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Revisiting World War 2 through the Lens of Psychology : World Social Psychiatry


Bhattacharjee, Debanjan; Agrawal, Adesh Kumar; Gowda, Guru S.

Author Information

Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Address for correspondence: Dr. Debanjan Bhattacharjee, Department of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Hosur Road, Bengaluru – 560 029, Karnataka, India. E-mail: [email protected]

Received May 10, 2021

Accepted July 21, 2021

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World War 2 (WW2) has witnessed the rise of influential personalities such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. Many causes have been recorded in a history as causes of WW2; however, we argue that there has been complex psychological interaction between the leaders involved in the background of a crisis charged with paranoia and anxiety. Personality factors of the leaders probably helped as a catalyst in setting a cascade of events that resulted in mass causality. We discuss the psychological aspect of WW2 taking examples of few involved personalities.

War is an armed conflict between groups having common factors in terms of identity, sense of solidarity between individuals, and personality (high neuroticism, extraversion, and low affability).[1,2,3] Among wars that happened in history, World War 2 (WW2) stood out and was considered the deadliest against the human race and the year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the official end of WW2. It began in Europe in 1939, and later included America and Asia, and became a global war. Several possible causes and theories of WW2 have been documented in history such as contemporary dynamic relationships, social, political, and economic problems. Here, we briefly relook into (a) the rise of several famous and powerful personalities such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt, and Benito Mussolini in the sense of an atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety in European countries; and (b) the perception of complex relationships between leaders through the psychological lens in the setting of a cascade of events in WW2.


Both Germany and Italy experienced economic downturns after WW1, resulting in low self-esteem, identity, and negative psychological impact.[4,5,6,7] Both of these trends have led to mistrust of civic and political activities and decreased organizational and social operations.[5] Citizens are deprived of meaning and basic needs and have other similarities in terms of what they want to achieve. They can easily be inspired by the charismatic speech and personality of Adolf Hitler in Germany and Benito Mussolini in Italy. Both charismatic personalities raise hope in the countrymen for the crisis of collective self-identity that was lost in the aftermath of the First World War.[8,9] Hence, it was possible for Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy to rise and become a powerful political leader. There can be an additional psychological underpinning basis of rising in power of both Hitler and Mussolini in Europe.


Hitler had an authoritarian father, was more attached to his mother, and frequently witnessed family violence. He had many traumatic experiences with his father who used to become immediately violent and the attachment with his father has been described as an anxious-avoidant one.[10] Retrospectively, using the Coolidge Axis II inventory to understand Hitler’s personality, highest T scores were observed in paranoid, antisocial, narcissistic, and sadistic personality disorders.[11] His aggressive, antisocial, and dominant personality may have evolved from his complex family interactions. Hitler’s entry into political career occurred at the time of his adolescence which Erikson mentions as the period where individuals try to find an identity and his antisemitic ideas and other political ideologies can be conceptualized as a way to resolve the identity crisis by the age of 30 years.[12] According to Erich Fromm, Hitler failed to resolve his oedipal complex and transferred his unconscious desires onto his motherland Germany with a preoccupation of creating lebensraum and the eradication of Jews. Like Hitler, Mussolini has been described as malignant narcissistic.[13] Jung met both Hitler and Mussolini and found Mussolini to be warm and energetic as opposed to Hitler.[11] Mussolini on the other struggled from being a street-corner orator to the head of the government addressing thousands in crowds and emerged as a powerful orator and established fascism. On similar lines, fascism has been described to be based on mass psychology and a personality with a mixture of paranoid, aggressive, and schizoid personality traits.[14,15]


Winston Churchill led Britain whereas Germany and Italy were led by Hitler and Mussolini respectively. There were a hostile and uncertain environment and an increasing sense of paranoia among European leaders before the Second World War.[16] On September 3, 1939, in reaction to Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain, and France, both allies declared war on Germany. Churchill has been described as a Type I leader with great charisma and discipline. He had perfectionism and a great drive for power and aggression. Being a great motivational speaker with his famous V sign, he could move masses against the enemies.[17] Furthermore, his belief in his greatness and his tendency to project that view onto his country has been described as adaptive forms of narcissism or healthy narcissism as described by Kohut.[18] The act of war and aggression between Britain and Germany can be seen as a disturbance of the narcissistic equilibrium between Hitler and Churchill. In personality dynamics, projective identification occurs when a subject has an affect or impulse that he or she finds unacceptable and projects onto someone else as if it was really that other person who originated the affect or impulse.[19] Individuals with narcissism have fragile self-esteem and get easily hurt and threatened. They react by going to their grandiose self-image, especially in the background of insecurity and paranoia. Kohut described narcissistic rage in relation to aggression where individuals need to control their environment, go for revenge, and turn from a passive sense of victimization to an active role of giving pain to others when there is a disturbance in the narcissistic equilibrium. The rage is directed to a person who is in a self-object relationship with a narcissistic individual.[20] Later in1940, Mussolini from Italy joined with Hitler facing the threat of losing. In the face of threat, narcissistic individuals face unpleasant arousal which makes them get close to others for protection which can explain Mussolini’s behavior, Both Hitler and Mussolini had similar philosophies in terms of their concern for conquest and personality. Besides, both had a mutual idealization and recognition where both the self and the object admire each other in terms of narcissistic transference.[21]


