FOR YOUR OWN GOOD - Alice Miller
14 [Pages 170-197 in the print edition]

As a child, this man appeared to have been held in such esteem by his mother that he in turn was able to respect and express his feelings. He was therefore aware of being angry with his father when the latter's "hand slipped"; he was aware that his teacher was forcing him to tell a lie and demeaning him, and he also felt grief because he had to pay for his integrity by neglecting his education because there was no other way for him at the time. I noticed that he didn't say, like most people, "My mother loved me very much," but instead, "She loved life," and I recalled having once written that about Goethe's mother. This elderly man had known his happiest moments in the woods with his mother when he had sensed her delight in the birds and shared it with her. Their warm relationship still shone in his aging eyes, and her regard for him expressed itself unmistakably in the way he now was speaking to the children at play. There was nothing superior or condescending in his manner, but simply attentiveness and respect.

I have dwelt so long on Hitler's problems at school because their causes and their later ramifications are typical of millions of other cases as well. The fact that Hitler had so many enthusiastic followers proves that they had a personality structure similar to his, i.e., that they had had a similar upbringing. The contemporary biographies demonstrate how far we still are in our thinking from the realization that a child has a right to be respected. Fest, who took immense and exhaustive pains to depict Hitler's life, cannot believe the son's claim that he suffered greatly because of his father and thinks Adolf is only "dramatizing" these difficulties--as if anyone were more qualified to judge the situation than Adolf Hitler himself.

Fest's tendency to spare the parents is scarcely surprising when we consider the extent to which psychoanalysis itself is captive to this approach. Insofar as its followers still consider it their main goal to fight for the free expression of sexuality, they are overlooking other crucial matters. We can see what a child who has not been shown respect and therefore lacks self-respect does with "liberated" sexuality when we consider child prostitution and the current drug scene. Here we can learn, among other things, about the disastrous dependency (on other people and on heroin) that can result from children's "liberation," which does not deserve the name if it is accompanied by self-degradation.

Both child abuse and its consequences are so well integrated into our lives that we are scarcely struck by their absurdity. Adolescents' "heroic willingness" to fight one another in wars and (just as life is beginning!) to die for someone else's cause may be a result of the fact that during puberty the warded-off hatred from early childhood becomes reintensified. Adolescents can divert this hatred from their parents if they are given a clear-cut enemy whom they are permitted to hate freely and with impunity. This may be why so many young painters and writers volunteered for the front in World War I. The hope of freeing themselves from the constraints imposed by their family enabled them to take pleasure in marching to the music of a military band. One of heroin's roles is to replace this function, with the difference that in the case of drugs the destructive rage is directed against one's own body and self.

Lloyd de Mause, who as a psychohistorian is particularly interested in motivation and in describing the group fantasies underlying it, once did a study of the dominant fantasies among aggressor nations. Looking through his material, he noticed that again and again statements by the leaders of these nations employed images relating to the birth process. With striking frequency they speak of their nation as being strangled, a situation they hope the war will finally rectify. De Mause believes that this fantasy reflects the actual situation of the infant during birth, which results in a trauma for every human being and thus is subject to the repetition compulsion.

The observation can be made, in support of this thesis, that the feeling of being strangled and having to get free does not occur in nations that are genuinely threatened--as, for example, Poland was in 1939--but in nations where this was not true--e.g., in Germany in 1914 and 1939 or in the United States during the Vietnam War. A declaration of war, therefore, is no doubt an attempt to escape fantasies of being threatened, constricted, and debased. On the basis of what I now know about childhood and what I am trying to demonstrate with the example of Adolf Hitler, I would definitely be inclined to draw the conclusion that it is not the birth trauma (as de Mause assumes) but other experiences that are reactivated in an eagerness for war. Even the most difficult birth is a unique, delimited trauma that, despite our smallness and weakness, we have usually overcome either on our own or with the help of a third party who comes to our rescue. In contrast to this, beatings, psychological humiliation, and other cruel treatment are recurrent experiences; there is no escape from them and there is no helping hand available, because no one considers this hell to be a hell. It is a continuous condition, or one that is repeatedly reencountered. There can be no ultimate liberating cry here, and these experiences can be forgotten only with the aid of splitting off and repression. Now, it is precisely those events that have never been come to terms with that must seek an outlet in the repetition compulsion. The jubilation characteristic of those who declare war is the expression of the revived hope of finally being able to avenge earlier debasement, and presumably also of relief at finally being permitted to hate and shout. The former child seizes the first opportunity to be active and to break its enforced silence. If the mourning process has not been possible, a person will use the repetition compulsion to try to undo the past and to banish former tragic passivity by means of activity in the present. Since this can't succeed, because of the impossibility of changing the past, wars of this kind do not bring liberation to the aggressor but ultimately lead to catastrophe, even when there are initial victories.

In spite of these considerations, it is possible to imagine that the birth fantasy does play a role here. For children who are beaten every day and must remain silent about it, birth may be the only childhood event where they emerged the victor, not only in fantasy but in actuality; otherwise, they would not have survived. They fought their way through a narrow passage and were allowed to scream afterwards, in spite of which they were taken care of by helping hands. Can this bliss be compared to what came later? It would not be surprising if we wanted to use this great triumph to help ourselves get over the defeats and loneliness of later years. Seen from this perspective, associations between the birth trauma and the declaration of war could be interpreted as a denial of the actual, hidden trauma, which is never taken seriously by society and therefore requires enactment. In Hitler's life, the "Boer wars" of his schooldays, Mein Kampf , and World War II belong to the visible tip of the iceberg. The hidden explanation for why he developed the way he did cannot be sought in the experience of emerging from the womb, an experience Hitler shares with all human beings. Not all human beings, on the other hand, were tormented the way he was as a child.

