their beliefs, no matter how irrational or fantastic (e.g. it is inappropriate to deem a person mentally ill if they are fervent believers in the dogma of their religion, whatever it may be, no matter how seemingly irrational or bizarre those beliefs may seem). A common belief within a group becomes a norm, and as such, the act of believing is not abnormal, therefore the postulate that all Nazi Germans were “mad” or “insane” does not apply.”

      This is almost precisely a statement that comes out of the Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual. So you simply have embraced what psychiatrists say is true: that (by definition), if an idea or belief is held by a group, then we cannot speak of mental illness.

      Is there any reason why–outside of what the manuals say–that people in a group who embrace fantastic ideas or perform horrific forms of action cannot be judged as manifesting psychopathology?

      I agree that many people who do insane things as part of a group are probably not clinically psychotic (e. g., Hitler and Goebbels were not clinically psychotic).

      So we need a new definition of psychopathology that embraces or encompasses behavior that occurs in the context of a group.

      I’m looking at some documentation of what occurred in the concentration camps. One Jewish mother asked guard to take a care of her child (she was going to the gas chambers) that she held in her arms.

      The mother handed the child over to the guard for safekeeping. The child smiled and was about to kiss the guard. The guard took the child by the leg and swung him against a brick wall, shattering his head and killing him.

      This kind of behavior was acceptable/normative among SS-men. According to the DSM-V definition, the person who does this sort of thing is not mad or psychotic. However, do we really want to say that this behavior is not abnormal?

      We need a new definition of psychopathology that embraces or encompasses forms of behavior that are normative within a group–yet are fantastic, bizarre and destructive.

      With regards,
      Richard Koenigsberg

      PS: What about the Aztec practice of heart extraction (cutting open the chest and pulling out the hearts of warriors and offering them to the sun god). Entirely normative within that civilization, yet totally insane.

  4. Kurt Newman

    Fascinating post. There is a tradition, as Dr. Rombough mentions above, within the Frankfurt School of thinking about fascist irrationality as “madness”–to my mind, the most provocative of these efforts was that of Ernst Bloch in Heritage of Our Times.

    The most important books to read on this, though, might be Klaus Theweleit’s 2 volume work Male Fantasies, a brilliant (if extremely unorthodox) close-reading of novels and diaries of the members of the Freikorps from the immediate post-WWI period. Theweleit suggests that there is a certain “ordinary psychosis” at work within the proto-Nazi milieu, but denies that it is 0rganized around the figure of “the Jew”–insisting that fear of women, and of egalitarianism more generally, stands at the center of the paranoid fantasies that were to become the building blocks of National Socialism.

    From a different angle, Slavoj Zizek has written really intelligent stuff about the fantasy of “the Jew” in the Nazi imagination, drawing on his experience as a witness to ethnic hatreds in the Balkans after the fall of the Soviet Union. Again, highly psychoanalytic—which means sometimes incommeasurable with biomedical and cognitivist accounts, sometimes not–but illuminating.

    Kurt Newman
    Ph.D. Candidate, History UC Santa Barbara

  5. barbara joans

    My comments are much simpler and shorter. Groups love to have a collective enemy – someone to hate. The scapegoat. It unites the group – we all know this. Who or what is hated varies so long as it is someone from the outside that can get universal support hatred from the inside. Jews have, for centuries, been an easy target. We are the outside, small in number (looking at the world’s population) we hold little collective power…and yet we have survived an amazingly long time. It is easy and cheap and holds little danger to the hater, to target Jews.

  6. David McCarter

    Whether or not “Judaophobia” was rooted in fact or fiction, it was effective in harnessing the people of one of the great powers of Europe to engage in war for goals that were not fantasy, but in geopolitical control. At this moment, I doubt if the Ukrainian interim government poses any threat at all to ethnic Russians. It, however, is a useful notion for the Russian Republic to grab something quite real: the Crimea and possibly eastern Ukraine. I have been reading the Library of Social Science newsletter for some time and simply do not accept that all war is necessarily the result of “irrationality” on the part of aggressors or defenders. I would refer to Brittain’s section of Testament of Youth where she speaks of the Second Battle of the Somme and how aware she and all of her compatriots were of what a very real difference it would make whether their lines held or collapsed under the German attack. She was hardly a partisan of war.

