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Shirley Lawrence

The Myth of German Character

Psychology and Historical Development

(November 1946)

From New International, Vol. XII No. 9, November 1946, pp. 272–276..
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

To provide ideological aid to the Allied subjugation of Germany, a large group of economists, psychologists, sociologists and journalists have been propounding a theory that German character contains unique elements which make it especially susceptible to totalitarian movements. Germans are supposed to be traditionally prone to militarism; they are said to be inherently submissive and their greatest joy is found, we are told, in blind devotion to a leader and adherence to barbarous acts .of brutality. Having welcomed fascism, they are therefore held “collectively guilty” for its crimes; and it is their “national character” which is at the root of all this evil.

Thus are the complacent “victors” of the war constructing a nebulous justification for their reactionary role in world politics, at the same time that they succeed in beclouding the real meaning of the conceptions of national character and national differences. We shall here attempt to show that to postulate a typical German “national character” is to distort deliberately the evolutionary historical picture of German society; that not a single trait of the formidable list of accusations is uniquely German; and that, in particular, aggressiveness, allegiance to a leader and tight discipline are universal characteristics of certain kinds of groups.

It is worth while, at the beginning, to note that the most important untruth arising from these accusations is the myth that fascism in Germany was inevitable because of this German temperament. If the theory is propagated that there is something inherently Germanic about fascism; if fascism is regarded as a collective madness peculiar to certain evil nations, it is impossible to explain how it really arises, how it can be fought, or how to recognize it in the United States, where as yet it wears no brown shirts.

A century ago the German was generally supposed to be intelligent, kindly, peaceable, fond of music and the home. Other prevalent stereotypes were concerned with his scientific-mindedness, industriousness, stolidness, methodicalness and progressiveness.

During World War I, however, one became suspect if one did not call the Germans bloodthirsty savages. These propagandist mythologies about the rapacious Germans were forgotten during the spread of post-war disillusionment and pacifism and amid the general stabilization of capitalism. With the Second World War, this extremely convenient theory was again trotted out. The attributes of the national characteristics of the Germans were “changed” with successive historical periods – the revolution of 1848, the conservative traditions of the Hohenzollerns from 1871–1918, the “democratic” Weimar Republic, and finally the Nazi terror regime – depending upon the political propaganda needs of this school of national character analysts.

However, while such a crude, propagandist concept of German national character does not stand up in the face of its own contradictions, does such a phenomenon exist at all? Can a group have a common character any more than it can have a common pair of lungs or, more important, a common soul? Or is the term merely a demagogic tool used in behalf of prevailing power politics? Let us see, then, how various writers and students approach this problem, beginning with political analysts and proceeding then to psychologists who apply their concepts to the problem.

The Ludwig and De Sales Schools

We can begin with the most depressing case, the notorious Emil Ludwig [1]:

Knowledge of the German character might have prevented World War II ... National character is a genuine reality; it is the sum total of the traits which distinguish a nation as a whole – even though some of these traits may be absent in individual members.

We are then told that the Germans are eternally dissatisfied, they crave power, but at the same time their ambition is to obey; they are inclined to harshness, do not know love of liberty, and have a mystical urge for expansion.

The Germans had so long escaped a sense of personal inferiority through refuge in self-identification with the state that it became necessary psychologically to deny the defeat of 1918. This created a political situation in which effective resistance to a policy of revision or revenge was impossible and to which the logical conclusion was Lidice. In perpetrating such crimes, the individual feels himself an organ of the state. To be an efficient state organ means much more to him than to be a valuable individual. The German kills any neighbor he feels superior to ... Believing in his moral right coolly and without emotion, he brings death to others and, if need be, to himself.