What didn't the son do to forget the trauma of the beatings his father gave him: he subjugated Germany's ruling class, won over the masses, and bent the governments of Europe to his will. He possessed nearly limitless power. At night, however, in his sleep, when the unconscious lets us know about our early childhood experiences, there was no escape: then his father came back to frighten him, and his terror was boundless. Rauschning writes:

Hitler, however, has states that approach persecution mania and a dual personality. His sleeplessness is more than the mere result of excessive nervous strain. He often wakes up in the middle of the night and wanders restlessly to and fro. Then he must have light everywhere. Lately he has sent at these times for young men who have to keep him company during his hours of manifest anguish. At times his condition must have been dreadful. A man in the closest daily association with him gave me this account: Hitler wakes at night with convulsive shrieks. He shouts for help. He sits on the edge of his bed, unable to stir. He shakes with fear, making the whole bed vibrate. He mutters confused, totally unintelligible phrases. He gasps, as if imagining himself to be suffocating.

My informant described to me in full detail a remarkable scene--I should not have credited the story if it had not come from such a reliable source. Hitler stood swaying in his room, looking wildly about him. "It was he! It was he! He's been here!" he gasped. His lips were blue. Sweat streamed down his face. Suddenly he began to reel off figures, and odd words and broken phrases, entirely devoid of sense. It sounded horrible. He used strangely constructed and entirely un-German word formations. Then he stood quite still, only his lips moving. He was massaged and offered something to drink. Then he suddenly burst out--

"There, there! In the corner! Who's that?"

He stamped and shrieked in the familiar way. He was shown that there was nothing out of the ordinary in the room, and then he gradually grew calm. After that he lay asleep for many hours, and then for some time things were endurable again.

Although (or because) most of the people surrounding Hitler had once been battered children themselves, no one grasped the connection between his panic and the "unintelligible" numbers. The feelings of fear he had repressed in his childhood when counting his father's blows now overtook the adult at the peak of his success in the form of nightmares, sudden and inescapable, in the loneliness of the night.

Had he made the entire world his victim, he still would not have been able to banish his introjected father from his bedroom, for one's own unconscious cannot be destroyed by destroying the world. Yet, in spite of this fact, the world would still have had to pay dearly if Hitler had lived any longer, for the springs of his hatred flowed unceasingly--even in his sleep.

Those who have never experienced the power of the unconscious may find it naive to try to explain Hitler's deeds as an outgrowth of his childhood experiences. There are still many men and women who are of the opinion that "childhood matters are merely childish matters" and that politics is something serious, something for adults, and not child's play. These people think connections between childhood and later life farfetched or ridiculous, since they would like, for good reason, to forget completely the reality of those early years. A life such as Hitler's is especially instructive here because in it the continuity between earlier and later can be traced so clearly. Even as a small boy he expressed his longing to be free from his father's yoke in the war games he played. First he led the Indians and then the Boers into battle against the oppressors. "It was not long before the great heroic struggle [the Franco German War of 1870-71] had become my greatest inner experience," he writes in Mein Kampf , and in the same passage we can detect the fateful connection between those games that reflected his childhood unhappiness and the deadly seriousness to come: "From then on, I became more and more enthusiastic about everything that was in any way connected with war or, for that matter, with soldiering."

Hitler's French and German teacher, Dr. Huemer, reports that during puberty Hitler "reacted with ill-concealed hostility to advice or reproof; at the same time, he demanded of his fellow pupils their unqualified subservience" (cf. Toland). As a result of his early identification with a tyrannical father, Adolf--according to a witness from Braunau--would stand on a hill when still very little and "deliver long and passionate speeches."* Since Hitler spent only the first three years of his life in Braunau, this indicates how early his career as Führer began. In these speeches the child was imitating the way he had seen his imposing father hold forth and at the same time was also seeing himself, the awestruck admiring child of those first three years, as the audience.
* This information was given to me orally by Paul Moor.

The same situation was repeated in his appearances at organized mass rallies, those later reenactments of the Führer's childish self. The narcissistic, symbiotic unity between Führer and Volk is shown very clearly in the words of his boyhood friend August Kubizek, "for [whose] benefit alone" Hitler gave many speeches. Toland writes:

These orations, usually delivered when they were walking through the fields or on some deserted woodland path, reminded Kubizek of an erupting volcano. It was like a scene on the stage. "I could only stand gaping and passive, forgetting to applaud." It took some time before Kubizek realized his friend was not acting but was "in dead earnest." He also discovered that Hitler expected only one thing of him: approval; and Kubizek, enthralled more by Adolf's oratory than by what he said, readily gave it.... Adolf seemed to know exactly how Kubizek felt. "He always sensed my reactions as intensely as if they were his. Sometimes I had the feeling that he was living my life as well as his own."

Perhaps no better commentary can be found to illustrate Hitler's legendary powers of seduction: whereas the Jews represented the humiliated, defeated side of his childhood self that he tried with all his might to do away with, the adoring German Volk, played here by Kubizek, were his good and beautiful side that loved his father and was loved by him. The German Volk and his friend Kubizek assume the role of Adolf, the good child. Hitler as father protects the child's pure soul from danger by driving out and destroying "the wicked Jews," i.e., "wicked thoughts" as well, so that undisturbed oneness between father and son can finally prevail.