  7. Davy Bogomoletz

    Dear Dr. Koenigsberg: I’ve read your article on Social Madness/Collective Delusion, and found very good indeed. I’ve read also the comments by Dr. Shirley Rombough, Ph.D. , on the value of rationality, of Dr. Jaswant Guzder on the manipulation of collective memory and of Zofia Czajkowska on ‘madness’ being not aplicable to social phenomena, and liked them also – although they do not agree with you entirely.

    The fact is that human mind is such a complex phenomenon, that it is impossible to find a simple answer to human questions. We have here four ideas, yours and those of the commenters, and indeed the right answer to the question “What happened in Nazi Germany” could only be answered properly by the summing up of all four ideas. And I have a fifth idea, concerning the history of anti-Jewish preconceptions: in the 1800 years before WWII and the Nazi government over Germany the Christian population of Europe was subject to a massive and incessant propaganda campaign, that of the various Christian denominations clergy, accusing Jews of crimes difficult to imagine by our contemporary minds (of Western Civilization educated citizens). You know very well the whole story.

    So I ask you directly: Could it be assumed that Christian imaginary is overridden with anti-Jewish ideas, making it very simple to an average person living in a Christian country to accept as “logical” and “believable” almost anything that is said about (in this case, against) the Jews? Could it be that Nazism just made use of those phenomena in order, as says Zofia Czajkowska in her comment, to find a scapegoat upon which to throw the frustrations and resentments of the German (and others) people, so the extermination of the Jews would give the Nazis the excuse and the fuel to launch a global war?

    Could it be that, for example, contemporary anti-Jewish feelings among Muslim is a continuation of Christian collective perception of the Jews as capable – and accusable – of the most horrendous crimes? The use of quasi-Nazi propaganda style by radical Islamists, individuals or groups, does not appoint to the historic continuity of the Christian effort to demonize the Jews as fiercely as they could?

    Thank you, Dr. Koenigsberg.

    Davy Bogomoletz – psychoanalyst (Sao Paulo, Brazil)

  8. Victor Bloom MD

    I’ve been at the center of an email discussion group on politics for over 20 years. I am also an 82 year old Freudian psychoanalyst, who works face to face instead of couch therapy. I try to use my Freudian insights in ferreting out the irrationality of some of my correspondents, since I have developed a mission, a calling, to oppose and expose irrational thinking. I have gained some insights in the process.

    I argue the liberal ideology for rational reasons and give what I think is real life data to support my arguments. I have found that conservatives, knowing I am an experienced psychoanalyst, accuse me of being ‘obsessed,’ crazy and irrational! No matter how much I utilize facts and rationality, I am accused of being mad, being crazy, and that I needed more couch therapy. There is no arguing with people like this, and I can see how Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil.

    These people who call me crazy are high functioning religious people, pillars of the community. They are so sure of themselves, that if you differ with them, you must be crazy. Never mind that my profession involves making a clear distinction between the objective and the subjective, it remains that for many, if not most, perception is reality. If I, a Freudian psychoanalyst differs with them on the facts or deductive reasoning, and they believe they have a grasp of reality, it is as if I am calling them crazy, so they call me crazy. And so it goes, for 20 years. They stick to their guns and I make notes in my notebook about the irrationality of most people. But I agree with another commentator here, that we all have a potential for rationality, and should never stop working on it. There has to be some communication between the conscious and the unconscious.

  9. Niccolo

    Dear Dr. Koenigsberg:

    I place your “Social Madness” in the category of mass psychogenic disease. See my book, Evolutionary Aspects of Disease Avoidance, 2012. I can send you an ebook if you like.

    Niccolo Caldararo, Ph.D.
    Dept of Anthropology
    San Francisco State University

  10. Anthony O'Connell

    The events could also be described in Freud’s GROUP PSYCHOLOGY AND AN ANALYSIS OF THE EGO. There he describes the effects of group hysteria. Likewise a reading of Aldous Huxley’s work THE DEVILS OF LOUDUN give a marvelous example of how a group hysteria takes on a life of its own.

