Getting Inside Hitler’s Head

When America’s spymaster hired a psychiatrist to figure out the Führer, the result was disturbing—and, as history showed, accurate.

by Brian John Murphy

Americans laughed when they saw Adolf Hitler for the first time. For most of them, it happened in a movie theater, watching a March of Time newsreel before a feature film. They laughed out loud at his Charlie Chaplin mustache, his unruly forelock, and his frenzied speechmaking. As they saw and heard him more and more over the following years, however, they stopped laughing and started worrying.

“Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity,” Hitler crowed. “I am freeing man from the restraints of an intelligence that has taken charge, from the dirty and degrading self-mortification of a false vision called ‘conscience and morality,’ and from the demands of a freedom and independence which only a very few can bear…. The Ten Commandments have lost their validity. ’Conscience’ is a Jewish invention, a blemish like circumcision.”

Americans were soon viewing newsreels of Nazis persecuting Jews on the streets of Germany. They watched ominously massive armies on the march. When Hitler began to unleash the horrors of World War II, they were wracked with questions: How did a man like this gain control of a cultured nation such as Germany? After the slaughter of World War I, why did he want another, bigger war? What would a man like this do when cornered?

US Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan wanted answers to these and other questions. He had met Hitler in his travels in the 1930s, and came away from the encounter convinced a second world war was all but certain. By 1941, that war was well under way and US entry into it looked increasingly inevitable. So, President Franklin Roosevelt turned to Donovan, a Medal of Honor winner and commander of the Fighting 69th (the 69th New York Volunteer Regiment) in World War I, to head what would become America’s first national intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Donovan immediately set out to understand his enemy. He wanted to know what made him tick. He wanted to see what was going on inside Hitler’s head.

 Hitler’s Psychoanalyst

Psychoanalysis was what Donovan was after. “What kind of a person is he?” Donovan asked. “What are his ambitions? How does he appear to the German people? What is he like with his associates? What is his background? …In addition, we ought to know what he might do if things begin to go against him.” Donovan chose Dr. Walter C. Langer, a Harvard psychoanalyst, to do the job. A student of Anna Freud for eight years in Vienna, Austria, and a friend of her father, Sigmund, Langer was a strong choice to head the project. He had a solid reputation among the elite psychiatrists of his day.

Hitler was not about to lie on Langer’s couch. Forced to render an assessment of his subject in absentia, Langer relied on writings and speeches. He had to read between the lines to grasp the real meaning of Hitler’s words. He consulted witnesses and information from published materials. The data piled up. What Langer called his “Hitler source book” grew to about 11,000 pages. From this he created the equivalent of what would today be called a criminal profile. 

The Analysis

It would have been easy simply to pronounce Hitler insane, but that would not have offered the OSS any help in dealing with him Langer first determined that Hitler was most likely “a neurotic psychopath.” He proceeded with his study from there. “With this diagnosis as our starting point of orientation,” he wrote, “we were able to evaluate the data in terms of probability.”

Some of the witnesses Langer consulted had fled Germany in fear for their lives. They included men like Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengel, a close friend of Hitler in the 1920s, and Otto Strasser, whose brother Gregor was a high-ranking Nazi party official until he was murdered on Hitler’s orders in 1933. Witnesses like these had legitimate grudges against Hitler and may have fabricated or exaggerated lurid details about his private life. Nevertheless, the predictions of Hitler’s future behavior that Langer made based on these testimonies ultimately proved accurate. Langer’s conclusions seem as valid as those of a present-day FBI criminal profile.

Origins of a Sociopath

Langer began his in-depth analysis with Hitler’s childhood conflicts and traumas. In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed his family was typical for its time: “Father, a faithful civil servant, the mother devoting herself to the cares of the household and looking after her children with eternally the same loving care.” This struck Langer as oddly terse. What was Hitler hiding?

The answer, Langer believed, lay elsewhere in Mein Kampf, where Hitler discussed a family he considered typical. Langer concluded it was Hitler’s own family. “Among the five children there is a boy, let us say, of three...,” Hitler wrote. “When the parents fight almost daily, their brutality leaves nothing to the imagination…, brutal attacks on the part of the father towards the mother…, assaults due to drunkenness. The poor little boy at the age of six, senses things which would make even a grown-up person shudder…. When [the father] finally comes home..., drunk and brutal…, then God have mercy on the scenes which follow. I witnessed all of this personally in hundreds of scenes…with both disgust and indignation….” Langer reasoned that “when we remember the few friends that Hitler has made in the course of his life, and not a single intimate friend, one wonders where he had the opportunity of observing these scenes personally, hundreds of times, if it was not in his own home.”

