It's No Coincidence That Hitler Was a Germaphobe

Hitler appeared to have been highly sensitive to disgust, and research shows this trait is linked to numerous dimensions of ideology.

Adolph Hitler
Adolph Hitler


Hitler seemed obsessed with the idea of infection. The Nazi leader was, by most accounts, a germaphobe who avoided personal contact and bathed incessantly. He was repelled by sex, horrified by venereal disease. He referred to himself as an Einsiedler – a hermit. He extolled the virtues of celibacy and claimed prostitution was for inferior races, though some have proposed Hitler himself contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute in Vienna in 1908. 

It was in ideology, however, where Hitler's obsession with infection thrived, becoming the essential Nazi metaphor: Germany was the body, Jews were the parasites

Examples are abundant in his speeches and writings:

“How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! We shall regain our health only be eliminating the Jew.”

“Anyone who wants to cure this era, which is inwardly sick and rotten, must first of all summon up the courage to make clear the causes of this disease.”

“This is the battle against a veritable world sickness which threatens to infect the peoples, a plague that devastates whole peoples...an international pestilence.”

“The Jew is a parasite in the body of other nations.”

Germany, without blinking an eyelid, for whole decades admitted these Jews by the hundred thousand. But now… when the nation is no longer willing to be sucked dry by these parasites, on every side one hears nothing but laments.

“If this battle should not come...Germany would decay and at best sink to ruin like a rotting corpse.”

Do Hitler's germaphobic tendencies and obsession with the infection metaphor reveal anything about his personality traits? While it's impossible to know for sure, it seems likely that he was highly sensitive to disgust.

Over the past couple of decades, studies have linked disgust sensitivity to numerous dimensions of ideology – immigration, political affiliation, sense of justice. If Hitler ranked high on the disgust scale, there were probably deeply rooted psychological forces lurking underneath his xenophobia and murderous fantasies that research on the behavioral immune system might help bring to light.

How disgust relates to personality and ideology

Disgust is a protective emotion. It causes us to lurch back from a rotten apple, or take an extra big step over dog poop on the sidewalk. These reactions are part of the behavioral immune system, which evolved to help us detect and avoid things in our environment that cause disease. That’s why we find some things universally repulsive – urine, feces, vomit. 

What’s strange, however, is that an acute sense of disgust can extend beyond these things and into the social world, causing some to feel repulsed by certain ethnic groups. This might have once served an evolutionary function: In earlier times, it was probably useful to be wary of unfamiliar individuals or groups because they might have carried disease.

Today, this same evolutionary function might be playing a role in the immigration debate. According to a recent paper, people who are acutely sensitive to disgust are more likely to oppose immigration. The researchers explained:

It is the presence of physically and culturally distinct immigrants that poses a threat to individuals concerned about pathogens, not the intentions of the immigrants. Second, individuals motivated by pathogen avoidance are especially motivated to avoid contact with immigrants, potentially preventing the sorts of experiences that may engender tolerance. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that the behavioral immune system emerges as a potent—and distinct—obstacle to inclusive attitudes and tolerance.

Other studies have linked high disgust sensitivity to:

  • Support for conservative ideology
  • Personality types that value order and tradition
  • The desire to strongly condemn moral violations
  • Opposition to gay marriage and abortion
  • (Source)

    Hitler arguably qualifies for almost every dimension to which high disgust sensitivity is linked. Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson elaborates on the connection between disgust and Nazism in the video below, about an hour into the lecture:

    Still, how could one leader's disgust-oriented rhetoric have influenced an entire country? 

    Metaphor and the Final Solution

    The Jew is the parasite of humanity. He can be a parasite for an individual person, a social parasite for whole peoples, and the world parasite of humanity. – Excerpt from "The Jew as World Parasite," a Nazi propaganda pamphlet

    The use of metaphoric language in Nazi Germany has been studied at length since the end of World War II. On a psychological level, the dehumanization of the Jewish population through language was crucial in carrying out the Final Solution because deeming the Jews to be rats or parasites made extermination the logical and “necessary” course of action.

    (A Nazi propaganda video compares the Jewish population to rats and parasites)

    Some have considered the Nazi use of metaphorical language to be a “rhetorical trick,” a cynical manipulation of the cultural conversation to advance a murderous fantasy. But others, like Andreas Mulsoff, who penned Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust, thought Hitler’s parasite metaphor sat at the bedrock of his ideology, conveying his “fundamental cognitive processes” and serving as an “integral part of the ideology that made the holocaust happen.”

    In his essay The Jewish Parasite, Alex Bein argues that Nazi ideology captivated the German people through repeated use of words and concepts that eventually led to “belief in the reality of a fantasy.” Richard A. Koenigsberg, author of the seminal Hitler's Ideology, elaborated:

    “In language, Bein explains, thoughts and conceptions are mirrored. Nazism crept into the flesh and blood of the masses by means of “single words, terms and phrases, and stock expressions” which, imposed upon the people a million times over in continuous reiteration, were “mechanically and unconsciously absorbed by them.” The presentation of Jews as corroding and poison parasites as vermin, bacteria and bacilli—everywhere infecting and striving to destroy the body of the German people— “paralyzed any internal resistance on the part of the masses.””


    (Anti-Semetic Nazi propaganda)

    A recent study suggests that disgust-oriented language can wield surprising power over our biases. Researchers Lene AaroeMichael Bang Petersen and Kevin Arceneaux asked two groups of participants to read a passage about a hospital employee coming in contact with bodily fluids. The passage given to one group, however, included an addition part in which the hospital employee thoroughly washes his hands. Anti-immigration sentiment dropped by 47 percent among this group, leading researchers to claim:

    [Pathogen avoidance] plays a causal role in the formation of immigration attitudes and because hand washing is not logically connected with immigration attitudes, it ostensibly does so outside of one’s conscious awareness.

    The findings imply that threats of actual infection need not be present in order for our sense of disgust to unconsciously affect how we see groups of people. Mere language can accomplish that.

    Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

    A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

    Photo Credit: HS2
    Culture & Religion
    • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
    • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
    • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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    Are we really addicted to technology?

    Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

    Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
    Technology & Innovation

    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

    In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

    But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

    In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

    Popularizing medical language

    What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

    To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

    If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

    LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

    "Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

    "We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

    "These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

    The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

    "If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

    Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

    But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

    Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

    In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

    "That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

    "Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

    Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

    Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

    "It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

    Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

    People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

    JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

    There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

    For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

    "For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

    "Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

    In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

    "None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

    "I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

    Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

    "The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

    "And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

    This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

    "Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

    Learned helplessness

    The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

    "The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

    So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

    "A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

    Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

    "If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

    But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

    For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

    Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

    The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

    According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

    Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
    Strange Maps
    • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
    • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
    • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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