    Anthony O’Connell, Psy.D.
    Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalyst
    Chicago, IL

  11. Dr. Alexander Chirila

    As always, Dr. Koenigsberg provides a compelling, innovative, and challenging approach to understanding the narratives of history.

    The central ideas at work here are dualistic in nature: rational vs. irrational, reason vs. madness, and conscious vs. unconscious. One might also add: dominant vs. subjugated as well as strong vs. weak and pure vs. impure. The list could likely go on, but in my comments here I will propose something a little bit different: that we look for the point of interface. When the two elements of a dualistic system are diametrically opposed, the interface is combative and resolves into a number of possible patterns. When the two elements of the system are unequal in power (whether financially, socially, militarily, etc) these patterns may include oppression, genocide/extermination, containment, sanction, etc, on the one hand, and rebellion, insurgency, guerrilla warfare, etc on the other. When the two elements of the system are more or less equal in power, conflict narratives are configured in different terms and may feature a range of additional ideological matrices embedded within them.

    There are many other relationships, as for example between a powerful minority and a majority (e.g. current narratives of conflict between the “1%” and the “99%” generated by recent and ongoing Occupy movements). How the actors of a particular dichotomy interact is significant–as significant as how one actor conceives of or creates a representation of the Other. We can argue that the Nazi representation of the Jewish threat was based on paranoia, madness, or similar schisms between rational and irrational modes of thinking; but it is the actual engagement that perpetuates and reifies the underlying ideations that we (retrospectively) identify as “mad” or irrational.

    Violent engagements are both self-directed (sacrifice, excision) and directed toward an enemy, often idealized or vilified in order to justify the magnitude of violence. The extent to which the Jews were identified as a “foreign body” within the German Self can be interpreted as a way to mitigate the trauma of committing to so brutal a strategy. Nevertheless, the ideation of oppositional representations takes place at a distance from the point of interaction, and necessarily so: the process of generating a representation capable of galvanizing the collective requires a degree of cohesion that would be endangered if it were influenced by actual interaction with the ostensible object of the ideation process. In other words: the Jewish threat had to be created apart from any genuine dialogue between the creators of that narrative and the Jewish people themselves; otherwise, the coherence of the “paranoid fantasy” would have crumbled.

    John Dewey made a similar point in Human Nature and Conduct; his point was essentially that ideas of morality are often divorced from practical fields of human conduct and discourse, constructed in essentially “unreal” interior spaces that have no significant bearing or influence on various spheres of endeavor. He maintained that morality should be brought to the forefront and negotiated in direct relation to various modes of engagement, whether in politics, business, or education. Similarly, ideas of the enemy are often constructed in a collective “inner space,” insulated from the realities of interaction; in this realm, one can see how Hitler and others were able to attribute all manner of powers and evils to what they imagined as the Jew. They disseminated this construct through various narratives composed around dichotomous paradigms and enacted them. So efficiently were these ideas fashioned and so powerfully these stories told, that individuals willingly participated in the horrors of the Holocaust.

    In essence, the construct veiled or obscured the realities of the interaction between victimizer and victim…until it was too late. Until the violence had been enacted. It is not terribly difficult to obscure the field of interaction with constructs, ideations, and various contrived narratives. In fact, to those who wish to manipulate the interaction according to a specific objective (e.g. extermination, control, etc), this obfuscation becomes entirely necessary. Otherwise, participants in the interaction may realize that they have more in common with the “enemy” than they would have imagined. Under such circumstances, continued violence becomes more difficult to sustain.

    The field or axis of interface is also a possible point of synthesis—a point where the Self and Other are capable of realizing they are interconnected (if not one in the same). If this occurs, another Self may emerge based on unity. Unfortunately, we do not have so many examples of this process occurring historically or on the collective scale. Indeed, conflicts are perpetuated generationally, and new eruptions of explicit contestation arise, sparked by catalysts that invigorate oppositional narratives. History then repeats itself, and entire nations or cultures cycle through renewed periods of violence.

    Now, because paranoid fantasies are constructed interiorly and reinforced by interpretations of external triggers, it is entirely appropriate to consider them as schisms—divisions between otherwise normative standards of reality, and fields where narratives are composed that can, and do, dramatically influence individual and collective behavior. Consider this: members of radical, militant religious groups are indoctrinated (or brainwashed, to use the colloquial term) in a separate space designated for that purpose before they are allowed to interact with members of an enemy community. Their own ideations and narratives are sufficiently reinforced to insulate them even when they do engage with members of the enemy community. Militants who are rehabilitated undergo a process whereby these ideas and narratives are broken down and opened to a more genuine field of interaction.

