In an essay that she wrote in 1937 but never published called “My Country ’Tis of Thee—The Cult of Leadership,” Katharine Briggs, co-creator of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, took a faithfully Jungian approach to typing Adolf Hitler’s personality. On a three-by-five-inch index card, she labeled him an extrovert (E) and an “excessive and unmitigated thinker” (T), blaming his personality for interwar Germany’s abnormal “psychology of political regimentation.” Hitler was a “political go-getter,” she claimed, who had come to power in the 1930s by persuading intellectuals, scientists, and bureaucrats to abandon all feeling judgments and, by extension, their moral obligations to others. “The passion for planning everything and running everything according to plan was very characteristic of the old Germany where everything was efficient, organized, and the planning worked fairly well so long as it was moderated by a collective morality based upon the Christian tradition,” she wrote. But when modernity had crowded out Christianity, Germany had shown the world what happened when “all the thinking is done to order by a few people, while the vast majority, made completely gang-minded and irresponsible by the loss of their traditional morality, become body cells to the brain-cells of ego inflated political go-getters.”
Compare her writing on Hitler to the notes of Henry Murray, director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic and the man responsible for transforming personality from a mystical quality into an object of rigorous study:
Feminine comportment—wide hips, narrow shoulders.
Flabby muscles, thin spindly legs hidden by boots.
Hollow chested—voice breaking into womanly shriek.
Ladylike walk, dainty little steps—studied and bouncing.
Awkward effeminate movements, flap of his hands, limbs ungracefully articulated.
Hitler was a man too weak to work in the fields or enlist in the military or even learn how to ride a horse properly, yet a man who, by 1939, had emerged as the most dangerous personality in the world. Murray spent many sleepless nights wondering how Hitler had managed to do it. Physically, he resembled nothing more than a high-strung bird, what with his hunched back, his skittish footing, and his dead, dusky eyes. Emotionally, he was totally unhinged, Murray believed. When things did not go his way, he threw temper tantrums, slammed doors, and locked himself in his bedroom at the Berghof, his home in the Bavarian Alps, where he would sulk until he felt well enough to plan his revenge against the person or people who had wronged him. He was more child than man; he was barely a man at all according to Murray’s assessment of his “awkward effeminate movements” and his “dainty little steps.”
Yet despite his apparent shortcomings, Hitler had transcended mankind. He had become a kind of demigod to the people of Germany, who had eagerly followed him into World War II and later stood by while he ordered the systematic extermination of six million European Jews. Now it was personology’s greatest challenge to tell the story of how a man endowed with such unremarkable physical and psychological attributes loomed as the most threatening political force in recent human history.
Hitler was a man too weak to work in the fields or enlist in the military or even learn how to ride a horse properly, yet by 1939 he had emerged as the most dangerous personality in the world.
To answer this question became nothing short of a patriotic duty for Murray. By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he wanted badly to go to war. At forty-eight, he had cut back on cigarettes and alcohol and had started rowing every morning on the Charles River, where he would watch the sun prick the clouds red and imagine taking his place on the battlefields of France. “I am planning to get my hands dirty with a clear conscience & a good vengeance,” he wrote to Lewis Mumford in 1942. But much to his disappointment, Murray’s hands stayed clean. Neither the naval reserve nor the War Office Selection Board was interested in his services, and the Harvard Psychological Clinic was so “inoculated with pacifism,” he complained to Mumford, that there was little chance of convincing the other staff psychologists to join the war effort. Imagine his delight, then, when he was approached by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, to assemble a type profile of Hitler for the Allied Command. He would title it “Analysis of The Personality of Adolph [sic] Hitler, with Predictions of His Future Behavior and Suggestions for Dealing with Him Now and After Germany’s Surrender.” In what one might consider a small act of defiance, Murray never did learn how to spell Hitler’s first name correctly.
