The Demagogic Personality | American Interest

What is the nature of the hold that demagogues and destructive charismatic personalities have on the masses? The question is of perennial interest and has been examined by historians, political scientists, social psychologists, and students of cults. No one answer can ever explain any complex social phenomenon, but in thinking about this question today it is perhaps fruitful to look at demagogic leaders from the past and take note of some of their distinguishing qualities.

One of the most extraordinary attempts in this realm was performed by Walter C. Langer during World War II. Langer was a Harvard professor and practitioner of psychoanalysis who in 1943 was commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence body and CIA predecessor organization, to create a psychological portrait of Adolf Hitler. Reporting directly to General William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS chief, Langer set up what was called a Psychoanalytic Field Unit and hired three psychoanalytically trained research assistants to staff it. They were assigned to pore through the New York Public Library for relevant German language sources, while Langer himself, as he was later to recount, “scoured the United States and Canada in search of persons who had had more than a passing contact with Hitler at some period of his life.” Some of those he came to interview were Germans interned in American detention camps because of earlier Nazi affiliation.

All told, Langer and his assistants accumulated more than 1,100 single-spaced typewritten pages of quotations and condensations from their sources. It was from this material that Langer constructed his psychoanalytic profile, which was classified for national security reasons until 1972. Completed as a crash program in eight months, it remains an important document, even if some of its findings have been superseded by subsequent historical research. I have presented excerpts below, with editorial interpolations where needed to maintain the textual flow. Quite a number of Hitler’s features bear notice today.

To begin with, there was his megalomania: “Hitler believes himself to be the greatest of all German architects. . . . In spite of the fact that he failed to pass the examination to the Art School he believes himself to be the only competent judge in this field. A few years ago he appointed a committee of three to act as final judges on all matters of art, but their verdicts did not please him. He dismissed them and assumed their duties himself. It makes little difference whether the field be economics, education, foreign affairs, propaganda, movies, music or women’s dress. In each and every field he believes himself to be an unquestioned authority.”

According to one of Langer’s sources, Hitler’s “faith in his own genius, in his instinct, or, as one might say, in his star, is boundless. Those who surround him are the first to admit that he now thinks of himself as infallible and invincible. That explains why he can no longer bear either criticism or contradiction. To contradict him is in his eyes a crime of ‘les majeste’; opposition to his plans, from whatever side it may come, is a definite sacrilege, to which the only reply is an immediate and striking display of his omnipotence.” Speaking to one of his associates, Hitler reportedly said: “Do you realize you are in the presence of the greatest German of all time.”

“Hitler’s outstanding defense mechanism,” according to Langer, “is one commonly called projection. It is a technique by which the ego of an individual defends itself against unpleasant impulses, tendencies, or characteristics by denying their existence in himself while he attributes them to others. Innumerable examples of this mechanism could be cited in Hitler’s case, but a few will suffice for purposes of illustration:

  • In the last six years I had to stand intolerable things from states like Poland.
  • It must be possible that the German nation can live its life . . . without being constantly molested.
  • For this peace proposal of mine I was abused and personally insulted. Mr. Chamberlain in fact spat upon me before the eyes of the world. . . .
  • It was in keeping with our own harmlessness that England took the liberty of some day meeting our peaceful activity with the brutality of the violent egoist.
  • The outstanding features of Polish character were cruelty and lack of moral restraint.

As an orator, as is well known, Hitler had some striking qualities. “He was a tireless speaker and before he came to power would sometimes give as many as three or four speeches on the same day, often in different cities.” What was it that made him in the eyes of many, including his opponents, “the greatest orator Germany has ever known”? It was not his voice, the qualities of which, Langer observed, “are far from pleasant—many, in fact, find it distinctly unpleasant. It has a rasping quality which often breaks into a shrill falsetto.” Nor was it Hitler’s diction, which especially in his early days “was particularly bad.” Nor, Langer continues, “was it the structure of his speeches,” which on the whole “were sinfully long, badly structured, and very repetitious. Some of them are positively painful to read but nevertheless, when he delivered them they had an extraordinary effect on his audiences.”

“Even in the early days,” observes the Langer study, “Hitler was a showman with a great sense for the dramatic. Not only did he schedule his speeches late in the evening when his audience would be tired and their resistance lowered through natural causes, but he would always send an assistant ahead of time to make a short speech and warm the audience up. . . . At the psychological moment, Hitler would appear in the door at the back of the hall,” and then would stride toward the podium with his entourage trailing behind him.

“His meetings were always crowded, and by the time he got through speaking he had completely numbed the critical faculties of his listeners to the point where they were willing to believe almost anything he said. He flattered them and cajoled them. He hurled accusations at them one moment and amused them the next by building up straw men which he promptly knocked down. . . . [S]omehow he always managed to say what the majority of the audience were already secretly thinking but could not verbalize. When the audience began to respond, it affected him in return. Before long due to this reciprocal relationship, he and his audience became intoxicated with the emotional appeal of his oratory.”

Hitler possessed a “keen appreciation of the value of slogans, catchwords, dramatic phrases, and happy epigrams in penetrating the deeper level of the psyche.”

It was one of his primary rules to “never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”

According to one of his contemporaries cited by Langer, Hitler “has a passion for the latest news and for photographs of himself. If . . . the official Party photographer happens to appear or someone happens to enter his office with a newspaper he will interrupt the most important meeting in order to scan through it. Very frequently he becomes so absorbed in the news or in his own photographs that he completely forgets the topic under discussion.”