    Can we consider their insulated, ideated constructs of the “enemy” a form of madness? The point is that the dichotomy of rational vs. irrational is displaced and rewritten inside another space—a space of storytelling wherein the enemy is the irrational one and the Self the rational one. To the Nazi, the Jews were irrational, a disease devoted to contaminating the purity of a “master race”—the Nazis would have believed themselves entirely rational in seeking to eliminate this threat. Within the space of that narrative, our ideas of normal, rational, and humane simply didn’t apply. Madness does not exist within madness as a self-identification; it exists as an attribute of an-Other. To the rational mind, it only exists as something foreign, outside or beyond the parameters of an accepted norm of social engagement. However, this norm is negotiated along an axis of interaction and is based on consensus and agreement; for so long as it is continuously negotiated in an open way, the resultant narrative (historical, mythological, etc) remains open. When it is removed into a separate space (cultural, social, geographical), it can be influenced by patterns outside the accepted norm and that may be potentially hostile, dangerous, or irrational.

  12. David Walker

    Many in academia utterly refuse to support sociobiology. The very same people who would never view themselves as being associated with the anti-intellectualism of creationism at the same time deny that sociobiology has insights into human behavior. It is as if they believe in evolutionary development of everything in the body except the brain. Rationality is a human construct overlaying millions of years of evolution. In studying the origins of human violence rape is another act of violence that historically accompanies warfare.

    To discuss the socio-biologial origins of such behavior really hits a nerve with many in academia. But how do we explain mass rapes committed by soldiers as a phenomena of war? I believe irrational violent behavior has origins in evolution. In terms of paranoia I think we all manifest it to some degree as an evolutionary development that natural selection brought forth. Paranoia can protect us if it is not to the point where delusions are formed.

    But like all human characteristics there is a I suppose a bell curve spectrum. We should expect a certain small percentage of society to be more paranoid than the majority at the top of the bell. Sometimes that minority gains a powerful voice and the tools of government.

  13. Dr Aleksandar Fatic

    This work brings out a crucial question about the criteria for ‘madness’ in the social science and public policy discourses. The narrow psychological and psychiatric approach which ‘technicalise’ the phenomenon of madness are exceptionally unhelpful for phenomena such as the collective madness of a fascist or extremist group such as the Nazies. These technical criteria basically limit the concept of madness to the definition of psychosis which, ultimately, rests on the idea of delusionality or lack of minimally functional perception and cognition.

    Such a definition does not even correspond to the ordinary criteria for criminal responsibility on ‘mental’ grounds, which require a realistic appreciation of reality on the cognitive level (that the offender ‘knew that what he was doing was wrong’) and the ability to control one”s behaviour on the volitional level (‘that the offender must have been able to act otherwise’). Thus Dr Koenigsberg’s work on the Nazis in fact shows us the way to address the pervasive issue of madness, namely it points in the direction of redefinition of what madness technically is, both for diagnostic and for broader social and political purposes.

    1. Orion Anderson

      Dear Dr. Fatic,

      Your responsible is valuable. Thank you very much.

      This is precisely the idea I’m developing: is it possible to develop a new concept of “madness” that goes beyond the (limited) clinical definition (applied to individuals)? Can we develop a concept of psychopathology that embraces cultural or societal ideas and institutions and forms of behavior.

      Perhaps most fundamental is our unwillingness to conceive of collective forms of madness as pathology: to imagine civilization itself as the location of mental illness.

      Any ideas that you have as I continue to develop this line of thought will be appreciated.

      Richard Koenigsberg



    Our intentionality in any moment is a mix of personal, biological, evolutionary, cultural, systemic and cosmic forces. For Hitler and his “Willing Executioners,” there undoubtedly had to be a suspension of conscience and a sense of a working, realistic and healthy guilt, of compassion and empathy.