The Janus-Faced Egocrat
Typing Hitler was an unusual project for many reasons, not the least of which was that Murray would have to assess his personality from afar. Questionnaires and TAT assessments were nonstarters. Even getting close to him was out of the question, impossible even for the OSS’s network of covert operatives in Germany and Eastern Europe. Just as Briggs combed through the biographies of plantation owners like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, trying to understand the antidemocratic vicissitudes of men, Murray would analyze Hitler by reading Konrad Heiden’s Hitler: A Biography (1936), Hermann Rauschning’s The Voice of Destruction (1940), and H. G. Baynes’s Germany Possessed (1941), as well as Hitler’s My New Order (1941), a collection of his most rousing political speeches. Like a diligent literary critic, he would conduct a careful study of the three-thousand-odd metaphors in Mein Kampf. He would immerse himself in classified OSS reports, which featured interviews with women who claimed to have had sexual relations with Hitler.
At the time, “Analysis of The Personality of Adolph Hitler” was scandalizing for what it exposed about Hitler’s various and contradictory sexual perversities. There was his suspected “syphilophobia”—fear of contaminated blood—which began at the age of twelve, Murray guessed, when Hitler was caught engaging in “some sexual experiment with a little girl.” There was his passive homosexuality, his lust for his Nazi officers. There was his habit, as described by the women the OSS had interviewed, of asking his sexual partners to squat over him and, on his command, let loose a strong stream of urine into his mouth and over his chest. At a very young age, Murray speculated, Hitler had walked in on his father having sex with his mother. Over the next thirty years, the shock and betrayal and indignity of that repressed primal scene had seeped into his political unconscious. Germany had come to represent his mother, his motherland, and Europe the father who, after World War I, had forced her to submit to his basest desires, stripping her of her autonomy, her dignity, and her self-possession. Adolf Hitler, a little boy traumatized by a sexual encounter he could not understand, would thus emerge from his adolescence as the wronged son of Germany, eager to exact his revenge on the European patriarch.
It was a wildly, perhaps irresponsibly speculative exercise, but for Murray, Hitler’s psychological profile was essential to the war effort. His meteoric rise to power could not be explained in purely physical or material terms. He was neither strong nor rich nor powerful from the beginning, and so his ascendance had to involve some degree of studied self-creation, some mirage of charismatic projection that had enchanted the German people—the darkest version of Fitzgerald’s “unbroken series of successful gestures.” There was Hitler the man (“Insignificant, prototype of the little man,” read Murray’s notes), and there was Hitler the ruler, a man not equal to himself in the public eye. “People look at him & see someone else, the figure of one who might have said and done what Hitler has said and done,” Murray scribbled as he pored over the OSS reports. On another three-by-five index card, he composed a list of the different Hitlers the Germans had known:
The gracious Hitler, soft, good-natured Austrian, excessively gentle & modest.
The possessed Hitler, speech, fury, fanatical.
The lethargic Hitler, exhausted, limp.
The sentimental Hitler, tearful, weeping over his dead canary.
The embarrassed Hitler, ill at ease in the presence of a stranger.
The soap-box Hitler, haranguing.
The expressionless Hitler, faceless.
How, Murray wondered, could one reconcile these disparate personae? Faceless, yet many faced, Hitler could simultaneously embrace and stand for the whole social body. He was the type of leader that Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would later call the “Egocrat”: a leader who seemed to merge with the party, the people, and the proletariat while nevertheless managing to remain distinct from them—an icon of sorts. Hitler’s iconicity, Murray believed, was how he had managed, at first, to conquer so much with so little bloodshed, armed only with the promises of national glory and racial propaganda. His dark, kaleidoscopic personality had absorbed everyone, and they had, in turn, given themselves over to his vision in a moment of total identification, binding their fates and the fate of Germany to his soft, womanly body.
