THE VALUE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS  IN WRITING BIOGRAPHY

Robert G.L. Waite’s 1977 psycho-biography, The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler draws upon the originater of this area of psycho-biographical writing, Erik Erikson, to refute those who criticise using the techniques of psychoanalysis in understanding historical figures (p.xiv). He quoted Erik Erikson’s first psychobiography, Young Man Luther from 1958:
Biographers categorically opposed to systematic psychological interpretation permit themselves the most extensive psychologizing – which they can afford to believe is common sense only because they disclaim a defined psychological viewpoint. Yet there is an implicit psychology behind the explicit anti-psychology.
Erikson, like many adherents of psychoanalysis, believed that ‘every basic conflict of childhood lives on, in some form, in the adult’. Waite took this as a theme to one of his chapters and adapted John Dunne’s famous dictim, ‘the child as father to the man’.
 

GROWTH OF PSYCHOANALYSIS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

1900
At the beginning of the century the belief in the organisation of society into the nation-state and nationalism as a dominant force in the lives of people was strong.

World War I
The mass carnage of World War I and the large number of people who were mentally ill because of shell shock and other psychological problems cast doubts on nationalism and the idea that society was the creation of the rational exercise of human will.

Post-World War 1
Psychology seemed to explain why people acted irrationally. The unconscious, as ‘discovered’ by Sigmund Freud, was seen as the source of human actions.

The focus on hidden forces in the human mind to explain irrational acts gave prominence to the study of the unconscious.

Other forms of psychology which studied consciousness or the conscious subject did not receive such publicity.
 
 

FREUDIAN PSYCHOLOGY AND PSYCHO-BIOGRAPHY

Most psycho-biographers apply Freudian ideas of psychology to their subject. They tend to over utilize the notion of the 'unconscious' which was 'discovered' by Freud.

The Validity of Psychoanalysis
Forms of psychology that deal with conscious thought tend to be ignored by biographers who use psychology. These include recent Behaviourist and Cognitive psychology. Psychoanalysis' emphasis on the unconscious, of which there is no proof that it exists, has led to commentators, such as Peter Medawar, describing it as “the most stupendous confidence trick of the twentieth century”(Leahey 1994, p.96).

Reference:
For a history of psychology see Thomas Hardy Leahey’s A History of Modern Psychology preferably the 1994 edition, which includes a whole chapter (3) on Freud. However the 1991 edition also outlines the various forms of psychology.

Freud and the Unconscious:
Freud himself was the first to produce psycho-biographies of historical figures. He started off exploring genius with his 1910 work, Leonardo da Vinci and A Memory of his Childhood.

The use of experiences in the childhood of a subject that supposedly found their way into the unconscious and acted on the individual later in life can be found in this work and all subsequent examples of psycho-biography.
 

FREUDIAN PSYCHOLOGY

Freud, living during the period of Victorian morality, believed that most mental illnesses could be traced back to repressed sexuality.

Freud looked for a biological cause for the neuroses that he saw in his clinic. He thought that all the basic biological instincts of life. Hunger, thirst, and self-preservation could not be rechannelled into other mental processes because they require immediate satisfaction in order for the organism to survive. Freud divided the instincts into those for self-preservation, and the sexual instinct – id.

However, sexuality, unlike other instincts, could be postponed or abandoned. Sexuality was thus the biological motive that could be displaced from direct satisfaction into more social acceptable and creative activity or into neurosis. His 'discovery' of childhood sexuality further encouraged him to believe that sexuality was the root cause of adult neuroses.

The unconscious was where all the repressed feelings dwelt, unbeknown to the conscious person.

Some of his concepts included:

1)Penis envy among girls

2)The fear of castration complex among boys

3)The Oedipus complex

There are some very good websites on Freud that  explain his ideas in greater detail and illustrate his life and work:
There is the Freud Museum at http://www.freud.org.uk/
The Freud Archives is at http://users.rcn.com/brill/freudarc.html

CRITICISM OF THE USE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS IN THE WRITING OF BIOGRAPHY

Lomask lists several frequent  criticisms of the use psychoanalysis in the writing of biography. You will notice that all are directed at the form of psychology that studies the unconscious.

1) Faulty or Inadequate Evidence
The subject of a psycho-biography is not a patient of the psychotherapist who is able to probe his or her subject with questioning.

2) Missing Evidence
Psycho-biographers will often fill in gaps in the childhood of their subject by assuming that their subject must have experienced a particular significant event in their childhood. This will be assumed from an event in their adult life.

