A shift to the right in the 21st century. Wilhelm Reich’s „Mass Psychology of Fascism“ as an Approach to Explanation

Lecture by Andreas Peglau, 7.9.2018, 16th EABP Congress Berlin, translated by Martina Weitendorf.

In November 1930, 33-year-old Wilhelm Reich moved from Vienna to Berlin – in the hope of a favourable environment for his therapeutic, sexual reform and political activities. In all these areas he had previously come into conflict with Sigmund Freud and his colleagues.
There are only a few architectural testimonies of Reich’s work in Berlin. I would like to show you four of them before I move on to the main topic of my presentation.

First the Schickler building on the Spree, not far from Alexanderplatz.

Foto: G. Peters

From 1931, the headquarters of the Marxist Workers‘ School, an educational institution close to the German Communist Party KPD, was located there, reaching several thousand people of different social classes every year. Among the lecturers were the physicist Albert Einstein, the architect Walter Gropius, the writer Anna Seghers – and, from February 1931, Wilhelm Reich as well, who spoke about „Psychoanalysis and Marxism“.

Reich was also a member of the board of a Germany-wide Communist Party-related sexual reform movement, the „Unity Associations for Proletarian Sexual Reform and Maternity Protection“. Their Berlin organization maintained several sexual counseling centers founded by Reich. One of them was in today’s Grünberger Straße in Berlin-Friedrichshain.

Foto: A. Peglau

Not least these activities ensured that Reich became the most popular psychoanalytic author in the German-speaking world between 1930 and 1933 – after Freud.
Another place testifies that this success also became known to its political opponents. On the Bebel-Platz in Berlin-Mitte, opposite the Humboldt University, the central act of the Nazi book burns took place on May 10, 1933.

Foto: G. Peters

At least 20,000 books were destroyed that evening alone, by Karl Marx, Kurt Tucholsky, Romain Rolland, Jack London and Maxim Gorki, among others. Reich was – along with Freud – one of four psychoanalysts whose works were also affected.

And finally I would like to draw your attention to Schlangenbader Strasse No. 87 in Berlin-Wilmersdorf, where Reich lived from 1931 – and where he also treated.

Foto: A. Peglau

This house – which now has a memorial plaque – can rightly be described as the „birthplace of body psychotherapy“.

Foto: A. Peglau

Reich had already understood in 1929 that „the initial conflict of the mental illness […] is physiologically and structurally anchored in the form of muscular disorder.“ Since then he has focused on the verbal expression of feelings and thoughts in addition to the body language. In Berlin, he incorporated this more systematically into the treatment. This reflects a case story he told in 1931.

Reich wrote: „At first it was not easy to persuade the patient to reactivate the defiant actions of childhood.“ A noble man can’t do such a thing.“ Reich „tried to interpret it at first, but came across complete ignorance“ of his efforts. „Now“ he „began to imitate the patient.“ Thus insecure, probably also angry, the patient – quote – reacted:

„with an involuntary stamping. I took the opportunity and asked him to let himself go completely. At first he did not understand how one could invite him to such a thing, but finally he began with more and more courage to throw himself back and forth on the sofa in order to then move on to affective brazen screaming and roaring out unarticulated, animal-like sounds. Such a fit became particularly strong when I once told him that his defense of his father was only a masking of his excessive hatred against him. I also did not hesitate to grant this hatred some rational justification. His actions now began to take on an uncanny character. He roared so much that the people in the house began to become anxious. This could not disturb us, because we knew that only in this way could he relive his childlike neurosis fully, affectively, not only in terms of memory“.

End of quote. In this procedure – unthinkable for Freud – Reich was confronted with the unprecedented intensity of the destructiveness that his patients normally hid behind an adapted, polite mask. If their neurotic expectations were not met, if they were instead supported in showing their feelings which were now rising, hatred for oppressive authorities, accumulated since childhood often broke out – in thoughts, words, feelings and body language. Reich thus discovered a specifically body-psychotherapeutic approach, clearly superior to the purely psychoanalytical approach, to understanding destructive behavior – of which fascism is only one variation.

Reich now also recognized pent-up hatred on the streets of Berlin – rationalized and channeled through party ideologies and organizations. And not only with „rights“.
Thus he saw the brown columns of the SA marching through Berlin and registered: „They did not differ in attitude, expression and singing from the communist red front fighter departments.“ In addition, the SA and NSDAP members often came from the same, mostly proletarian conditions as their communist counterparts. How was this possible when the working class was almost inevitably on the side of social progress? How could Hitler, contrary to all supposedly objective Marxist development laws, start his triumphal march?

Reich’s answers can be found in the book „Massenpsychologie des Faschismus“ published in 1933. It is one of the most important psychoanalytic books ever published: and, for a long time, almost the endpoint of socially critical psychoanalysis. It was also the first publication of what is now called right-wing extremism research. Reichs could not have written it without his body-psychotherapeutic experiences.

