The roots of hatred from a psychological point of view

José Lázaro

When trying to understand human behaviour, personal, historical or cultural peculiarities, different in each individual, and the universal mechanisms that occur in all human beings can be studied in exactly the same way in the Iliad or in today’s newspapers. As Enrique Baca says in his contribution to this report, “it must be clear that we cannot obtain rigorous knowledge on the mechanisms of personal and social hate if they are not identified and studied specifically. Quite often, the rush to establish general mechanisms means that a solid basis drowns in the desire to find more superficial approaches”. He is absolutely right. The opposite is also true, however. By paying sufficient attention to how human behaviour ticks, we can go deeper into the particular features of each specific case. Indeed, this text by Baca is a brilliant description of the general psychological mechanisms that can be identified in the most diverse circumstances and in the widest variety of cases: his description of the construction of the enemy or of hatred as a social phenomenon can be easily applied to Nazi Germany, relations between Castroists and Cuban exiles in Miami, the two sides in the Spanish Civil War, the persecution of the Trotskyists by Stalin, the history of the Ku Klux Klan or present-day Catalan separatism. The very generic nature of Baca’s descriptions makes them so valuable.

The hypothesis we wish to present here on the roots of serious hate would be, if accurate, common to the most diverse forms of personal and group hate. Indeed, we set out to give an outline of the mechanisms that, according to this hypothesis, would be at the heart of any manifestation of hate. This kind of approach cannot be considered as an alternative, it is complementary to the specific study of particular cases that make up the micro-history. There are good and bad elements in both, but they are all necessary to obtain a rigorous understanding of hatred.

The approach we propose here is as follows:
Feelings of hate are produced by an attack on (or frustration of) the two great, basic driving forces behind any human being (and, in a more instinctive way, other superior mammals): pride and desire. Wounds to narcissistic pride and obstacles to desire are what always lead to hate against those who have created them, either through their imagination or experience.

Indeed, what we set out to do here is to give an outline of the mechanisms that, according to this hypothesis, would be at the heart of any manifestation of hate

To give this thesis meaning, we need to understand the terms “pride” and “desire” in a very wide sense:

We always seek out what reinforces our beliefs, what gratifies our ego and reaffirms our belief in what we are: basically, pride. (We have chosen this term to cover the most essential aspect of a whole semantic field, which includes a wide range of technical and colloquial, positive and negative terms: narcissism, self-confidence, haughtiness, self-esteem, fatuity, egotism, self-affirmation, vanity, amour propre, power of the ego, loftiness, arrogance, self-importance… to the heart of the common meaning of all these terms —which have a lot of nuances among them— is what we will call “pride” here). We also seek out what attracts us, what we feel like achieving and what gives us pleasure: in the broadest sense of the word, what we call “desire”. (We also use this term to refer to the common core of a number of meanings with very different nuances: instinct, drive, impulse, tendency…).

Feelings of hate are produced by an attack on (or frustration of) the two great basic impulses that all human being share, originating in pride and desire

If it were true that pride and desire, understood in this way, are the two basic drivers of our psychic make-up, all others would be derived from them. We could say, resorting to the classical list of deadly sins, that haughtiness is another name for pride; greed and lust are two basic forms of primary desire; avarice is the desire to accumulate things to gratify our pride and satisfy our desire; laziness, a temporary state of passivity enjoyed when we have managed to satisfy desire and pride is not threatened; anger, explained as an outburst caused by an attack on our pride or by the frustration of a desire; envy consists of an unbearable sensation when we see that others manage to gratify their pride and desire in a way that we have not been able to. From all this, we might conclude that hate is the feeling that builds up against anyone who affronts our pride and/or makes it impossible to satisfy our desires (either real or imaginary, spontaneous or socially induced).
The validity of a theoretical approach of this type is directly proportional to its ability to explain any specific case it could be applied to, either old or new, near or far, real or literary.
Let us take an initial example to try and apply it, in the knowledge that it could also be applied to any other manifestation of hate between human beings that we might pick. It could be an example from European history.

Hate is the feeling that builds up against people who we think are affronting our pride and/or making it impossible for us to satisfy our desire, either real or imaginary, spontaneous or socially induced

The epidemic of hatred that Hitler infected the German people with

One example to illustrate our thesis is a well-known historical episode that has been extensively studied, although it continues to be of interest. This enigma is often raised, surprising those of us who consider the answer self-evident and difficult to understand that some people still cannot grasp it. The alleged enigma, the question, is always the same: How is it possible that a civilised, cultured people like the Germans could enthusiastically support, en masse, Adolf Hitler in 1938? We could turn the question around: How is it possible that anyone could ask that question, when the answer is crystal clear?

