Forensic Psychiatry: Trying to Tie Historical Villains To Mental Illness

Over the years, I’ve heard a variety of theories concerning the mental conditions of some of the most notorious figures in history. Hitler is most often invoked, suspected of any number of conditions including paranoid schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder (formerly known as manic depression). Stalin’s behavior has been attributed to brain damage caused by atherosclerosis. And pretty much every major villain has been associated with psychopathy.

Because we just can’t cope with the idea that healthy people can make such horrible choices.

Students periodically ask about it. “I heard somewhere that Hitler was that way because he was bi-polar.”  Maybe he was bi-polar (totally not my area), but, no, that’s not what made Hitler be Hitler.

The Limits of Forensic Psychiatry

Psychiatry is a highly subjective field of study. There is neither blood test nor machine to indicate psychiatric conditions. In most cases, psychiatrists insist on interacting with the patient before forming a diagnosis. Time becomes one more veil across an already murky subject (although in the case of Stalin we do have testimony of doctors who knew him while he was alive).

Reputation becomes another, particularly when judgment comes from armchair historians. We know these figures for their depravity and inhumanity. We define them by their flaws. But mental illness is about both what people do and don’t do. Psychopathy includes a lack of emotional attachment. But Hitler was devoted to his mother and genuinely devastated by her death.  Many psychopaths play out their cruel detachments on animals, but Hitler was fond and protective of them.

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Motives for “Madness”

Hitler was meticulous in his brand of logic. His hatred of Jews was not some half-baked excuse to be murderous.  Europe was anti-Semitic long before Hitler. Theories of racial superiority backed up by pseudo-science had been in fashion for decades. His hierarchy of races was complex. He eliminated these lesser beings not as sport but as a service to the betters, just as we poison insects and rodents because they contaminate our space and use up resources.

He made choices, just like the rest of us. But…sane people don’t behave like that, right? We say that about moms who kill their children and serial killers. If we accept that such people are mentally healthy, then we accept that any one of us has the capability to do the same as them.

It’s easier to just call them crazy.

Real Mental Illness

In fact, even if figures like Hitler had mental illnesses, that doesn’t explain their actions. Many mental ill people can often live normally, particularly with treatment. More severe cases are so disrupted by their conditions that they don’t have the focus to care for themselves or hold a job, much less engineer genocide.

And if you want to claim that mental illness drove these people to depravity, how do you explain the fact at 99.9% of the mentally ill make no attempt at world domination?

Regardless of their mental health, blaming these people’s places in history on such conditions stigmatizes others suffering the same conditions, encouraging the notion that the mentally ill are inherently dangerous, cruel, illogical and out-of-control.

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One comment

  • Jason Owen

    Good article! I agree, that while there are/were some mental illnesses present in some bad people, not everyone who does bad things is mentally ill. I wonder if it could be called ‘socially’ ill?

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