Ludwig’s is the typical vulgarization of the entire problem; all Germans are Nazis, all are guilty, all have possessed these traits from time immemorial. The German people are born with these personality characteristics full-blown. This is a return to old theories of the immutability of human nature. Modern psychological theory tells us that individuals are born with certain potentialities, that the environment determines the degree to which these may be attained, that there is constant interaction between individual and environment and it is this interaction which determines behavior. But this does not interest Ludwig; his only concern is to indulge in hysterical and mystical chauvinism. Ludwig is the crudest of his school, but there are others who, if more subtle, are equally vicious. One such is Raoul De Sales [2]:

The German has two characters; as an individual he is kindly, but in the mass he is brutal. It is with the “Volk” that the rest of the world has to deal. Germanism in its most positive manifestations is one of the most dangerous forms of human destructiveness that history has known. Hitler is the last phase of an evolution toward total evil which has been pursued under the various incarnations of the primitive Teutonic tribe, the German concept of the state, Prussian militarism and the nation of Volk for several centuries.

De Sales’ description is simply incredible; it postulates a Jekyll and Hyde, theory in which the individual and society lead a kind of dualistic parallel existence but never meet or interact. Yet it seems incongruous that the “Volk” aspect of German character asserted by De Sales should not ultimately affect the individual German – and there you have Ludwig’s theory. This schizophrenic duality is given to German character as a means of trying to escape Ludwig’s crass chauvinism, as a means of projecting a national character for the Volk apart from the observable characteristics of individual Germans. But the attempt fails for the two cannot exist in isolation; the one must influence the other and De Sales must end up in the camp of Ludwig.

If these theories were truly descriptive of the German people, Hitler would have needed no concentration camps, no Gestapo, no immense propaganda agency. no intensive education of the young, no book-burning. The whole people would have been prepared to follow his party from the start. These writers urge upon us a doctrine of racial discrimination and attempt to persuade us that German fascism is a peculiarly German phenomena. We are to forget the international nature of fascism in the comfortable conviction that such ideas flourish only in the “German mind.” Completely forgotten is the role of the German working class. Why should fascism have paralyzed proletarian resistance, destroyed the independent unions and stamped out every vestige of the class struggle from its own “labor” organizations if it did not fear the threat of the powerful class sentiments and socialist aspirations of the, workers? If all Germans are such singularly savage and amoral beings, why this dissidence?

From Seydowitz’s [3] description of Civil Life in Wartime Germany, we learn how terror held the army and the home front together during the war years. Seydowitz shows that after six years of concentrated terror and propaganda to prepare the German people for war “the lethargy of the masses at the beginning of the war disproved the frequent and vociferous assertions that the German nation stood unitedly behind its Fuehrer. Even at the time of Hitler’s greatest successes, the major part of the people stood aloof from Hitler’s volksgemeinschaft, assuming either a passively waiting or indifferent attitude or one that was downright hostile ... experience had taught the masses that even the most striking victories seemed unable to restore peace.”

The Liberal Interpretation

By contrast, the writings of two liberals, Hamilton Fyfe and George Soule, though often naive, are on this matter comparatively sane and rational. The former, though his approach is journalistic, has some interesting things to say: According to Fyfe [4],

... national characters are not distinct, homogeneous, well-defined. A nation is not a natural unit like a herd of buffalos ... the nationality of large numbers has often been changed. A great deal if not all the trouble in Europe is the result of people everywhere being taught by rulers and newspapers to distrust one another: to suppose their interests clash with those of their neighbors; to regard these neighbors as inferior, presumptuous, unfriendly. All of that teaching is based on the delusion that nations have different characters and one forgetfulness of the fact that when we speak of a “country” we mean the rulers of the country.

Having won the leadership of other elements in the population, the Prussians have contributed most to the common belief as to German qualities and characteristics ... What was glorified in Germany during the short existence of the German Empire under the Hohenzollerns was the personality of the ruler ... Yet so little could the Kaiser influence the country’s political life that the largest party in the Reichstag was the Social-Democrats, and so little did the nation identify itself with him that in 1918 he was told to go. It would be unjust to pretend that all Germans are guilty alike. The course of national action is set by a few; they persuade or compel a nation to follow. Vast numbers have been deluded, others terrified into support of Hitler.