Of course, this interpretation is not written for people who consider dreams "airy nothings" and the unconscious the invention of "a sick mind." But I could imagine that even those who do know something about the unconscious might look with misgivings or indignation upon my attempt to try to understand Hitler's actions on the basis of his childhood experiences, because they would rather not be forced to think about the whole "inhuman story." Yet can we really assume that the dear Lord suddenly conceived the idea of sending down to earth a "necrophilic beast," as Hitler is described by Erich Fromm, who wrote:

How can we explain that these two well-meaning, stable, very normal, and certainly not destructive people gave birth to the future "monster," Adolf Hitler? [The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness]

I have no doubt that behind every crime a personal tragedy lies hidden. If we were to investigate such events and their backgrounds more closely, we might be able to do more to prevent crimes than we do now with our indignation and moralizing. Perhaps someone will say: But not everyone who was a battered child becomes a murderer; otherwise, many more people would be murderers. That is true. However, humankind is in dire enough straits these days that this should not remain an academic question. Moreover, we never know how a child will and must react to the injustice he or she has suffered-there are innumerable "techniques" for dealing with it. We don't yet know, above all, what the world might be like if children were to grow up without being subjected to humiliation, if parents would respect them and take them seriously as persons. In any case, I don't know of a single person who enjoyed this respect* as a child and then as an adult had the need to put other human beings to death.
* By respect for a child, I don't mean a "permissive" upbringing,which is often a form of indoctrination itself and thus shows a disregard for the child's own world.

We are still barely conscious of how harmful it is to treat children in a degrading manner. Treating them with respect and recognizing the consequences of their being humiliated are by no means intellectual matters; otherwise, their importance would long since have been generally recognized. To empathize with what a child is feeling when he or she is defenseless, hurt, or humiliated is like suddenly seeing in a mirror the suffering of one's own childhood, something many people must ward off out of fear while others can accept it with mourning. People who have mourned in this way understand more about the dynamics of the psyche than they could ever have learned from books.

The persecution of people of Jewish background, the necessity of proving "racial purity" as far back as one's grandparents, the tailoring of prohibitions to the degree of an individual's demonstrable "racial purity"--all this is grotesque only at first glance. For its significance becomes plain once we realize that in terms of Hitler's unconscious fantasies it is an intensified expression of two very powerful tendencies. On the one hand, his father was the hated Jew whom he could despise and persecute, frighten and threaten with regulations, because his father would also have been affected by the racial laws if he had still been alive. At the same time--and this is the other tendency--the racial laws were meant to mark Adolf's final break with his father and his background. In addition to revenge, the tormenting uncertainty about the Hitler family was an important motive for the racial laws: the whole nation had to trace its "purity" back to the third generation because Adolf Hitler would have liked to know with certainty who his grandfather was. Above all, the Jew became the bearer of all the evil and despicable traits the child had ever observed in his father. In Hitler's view, the Jews were characterized by a specific mixture of Lucifer-like grandeur and superiority (world Jewry and its readiness to destroy the entire world) on the one hand and ugliness and ludicrous weakness and infirmity on the other. This view reflects the omnipotence even the weakest father exercises over his child, seen in Hitler's case in the wild rages of the insecure customs official who succeeded in destroying his son's world.

It is common in analysis for the first breakthrough in criticizing the father to be signaled by the surfacing of some insignificant and ludicrous trait of his that the patient's memory has repressed. For example, the father--big out of all proportion in the child's eyes--may have looked very funny in his short nightshirt. The child had never been close to his father, had been in constant fear of him, but with this memory of the skimpy nightshirt, the child's imagination provides a weapon, now that ambivalence has broken through in the analysis, which enables him to take revenge on a small scale against the godlike, monumental paternal figure. In similar fashion, Hitler disseminates his hatred and disgust for the "stinking" Jew in the pages of the Nazi periodical Der Stürmer in order to incite people to burn books by Freud, Einstein, and innumerable other Jewish intellectuals of great stature. The breakthrough of this idea, which made it possible for him to transfer his pent-up hatred of his father to the Jews as a people, is very instructive. It is described in the following passage from Mein Kampf.

Since I had begun to concern myself with this question and to take cognizance of the Jews, Vienna appeared to me in a different light than before. Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity. Particularly the Inner City and the districts north of the Danube Canal swarmed with a people which even outwardly had lost all resemblance to Germans....

All this could scarcely be called very attractive; but it became positively repulsive when, in addition to their physical uncleanliness, you discovered the moral stains on this "chosen people."...

Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it?

If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light--a kike!

Gradually I began to hate them.

Once he succeeds in directing all his bottled-up hatred toward an object, the first reaction is one of great relief ("Wherever I went, I began to see Jews"), Forbidden, long-avoided feelings can now be given free rein. The more they had filled and pressed in upon one, the happier one feels at having finally found an ersatz object. Now there is no need to hate his own father; now Adolf can allow the dam to burst without being beaten for it.

Yet this ersatz satisfaction merely whets the appetite--nothing illustrates this better than the case of Adolf Hitler. Although there probably had never before been a person with Hitler's power to destroy human life on such a scale with impunity, all this still could not bring him peace. His last will and testament, which calls for the continued persecution of the Jews, is impressive proof of this.

When we read Stierlin's description of Hitler's father, we see how closely the son resembled his father in personality.

It appears, however, that his social rise was not without cost to himself and others. While he was conscientious and hardworking, he was also emotionally unstable, inordinately restless, and perhaps at times mentally disturbed. According to one source, he possibly once entered an asylum. Also, in the opinion of at least one analyst, he combined an overriding determination with a flexible conscience, shown especially in how he manipulated rules and records to his own ends, while maintaining a facade of legitimacy. (For example, in applying for papal approval to marry his legal cousin Klara, he stressed his two small motherless children, needing Klara's care, but failed to mention her pregnancy.)