Langer records that “a very fundamental trait in Hitler’s character structure [is that he]  does not think things out in a logical and consistent fashion, gathering all available informtion pertinent to the problem, mapping out alternative courses of action, and then weighing the evidence pro and con for each of them before reaching a decision. His mental processes operate in reverse. Instead of studying the problem as an intellectual would do he avoids it and occupies himself with other things until unconscious processes furnish him with a solution. Having the solution he then begins to look for facts which prove that it is correct. In this procedure he is very clever and by the time he presents it to his associates, it has the appearance of a rational judgment. Nevertheless, his thought processes proceed from the emotional to the factual instead of starting with the facts as an intellectual normally does. It is this characteristic of his thinking process which makes it difficult for ordinary people to understand Hitler or to predict his future actions.” In this connection, it is notable that Hitler scoffed at formal education: “Of secondary importance is the training of mental abilities,” and “over-educated people [are] stuffed with knowledge and intellect, but bare of any sound instincts.”

Though Hitler presented himself as having a ferocious work ethic consisting of 16 to 18 hours a day of continuous toil, the reality was something else: According to one of his associates, “He does not know how to work steadily. Indeed, he is incapable of working.” Continues Langer, “[h]e dislikes desk work and seldom glances at the piles of reports which are placed on his desk daily. No matter how important these may be or how much his adjutants might urge him to attend to a particular matter, he refuses to take them seriously unless they deal with military or naval affairs or political matters. He seldom sits in a cabinet meeting because they bore him. On several occasions when sufficient pressure was brought to bear he did attend but got up abruptly during the session and left without apology. Later it was discovered that he had gone to his private theater and had the operator show some film that he liked particularly.”

Hitler was prone to fits of anger. He “shows an utter lack of emotional control. In the worst rages he undoubtedly acts like a spoiled child who cannot have his own way and bangs his fist on the tables and walls. He scolds and shouts and stammers and on some occasions foaming saliva gathers in the corners of his mouth.” As one close contemporary described Hitler in such a state: “He was an alarming sight, his hair disheveled, his eyes fixed, and his face distorted and purple. I feared that he would collapse or have a stroke.” Langer continues, “It must not be supposed, however, that these rages occur only when he is crossed on major issues. On the contrary, very insignificant matters might call out this reaction. In general they are brought on whenever anyone contradicts him, when there is unpleasant news for which he might feel responsible, when there is any skepticism concerning his judgment or when a situation arises in which his infallibility might be challenged or belittled.” According to one close observer, among his staff there was an understanding: “‘For God’s sake don’t excite the Fuehrer’—which means do not tell him bad news—do not mention things which are not as he conceives them to be.”

Hitler “has the ‘never-say-die’ spirit. After some of his severest setbacks he has been able to get his immediate associates together and begin making plans for a ‘come-back.’ Events which would crush most individuals, at least temporarily, seem to act as stimulants to greater efforts in Hitler.”

Among Hitler’s peculiarities, one “which drives people and particularly his associates to distraction is his capacity for forgetting. . . . We all know how he can say something one day and a few days later say the opposite, completely oblivious of his earlier statement. He does not only do this in connection with international affairs but also with his closest associates. When they show their dismay and call his attention to the inconsistency he flies off into a rage and demands to know if the other person thinks he is a liar.”

Another of Hitler’s pronounced characteristics is humorlessness. “Although Hitler almost invariably introduces a few humorous elements into his speeches and gives the impression of considerable wit, he seems to lack any real sense of humor.” According to one contemporary cited by Langer, “He is unable to purify his gloomy self with self-irony and humor.” According to another contemporary, “he is extremely sensitive to ridicule.” And according to yet another contemporary, “He takes himself seriously and will flare up in a temperamental rage at the least impingement by act or attitude on the dignity and holiness of state and Fuehrer.”

Langer records that “Hitler likes to be surrounded with pretty women and usually requests the moving-picture companies to send over a number of actresses whenever there is a party in the Chancellery. He seems to get an extraordinary delight in fascinating these girls with stories about what he is going to do in the future or the same old stories about his past life. He also likes to impress them with his power by ordering the studios to provide them with better roles, or promising that he will see to it that they are starred in some forthcoming picture. Most of his associations with women are of this type, and their number is legion, but does not go beyond this point as far as we have been able to discover.”

In sum, though Hitler is a uniquely evil figure, not every aspect of Hitler’s personality is unique. Indeed, some aspects appear quite familiar. To be sure, with only a handful of quotations selected from a 186-page study, I have by no means conveyed in full the substance of Langer’s portrait. For reasons that readers can themselves deduce, I have omitted passages describing such qualities as his courage as a soldier on the battlefield (disputed by some contemporary historians despite Hitler’s two Iron Crosses), his conspicuous and intended-to-be-conspicuous displays of affection for children and animals, especially dogs, his unwavering and successful effort to keep his personal and sexual life hidden from the public, and most crucially, of course, his adherence to a set of unvarying convictions that amounted to an entire ideological system.

1The original document is available in the CIA electronic reading room here. After the study was declassified, it was published as a book under the title, The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Study, which includes a preface in which Langer tells the story of the report’s creation.

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