3) Unfairness
Psycho-biography because it relies upon psychoanalysis which is drawn from the study of neurotic and psychotic behaviour can turn ordinary people into neurotics and psychotics because it overemphasizes events and behaviour in the life of the subject that can be construed as neurotic or psychotic. In actual fact these events may be of little significance in the life of an individual.

4)Research
Psycho-biographers, although not all, sometimes exclude the social conditions and circumstances of their subject and focus on inner personality too much, as if the historical period in which the individual lived did not affect them.

5)Prejudices
If the psycho-biographer does not like his or her subject it is very easy to attribute innocuous events in the life of the subject to pathological behaviour. A very narrow definition of what is normal behaviour can sometimes be definition. Most people, even the psycho-biographer, would be psychology ill if that definition was applied to them.

6) Technical Terms
The language of psychoanalysis contains many technical terms that are not appropriate to writing about historical figures. They generally have to be simplified in writing biography. In that process of simplification distortions and misunderstandings occur.

7) Simplism
For all its claims about achieving a more sophisicated understanding of the human mind psychoanalysis in biography can sometimes do the opposite. Complex thoughts in adult life are reduced to manifestations of childhood behaviour.
 

THE USE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS IN BIOGRAPHY: THE CASE OF HITLER

Robert Waite’s The Psychopathic God (1977) and Fritz Redlich’s Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (1998) represent contrasting results from using psychoanalysis.

Hitler as Psychologically ill
Waite’s book makes Hitler out to be driven by psychological disorders going back to his childhood. Hitler’s horrific actions were the result of mental illness. You can read a summary of Waite's book, The Psychopathic God, with a detailed selection of quotations from the text on a separate webpage.

As well, comments by one of Hitler's doctors, German surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, (released in archival records during 2001) suggest that Hitler was bordering on insanity and "genius".

Interestingly, Hitler's relatives have felt that his personality was strongly the result of genetic factors. There have been reports that the descendants of Hitler's nephew, who went to live in America before World War II,  intend not to have children believing that Hitler's personality could be attributed to genetic make-up. This is, of course, odd, but indicates that explaining Hitler and the motives behind his actions have been very difficult. Despite the vast number of books and studies of him, he remains an enigma.

Hitler as an Evil but Rational Decision Maker.
Redlich, who is actually a trained psychiatrist, concludes that Hitler, although having a variety of disorders that could have resulted in psychologically odd behaviour, did make rational designs and was fully aware of, and responsible for, the evil that that he committed.

While Waite sees Hitler as sexually depraved because of having only one testicle, Redlich discounts this as unsubstantiated. Redlich merely concludes that Hitler had hypospadia, a leaky urinary tract, which may have made him sexually inhibited, would not have had any psychological consequences.

In the BBC documentary, Hitler (1992) we can see elements of psychoanalysis of Hitler. However, the series essentially follows the more conventional line of assessing hims as a rational but evil political leader. Some quotes from the documentary include:

Ernest ('Putzi') Hanfstaengl, a childhood friend, says “Hitler loved only his mother”

Richard Weber, one of Hitler’s doctors, says that although Hitler suffered from psychosomatic illness there was nothing extraordinary about his behaviour.

The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Explaining Hitler's Actions
If we accept that Hitler was an evil but rational decision maker, then we are still left with historical problems such as how did the Holocaust occur? How could Hitler have manipulated the German people into exterminating millions of Jews?

The author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) apportions a large part of the blame to the German people, who, after hundreds of years of anti-Semitism, were not opposed to the persecution of the Jews and acted as "willing executioners". Thus the blame for these events is shifted somewhat off Hitler's shoulders alone and onto the German people themselves. They are made to face their own responsibilities for the horrific acts they willing carried out for Hitler. By making Hitler out to be an crazed psychopath or a evil manipulator the guilt of the German people is somewhat marginalised. Goldhagen corrects this imbalance.

One of the most interesting studies into the way people react to authority indicates that perhaps we all could be potential executioners given our trust in authority.

Psychology does offer insights into the way people behave in mass society. The most well-known experiment to prove that many ordinary people can become potential killers in modern society if told to by an an authority figure and are removed from the actual inflicting of pain on the victims was the Milgram Obedience experiment in which ordinary citizens gave lethal electric shocks to "test subjects" because an authority figure had assured them that it was okay to do so.