Hitler’s father, Alois, an Austrian customs official, was known to have spent a lot of his time in taverns. His wife and some combination of his five children often had to help take him home. He was a tyrant at home, often severely beating his wife and son.

Besides these more obvious family problems, Langer deduced, the young Hitler saw his parents having intercourse. He came away from the experience feeling angry and jealous toward his father, rage at his mother’s seeming betrayal, and indignation at his own inability to rescue her.

Manipulating Mom and the Masses

Hitler’s mother, Klara, was Alois’s third wife and his cousin. Twenty-two years younger than Alois, she moved into his house while he was still married to his second wife. Klara lost as many as three babies before Adolf was born, and she compensated by spoiling him rotten. He learned to manipulate his mother to get his way, throwing temper tantrums that always ended with her caving in. As an adult politician, Hitler used a similar tactic for imposing his will on others and in dealing with opposition and frustration. “His behavior is…extremely violent and shows an utter lack of emotional control,” Langer wrote. “In the worst rages he undoubtedly acts like a spoiled child who cannot have his own way and bangs his fists 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 Fuhrer, Hitler threw one of his infamous tantrums after a random scrap of information was tossed out at a meeting with generals Alfred Jodl and Franz Halder in 1942. Halder reported that the Soviet Union was manufacturing 1,200 tanks a month. Hitler exploded, advancing with balled fists on Halder. Shaking with anger, his face literally purple with fury, he screamed, “Don’t ever utter such idiotic nonsense again! I forbid it!” Jodl later said “Never in my life did I experience such an outburst of rage from any human being.”

The equivalent of screaming tantrums can be found in Hitler’s speeches. His violent addresses, filled with vivid emotion and theatrical gestures, were quite a departure from typical German political oratory. It was all manipulation, as with his mother. Langer believed that Hitler’s success as a speaker taught him to equate the crowd with the feminine character of his mother. “Someone who does not understand the…feminine character of the masses will never be an effective speaker,” Langer quoted Hitler as saying. “Ask yourself: ‘What does a woman expect from a man?’ Clearness, decision, power and action! …The crowd is not only like a woman, but women constitute the most important element in an audience. The women usually lead…. The people, in an overwhelming majority, are so feminine in their nature and attitude that their activities and thoughts are motivated less by sober consideration than by feeling and sentiment.”

From Troubled Boyhood to the Gutter

Hitler was 12 years old in 1903 when his father died. Though the loss may have seemed more a relief than a tragedy, the young Hitler, a formerly promising student, began to fall behind in school. His troubles continued, and in his teens he was accused of sexual misconduct with a much younger schoolgirl. He would retain this taste for very young, pretty, well-built, and stupid girls well into his 40s. He avoided expulsion for the misconduct, but later dropped out of school, spending much of the family’s meager income on clothing and watercolors and adopting the pose of the tragic artist. He moved to Vienna in 1905 and lived a bohemian lifestyle on his orphan’s pension and support from his mother.

Hitler then suffered two personal catastrophes. First, he applied for study at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, but was rejected because he was poor at drawing people. Then his mother died on December 21, 1907, after a bout with cancer. He now directed the affection he could no longer give to her toward his country. “Germany became a symbol of his ideal mother,” Langer wrote.

On the other hand, Hitler directed the hate he felt for his late father toward Austria. He spewed venom at multi-ethnic Vienna with twisted vehemence. “The racial conglomeration which ruled the Imperial capital was repugnant to me,” he wrote. “Equally repugnant was the whole national hodgepodge of Czechs, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Serbs, Croats, etc.—and in the midst of it all, that eternal split fungus of humanity, Jews and again Jews!” A down-and-out bum in Vienna, wearing clothes donated by a kindly Jew, Hitler read the vile anti-Jewish propaganda that was rife in the capital and ate it up. Increasingly, Langer says, Hitler blamed the Jews for every evil in the world and in his own life.