Only a child's unconscious can copy a parent so exactly that every characteristic of the parent can later be found in the child. This phenomenon, however, is one that usually escapes the attention of biographers.

Hitler's Mother


All the biographers agree that Klara Hitler loved her son very much and spoiled him. It must be stated at the outset that this view is a contradiction in terms if we take love to mean that the mother is open and sensitive to her child's true needs. This is precisely what is lacking if a child is spoiled, i.e., if his every wish is granted and he is showered with things he does not need--all this simply as ersatz for that which parents are unable to give their child because of their own problems. Therefore, if a child is spoiled, this points to a serious deficiency, which is then confirmed in later life. If Hitler had really been loved as a child, he would also have been capable of love. His relationships with women, his perversions (cf. Stierlin, page 194), and his whole aloof and basically cold relationships with people in general reveal that he never received love from any quarter.

Before Adolf was born, Klara had three children, all of whom died of diphtheria within a month of one another. The first two were perhaps already ill when the third child was born, who then died when he was only three days old. Thirteen months later, Adolf was born. I reproduce here Stierlin's very useful chart:

1. Gustav

2. Ida

3. Otto

4. Adolf

5. Edmund

6. Paula


5/17/ 1885













2 yr. 7 mos.

1 yr. 4 mos.

approx. 3 days


almost 6 yrs.

The prettified legend depicts Klara as a loving mother who, after the death of her first three children, showered all her affection on Adolf. It is probably no accident that all the biographers who paint this lovely Madonna-like portrait are men. A candid contemporary woman who is herself a mother will perhaps have a somewhat more realistic picture of the events preceding Adolf's birth and a more accurate one of the sort of emotional atmosphere surrounding his first year of life, so crucial for a child's sense of security.

When she is sixteen, Klara Potzl moves into the home of her "Uncle Alois," where she is to take care of his sick wife and two children. There she is later made pregnant by the master of the house even before his wife is dead, and when she is twenty-four the forty-eight-year-old Alois marries her. Within a period of two and a half years she gives birth to three children and loses all three in the space of four or five weeks. Let us try to imagine what actually happened. The first child, Gustav, comes down with diphtheria in November; Klara can scarcely take care of him because she is about to give birth to her third child, Otto, who probably catches the disease from Gustav and dies after three days. Soon after, before Christmas, Gustav dies and three weeks later the second child, Ida, as well. Thus, within a period of four to five weeks, Klara has lived through the birth of one child and the death of three. A woman need not be especially sensitive for such a shock to make her lose her equilibrium, especially if, like Klara, she is confronted with a domineering and demanding husband while still practically an adolescent. Perhaps as a practicing Catholic she regarded these three deaths as punishment for her adulterous relations with Alois; perhaps she reproached herself because the birth of her third child prevented her from taking good care of Gustav. In any case, a woman would have to be made of stone to remain untouched by these blows of fate, and Klara was not made of stone. But no one could help her to experience her grief; her marital duties toward Alois continued, and in the same year as her daughter Ida's death Klara became pregnant once again. In April of the following year, she gave birth to Adolf. It was because she could not deal adequately with her grief under these circumstances that the birth of a new child must have reactivated her recent shock, mobilizing her deepest fears and a feeling of great insecurity regarding her ability as a mother. What woman with these experiences behind her would not have been fearful during her new pregnancy of a repetition of the past? It is scarcely conceivable that her son, in his early period of symbiosis with his mother, imbibed feelings of peace, contentment, and security along with her milk. It is more likely that his mother's anxiety, the fresh memories of her three dead children reactivated by Adolf's birth, and the conscious or unconscious fear that this child would die too were all communicated directly to her baby as if mother and child were one body. It was also of course impossible for Klara to experience her anger toward her self-centered husband, who left her to her anguish. All the more, then, did her baby who, after all, did not have to be feared like her domineering husband--come to feel the force of these negative emotions.

All this is destiny; it would be futile to try to find the guilty person. Many people have had a similar fate. For example, Novalis, Hölderlin, and Kafka were also strongly influenced by the loss of several siblings, but they were all able to express their sorrow. In Hitler's case there was an additional factor: he was unable to tell anyone about his feelings or about the deep anxiety stemming from the disturbed early relationship with his mother. He was forced to repress all this in order not to attract his father's attention and thus provoke fresh beatings. The only remaining possibility was to identify with the aggressor.

Something else resulted from this unusual family constellation: mothers who after losing one child have another often idealize the dead child (the way unhappy people frequently fantasize about the missed opportunities in their lives). The living child then feels impelled to make a special effort and to accomplish something extraordinary in order not to be overshadowed by the dead sibling. But the mother's real love is usually directed toward the idealized dead child, whom she imagines as possessing every virtue--if only it had lived. The same thing happened to van Gogh, for instance, although only one of his brothers had died.

