Rudolf Hess and the comic absurdity of fascism

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts - review.

Rudolf Hess in 1937
Rudolf Hess in 1937. Photograph: Getty Images

The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts
Daniel Pick
Oxford University Press, 368pp, £18.99

Running through every fascist movement is a thread of comic absurdity, providing a counterpoint to the violence and hatred that predominate.

The love of silly signs and silly walks, Mussolini’s predilection for the fez, the preposterous idea of a “Hitler greeting” – to outsiders, they are tokens of a shaky grip on reality, a loss of the ability to distinguish between the good and the crass that bodes very badly. If there was one figure from the Third Reich who encapsulated this pantomime tendency, it was Rudolf Hess, the deputy Führer.

Hess’s treatment by British doctors after an extraordinary solo flight from Germany in 1941 forms the kernel of Daniel Pick’s study of attempts to apply psychoanalytic theory to the phenomenon of Nazism. Hess, who was not defecting but believed he could secure an alliance with Britain against the greater threat of Bolshevism, was captured in a Scottish field near the wreckage of his Messerschmitt.

It quickly became clear that here was no great supply of military intelligence but a man beset by delusions and hypochondria, one whose political significance had, in any case, been on the wane for some time. His falling into Allied hands did offer, at a time when to talk of the “madness” of Nazism had become a cliché, the chance to explore the psychological underpinnings of the movement. Perhaps Hess, rather final, self-destructive step and were next seen in the dock at Nuremburg.

Pick’s description of this reckoning is the most interesting part of the book after the sections on Hess. We see the argument for individual culpability pitted against the idea that the leadership was swept up in a culture that permitted gross cruelty and killing. At Nuremberg, that culture having been obliterated, high-ranking Nazis emerge, blinking as though from a terrible dream: Speer, Dönitz, Rosenberg and Keitel sweat, swallow hard and bury their heads in their hands in front of footage of the concentration camps. Hess believed that the officers in charge must have been hypnotised. Ideas about the importance of childhood experience, unconscious motivations and defences against them are now taken for granted to an extent that belies received opinions about Freud being old hat. At their worst, they emerge in cod psychologies of famous figures: tabloid speculation on the significance of Osama Bin Laden’s reported love for Whitney Houston, for example. Yet there’s little doubt about their usefulness in more skilled hands, whatever the outcome of Dicks’s and Langer’s efforts. Pick makes this case but in an anaemic way. The most he can bring himself to say is that “psychoanalysis was an important resource in the culture” and remains so.

This is a meticulous work of history and an impressive achievement. It would be unfair to expect it to get the blood pumping as a polemic might. But when the subject is so compelling and has so much contemporary relevance – madness v evil, dictatorship and mass-psychology, collective guilt and personal responsibility – it is hard not to feel disappointment that, for the layperson at least, The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind makes for a rather desiccated read.

David Shariatmadari is a comment editor at the Guardian.