Nazi psychology

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Tom Kay’s article, Roots of the Holocaust (January SR), reminds us of the dangers of racism in a period of deepening crisis. He identifies the crisis of the petty-bourgeoisie as a key factor in the rise of anti-Semitism after the First World War. This crisis was rooted in the manner in which German capitalism developed in the late 19th century.

Germany never overthrew its monarchy and the Junkers’ semi-feudal landed aristocracy. Industrialisation was carried out by dragging the Junkers into an alliance with the top layer of middle class capitalists. The petty-bourgeoisie was squeezed by the new capitalist class and a powerful labour movement that had developed equally rapidly. Germany’s race to catch up entailed faster economic concentration than its rivals. The effect on artisans, shopkeepers and small farmers was disastrous. Moreover, the harsh reparations imposed on Germany in 1919 hit this class hard.

The Nazis captured the hearts and minds of peasants and small businessmen through extolling their pre-capitalist ideology. They elevated the peasantry into the wealth-creators. The urban petty-bourgeoisie was offered an artisan economy which would exclude industrial competition. Banks and cartels would be curtailed to protect the middle classes, while German firms would be protected from Jewish competitors.

But to fully grasp Nazism and the Holocaust, we need to also understand the psychological dimension of the crisis. The petty bourgeois experience in the unfolding of German capitalism resulted in their developing a social character within the family which Marxist psychoanalysts described as an authoritarian personality. This combined sadistic and masochistic drives. Sadism was the desire for power and the urge to destroy. Masochism was the need to dissolve oneself in a strong power. The Nazi leaders sought power over the masses, while the latter were exhorted to see themselves as having power over other nations and the Jews.

The main writers who developed this approach, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich, synthesised the Marxist analysis of Nazism as a petty bourgeois movement and the psychoanalysis of the Nazi social character. The Nazis depicted Jews simultaneously as sub-human and as the all-powerful force behind both international finance and Bolshevism. This approach helps to clarify the timing of the decision to implement the Holocaust: German defeat on the Russian front for which the Jews were held responsible.