Profiling Hitler

Formed through an presidential order on June 13, 1942, the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was intended to replace the intelligence gathering operations run by different military and executive departments with a single, centralized operation to aid the American war effort. While It got off to a rocky start (the FBI and and different branches of the military disliked sharing information with the new agency, its new head, Colonel William "Wild Bill" Donovan, was quick to take advantage of all the resources that were available to him.

While the OSS was not actively involved in psychological warfare, Donovan saw another potential role that 225px-Adolf_Hitler-1933[1] psychologists could play in the war effort.  To have a better understanding of Adolf Hitler and his role in the German war effort, Colonel Donovan (who would be promoted to Major General by the end of the war) called on William Leonard Langer, then head of the OSS Research and Analysis branch.  Langer, in turn, put together a unique team of psychoanalysts and psychologists led by his brother Walter Charles Langer.

Already a prominent psychoanalyst, Walter Langer had studied with Anna Freud while living in Austria during the 1930s. He also met with Sigmund Freud on a frequent basis and accompanied him to England when he was driven into exile in 1938. At the time that his brother recruited him, Walter Langer was a practicing psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Massachusetts and well respected in the psychoanalytic community. Other members of the team that he put together included Henry A. Murray of Harvard University, Ernest Kris of the New School for Social Research, and Bertram Lawin of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.   Henry Murray had previously prepared a document for the OSS titled Analysis of the Personality of Hitler and much of his conclusions were later absorbed into the Langer report.

Since Adolf Hitler would not be directly available for analysis, psychological profiling proved to be a complex problem.Langer and his team gathered information by interviewing people who had personally known Hitler. These included Ernst Hanfstaengl (a former Hitler confidante who had defected to the Allies), Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe (a Nazi spy in U.S. custody), and Friedlinde Wagner (daughter of Richard Wagner and an anti-Nazi activist). The team also scoured various printed documents about Hitler and eventually put together 11,000 pages of quotations and condensed versions of longer documents into a "Hitler Source Book" which was appended to their actual study.

The final document, titled "A Psychological Profile of Adolf Hitler: His Life and Legend" was released in 1943. Due to pressure from Donovan and the OSS, Langer and his team only had a limited amount of time to finish the report.  After the report was released, it was quickly declared Top Secret and distributed to different branches of the Allied forces. In addition to the preface, the report was broken down into six sections:

  • Hitler - As he believes himself to be
  • Hitler - As the German people know him
  • Hitler - As his associates know him
  • Hitler - As he knows himself
  • Psychological Analysis and Reconstruction
  • Hitler's Probable Behavior in the Future

Although Langer arranged for three independent psychoanalysts to review the report and their conclusions, he frankly admitted that forming conclusions based on second-hand sources limited the report's usefulness. Despite his misgivings, the report concluded that Adolph Hitler was likely a "neurotic psychopath" whose hold on the German people seemed absolute. The report reviewed Hitler's unhappy childhood, his relationship with both of this parents, and his early psychosexual development.

The team drew heavily on Freudian concepts and made various assumptions about Hitler's sexuality and attitudes towards women in general based on the limited information provided in works such as Mein Kampf. The crux of the report was the final section, Hitler's Probable Behavior in the Future. which described the various possible scenarios of Hitler's response to Allied military advances. After weighing different outcomes, it was suggested that Adolph Hitler would become increasingly neurotic with each German defeat. The authors also concluded that Hitler would probably commit suicide if the Nazis lost the war. In a prophetic line at the end of the report, the authors concluded that "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 be the one which seems to him to be the surest road to immortality and at the same time drag the world down in flames."

While it's still an open question on how much, if any, influence the Langer report had on the Allied leaders (probably very little given how late in the war it was released), it marked a radical shift in the role of psychology in military and political strategy.  As one of the first practical applications of psychological profiling (at least as applied to world leaders), the report would remain classified until 1972 when it was finally published and became a bestseller.

Despite critical gaps (many details about Adolph Hitler only became known long after the war ended), the Langer report was considered enough of a success for the OSS (later the CIA) to continue producing psychological profiles to assist political strategy. Psychological profiling would only be used on occasion during the 1950s and 1960s (including an influential report on Nikita Kruschev which was carefully studied by John F. Kennedy). The CIA eventually developed its own in-house psychological profiling section in the late 1960s although most of the reports produced remain classified.

The actual value of psychological profiles based on second-hand information remains controversial.  Older psychodynamic profiling approaches have been abandoned in favour of psycholinguistic and content analysis strategies designed to provide some insight into the thinking processes of foreign leaders and how they might react in stressful situations. Unfortunately, psychological profiles are usually only as good as the factual information that is available and even minor discrepancies in known facts about a leader could completely distort the resulting profile. Reports also tend to downplay situational factors that might play a stronger role in a leader's decisions than long-term personality. As a result, foreign policy experts and psychologists remain divided concerning the actual value of psychological profiles in shaping foreign policy.

As for Walter Langer, he remained convinced of the potential value of psychological profiling until his death in 1981.In the forward to his 1972 book on Adolph Hitler, he was quoted as saying "I may be naive in diplomatic matters, but I like to believe that if such a study of Hitler had been made years earlier, under less tension, and with more opportunity to gather first-hand information, there might not have been a Munich; a similar study of Stalin might have produced a different Yalta; one of Castro might have prevented the Cuban situation, and one of President Diem might have avoided our deep involvement in Vietnam.''

While profiling will certainly continue to be used, the controversy remains.


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