Hitler’s transfers of affection to Germany and hatred to Austria had massive consequences. “Unconsciously,” Langer wrote, “he is not dealing with nations composed of millions of individuals but is trying to solve his personal conflicts and rectify the injustices of his childhood…. He projects his personal problems on great nations and then tries to solve them on this unrealistic level…. We can now understand why Hitler fell on his knees and thanked God when the [First World] War broke out. To him it [was] an opportunity of fighting for his symbolic mother—of proving his manhood and of being accepted by her.”

 The War-Lover

In 1914 Hitler joined Bavaria’s List Regiment and soon found himself on the Western Front. Langer said the regiment was Hitler’s first real home. He was a brave soldier and won the Iron Cross, second and first class, an almost unheard-of honor for an enlisted man. He yielded completely to authority and enthused about battle in a way combat soldiers never do. His taste for war led his captain to exclaim, “I’ll never make that hysterical fellow an officer!”

Hitler turned out to be the regiment’s odd man out. “His failure in personal intercourse misled him more and more into contempt for his fellow-men,” Munich journalist Konrad Heiden testified about the man who called humankind “laughable cosmic bacterium.” Hitler turned to spying on his fellow soldiers after the war ended, denouncing those who were sympathetic to the socialist movement in Bavaria known as the Munich Soviet. Some of Hitler’s wartime comrades were even hanged thanks to his spying. “There will be no peace in the land until a body is hanging from every lamp-post,” he said.

Langer said Hitler avoided contact with women through his army years. His sexual life was twisted by an unhealthy love for his mother, and he grew up sexually dysfunctional. By the end of the war, he was morbidly afraid of syphilis and associated sex with excrement and degradation. When he did develop a sex life, as he became a confident and powerful politician, he indulged in practices that are impossible to describe delicately.

Between his sick tastes and the callous way he treated his lovers, it is not surprising that six of his former lady friends attempted suicide. Two of them succeeded. One was his own niece, Geli Raubal, who had lived with him since age 17. Longtime mistress Eva Braun, who met Hitler at age 17, twice tried to kill herself.

Langer said Hitler’s sex life alienated him from people in general and figured into his anti-Semitism. “From a psychological point of view it is not too far-fetched to suppose that as the perversion developed and became more disgusting to Hitler’s ego, its demands were disowned and projected upon the Jew,” Langer wrote. “By this process the Jew became a symbol of everything that Hitler hated in himself.”

Hitler’s sexual preferences held promise as a negative propaganda tool. Langer went to some length dissecting Hitler’s appearance, his walk, and his manner of expressing himself, to suggest he may have been bisexual. Although being gay is no longer a negative for many Westerners, in the 1940s homosexuality was a devastating accusation. Today Langer’s would-be evidence looks like homophobic stereotyping and is not taken very seriously.

 Taking Political Power

Hitler was an unlikely-looking candidate to lead what Germans thought of as the Aryan race. Rather than the professed ideal—tall, well proportioned, blond, blue-eyed, and handsome—Hitler was short, dark-haired, longnosed, and hollow-chested. It was said at the time—quietly— that if he were not the Führer, he would fail to meet the enlistment standards for his own bodyguard regiment.

Langer observed that Hitler’s mysterious but very real charisma as a public speaker overcame his looks in his rise to power. “Hitler responds to the vibration of the human heart with the delicacy of a seismograph…, enabling him…to act as a loudspeaker proclaiming the most secret desires, the least permissible instincts, the sufferings and revolts of a whole nation,” Otto Strasser wrote. Langer concluded that “it was this Hitler that the German people knew at first hand. Hitler, the fiery orator, who tirelessly rushed from one meeting to another, working himself to the point of exhaustion in their behalf; Hitler, whose heart and soul were in the Cause and who struggled endlessly against overwhelming odds and obstacles to open their eyes to the true state of affairs…who could arouse their emotions and channelize them…whose words burned into the most secret recesses of their minds….”