A patient who once consulted me spoke of his happy and harmonious childhood with exaggerated enthusiasm. I am accustomed to idealizations of this nature, but in this case I was struck by something in his tone that I could not understand at first. In the course of our session the man revealed that he had had a sister who died when she was barely two years old and who apparently had superhuman abilities for her age: she supposedly took care of her mother when she was ill, sang to her "to soothe her," could recite entire prayers by heart, and so on. When I asked the man if he thought this was possible at her age, he looked at me as though I had just committed a terrible sacrilege, and said, "Not normally, but with this child it was--it was simply extraordinary, a miracle." I said to him that mothers very often idealize their dead children, told him the story of van Gogh, and said it was sometimes very difficult for the living child to be constantly compared to such a magnificent image, which one can never live up to. The man resumed speaking mechanically about his sister's abilities and how terrible it was that she had to die. Then, all of a sudden, he broke off and was overcome by grief over his sister's death--or so he believed--which had occurred almost thirty-five years before. I had the impression that this was the first time he had ever shed tears over his own childhood, for these tears were genuine. Only now did I also understand the strange, artificial tone of voice that had struck me at the beginning of the hour. Perhaps he had been unconsciously compelled to show me how his mother had spoken of her firstborn. He spoke as effusively about his childhood as his mother had about her dead child, but at the same time he was communicating to me by his unnatural tone of voice the truth about his childhood fate.

I often thought of this story when patients came to me who had a similar family constellation. When I explored this with them, time and again I heard of the cult connected with the graves of dead children, a cult that is often practiced for decades. The more precarious the mother's narcissistic equilibrium, the more glowing the picture she paints of the rich promise that died with her child. This child would have made up for all her deprivation, for any pain caused her by her husband, and for all her troubles with her difficult living children. It would have been the ideal "mother" protecting her from all harm--if only it had not died.

Since Adolf was the first child born after three other children had died, I cannot imagine how his mother's feeling toward him can be interpreted solely as one of "devoted love," as described by his biographers. They all claim that Hitler received too much love from his mother (they see being spoiled or, as they put it, "oral spoiling," as the result of an excess of love), and that is supposed to be why he was so avid for admiration and recognition. Because he is thought to have had such a good and long symbiosis with his mother, he is supposed to have sought it again and again in his narcissistic merging with the masses. Statements such as these are sometimes found even in psychoanalytic case histories.

It seems to me that a pedagogical principle deeply rooted in all of us is at work in these interpretations. Child-rearing manuals often contain the advice not to "spoil" children by giving them too much love and consideration (which is called "doting" or "pampering"), but to steel them for real life right from the beginning. Psychoanalysts express themselves differently here; they say, for example, that "one must prepare the child to bear frustration," as if a child could not learn that on his or her own in life. In fact, exactly the reverse is true: a child who has been given genuine affection can get along without it as an adult better than someone who has never had it. Therefore, if a person craves or "is greedy for" affection, this is always a sign that he is looking for something he never had and not that he doesn't want to give up something because he had too much of it in childhood.

It can appear from the outside that someone's every wish is being granted without this being the case. Thus, a child can be spoiled with food, toys, and excessive concern without ever being seen or heeded for what he or she really is. If we take Hitler as an example, it is easy to imagine that he would never have been loved by his mother if he had appeared to hate his father, which in fact he did. His mother was not capable of love but only of meticulously fulfilling her duties. The condition she must have imposed on her son was that he be a good boy and "forgive and forget" his father's cruelty toward him. An instructive detail pointed out by B. F. Smith shows how little able Adolf's mother would have been to give him her support in his problems with his father:

[T]he old man's dominance made him a permanent object of respect, if not of awe, to his wife and children. Even after his death his pipes still stood in a rack on the kitchen shelf, and when his widow wished to make a particularly important point she would gesture toward the pipes as if to invoke the authority of the master. [Quoted by Stierlin]

Since Klara extended her "reverence" for her husband, even after his death, to his pipes, we can scarcely imagine that her son would ever have been allowed to confide his true feelings to her, especially since his three dead siblings had surely "always been good" in his mother's mind, and now that they were in heaven were unable to do anything bad anyway.

Thus, Adolf could receive affection from his parents only at the expense of completely disguising and denying his true feelings. This gave rise to a whole mental outlook that Fest discovers to be a continuous pattern in Hitler's life. Fest's biography begins with the following sentences, which underscore this relevant and central point:

All through his life he made the strongest efforts to conceal as well as to glorify his own personality. Hardly any other prominent figure in history covered his tracks so well as far as his personal life was concerned. He stylized his persona with forceful and pedantic consistency. The image he had of himself was more that of a monument than of a man. From the start he endeavored to hide behind it. [Hitler]

Someone who has experienced his mother's love will never need to disguise himself in this way.

Hitler systematically tried to cut off all contact with his past: he did not allow his half brother Alois to come near him, and he made his sister Paula, who kept house for him, change her name. But on the stage of world politics he unconsciously enacted the true drama of his childhood--under another guise. He, like his father before him, was now the dictator, the only one who had anything to say. It was the place of all the others to be silent and to obey. He was someone who aroused fear, but he also commanded the love of his people, who prostrated themselves at his feet just as the subservient Klara had once done at the feet of her husband.

The special fascination Hitler held for women is well known. For the shy little girl in them, he embodied the admired father, who knew exactly what was right and wrong and who could in addition offer them an outlet for the hatred they had bottled up since childhood. This combination gave Hitler his great following among both women and men. For all these people had once been raised to be obedient, had grown up in an atmosphere of duty and Christian virtues; they had to learn at a very early age to repress their hatred and their needs.

And now along came a man who did not question the underpinnings of this bourgeois morality of theirs, someone who on the contrary could put the obedience that had been instilled in them to good use, who never confronted them with searching questions or inner crises, but instead provided them with a universal means for finally being able to live out in a thoroughly acceptable and legal way the hatred they had been repressing all their lives. Who would not take advantage of such an opportunity? The Jews could now be blamed for everything, and the actual erstwhile persecutors--one's own, often truly tyrannical parents--could be honored and idealized.