The phenomenon of mutual idealization and recognition has also been observed between Hitler of Germany and Stalin of Russia, who evolved as a dictator in Soviet Russia in the mid-1920’s. Both of the countries signed The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact which was a nonaggression pact. Stalin identified himself with Hitler and had admired each other on several occasions.[22] Stalin had a turbulent childhood where he was often traumatized by the disturbing relationship between his parents and witnessed violence and also faced the same. All these led him to have a negative self-image and an inferiority complex which he used to overcome by inflating self-esteem also described as malignant narcissism.[13,22,23,24] His narcissism was malignant to such an extent that he bluntly ignored the warnings from various sources of impending Nazi invasion of Russia.[13] This also highlights the importance of what mutual idealization has in a narcissistic relationship. However, he was also paranoid about Hitler about his relationships with Britain. Psychodynamically, paranoia originates in the development of an object relationship with the father and needs to maintain personal autonomy and can be activated by any anxiety-producing situations. The affected person identifies himself with the father who is the aggressor. Narcissism and the inner low self-esteem create a conflict in the unconscious mind. This phenomenon was quite common between both Stalin and Hitler.[22] The relationship between Hitler and Stalin started deteriorating following Molotov’s visit to Germany in 1940. Hitler got agitated by Molotov’s approach, who represented Russia and Stalin. Subsequently, Hitler attacked Russia. As in mutual idealization and recognition, if the other stops admiring or supporting then the self feels humiliated and can get expressed as aggression as a psychological phenomenon out of disturbance of narcissistic.[21] This phenomenon can explain the aftermath of Molotov’s visit to Germany.


Franklin D Roosevelt, a contemporary of Hitler and Stalin, has been described as a master of public psychology. On personality assessment, he scored low in neuroticism and his focus was predominantly on the individual needs of people.[25] While other European countries adopted an aggressive approach, Roosevelt’s ability in calming fear and anger was one of his important achievements which can be viewed as an existential approach.[26] We see Roosevelt’s delay indirectly involving in the war during the crisis until Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan which can be attributed to his low neuroticism as it is negatively associated with aggression.


Post-WW 2 gave rise to a bipolar world with a conflict between America and the Soviet Union commonly referred to as the Cold War, where psychological warfare had a prominent role which was again shaped by the personalities of concerned leaders along with their ideological differences. This was followed by the fall of the Soviet Union and rise of American hegemony and the creation of a unipolar world.[27,28] The fight for predominant polarity has continued since then, and the personalities of the world leaders and ideological differences shape the foreign policies of individual countries. Hence, multilateral diplomacy and major conflicts in the recent past between nations need to be examined on a psychosocial basis.


Although there were various economic and political causes which might have resulted in WW2, we argue that there were obvious psychological factors behind WW2. As war is an act of aggression and violence and aggression is a psychological phenomenon which is influenced by personality. Although it will be unwise to determine the personality of anyone without personally meeting them, most of the leaders had deficits in some or other domains of personality functioning. We see how personality functioning can influence interpersonal dynamics and mass psychology. We also highlight Kohut’s theories on self-psychology and narcissistic rage in aggression and Erikson’s views on self-identity. Early-life anxieties and conflicts can lead to dysfunctional personality and aggressive behavior which is important to be identified.[29] WW2 may have been the outcome of these complex dynamics within them and between them, on one side a want to conquer and on the other side a psychological threat from the opponent to protect their state.[22] The contemporary situation in Europe and interpersonal dynamics has been a catalyst in setting the cascade of events in WW2 and hence personality functioning becomes an important aspect of an individual’s life and can have both positive and negative consequences.

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Conflicts of interest

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Interpersonal dynamics; mass psychology; personality; World War 2

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