Losing physical power

We know now that many emotional and mental disorders can have medical causes and are treatable medically. Since Langer’s study, we have learned that Hitler’s behavioral traits may have been made worse by the medical care he received. He was treated for war wounds, a polyp on his vocal chords, and tinnitis (persistent ringing in the ears). He self-medicated for stomach distress with a so-called remedy marketed as Dr. Koester’s Anti-Gas Pills. His eventual personal physician, Theodor Morell, was a quack. Morell gave Hitler daily injections of methamphetamine, plus extra doses as requested. He certainly looked like a prematurely old meth addict in his last years, and his health was further sapped by other quack cures that Morell provided, including an oral bacteria supplement cultured from the feces of “a hearty Bulgarian peasant.”

Morell may well have been largely responsible for Hitler’s rapid aging from 1940 to 1945. Witnesses describe the 56-year-old Hitler in 1945 as a shuffling old man wearing a uniform spotted with food and grasping for a handhold every few steps. His left hand trembled violently. Cake crumbs clung to the corners of his mouth. The bags under his eyes were swollen and dark. He drooled. His untreated high blood pressure had developed into coronary artery disease. By April 1945 he had little left physically or mentally.

Predictions Fulfilled

Langer finished his profile of Hitler in 1943. The document circulated among the top military brass in Washington, and Roosevelt himself probably read it. But it had little or no effect on political or military policy.

The Hitler Langer profiled was a man with a boundlessly grandiose concept of himself. Langer said Hitler believed fate set him apart as a superman, a chosen one, the messiah of a future German empire, who was infallible except for when he had engaged in what he called “the Jewish Christ-creed with its effeminate pity-ethics.” When crossed, Hitler wanted retribution that was godlike in its devastation.

Langer accurately predicted Hitler’s intentions toward the Jews. They symbolized for him everything Hitler detested in himself, and he wished to wreak unlimited vengeance on them. The factory system of extermination he and his henchmen developed took the lives of more than six million European Jews and millions more Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals, and clergy.

Langer also predicted that Hitler’s personality was incapable of dealing with military defeat, and that losing the war might drive the Führer insane. “Hitler has many characteristics which border on the schizophrenic,” Langer wrote. “It is possible that when faced with defeat his psychological structure may collapse and leave him at the mercy of his unconscious forces.” By the time the Russians reached the gates of Berlin, Hitler had become fully delusional, ordering divisions and corps that had long since ceased to exist into battle, begging his associates to tell him there was some hope the war could be turned around, and finally sinking into a deep, apathetic depression as his ability to manage events evaporated. “As Germany suffers successive defeats Hitler…will feel himself more and more vulnerable to attack…, and his rages will increase in frequency,” Langer prophesied. “He will probably try to compensate for his vulnerability…by continually stressing his brutality and ruthlessness.

“His public appearances will become less and less for…he is unable to face a critical audience…. His nightmares will probably increase in frequency…and drive him closer to a nervous collapse. It is not wholly improbable that in the end he might lock himself into [a] symbolic womb and defy the world to get him….

“In any case, his mental condition will continue to deteriorate. He will fight as long as he can with any weapon or technique that can be conjured up to meet the emergency. The course he will follow will almost certainly…drag the world down in flames.” Langer was right. In 1945, with the war lost, Hitler ordered his army and the SS to destroy Germany— its factories and shops, its canals and bridges, its railroads and autobahns, its farms and granaries. The German people, he declared, were unworthy of his genius and had proven themselves cowards. He wanted to avenge his fate on those he had pretended to love.

Finally, Langer predicted Hitler’s suicide. “This is the most plausible outcome,” he wrote. “Not only has he frequently threatened to commit suicide, but from what we know of his psychology it is the most likely possibility. It is probably true that he has an inordinate fear of death, but being an hysteric he could undoubtedly screw himself up into the super-man character and perform the deed.”

Suicide was always on Hitler’s mind. When the Soviets retook Stalingrad from the Germans in 1943, Hitler was outraged that his 180,000 surrendering troops did not kill themselves as a gesture of loyalty to him. Two years later, in a bunker, Hitler handed out cyanide capsules like party favors to his closest friends. On April 30, 1945, he and his wife of one day, Eva Braun, shut themselves in a small sitting room in the bunker. Braun curled up at one end of the couch. Hitler sat at the other. Both held a cyanide capsule between their teeth. Hitler held a small pistol. He raised the gun to his head and bit down as he pulled the trigger.

Brian John Murphy is a contributing editor of America in WWII. He lives in Fairfield, Connecticut. This article originally appeared in the August 2009 issue of the magazine