It might be simply a truism that sociopaths are attracted to power. Governments are generally not led by nice people, though there have been some notable exceptions. Governments are also generally not nice institutions, though some are obviously better than others.
Two of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century were clearly very able in their own ways, but also seem to have been driven by deep feelings of inferiority. One of them was Adolph Hitler.
Between 35 and 40 years ago I first came upon a book entitled The Spear of Destiny, which depicted Hitler as a black magician who had allowed the spirit of the Anti-Christ to possess him. I had been reading about the Nazis and Communists for several years previous, trying to understand why they behaved the way they did. This theory seemed as plausible as any to me, and the narrative was compelling. I stopped short of total belief, however.
Several years later I came across another book about Hitler that fascinated me: Hitler: the Psychopathic God, which delved into Hitler’s background and attempted to psyco-analyze him. This also seeemed plausible to me, but I didn’t become a total true believer either. Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler looked at the great variety of theories about the man, and what he felt and believed. A number of these theories he exploded without much difficulty. The theory he himself opted for may or may not be correct, or it may be as close as we’re going to get to understanding.
The problem with Hitler as black magician is, what about Stalin and Mao, his contemporaries who both surpassed him as killers? Were they also inspired by the Anti-Christ? Or were their slaughters simply less noticed by western observers? Stalin ruled Russia, at least somewhat alien to western Europe. Mao ruled China, which was even more so, and both were able to control (at least to some extent) the news of their murders. Hitler did too, but Germany was and is part of western Europe, and part of our own cultural group, as the other two countries are not. Whether he was more evil or not, he made a greater impression here than did Stalin or Mao.
What were the reasons for Hitler’s feelings of inferiority, and how did he manifest them? One part of the theory of the Psychopathic God’s author, Robert G.L. Waite, was that Hitler had only one testicle (I remember a little song to that effect, as a child. so a number of people must have believed it in those years not so long after the war), and this was a main basis for feelings of inferiority. That theory may or may not have some truth to it, but there seems to be no question that Hitler did suffer from feelings of inferiority.
Rosenbaum recounts a journey taken to the area where Hitler’s ancestors came from, and tells how Hitler had moved the inhabitants out to make the small town part of an artillery range. Rosenbaum comments that there must have been things there that he didn’t want anyone finding out.
One of them could have been just who his father’s father was. Hitler’s grandmother had never been married, had given birth around the age of 40, and had never been willing to tell the name of the child’s father. One legend had it that she had worked for a wealthy Jewish family as a servant, and had been impregnated by her employer’s son. Research has seemed to say that this legend has no factual basis.
But Hitler’s father Alois, spent the first about 40 years of his life as Schickelgruber, then suddenly changed his last name to Hitler. If anyone knows why, I haven’t heard of it. Some have suggested that had Adolph Hitler retained the name of Schickelgruber, he would never have been as successful: Heil Schickelgruber doesn’t really have the same ring to it.
But Hitler does seem to have feared that his blood was polluted by some less than German strain. It might have been Jewish, as the aforementioned legend suggests; in that case, maybe his anti-Semitism was at least partly a way to prove he WASN’T Jewish–I’m persecuting Jews, so I can’t possibly be one.
Rosenbaum cites a journalist who became an anti-Nazi very early, and seemed able to get into Hitler’s head, to understand what he was thinking. An example was a piece the journalist wrote in which he said that Hitler didn’t look Aryan, he looked more Mongolian, and indeed Hitler seems (at least from outward appearance) to have been an unlikely advocate of the Aryan race. According to Rosenbaum, at the time this journalist’s piece was published, Hitler seems to have been thinking quite a bit about the Mongols at the time of Genghis Khan, fantasizing about the many people they killed during the military campaigns that conquered substantial parts of Asia, and brought them to the threshold of Europe before they turned back. They inspired Hitler to thoughts of genocide, it seems, which he may have begun thinking about as early as the end of the First World War.
Rosenbaum and others note that Hitler was a role-player, and one author suggests that he felt unable to live up to the roles he aspired to. One has him telling his mistress Eva Braun, that she shouldn’t expect anything of him (or words to that effect), presumably in the sense of sexual relations. Having a great many secrets that he felt unable to expose may indeed have hampered his sexual life.
And there seems to be little doubt that he had a strong Oedipus Complex, very strongly loving his mother (though ambivalently), while hating his father, who seems not to have been a very nice person, particularly in sexual matters. In the Psychopathic God, Waite says that Hitler spoke of Germany as his Motherland, contrary to common usage. Most Germans refer to Germany as der Vaterland, and Hitler also spoke of having conquered his Motherland, which is quite suggestive. This paints a picture of an unusual personality, and one that Hitler may have felt compelled to keep hidden.
Josef Stalin was like Hitler in some ways, but unlike him in others. He and Hitler respected each other a good deal, and Hitler probably modeled his own regime at least partly on what the Communists had previously done in Russia. But there were differences too. Hitler’s father worked for the Customs authority in Austria, and had risen from poverty to modest prosperity by his own efforts. Stalin’s family was poor, and his father was a drunk. He left Stalin’s life relatively early, and though he beath the boy, so did Stalin’s mother. This seems to have had an unfortunate effect on Stalin, though it’s hard to say how much of one.
