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


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.

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    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

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    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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