The Question of Authority
The question of authority is essentially one about power. People love getting into positions of power. A principal of a school, whom I know well, says quite simply: “There’s no use having power unless you use it.” Everyone likes power. His erstwhile deputy principal loved the power he could wield until he got sick quite recently. He has been taken literally from the heart of power right into the very hell of disempowerment, where he can no longer act on his world, but rather is acted upon as a patient with a severe illness. Then, take others who like wielding power, and, indeed, we need not look too far away at all. I have known several security men who have worked at gates to colleges and hospitals who really enjoy keeping motorists waiting outside the gate, giving them grief by saying that there is no parking, that they are very late for visiting hours etc before finally lifting up the barrier and letting the poor berated driver in. Again, they possibly feel that this is their way of getting their own back at their bosses by vicariously taken out their anger on the innocent.
Then take the observations of John Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902), an historian and a moralist, when he said in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." There was still another English politician - William Pitt, the Elder, The Earl of Chatham and British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778, who said something similar, in a speech to the UK House of Lords in 1770: "Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it." One has to agree with both these observations as they are patently obvious, even to the most naive amongst us. There has been, there is and there always will be no shortage of candidates for the honour of being corrupted by power – a brief look at the pages of recorded history is enough – from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar, to Queen Cleopatra, to Genghis Khan, to Napoleon, and then to Hitler, Stalin and Franco. Then, of course, the likes of Mr Mugabe of Zimbabwe springs to mind these days. All of these people liked to wield power and wield it absolutely, though some with quite obviously worse consequences for humankind than others.
And so our man Freud was most interested in the question of authority and power; for this question most essentially as it acted within and upon the individual human psyche. Here is Freud writing in 1921 about the rise of power, and it is obviously Hitler or a Hitler-like character he has in mind when he penned these words: I shall quote them as summarised by our author Mark Edmundson:
Freud saw the hunger for domination manifest in many areas of experience, but nowhere so potently, or so dangerously, as in politics. In 1921, when Hitler’s political career was just beginning, Freud published Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, a study of crowd behaviour that lays special emphasis on the role of the leader. The world in this vision is a disturbing, complex, sometimes chaotic place where everything that has been solid and sound melts into the air. Values, if they exist at all, are in flux. But then comes the leader, who appears to be certain about all things. “His intellectual acts,” Freud wrote, “are strong and independent even in isolation, and his will needs no reinforcement from others.” Where others are buffeted by doubts, the leader is always sure that his vision is the one true vision. His ego has few emotional ties; he loves no one but himself and to others he gives away no more than the bare minimum of affection or recognition. “Members of the group,” Freud continued stand in need of the illusion that they are equally and justly loved by their leader; but the leader himself need love no one else, he may be of a masterful nature, absolutely narcissistic, self-confident and independent…” … but he [Freud] suggested that crowds only constitute a long term murderous threat when a certain sort of figure takes over the leader role in ways that are both prohibitive and permissive.
The description Freud offers of the leader eerily anticipates the kinds of descriptions that Hitler’s followers began to offer about him, starting in the 1920s [The Death of Sigmund Freud, 54-55]
The Leader in Hitler
Hitler in his own words was the leader, the one who knew the way to The Promised Land of The Third Reich which would hold sway for a thousand years. Indeed, almost as if he were quoting Freud’s words, Hitler was always sure and certain of the road ahead. To this extent his language is not alone prophetic but apocalyptic. Here was a leader who knew what was wrong with Germany. Not only that, he knew for sure what the cure for its ills were. World domination by the Aryan race was this leader’s clear vision – a vision of a megalomaniac indeed, but sadly given the historical circumstances one that carried a magic of persuasion within it. And then, he did also know the cure to Germany’s ills: the extermination of the Jews who were simply like vermin. Let me return briefly to Edmundson’s words again:
Here, finally, was a politician with an uncompromising way of seeing the world and a clear program. He knew what he hated: Jews, the Versailles Treaty (he called it “the stab in the back”), Marxists. He knew what he wanted: the unification of the German people, a strong army, complete dedication to the state, an empire.. He said for Germany to come into its own, the people would have to look to a great leader and find in him the sublime expression of their will. He was the leader. Providence had appointed him. [Ibid., 55]
Above, a rather youthful Hitler, just after he was released from prison in 1929. He was just around 40 years old. This is an image of the megalomaniacal and apocalytic leader.