I know a woman who never happened to have any contact with a Jew up to the time she joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth. She had been brought up very strictly. Her parents needed her to help out in the household after her siblings (two brothers and a sister) had left home. For this reason she was not allowed to prepare for a career even though she very much wanted to and even though she had the necessary qualifications. Much later she told me with what enthusiasm she had read about "the crimes of the Jews" in Mein Kampf and what a sense of relief it had given her to find out that it was permissible to hate someone so unequivocally. She had never been allowed to envy her siblings openly for being able to pursue their careers. But the Jewish banker to whom her uncle had to pay interest on a loan -- he was an exploiter of her poor uncle, with whom she identified. She herself was actually being exploited by her parents and was envious of her siblings, but a well-behaved girl was not permitted to have these feelings. And now, quite unexpectedly, there was such a simple solution: it was all right to hate as much as she wanted; she still remained (and perhaps for this very reason was) her parents' good girl and a useful daughter of the fatherland. Moreover, she could project the "bad" and weak child she had always learned to despise in herself onto the weak and helpless Jews and experience herself as exclusively strong, exclusively pure (Aryan), exclusively good.

And Hitler himself? This is where the whole process of enactment had its start. It was also true for him that in the Jew, he was mistreating the helpless child he once was in the same way his father had mistreated him. And just as the father was never satisfied and whipped him every day, nearly beating him to death when he was eleven, Hitler also was never satisfied; he wrote in his will, after he had already had six million Jews put to death, that it was still necessary to exterminate the last remnants of Jewry.

What is revealed here, as in the case of Alois and the other parents who beat their children, is the fear of a possible resurrection and return of the split-off parts of the self. This is why beating is a never-ending task--behind it hovers fear of the emergence of one's own, repressed weakness, humiliation, and helplessness, which one has tried to escape all one's life by means of grandiose behavior: Alois with his position as a high-level customs official, Adolf as the Führer, someone else as a psychiatrist who swears by electric-shock treatment or as a research doctor who conducts experiments by transplanting monkey brains, as a professor who prescribes what his students should believe, or simply as a parent rearing a child. None of these endeavors is directed at other human beings (or at monkeys)--what is really at issue in everything these people do to others when they despise and demean them is the attempt to exterminate their own former weakness and to avoid sorrow.

Helm Stierlin's interesting study of Hitler proceeds from the premise that Adolf's mother unconsciously "delegated" him to come to her rescue. According to this view, oppressed Germany would then be a symbol for the mother. This may be correct, but there can be no doubt that deep-seated, intensely personal, and unconscious problems also find expression in the savage fanaticism of Hitler's later actions, which represent a gigantic struggle to purge his self--for which Germany is a symbol--of all traces of his boundless degradation.

One interpretation does not exclude the other, however rescuing the mother also implies a struggle for the child's own existence. To put it another way: if Adolf's mother had been a strong woman, she would not--in the child's mind--have allowed him to be exposed to these torments and to constant fear and dread. But because she herself had been degraded and was a total slave to her husband, she was not able to shield her child. Now he had to save his mother (Germany) from the enemy in order to have the kind of good, pure, strong mother, free of Jewish contamination, who could have given him security. Children very often fantasize that they must save or rescue their mother so that she can finally be the mother to them whom they needed from the beginning. This can become a full-time occupation in later life. But since it is not possible for children to save their mothers, the compulsion to repeat this situation of powerlessness inevitably leads to failure or even to catastrophe if its underlying roots are not recognized and experienced. Stierlin's ideas could be carried even further along these lines and, put in symbolic terms, might lead to the following horrendous conclusion: the liberation of Germany and the destruction of the Jewish people down to the last Jew, i.e., the complete removal of the bad father, would have provided Hitler with the conditions that could have made him a happy child growing up in a calm and peaceful situation with a beloved mother.

This unconscious symbolic goal is of course a delusion, for the past can never be changed; yet every delusion has its own meaning, which is very easy to understand once the childhood situation is known. This meaning is frequently distorted by case histories and by information given us by biographers, who overlook precisely the most essential data because defense mechanisms are involved. For example, a great deal of research and writing has been done on the question of whether Alois Hitler's father was really Jewish and whether Alois could be called an alcoholic.

Often, however, the child's psychic reality has very little to do with what the biographers later "prove" to be facts. The mere suspicion of Jewish blood in the family is much more difficult for a child to bear than the certainty. Alois himself must have suffered from this uncertainty, and there can be little doubt that Adolf knew of the rumors even though no one wanted to speak openly about the matter. The very thing that parents try to hide is what will preoccupy a child the most, especially if a major parental trauma is involved (cf. page 166).

The persecution of the Jews "made it possible" for Hitler to "correct" his past on the level of fantasy. It permitted him:

  1. To take revenge on his father, who was suspected of being half Jewish
  2. To liberate his mother (Germany) from her persecutor
  3. To attain his mother's love with fewer moral sanctions, with more true self-expression (the German people loved Hitler for being a shrieking Jew-hater, not for being the well-behaved Catholic boy he had to be for his mother)
  4. To reverse roles -- he has now become the dictator, he must now be obeyed and submitted to as his father once was; he organizes concentration camps in which people are treated the way he was as a child. (A person is not likely to conceive something monstrous if he does not know it somehow or other from experience. We simply tend to refuse to take a child's suffering seriously enough.)
  5. Moreover, the persecution of the Jews permitted him to persecute the weak child in his own self that was now projected onto the victims. In this way he would not have to experience grief over his past pain, which had been especially hard to bear because his mother had not been able to prevent it. In this, as well as in his unconscious revenge on his early childhood persecutor, Hitler resembled a great number of Germans who had grown up in a similar situation.