He created the public image of himself, the people’s Adolf Hitler, through the power of oratory. He was a master of mass-intoxicating words and crude metaphors. Destiny had cast him in the role of a “ship’s captain.” Germany, once purged of its Jewish population and its political dissidents, would emerge as a “paradise” on earth. “Hitler speaking before a large audience is a man possessed, comparable to a primitive medicine man, or shaman,” Murray wrote in his report. “He is the incarnation of the crowd’s unspoken needs and cravings; and in this sense he has been created, and to a large extent invented, by the people of Germany.” Hitler’s power was real—exceedingly, frighteningly real—but Hitler the man was a collective fiction, a node of mass transference, a public hallucination of no more substance to Murray than the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, the villain of his favorite novel, Moby-Dick. The two characters shared an “intangible malignity,” Murray quoted from Melville, “a wild vindictiveness” that had rotted their souls before turning outward. If Ahab had directed his malice to the whale, making its white hump the sign and symbol of everything that was evil in the world, then Hitler had done the same with the Jews, the intelligentsia, the political left, the political right, the British, the French, and liberal democracy writ large. In his subconscious, Murray claimed, Hitler believed that the only way to excise his psychological demons was to give them human form. Only then could they be vanquished—annihilated from the face of the earth.
Cult of Brutality
“That the Jews have been a convenient symbol for the ‘Devil’ in Hitler and his ilk there can be no doubt,” wrote Briggs in a dream study of Hitler, in which she accused him of having “no gift for metaphor.” For both Briggs and Murray, Hitler’s personality offered a striking rhetorical leap from considerations of the individual self to the imposition of that self as the visionary of a new world order. “The proper interpretation of Hitler’s personality is as important a step in understanding the psychology of the typical Nazi, and—since the typical Nazi exhibits a strain that has, for a long time, been prevalent among Germans—as a step in understanding the psychology of the German people,” Murray explained. Like Germany, Hitler had an urge to dominate that was excessively compensatory. He wanted to be strong because he knew he was weak, “annoyingly subservient,” Murray noted. He had the strongest contempt for the Jews but his appearance was said to be “very Jewish,” especially when he had worn a fashionably long beard during his youthful days in Vienna. An advocate of mandatory fertility programs, he believed the family was the breeding ground for Aryan warriors. Yet he remained unmarried, was rumored to be either impotent or gay, and was “incapable of consummating the sexual act in a normal fashion,” read the OSS reports. Hatred ran thick in his veins, emboldening his cult of brutality. But after acts of unusual cruelty, like the purges of 1934, he experienced a “feminine spell” of weeping and hysteria that Murray saw replicated in the German people’s responses to the government’s increasing persecution of the Jews. One man, it seemed, could wield his personality to make the world over in his image.
Hitler had an urge to dominate that was excessively compensatory. He wanted to be strong because he knew he was weak and “annoyingly subservient,” Murray noted.
For both Briggs and Murray, then, the personality of Adolf Hitler had come to stand in for more properly political concerns about fascism: the centralization of authority, the rising tides of nationalism and ethnocentrism, the programs of mass deportation and genocide. In the cold light of historical retrospect, the easy slippage from the personal to the political might seem surprising. Or it might not. For even today, politics remains chained to discourses of personality in ways that are as crude as, if not cruder than Murray’s assessment of Hitler. Most people want to like their democratically elected leaders or want them to be likeable or, at the very least, presentable and polite—the kind of man you could invite over for a beer, the kind of woman who might read sweet stories to your children. The politicization of personality is not wrong in any moral sense. It is simply the inevitable result of a modern democratic process that invites the people to imagine their elected officials as extensions of themselves—their representatives in a very literal sense. The body that Germans saw on display at dozens of rallies and speeches—the flabby muscles, the hollow chest, the ladylike walk—stood in not only for the nation’s public preferences but for its people’s private lives: their feelings of impotence, their discriminatory states of mind, the stories they had invented to explain the injustice of their place in the world.
An excerpt from the book The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre. Copyright © 2018 by Merve Emre. To be published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.