Review: Hitler: His Life and Legend, by Walter C. Langer

At the height of the Second World War, Allied intelligence services grew increasingly interested in the personal life of the German F├╝hrer, Adolf Hitler. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) spent months developing an elaborate series of plans to assassinate him. The American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which evolved into the CIA, had similar thoughts, and commissioned Harvard psychologist Walter C. Langer to do a full psychological profile of the German dictator. This short book is the result of his efforts.

Langer and his team worked over the course of five months, interviewed people who knew Hitler, read everything they could get their hands on, producing in the end this remarkable work. It should be said at the outset that it is a deeply flawed work, as they were not able to meet Hitler face to face, and relied on much rumour and hearsay. They were also constrained by a rather strict Freudian interpretation of Hitler’s life and motivations. Langer, for example, is absolutely certain that Hitler witnessed his parents engaged in sexual intercourse — only that could explain several features of Hitler’s personality, he believed.

Some of his conclusions might strike us as odd today. For example, he is certain that Hitler was quite “feminine” and that the toxic masculinity of the Nazi movement and regime was his way of over-compensating for this. As proof of his femininity, Langer cites “his gait, his hands, his mannerisms and ways of thinking”. Hitler was also characterised by his “extreme sentimentality, his emotionality, his occasional softness and his weeping”. These conclusions led the OSS to consider some rather bizarre plans to bring him down (which Langer does not discuss).

But Langer’s usefulness to the OSS and its legendary founder, “Wild Bill” Donovan, can be seen in his predictions and recommendations. Looking at eight possible ends to Hitler’s rule over Germany, he concludes that suicide was most likely and is dismissive of other possibilities. As for assassinating Hitler, Langer opposed the idea. It “would be undesirable from our point of view,” he wrote, “inasmuch as it would make a martyr of him and strengthen the legend.”