In the portrait of Adolf Hitler's family as drawn by Stierlin, we still are shown the loving mother who, while she delegates the function of rescuer to her child, protects him at the same time from the violent father. In Freud's version of the Oedipus legend, we also find this beloved and loving idealized mother figure. In his book on male fantasies, Klaus Theweleit comes somewhat closer to the truth about these mothers, although he too hesitates to draw the logical consequences from his material. He ascertains that the image of a strict, punitive father and a devoted, protective mother keeps occurring in the cases he analyzes of representatives of Fascist ideology. The mother is referred to as "the best wife and mother in the world," as a "good angel," as "clever, of strong character, helpful, and deeply religious." The Fascists Theweleit analyzes admire qualities in the mothers of their comrades or in their mothers-in-law that they apparently do not want to attribute to their own mothers: severity, love of the fatherland, a Prussian attitude ("Germans do not cry")--the mother of iron who "doesn't bat an eyelash at the news of the death of her sons."

Theweleit quotes a case:

Still, it was not this news that turned out to be the last straw for the mother. Four sons were killed in the war; this she survived. It took something ridiculous in comparison to devastate her. The province of Lorraine became French and with it the company mines. [Männerphantasien]

But what if these two sides were two halves of one's own mother? Hermann Ehrhardt relates in the same book:

Once on a winter's night I stood sullenly outside in the snow for four hours before my mother finally said now I had been punished enough.

Before the mother "rescues" her son by saying he "had been punished enough," she sees to it that he stands in the snow for four hours. A child cannot understand why the mother he loves hurts him so, cannot comprehend why the woman who in his eyes is a giantess in actuality fears her husband as if she were a little girl and unconsciously passes on her own childhood humiliation to her little boy. A child cannot help but suffer from this harsh treatment. But he dare not live out this suffering or show it. There is no choice but to split it off and project it onto others, i.e., to ascribe his mother's harsh qualities to other mothers and even come to admire these qualities in them.

Could Klara Hitler help her son as long as she was herself her husband's dependent, submissive serving maid? While he was alive, she timidly called her husband "Uncle Alois," and after his death she would gesture toward his pipes, which were on display in the kitchen, to emphasize a point she was making.

What happens to a child when he must repeatedly see the same mother who tells him of her love, who carefully prepares his meals and sings lovely songs to him, turn into a pillar of salt and look on without lifting a finger when this child is given a brutal beating by his father? How must he feel when time after time he hopes in vain that she will help him, will come to his rescue; how must he feel when in his suffering he waits in vain for her finally to use her power, which in his eyes is so great, on his behalf? The mother watches her child being humiliated, derided, and tormented without coming to his defense, without doing anything to save him. Through her silence she is in complicity with his persecutor; she is abandoning her child. Can we expect a child to understand this? Should we be surprised if his bitterness, although repressed, is also directed against the mother? Perhaps this child will love his mother dearly on a conscious level; later, in his relationships with other people, he will repeatedly have the feeling of being abandoned, sacrificed, and betrayed.

Hitler's mother is surely no exception but rather the rule, if not even the ideal of many men. But can a mother who is only a slave give her child the respect he needs to develop his vitality? We can gather from the following depiction of the masses in Mein Kampf what Hitler's ideal of femininity was:

The psyche of the great masses is not receptive to anything that is halfhearted and weak.

Like a woman, whose psychic state is determined less by grounds of abstract reason than by an indefinable emotional longing for a force which will complement her nature, and who, consequently, would rather bow to a strong man than dominate a weakling, likewise the masses love a commander more than a petitioner and feel inwardly more satisfied by a doctrine, tolerating no other beside itself, than by the granting of liberalistic freedom with which, as a rule, they can do little, and are prone to feel that they have been abandoned. They are equally unaware of their shameless spiritual terrorization and the hideous abuse of their human freedom, for they absolutely fail to suspect the inner insanity of the whole doctrine. All they see is the ruthless force and brutality of its calculated manifestations, to which they always submit in the end.

In his description of the masses, Hitler accurately portrays his mother and her subservience. His political guidelines are based on very early experiences: brutality always wins out.

Hitler's scorn for women, understandable given his family background, was reinforced by the theories of Lanz von Liebenfels,

[whose] race theory was permeated by sexual-envy complexes and deep-seated antifemale emotions; woman, he maintained, had brought sin into the world, and her susceptibility to the lecherous wiles of bestial subhuman men was the chief cause for the infection of Nordic blood. [Fest, Hitler ]

Perhaps Klara called her husband "Uncle Alois" out of sheer timidity, but whatever the reason, he found this acceptable. Did he even require it, just as he wished to be addressed by his neighbors with the formal "Sie," not the usual familiar "Du"? Even Adolf refers to him in Mein Kampf as "Herr Hitler," which possibly goes back to a wish of his father's that was introjected at a very early age. It is quite likely that by insisting on these forms of address Alois was attempting to compensate for the misery of his early childhood (being given away by his mother, illegitimate, poor, of dubious parentage) and finally perceive himself as Herr . From this conjecture it is only one step to the possibility that it was for this very reason that for twelve years the Germans had to greet one another with the salutation "Heil Hitler." All of Germany had to bow to even the most eccentric, entirely personal demands of its Führer, just as Klara and Adolf had once had to bow to their omnipotent master.