Fyfe’s is a healthy, questioning approach and gives some idea of the German national character, but it is simplistic and suggestive rather than concrete and integrative. It is true, as Fyfe says, that rulers are identified with national character. Yet he disregards totally the concept of class structure and is, we think, wrong in his implicit rejection of national character. George Soule [5], on this matter more sophisticated, writes:

The common observations about the German herd spirit and Hitler’s ruthless drive to power are true enough but not sufficiently scientific in so far as they posit the existence of something in the German character which does not exist in some variety or other among other peoples as well; and to the extent that they assume that Hitler is a unique individual whose counterpart could not be found elsewhere under some other form. After all, fascism conquered in other countries than Germany, and though the Nazi movement brought to its finest flower the destructive forces of the human personality, traces of the same cruelties, exaggerated attitudes, and will to brutal conquest may be discovered in many parts of the world and in many situations of less moment.

It would be a mistake to suppose that there are not many kinds of Germans, or that they all, through the decades, have been subject to the same kind of upbringing. Yet there is generally recognized, especially in the Prussian tradition, a certain hard and authoritative attitude which is observable not only in public institutions but in family mores. The father is usually the dominant parent, and he is traditionally severe. This type of family organization, with its continuity through many generations, has doubtless left its mark on the national character which has often in the past been noted in the army and the state ... A background of insecurity has also left its mark on German culture. The short history of unity, long after other great nations of Europe achieved theirs, predisposed Germans to overvalue the national state as a unifying force and as a way of compensating for the inferiority long felt as newcomers.

The versions of national character promulgated by Soule and Fyfe are obviously more tempered analyses and help us discern the intricacies of a perplexing array of opinion. Especially helpful is the emphasis upon the cultural indoctrination of patrimonial traits in early childhood, for we know that the structure of the adult personality is based on early experiences. The common weakness of writers such as Fyfe and Soule is that they fail to consider class relationships and stratifications within society as determinants of character traits; they do not consider the role of economic and political factors in their interrelationships, nor the dynamic role of conscious classes and individuals in effecting change. As a result they cannot rise above the merely descriptive level; they are welcome antidotes to the Vansittartism of people like Ludwig and De Sales, but they do not themselves provide satisfactory answers to either the problem of fascism or of national character.

The concept of national character, however, necessarily contains psychological ingredients as well as political, and if this review of typical spokesmen for the official world of thought has not proven satisfying, perhaps the practitioners of the psychiatric approach have more to offer. Here we find the equivalents of Ludwig using a new jargon but the same ideas.

According to Frederick Schuman [6], Nazism is a psychological malady with which the German post-war middle-class was afflicted.

In the program of the Nazi Party it found solace for all its woes, forgiveness for all its sins, justification for all its hatreds, scapegoats for all misfortunes, and a millennial vision of all its hopes.

Elucidating this collective neurosis, Schuman runs the gamut of Freudian concepts. The discontent of the lower middle class he attributes to a denial of satisfying expression of the “id-drives,” and aggressiveness, to a weakened “superego” with the result that sin becomes fashionable. Nationalism is traced to a “castration” phobia arising from World War I, which “brought about the amputation of various parts of the Fatherland and its reduction to impotence.” The prevailing opposition to the Weimar Republic is explained by the fact that it offered neither adequate “mother symbols” nor “father symbols.” The conciliatory policy of the Weimar regime was distasteful to a castrated and impotent patriotism which had need of the “phallic symbol” of the bloody sword as an emblem of recovered strength. The so-called popular acceptance of Hitler’s leadership is interpreted as the most complete expression of “the pathological regression to infantilism” of the lower middle class.

If the neurotic burgher could not quite return to the dark unconsciousness and the complete security of the unborn foetus in the womb, he could at least become once more a little child, his whole life controlled for him by a stern and loving father.