    It seems as if the Nazis had a sense of neurotic (false and conflicted) power. Perhaps unconsciously the Jews were chosen because, in reality, they were the least threatening group in Germany. They were the easiest targets to elevate an unrealistic sense of esteem (based upon a deep-seated inferiority complex), which developed into a reaction formation of “Look how powerful I am.”

    The Nazis world view had an agenda, a script, for certain people to follow and obey. They demanded that these people fulfill the Nazi idea of who they should be, rather than taking people on their own terms. Our capacity for equanimity is compromised by our judgments and reactive patterns of right versus wrong, good versus bad, beautiful versus ugly. These judgments erect a barrier between us and our direct experience.

    As a collective entity, Hitler and his followers did not notice their own fears/anxieties of perceived differences between Jews and themselves or of their own perversely maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms. They were unable to suspend their judgments and to be available to a barrage of mental gossip in their own minds which was intruding upon reality itself. They never took realistic responsibility for their actions because they never learned to practice unbiased observation and understand their emotional reactions (primarily rooted deep in the unconscious) and the reasons for them.

    Over the course of human history, we were significantly more likely to be killed by another human being then by anything else in nature. When the Rorschach Inkblot Test was administered to selected Nazis after the war by American psychologists who were experts in projective testing, no measurable psychopathology was detected. However, as a group these same Nazis sank to the lowest common denominator of their collective unconscious and became violent, paranoid psychopaths.

    Barney Greenspan, Ph.D.
    Child & Adolescent Psychoanalyst
    Clinical Psychologist
    Board Certified (Clinical Psychology; Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology; Psychoanalysis)
    Fellow, American Psychological Association
    Private Practice in Meridian, Idaho

  15. Tom Gill

    Just a tiny nit-picking point….
    “According to Herf, the 1925 census identified 565,379 Jews in Germany, less than 1% of the population. Ingo Muller (1992) reports that 0.76% of Germans were Jews in 1930, substantially less than 1% of the population. … Herf reports that in the central forum of political representation, the Reichstag, Jews were significantly underrepresented. Of the 577 members of parliament elected on September 14, 1930, 17 were of Jewish origin, and of the 608 members elected on July 31, 1932, 14 were.”

    If less than 1% of the population were Jewish, but 2 to 3% of the members of the Reichstag were Jewish, does that not mean that Jews were overrepresented rather than underrepresented?

  16. Zhana

    Very interesting piece.

    To characterize the Nazis as “mad” is to let them off the hook. People who are suffering from mental health issues and delusional fantasies are not responsible for their actions. They have diminished responsibility. But the Nazis carefully planned and executed their actions in their attempts to “exterminate” the Jews. And people in other European countries, including France, Holland and the Channel Islands, colluded with them.

    Nor did the Holocaust occur “for no reason”. There is always a reason for a phenomenon, and there are usually many contributing factors.

    Psychologically, the Jews represented the Shadow for other Germans and Europeans – which is to say, they held and reflected those qualities which non-Jews were unwilling to acknowledge in themselves.

    Forgive me for stating the obvious. Some of the historical factors which led to the Holocaust include:

    1. The Bible states that the Jews killed Christ. This had been used as justification for attacking and persecuting Jews for centuries, if not milliennia;

    2. During the Crusades, Jews, along with Muslims, were seen as the “infidel” and were attacked and slaughtered;

    3. Anti-Semitic, particularly anti-Jewish, hatred festered in the European collective unconscious for centuries, if not longer – again, the first two historical factors cited above contributed to this. The Romans also feared and resented Jewish people because, among other things, they rejected the Roman Pagan gods and insisted on practicing their monotheistic religion;

    4. Jews were seen as tax-collectors in ancient Rome and, as such, were hated and feared. Later, because of restrictions placed on their business activities in many Christian European countries, Jews were confined to certain very lucrative business activities, including money-lending. This led to Jewish people being resented by the majority communities;

    5. Because of all of the above, and probably for other reasons as well, Jews were characterized in negative terms and subject to negative stereotypes right the way across Europe. One example of this is the Shylock character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Another example is the Fagin character in Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Both of these would have been instantly recognized as Jewish throughout English and British culture at the time of their creation;

    6. A particularly virulent form of anti-Jewish prejudice existed in Germany for many centuries. Grotesque caricatures of Jews were carved above the doors of many German churches, including the one in Wittenburg to whose doors Luther nailed his 95 Theses.