Stalin’s family situation seems not to have been good, but how much it shaped him is questionable. One thing that probably did have a major effect on him was his time in a seminary, training to be a priest. The seminary seems to have represented everything he most hated, and he went directly from there into life as a professional revolutionary. One of Stalin’s biographers says that his first public notice came from having a poem published in a magazine in the Caucasus region where he grew up. He calls Stalin both a poet and a gangster, and depicts him having created a reign of terror in the Caucasus through bank robberies and kidnappings, all to finance the Bolshevik Party, which had been named and taken over by Vladimir Lenin at the beginning of the 20th century. Stalin was obviously able too, rising from nothing to become the dictator of the gigantic Russian empire, but he too had inferiority feelings.
Some of these may have come from his family background, but some seem to have come from comparisons between him and other figures of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian revolution. Others, like Trotsky, Linoviev and Kamenev (to name only a few) were more obviously brilliant than Stalin, were better writers and speakers, but ultimately were not as able. He outmaneuvered and killed most of them, destroying the Old Bolsheviks (as members of the party were known whose participation predated the Revolution). Stalin had not been well-liked among that group, so he slowly began getting rid of them and building his own constituency among younger men who had mostly entered the Party after the Revolution.
Both men lost women they were intimate with, whose loss probably affected both strongly, though it’s difficult to say exactly how with any precision. Hitler lost Geli Rabaul, his neice and lover, and it seems very likely that he killed her himself, though probably not on purpose. He had wanted to control her whole life, which she had begun increasingly rebelling against. At the time of her death it was rumored that she had a lover whom she wanted to marry, who was Jewish. Obviously, this would not have made Hitler happy.
Stalin lost his wife, with whom he had been married since about the time of the Revolution. One biographer characterizes their marriage as being fairly happy, but that Nadezhda Alliluyeva was somewhat mentally unstable. It’s been suggested that Stalin killed his wife, but this seems to be less likely than in the case of Hitler. On the other hand, it seems that she also felt that he was trying to control her too much, and resented it. This too may have influenced Stalin, as Geli Rabaul’s death may have influenced Hitler, but it’s hard to say just how. Both men had committed atrocities before these deaths (both of which occurred in the early 1930.s). The Nazi party had, according to Rosenbaum, early on decided to enhance their political chances through murder. Stalin had been a dominant force in Russia since the early to mid 1920s, and had recently ordered the forced collectivization of Russian farmers, which had caused devastation. Both he and Hitler would go on to do even worse things, but they had both already committed acts which we consider criminal.
How did their feelings of inferiority affect them? Obviously both were able men. One of the perplexing symptoms in Stalin was his desire to rewrite history to show that he had played a more important role in the Bolshevik party before World War I and the revolution than he had. One might think his accomplishments thereafter might have been enough for him, as they were not inconsiderable. With Hitler, the feelings of inferiority seem more basic, as they seem to have involved his sexuality and feelings of masculinity. A man who considers brutality a positive feature of masculinity has a somewhat odd viewpoint. Stalin was certainly brutal, and apparently towards women to some extent, as well as men, but Hitler seems to have been actually perverted. Waite suggests that his Oedipal feelings were so strong that he feared the usual forms of sexual experience. There’s no doubt that both men were sadistic, but some question as to whether their paths to that state were similar. Both were obviously resentful, and may have felt that feelings of inferiority were imposed on them by the bad opinion of others. That seems plausible, but is still just speculation.
Would we not find feelings of inferiority among most national leaders, even those most respected and beloved? That seems possible, but difficult to answer definitively. Abraham Lincoln may possibly have been the greatest president in the history of the United States, though some must have considered him a monster then, and some probably still do today. Certainly his acts caused much death and destruction, and the war he presided over remains the most traumatic of our history. But Lincoln seems to have agonized over his decisions, and not made them out of bloodlust or joy of destruction, as Hitler and Stalin did. Was he more or less able than them? Like them, he didn’t come from a greatly respected family, but made his own way, and rose to great power. He seems not to have been terribly happy with power–at least not in the way that Hitler and Stalin seem to have been. Could he have done better than he did? The question doesn’t seem to be very answerable, since he seems to have tried to do his best, while both Hitler and Stalin preferred to do their worst.
I can’t find a clear-cut answer to these questions, though asking them seems interesting. Many ingredients go into human behavior, and it’s difficult to say just how much Hitler and Stalin consciously chose evil, though it seems pretty certain that they did. Maybe some aspect of their family lives, historical forces, and maybe even the influence of the stars presented them with the abilities that they felt could be more easily turned towards evil than good. Maybe it’s something of an accident that Lincoln seems to have been generally a virtuous man. In the end, we have some idea what these men did, but just why they did what they did, interesting as the question is, remains elusive.