Schuman’s argument has a deceptive ring; he fails to offer any evidence for the presence of the Freudian clinical symptoms which are well-defined for purposes of individual psychology but which are merely analogical and verbal substitutions when applied to social groups. As an example of what is meant by analogical verbal substitutions, consider his equation of nationalism with a castration complex. A nationalistic German would be emotionally aroused by the loss of territory suffered as a result of the Versailles Treaty. This territory has been cut off from Germany. The term “cut off” is analogous to “castration.” Result: Schuman’s equation of national feeling with the “castration phobia,” even though there is nothing in the nationalist feeling to indicate the characteristic symptoms of the castration complex as clinically observed. A similar substitution is made by equating Hitler’s bloody sword to the phallic symbol. Such reasoning, involving substitutions from one intellectual discipline to another, unrelated one, can only be described as slipshod and dangerous.

A less Freudian but more circumspect interpretation is furnished by Richard Brickner [7], who has submitted a plan to the State Department aiming to change the “German character.” His diagnosis that the German people have been suffering for more than a century from a had case of “psychocultural aggression.”

German institutions have bred into the individual German an aggressive concern for his “status.” In the family, the father has long been absolute master. Business, education and politics have likewise been ruled by an authoritarian system in which to assert and defend his status, the German alternately commands and scrapes. Unlike Americans and Englishmen, who consider it unsporting to exert their full strength against weaker opponents, (! ! !) Germans are traditionally more brutal and ruthless toward their inferiors. In their relations with other nations, they have been alternately arrogant and afflicted with a persecution complex, a condition resembling paranoia. What distinguishes the Germans is not their aggressiveness alone, but the megalomania, suspiciousness, feeling of persecution, projection, complex rationalization, retrospective falsification, sense of mission, exaggeration, and, above all, the total irrationality with which that aggression is manifested. Germany’s unremitting insistence on claims of “unjust treatment,” “encirclement,” “need of living space,” etc., coupled with their martyr phraseology makes them appear typical and by definition, insatiable paranoid demands.

From this diagnosis, Brickner deduced that it would be useless merely to preach democracy to the German people; they are emotionally unable to understand the democratic principle of give and take, and cooperation among equals.

Nazism is merely the current expression of a paranoid trend which has existed for over a hundred years. Although the trend is cultural, it has the same implications as of the individual paranoic.

Here we witness the strange spectacle of paranoiac behavior without a neuro-psychological basis; a whole population behaves as do individual paranoics, yet is not affiicted with paranoia. What then is the origin of this strange affliction?

Psychiatry and Social Phenomena

Schuman’s and Brickner’s interpretations of German character are faulty in the misapplication to social phenomena of psychiatric terms originally intended only for individual analysis. Psychiatric concepts are concepts of individual psychology. If we apply them to institutions and collective behavior without concerning ourselves with clinical symptoms or the neurological basis which they imply, we do not provide very much illumination. Our ability to understand, to predict and to control is derived from our knowledge of causes; argument by analogy is no substitute for causal analysis. Analogies from individual psychology to social behavior have value only insofar as it is always understood that they are merely analogies.

Also implied in the theses of Schuman and Brickner is the assumption of a collective personality which can be described in terms of individual personal disorder. It is our belief that groups and classes in society do not have a personality structure in any sense equivalent to that of an individual personality structure. The character and mode of functioning of a group in society is not merely the result of the sum of, the character and functioning of its individual members; the group has an autonomous existence. Social factors are seen to be caused by antecedent social factors and cannot be referred back to individual characteristics.