Hitler skilfully managed two basic personal and social mechanisms for people living in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, appealing to any human being, including Adolf Hitler himself, who managed to convert his wounded pride and his frustrated personal desires into a discourse that wooed the masses. He used this discourse to —metaphorically— target the collective wounds of the German people and offered it as a ‘group therapy’ with remarkable success.

Adolf Hitler managed to convert his wounded pride and his frustrated personal desires into a discourse that wooed the masses, touching the collective wounds of the German people

Two recent books (Rees, 2012 and Weber, 2017) have clearly reported this, spotlighting Hitler’s personality and raising very clear theses that fit ours to perfection.

In 1916 “Hitler was still a strange and solitary fellow with voluble political opinions. His transformation into a charismatic leader and brilliant politician with firm nationalistic ideas and extremist and anti-Semite conviction did not begin until 1919, and it was not completed until the middle of the following decade” (Weber, p. 16).

Leni Riefenstahl tells us that Hitler, still a young man, lived with August Kubizek, who said this about him: “He was at odds with the world (…) Wherever he looked he saw injustice, hate and enmity. Nothing was free from his criticism, nothing found favour in his eyes (…). Choking with his catalogue of hates, he would pour his fury over everything, against mankind in general who did not understand him, who did not appreciate him and by whom he was persecuted” (Rees, p. 17). In other words, the young Hitler, who was a real failure at the time, felt that his pride had been seriously wounded, and he had no chance at all of satisfying his personal desires.

If we compare the mood of the German people after the end of the First World War (after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles) with Hitler’s strictly personal mood, we can how hunger begets hunger.

Karl Mayr was an Army captain in Munich who had contact with Hitler in spring 1919. He described him as follows: “At the time, Hitler was willing to join forces with anyone who was friendly towards him. . He never had that martyr spirit of ‘Germany or death’ that he later used so much as a propagandistic catchphrase. He would have worked for a Jewish or French businessmen with as much willingness as for an Arian. When I first met him he was like a tired stray dog that was looking for an owner” (Rees, p. 24).

Thomas Weber’s meticulous analysis focuses on the first months Hitler spent in Munich after being discharged from hospital on 17 November 1918. Hitler’s version of events, which was difficult to confirm or refute in documentary terms, was that he decided to become a Nationalist politician when he learned that the war was over and that a Communist revolt had broken out in Munich. Weber demonstrates that his ideological definition actually took place months later, and that many very important things occurred in the meantime. His political ideas were confused and changing, at least until the summer of 1919. When he arrived in Munich at the end of 1918 he was ideologically and personally disorientated. He saw that the Old Order was collapsing and wavered between democratic and socialist ideas. Soldiers who did not agree with the proclamation of the Free State of Bavaria had the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to the authorities of the revolutionary movement that had triumphed in Munich by joining the Freikorps and resigning from the Bavarian Army. Hitler did not do this, however, which meant and implied, in Weber’s words, that “he actively and deliberately decided to occupy a post with the aim of serving, supporting and defending the revolutionary regime” (p. 77). He was twice elected to represent the soldiers under the orders of the revolutionary government, and photos show him parading behind the coffin of Kurt Eisner, the revolutionary leader who was killed in February 1919.

Weber maintains that Hitler could have joined totally different political movements at the time, provided that they defended some kind of socialism (i.e. suppressing class differences) and nationalism. Indeed, those two terms ended up combined in national socialism.

Between December 1918 and 12 February 1919 Hitler guarded Soviet war prisoners in Traunstein. In Mein Kampf he claims that he was there until March and volunteered to get away from the revolutionary core in Munich, which disgusted him. Weber shows that his real motivation was to stay in the Bavarian Army at all costs, because it was the only place that guaranteed him regular meals and a social life to make up for his lack of family relationships.

For Weber, his metamorphosis really began in May 1919, and specifically on July 9th, when the humiliating clauses of the Treaty of Versailles were confirmed, putting a definitive end to the chance of an honourable armistice. The government that signed it was dependent on the Social Democrat Party, which Hitler was very close to at the time. He soon moved away from it, however. Some military training courses he attended gave him his rudimentary ideas on Judaism, international capitalism and geopolitical history (Weber, pp. 127-138), and he based his primitive, but effective, doctrine on them.