Hitler flattered the "German, Germanic" woman because he needed her homage, her vote, and her other services. He had also needed his mother, but he never had a chance to achieve a truly warm, intimate relationship with her. Stierlin writes:

N. Bromberg (1971) has written about Hitler's sexual habits: "... the only way in which he could get full sexual satisfaction was to watch a young woman as she squatted over his head and urinated or defecated in his face." He also reports "... an episode of erotogenic masochism involving a young German actress at whose feet Hitler threw himself, asking her to kick him. When she demurred, he pleaded with her to comply with his wish, heaping accusations on himself and groveling at her feet in such an agonizing manner that she finally acceded. When she kicked him, he became excited, and as she continued to kick him at his urging, he became increasingly excited. The difference in age between Hitler and the young women with whom he had any sexual involvement was usually close to the twenty three-year difference between his parents."

It is totally inconceivable that a man who as a child received love and affection from his mother, which most Hitler biographers claim was the case, would have suffered from these sadomasochistic compulsions, which point to a very early childhood disturbance. But our concept of mother love obviously has not yet wholly freed itself from the ideology of "poisonous pedagogy."


Readers who interpret my treatment of Hitler's early childhood as sentimental or even as an attempt to excuse his deeds naturally have every right to construe what they have read as they see fit. People who, for example, had to learn at a very early age "to keep a stiff upper lip" identify with their parents to the extent that they consider any form of empathy with a child as emotionalism or sentimentality. As for the question of guilt, I chose Hitler for the very reason that I know of no other criminal who is responsible for the death of so many human beings. But nothing is gained by using the word guilt. We of course have the right and the duty to lock up murderers who threaten our life. For the time being, we do not know of any better solution. But this does not alter the fact that the need to commit murder is the outcome of a tragic childhood and that imprisonment is the tragic sequel to this fate.

If we stop looking for new facts and focus on the significance within the total picture of what we already know, we will come upon sources of information in our study of Hitler that have thus far not been properly evaluated and therefore are not readily or widely accessible. As far as I know, for example, little attention has been paid to the important fact that Klara Hitler's hunchbacked and schizophrenic sister, Adolf's Aunt Johanna, lived with the family throughout his childhood. At least in the biographies I have read, I have never found a connection made between this fact and the Third Reich's euthanasia law. To find any significance in this connection, a person must be able and willing to comprehend the feelings that arise in a child who is exposed daily to an extremely absurd and frightening form of behavior and yet at the same time is forbidden to articulate his fear and rage or his questions. Even the presence of a schizophrenic aunt can be positively dealt with by a child, but only if he can communicate freely with his parents on the emotional level and can talk with them about his fears.

Franziska Hörl, a servant in the Hitler household when Adolf was born, told Jetzinger in an interview that she had not been able to put up with this aunt any longer and left the family on her account, stating simply that she refused to be around "that crazy hunchback" any longer.

The child of the family is not allowed to say such a thing. Unable to leave, he must put up with everything; not until he has grown up can he take any action. When Hitler was grown and came to power, he was finally able to avenge himself a thousandfold on this unfortunate aunt for his own misfortune. He had all the mentally ill in Germany put to death, because he felt they were "useless" for a "healthy" society (i.e., for him as a child). As an adult, Hitler no longer had to put up with anything; he was even able to "liberate" all of Germany from the "plague" of the mentally ill and retarded and was not at a loss to find ideological embellishments for this thoroughly personal act of revenge.

I have not gone into the background of the euthanasia law in this book because it has been my main concern to describe the consequences of actively humiliating a child, by presenting a striking example. Since such humiliation, combined with prohibiting a child's verbal expression, is a constant and universally encountered factor in child-rearing, the influence of this factor in the child's later development is easily overlooked. The claim that child beating (including spanking) is common, to say nothing of the conviction that it is necessary in order to spur the child on to learn, completely ignores the dimensions of childhood tragedy. Because the relationship of child beating to subsequent criminality is not perceived, the world reacts with horror to the crimes it sees committed and overlooks the conditions giving rise to them, as if murderers fell out of a clear blue sky.

I have used Hitler as an example to show that:

  1. Even the worst criminal of all time was not born a criminal.
  2. Empathizing with a child's unhappy beginnings does not imply exoneration of the cruel acts he later commits. (This is as true for Alois Hitler as it is for Adolf.)
  3. Those who persecute others are warding off knowledge of their own fate as victims.
  4. Consciously experiencing one's own victimization instead of trying to ward it off provides a protection against sadism; i.e., the compulsion to torment and humiliate others.
  5. The admonition to spare one's parents inherent in the Fourth Commandment and in "poisonous pedagogy" encourages us to overlook crucial factors in a person's early childhood and later development.
  6. We as adults don't get anywhere with accusations, indignation, or guilt feelings, but only by understanding the situations in question.
  7. True emotional understanding has nothing to do with cheap sentimental pity.
  8. The fact that a situation is ubiquitous does not absolve us from examining it. On the contrary, we must examine it for the very reason that it is or can be the fate of each and every one of us.
  9. Living out hatred is the opposite of experiencing it. To experience something is an intrapsychic reality; to live it out, on the other hand, is an action that can cost other people their lives. If the path to experiencing one's feelings is blocked by the prohibitions of "poisonous pedagogy" or by the needs of the parents, then these feelings will have to be lived out. This can occur either in a destructive form, as in Hitler's case, or in a self-destructive one, as in Christiane F.'s. Or, as in the case of most criminals who end up in prison, this living out can lead to the destruction both of the self and of others. The history of Jürgen Bartsch, which I shall treat in the next chapter, is a dramatic example of this.

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