    Due to all of the above, as I have said, anti-Jewish attitudes festered in the European collective unconscious for many centuries. As we all know, pogroms had been carried out against Eastern European Jewish communities for many years.

    When the Nazis came to power, conditions prevailed which demanded a scapegoat. . Jewish people and communities met the requirements for such a scapegoat, and a lot of suspicion, hatred and violence was focused on them. Drawing on the anti-Jewish energies which were already present, lurking in the collective unconscious, the Nazis used the media to promote stereotypes so as to stir up dormant, or semi-dormant, hatred and violent impulses towards the Jews. Knowing that this, in itself, would not be enough to achieve their ends, the Nazis exhorted the German people to “harden their hearts” against the Jews.

    Despite all of the above, some individuals, such as, for example, Oskar Schindler, held out for human decency and stayed true to human values, undermining the Nazis’ efforts towards “extermination” of the Jews as best they could.

    There are lessons we all need to learn from this history. We need to root out hatred and anger in our own individual unconscious minds – no easy thing to do! But the alternative is that, when the conditions arise, we will witness genocide against other groups of people. Rwanda is one example of this. The burning of (some estimate) one million witches in Europe in the 15th-18th centuries is another example. Again, the events of Salem, Massachusetts have been presented as some kind of collective “madness”, but this is an oversimplification.

    Another 19th -20th century example is the lynching of African Americans post-Civil War and particulary post-1919.

    We must learn ways of communicating with each other from the heart, respecting and honouring each individual human being, however, difficult this is. If we harbour hatred, negativity, or contempt towards a particular group, be it anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny or hatred towards any group of people, in our minds, and in our collective cultures; if we ignore or collude with negative stereotyping, so-called humour or other ways of demeaning or demonizing any particular group, the consequences can be, and have been, very serious indeed.

    1. Edward G Rozycki

      I find Zhana’s comments to be the most in accord with my own beliefs. I admit this to shortcut the observations I feel I must addend to the conversation. These are as follows:

      a. Underlying much of the above comment appears to be the assumption that rational choice could not deliberately be for “evil,” no matter what we might take to be the values pursued by the actors. Thus, if God is the model of goodness and rationality — book of Job notwithstanding — then when people pursue “evil” they must be mentally defective, “irrational,” at least. This assumption that “rational” must never consciously, deliberately pursue evil is the “fantasy” which derives much earlier than from the Enlightenment.

      b. If you take something like “all carefully considered action is rational” to be something like Newton’s First Law of Motion, then it is not so much descriptive of actual behavior, but provides possibilities for investigating deviations from the ideal it postulates.

      c. If, in order to bypass generally unproductive discussion about what “really” is good, we adapt a framework such as that suggested by Paul Ziff, i.e. “good” means “answering certain interests” we can understand how a person who discriminates between, say, a “good gun” and an “inferior gun” can still choose to promote the production of the latter, barring complete production of firearms. More important, we can understand how a rational person can pursue evil.

      d. The actual Enlightenment(?) “fantasy” is that the spread of knowledge , i.e. the acceptance of certain privileged sources of belief to be recognized as such, is that the spread of knowledge will come to forestall conflicts based on the rational pursuit of gain or dominance favoring individuals, families, classes, tribes or broader social entities, without necessitating the extirpation of an of these latter groups.

      e. The Nazis were generally not insane; nor were their enthusiasts or followers. Nor are the many people we deign to call criminals, perverts, and the like. But it does not follow purely logically that “evil-doers” ought to be punished. This takes additional commitments to values — some of which I adhere to — to make such infliction rational.

      f. The underlying issue in this series of comments — which alone piques my interest enough to spend part of a Saturday night responding to them — is that the original author and most of the previous respondents seem to want to address — and even “solve” — moral problems while disavowing commitments to anything more substantial than they pursuit of practical knowledge.

      “Redefining” madness is hardly going to make a great dent here. It would most probably only mask the basic problem. Which is? Maintaining and recognizing professional ownership of certain human behavior despite lack of consensus on fundamental ethical warrants, terminology and treatment.

  17. Devora Decker2

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