In addition, the author’s Freudian orientation precludes a complete understanding of cultural and social factors and their interaction with the individual in society, for Freud’s system is in the main instinctualist and thereby prey to “human nature” theories. Freud and the earlier psychoanalysts carried on their investigations entirely within the frame of European culture and largely within that of a single class in European society. Lacking comparative materials. they took many environmental factors for granted and built up an elaborate theory of universal human instincts. The various attempts which were made by Freud and others to apply this instinctualist approach to the explanation of cultural phenomena were not successful. Thus while recognizing his outstanding insights into human motivation we do not agree with the Freudian notion that man is inherently wicked and aggressive and that, therefore wars are inevitable. An important implication of recent psychological findings is that traits like aggressiveness or submissiveness are not instinctual, innate or universal and therefore cannot be spoken of in terms of “national” attributes permeating the whole of a population. Nor can anyone trait like aggressiveness for instance, ever reveal all about an individual or group. Individuals are complex organisms; groups are more so. Aggression may merely be one of a constellation of traits. Even when dominant it may have varying underlying motivations. It has different meanings and serves different functions according to the needs of the individual and group in a particular situation. It may be a response to frustration, simply a means of securing safety. or may embody other meanings. People may be aggressive in one situation and not at all in another.

One final point needs to be made against the Schuman-Brickner approach. Both of them implicitly accept Freud’s dictum that “sociology which deals with the behavior of man in society, can be nothing other than applied psychology.” (New Introductory Lectures) The acceptance of this idea, if logically developed, undermines any scientific approach to history or society; it makes of politics and history merely sub-branches of psychoanalysis. We believe rather in an approach which focuses attention first of all on historical processes, on aspects of social structure and group mores as clues to causal factors.

* * *

There still remains a group of scholars who have attempted to relate historical, cultural and psychological approaches. Two such writers, Abram Kardiner and Erich Fromm make interesting contributions.

Kardiner [8], combining anthropological and psychoanalytic techniques in his study of the reciprocal relations between culture and personality chose the term “basic personality structure” to obviate the lack of clarity in the terms group. national or social character. This is an attempt to apply to cultures a psychoanalytic approach modified by a realization of the important part played by social factors in determining psychological phenomena. The “basic personality structure” for any society “represents the constellation of personality characteristics congenial with the total range of institutions comprised within a given culture.” It is that’ personality configuration shared by the bulk of the society’s members. as a result of the early experiences which they have in common and need not correspond to the total personality of the individual. No one individual is ever familiar with the whole of the culture in which he participates nor does he express all its patterns in his own behavior. The constellations identified in “basic personality structure” are not finished personality traits but the matrix in which such traits develop. In general the concept represents that which differentiates the personalities of members of two different cultural communities. Kardiner has also tried to discover not only what the basic personality types were in the various cultures studied but also how they were produced and what influence they exerted on the culture itself. These dynamic features are an integral part of the concept.

The “cultural approach” has enormous significance in the attempt to understand the diversity of human cultures and the plasticity and potentialities of human nature everywhere. it is most meaningful when applied to simpler, primitive cultures which tend to have a unity, a pattern and an organic wholeness of a kind. In such homogeneous cultures one feature may become predominant in all institutions and individual functions. This kind of approach, however, often results in a mere amassing of facts where all facets of the culture are given equal weight; it is superficial and misleading when applied to the more complex patterns of western society. Through their findings, anthropologists are led to question many of the institutions of modern society, conclude that “we must re-examine our basic institutions,” but go no further.

According to Kardiner then, no matter in what form and with what qualifications we use his concept of “basic personality structure” as a means of historical interpretation, we do away with a constant human nature which can be counted upon to behave in a uniform manner under all conditions. One need not agree with any particular estimate of the value of Kardiner’s theory to realize that it is at least scientifically permissible in approach, that it attempts to investigate precisely those problems which others take for granted as premises. Similarly with the writings of Erich Fromm [9], who tells us that to understand the dynamics of the social process,

... we must understand the dynamics of the psychological processes operating within the individual, just as to understand the individual we must see him in the context of the culture which molds him ... Freedom, though it brought man independence and rationality, has made him isolated and thereby anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of this freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man.

Nazism is an economic and political problem, but the hold it has over a whole people has to be understood on psychological grounds. What we are concerned with is this psychological aspect of Nazism, its human basis. This suggests two problems: the character structure of those people to whom it appealed, and the psychological characteristics of the ideology that made it such an effective instrument with regard to those very people.