Laurence Rees made an attempt to sense Hitler’s charisma in the hope of understanding the man better but did not succeed. He steeped himself in information about Hitler and got to know the man, his context and era well, and repeatedly watched extensive film footage of Hitler, especially of his speeches, thinking that those images and sounds could perhaps convey his famous charisma. He reached the conclusion that Hitler on the big screen was not charismatic at all. He therefore wondered if he was missing something to be able to understand Hitler’s charisma (that appeal which fascinated most of the German people, although not all of them, as one faction kept its distance from him). What Rees saw in Hitler is what is of interest here: “I was not hungry; humiliated after the loss of a war: unemployed; frightened of widespread violence on the streets; feeling betrayed by the broken promises of the democratic system I lived in; terrified of my savings vanishing in a bank crash; and wanting to be told that all this mess was the fault of someone else” (p. 13).

Translated to the terminology we have adopted here: In the 1920s, after the Armistice of 1918 and the demeaning Treaty of Versailles, Hitler saw a humiliated and ruined nation, a people that had been powerful and wealthy but now had its pride crushed and its desires frustrated. He told the people exactly what they wanted to hear: they have not humiliated us because we are inferior, but because we are the superior race.

We have been betrayed, stabbed in the back and crushed by our enemies, Jews, communists, and the democracies that won the war dishonestly. They have stolen what belonged to us, and now they are making us pay monstrous sums in compensation for having lost the war. But we are not going to let them get away with it. United, we Germans are the best, the strongest, the healthiest. We are going to rise up, break our shackles, get the country back up, rebuild our Army and show all those scoundrels who have humiliated us what a Master Race can do, a race that should rule Europe in its own right. We are going to restore our pride and satisfy our desires because we can and want to do so.

The successes of the early years of Hitler’s government meant that the Germans felt that they had not been tricked. He convinced them that what they wanted to believe was possible: that they were the authentic ‘chosen people’ and all the rest were sub-human beings who were there to serve them as slaves and allow them to satisfy their desires.

The mechanisms for manipulating pride and desire were the same as ever, but the historical situation was highly propitious for this discourse to raise the passions of the masses. The Germans had lost a brutal four-year war, they had been officially declared to blame for it and they had been subjected to a humiliating punishment that forced them to work for the victors by paying astronomic amounts of money. Their old political system based on the Kaiser had been dismantled, they were threatened by the Communist revolution that had just triumphed in Russia, there were violent clashes in the streets, a ferocious economic crisis… All this favoured the arrival of a Messiah who would urge them to rise up and take them back to what they were before the disaster of the war. Or even something better still.

Hans Franck, who later became a governor in Nazi-occupied Poland, attended one of Hitler’s rallies in January 1920 and left a very graphic testimony of what he experienced there, something that millions of Germans would feel soon after:

“The first [thing] that one felt was: the speaker is somehow honest, he does not want to convince you of something that he himself does not fully believe in… And in the pauses of his speech his blue eyes were shining passionately, while he brushed back his hair with his right hand… Everything came from the heart, and he struck a chord with all of us… He uttered what was in the consciousness of all those present and linked general experiences with clear understanding and the common wishes of those who were suffering and wishing for a programme… But not only that. He showed a way, the only way left to people ruined in history, that of the grim new beginning from the most profound depths through courage, faith, readiness for action, hard work, and devotion… a great, shining, common goal… From this evening onwards, though not a party member, I was convinced that if one man could do it, Hitler alone would be capable of mastering Germany’s fate” (Rees, p. 31).

There are many other testimonies that back this up. Otto Strasser, the brother of one of the leading ‘old shirts’ of the Nazi party, Gregor Strasser, expresses the same feeling in these words that explain Hitler’s success as an orator:

Hitler saw a people that had been humiliated and ruined, a people that had been powerful and prosperous but now had its pride crushed and its desires frustrated. And he told those people exactly what they wanted to hear

“I can only attribute it [the success of Hitler as a speaker] to his uncanny intuition, which infallibly diagnosed the ills from which his audience is suffering… speaking as the spirit moves him… he is promptly transformed into one of the greatest speakers of the century. His words go like an arrow to their target, he touches each private wound on the raw, liberating the mass unconscious, expressing its innermost aspirations, telling it what it most wants to hear” (Rees, p. 33).

True, Hitler tried not to go into great detail about his political programme… which is the best way for each listener, depending on their private wounds, to fill in the gaps and project the desires and fantasies that might satisfy their pride and gratify their desires.
Repeatedly, the same mechanism underlies the most diverse manifestations of hatred.

Hitler tried not to go into great detail about his political programme… which is the best way for each listener, depending on their private wounds, to fill in the gaps and project the desires and fantasies that might satisfy their pride and gratify their desires