Whether Sigmund Freud could have eased the hatred of Adolf Hitler in the years leading up to World War I, when they both were in Vienna, is a question that historians of psychology like to ask themselves, even though there is no clear answer: The young Hitler was obviously disturbed, but there is nothing to suggest that he should have been certifiably crazy during his years in Vienna. Hitler did not cave in until later in his life. Whether it was shellshocks and the mustard gas of Word War I, his prison sentence of 1923, or something entirely different that eventually drove Hitler psychotic is impossible to say. What we do know, however, is that Hitler, like so many of history’s great figures, should likely be placed somewhere in the twilight zone between crazy and normal.
These days, academic psychology finds itself at a strange crossroads: The first psychoanalysts (1890-1960) all operated within a totally speculative theoretical framework and their findings could not be repeated, verified or disproved. Their work, in other words, does not meet today’s criteria for science, and furthermore, according to some studies, classical psychoanalysis is incapable of actually curing patients. Whether the form of psychotherapy first suggested by Freud may still be taken seriously, then, is a good question. But the schools of thought that Freud played a key part in founding are still perceived by many professionals as offering the deepest and most satisfying conjectures on advanced psychological problems.
Return of the Classical Method
So given that psychoanalysis is speculative, what would it say about the Norwegian terrorist, Anders Breivik? The debate rages on as to whether Breivik is crazy or not. A third interpretation, however, holds that Breivik is to be counted as somewhere in the borderlands between crazy and normal – just like the young Hitler.
But which pathology should we ascribe to Breivik? At first glance, it might seem rather tempting to assign Breivik to the role of psychopath, just like the Norwegian police have done. And Breivik does indeed share the psychopath’s egocentricity and sense that society’s rules can be broken as needed. Yet Breivik is just not an antisocial sociopath like Bobby Fischer, Saddam Hussein or Charles Manson: Where the psychopath’s selfishness is perceived by psychoanalysis as linked to early neglect from parents and other authorities, which make it hard for the psychopath to rely on others, Breivik’s selfishness is a defense: It is an attempt to shut out critical feedback from the environment so as to avoid feeling inferior to others. And where the psychopath’s violation of the rules is justified by the fact that life is a Machiavellian arena where everyone will have to step on each other to come out on top, Breivik’s double standard is rather due to the fact that he sees himself as so unique that the rules simply do not apply to him. Anders Behring Breivik is not a psychopath; he is a narcissist.
The Mold of Narcissism
According to psychoanalysis, the onset of pathological narcissism occurs when parents fail to respond to the child’s actual behaviour, preferring instead to let the appreciation of the child serve as an instrument of their own self-esteem. To develop a realistic self-image, it is necessary for the child that its parents provide it with coherent and realistic feedback based on the child’s actual doings, rather than what the parents want to see in the child. Without realistic feedback that mirrors the child’s actual behaviour back to it, the child will not be able to form a coherent sense of who it really is. Consequently, the adult narcissist has only a weak and underdeveloped sense of self and to compensate, the narcissist will strive to attain the recognition of others, even at the expense of the narcissist’s own values and feelings.
It is important that we constantly keep in mind that the responsibility for the crimes that Breivik committed is exclusively his own. But if we look into the information regarding his family history it seems that both parents apparently ignored what was best for their son: Allegedly, Breivik’s father first fought fiercely to obtain custody of his son, only to suddenly abandon his efforts and finally disown his son entirely. “I cannot think of a fate that would be worse for a boy than being abandoned by his father,” Freud wrote. But WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was also abandoned by his father, and although one can argue that Assange suffers from a paranoid disorder, at least Assange is not a narcissist. It takes more to forge a psyche like Breivik’s, and indeed more there is: Reportedly, Breivik’s mother pampered and waited upon him until he was over 30 years old. Furthermore, the mother has been incredibly admiring and proud of him. What Oedipal feelings she may have had for her son, we can only guess, but what is abundantly clear, however, is that both parents have used Breivik as an instrument in nurturing their own self-esteem, and none of them have managed to take an interest in the real Breivik.
Uniform and fake medals
A narcissist like Breivik is thus split between two polarized self-images: A small and underdeveloped self that he is ashamed of, and an inflated and grandiose self which he has developed to compensate. We all harbour these extremes, but what is special about narcissists is that these two poles are largely unintegrated: To the narcissist there is no middle ground between the two extremes and thus it follows that if the narcissist can not perceive himself as perfect, he will naturally have to think of himself as worthless.
It is this kind of black and white thinking that gives rise to the narcissist’s compulsion to do anything to bring the grandiose self to fruition, even if the actions required to do so may hurt the narcissist’s own feelings and values. The grandiose self is not an extension of the narcissist’s real self, but rather an idealized self-image that the narcissist has created on the basis of what he thinks will gain the admiration of others, thus confirming the grandiose self.
We can thus explain why Breivik subscribed to a home-grown ideology-mix consisting of Freemasonry, Hindu nationalism, Catholic liturgy, Asatru, and Knights Templar mystique; we can also explain his desire to appear before the court wearing a uniform and medals that he has not earned: All of the above can be seen as the little self’s attempts to clothe itself in empowering affiliations, which would goad the outside world to confirm Breivik’s grandiose self-image.
Here, the contrast with the psychopath is showcased anew: For the psychopath knows exactly what he likes and dislikes, but that is not the case with the narcissist who gropes around blindly in a confused and self-alienated hunt for status and admiration. Where the psychopath has a grandiose self-image and is very active in defining and manipulating his environment (like Bobby Fischer, who during 1972 World Championships complained about both the lighting, the chessboard, and the table that the board was placed on). To compare, narcissists also have a grandiose self-image, but in contrast to the psychopath, the narcissist is distinctly passive in dealing with his immediate environment as the narcissist typically lets his grandiose self be defined by the expectations of others.
Influenced by the debate
By now the uncomfortable realization comes knocking, that the harsh sentiments of the political debate concerning Islam actually did have an effect on Anders Breivik’s decision to carry through the terrorist attacks: While we still insist that the blame is solely Breivik’s, we can now say that Breivik did not carry out his attacks because he had any genuine feelings in the way of bringing him closer to any political end: No, Breivik did it because he had correctly identified that there would be an audience to laud him for his misdeeds, thereby confirming the grandiose and inflated self-image that would otherwise seem increasingly out of touch with reality by now that the uneducated and jobless Norwegian had turned 32.
The analysis of Breivik leaves us with the image of an extremely fragile man. A man who was so afraid to have the grandiose self violated that he actually warned police not to treat him as a lowlife murderer when he called up the police saying, “Breivik. Commander. Organized in the anti-communist resistance movement against Islamization. The mission is completed and will surrender to Delta Force.”
Campaign for fame
The aim of Breivik’s “mission” was thus hardly anything other than fame and admiration. Tragic as the realization is, it is probably therefore true when Breivik says that he would have halted his massacre much earlier, if only the police would actually have taken his call. In the absence of psychopathic traits Breivik would not have enjoyed taking life, which is also confirmed by the fact that he spared a victim who unexpectedly had the opportunity to appeal through emotion, as well as by the fact that he had music in his ears to drown out the screams of his victims.