In considering the psychological basis for the success of Nazism, Fromm makes this differentiation: that one part of the population bowed to the Nazi regime without any strong resistance, but also without becoming admirers of the Nazi ideas – there were the working class, the liberals and Catholics. This readiness to submit is explained as mainly due to a state of inner tiredness and resignation. Another part was deeply attracted to the new ideology and fanatically attached to those who proclaimed it – these were the lower strata of the middle class, composed of small shopkeepers, artisans and white-collar workers. The reason why the Nazi ideology was so appealing to them is to be sought in their social character, their love of the strong and hatred of the weak; their pettiness, hostility and thriftiness with feelings as well as with money. Their outlook on life was narrow, they suspected and hated the stranger, and they were curious and envious of their acquaintances, rationalizing their envy as moral indignation; economically as well as psychologically their life was based on the principle of scarcity. The event that took place after 1914 intensified the very traits to which the Nazis had its strong appeal: the craving for submission and the lust for power.

Hitler’s personality, his teachings and the Nazi system express an extreme form of the “authoritarian character,” the personality structure of which is the human basis of fascism and by this very fact, he made a powerful appeal to those parts of the population which were more or less of the same character structure. The essence of the authoritarian structure is described as the simultaneous presence of sadistic and masochistic drives, the craving for power over men and the longing for submission. Everyone thus has somebody above him to submit to and somebody beneath him to dominate. (This is somewhat akin to the anti-Semitism of some Negroes.)

Fromm believes there should be positive freedom, which consists of the “spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.” We are to achieve this desideratum through “democratic socialism wherein the irrational, planless character of society must be replaced by a planned economy.”

Fromm’s description utilizes Marxian concepts with some success. He fails of course to state how his society is to be achieved. Before individuals can become “productive and spontaneous” they must first overthrow the society they live in and construct a socialist society. Fromm is not correct in stating that the working class showed no strong resistance to Hitler. His theory of an “authoritarian character” as the basis for fascism is unconvincing. His discussion of the role of the middle classes in supporting Hitler is credible; yet the middle class, torn between two extremes, always follows the party offering the most militant program. In Germany, profoundly discontented with their condition, they turned to Hitler because the working class leadership did not show itself capable of leading the struggle. No doubt a number of clashing interests and certain antipathies separated them from the organized proletariat but these contlicts would have been surmounted if the revolutionary proletariat had opened up for them an escape from their misery. While Fromm thus clarifies somewhat the meaning of national character and social forces, he neglects the overwhelming importance of historical factors – of economic political forces, of classes and parties.

Both Fromm and Kardiner display imaginative and challenging approaches to the relationship between the individual and society. Because of various common modes of development and though due to intercommunication, cultural diffusion and other generally similar factors found in western society, they properly choose to speak of the character structure of “western man” instead of specific national or racial groups; this of course includes the specific local variations to be found everywhere.

Since the world is divided into nations, each with a typical cultural and historical background, national characteristics among nations differ, as individuals interact with their respective environments. Similarly are there differences and variations within a particular nation: economic, regional, religious, etc. Thus there are mores common to the whole of a nation and there are those common only to sub-groups. And within this sub-group individual differences exist. In human behavior – individual, group or national – there is much variation, much unity and much diversity. This must be understood in a specific context – the cultural historical matrix.

German “national character” is seen as a much maligned and vastly misunderstood concept, which in its contaminated form is strategically projected from time to time, whenever it serves the interests of the powers that be.


1. Ludwig, Emil, The Moral Conquest of Germany, 1945.

2. De Sales, Raoul, What Makes a German?, Atlantic Monthly, 1942.

3. Seydowitz, Max, Civil Life in Wartime Germany, 1944.

4. Fyfe, Hamilton, The Illusion of National Character, 1940.

5. Soule, George, The Lessons of Last Time, 1943.

6. Schuman, Frederick, The Nazi Dictatorship, 1935.

7. Brickner, Richard, Is Germany Incurable?

8. Kardiner, Abram, Psychological Frontiers of Society.

9. Fromm, Erich, Escape from Freedom.

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