Many theses of „mass psychology“ are never obsolete. But since 2014 their explosive power has increased.

In May 2014, the European elections brought massive gains in votes for „right-wing“ parties in France, Great Britain, Denmark, Greece, Austria and Hungary. In Germany, the „Patriotic Europeans against an Islamization of the West“, abbreviated PEGIDA, mobilized tens of thousands of people and the right-wing AfD party – the „Alternative for Germany“ – had first election successes.

In 2015 there were more than 1000 attacks on refugee shelters in Germany. In 2016, Donald Trump, also often classified as a „right-wing populist“, won the elections in the USA. In 2017 the Alternative for Germany moved into the German Bundestag. In Austria, a government came into being from the Austrian People Party ÖVP and the right-wing populist party the so-called Free Austrian Party FPÖ, whereby the Free Austrian Party took over both the Foreign Ministry and the leadership of the army and police.

Such a coalition had already existed 17 years earlier. But the journal Spiegel.online noted a significant difference:

„Vienna is relieved to note that there is no outcry abroad (…) – unlike in 2000, when the first ÖVP-FPÖ alliance came into being. At that time, the EU states imposed sanctions on Austria. Today we know that Europe as a whole has moved to the right and that in several EU states right-wing populists are also governing. Austria is no longer alone.“

How important it is to include Reich’s findings in the understanding of these processes is proven by previous answers to the question: „What is the reason for this shift to the right?

As recently as May 2014, experts invited by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation were involved in this topic. Regarding the situation in France, they presumed as background: „The socially weak sections of the population are insecure.“ In Greece, the right-wing extremist party „Golden Dawn“ has successfully adopted the topic of increasing „immigration“. In Hungary, the reason was „the persistently poor economic situation“. In June 2014, representatives of the antifascist resistance fighter federation found the following reasons: „unemployment“, insufficient resistance of the working class, support of social democratic parties for „international capital“.
In 2015, experts invited by the Ebert Foundation once again explained the „shift to the right“ as follows: people were looking for „simple solutions“ and found them with „right-wing“ parties. The fact that the French Front National uses „racist stereotypes“ increases its popularity. The growing support for the „right-wing“ Hungarian party Jobbik is linked to the fact that it is renouncing aggressive symbolic language in favour of affable self-portrayals by Jobbik boss Gábor Vona „with a little dog on his lap“.

All of this is astonishingly similar to the helpless attempts of interpretation that Wilhelm Reich had already described in „Mass Psychology“ in 1933. Quote:

„The communists explained, for example, the seizure of power by fascism from the illusionary, misleading politics of social democracy. This explanation basically leads into a dead end, because it is precisely the function of social democracy to spread illusions as an objective support for capital. Just as unproductive is the explanation that the political reaction in the form of fascism would have ‚clouded‘, ’seduced‘ and ‚hypnotized‘ the masses. This is and remains the function of fascism as long as it exists. Isn’t it obvious to ask what is going on in the masses that they didn’t want to and couldn’t recognize this role? […]
The basic question is: Why do the workers let themselves be politically deceived? They had every opportunity to control the propaganda of the various parties. Why didn’t they discover that Hitler promised the workers expropriation of possession of means of production and the capitalists protection from strikes at the same time?“

Why, then, can we still ask today in the style of Reich, are people looking for supposedly „simple“ but actually transparently wrong solutions?
Why does unemployment and insecurity make people reactionary – instead of revolutionary?
Why did the working class „not fight back enough“ in 2014 either – and still refuses to do so today?
Why does increasing immigration generate chauvinist exclusion instead of solidarity, for example in the fight against the real perpetrators of those wars and impoverishment that decisively trigger this immigration?
Why do people fall for racist stereotypes by the dozen?
What must go on in them that they react positively to pictures of „right“ party leaders „with a little dog on their lap“?
None of the „classical“ fascism definitions and none of the attempts at explanation quoted here provide an answer to this. So is there another basis of „right“ developments that needs to be added to the factors mentioned in order to achieve this effect?

Reich also asked himself this question in 1933. His answers are based on the way children were educated in the German Empire and the Weimar Republic.

The child first „goes through the authoritarian miniature state of the family, […] in order to later be able to classify himself in the general social framework“. According to Reich, the „moral inhibition of natural sexuality“ – which begins in the family and is confirmed by the church and its anti-sex patriarchal myths – makes it „fearful, shy, fearful of authority, good and educable in the bourgeois sense“.
The anger created by oppressive education, which must not be directed against the educators, accumulates and thus turns a healthy willingness to aggression into a willingness to destroy. He is looking for spare valves and scapegoats: The authoritarian character with its hump-up and kick-down is complete.
This process changes „the economically oppressed person“ in such a way that he „acts, feels and thinks against his own interests“. The „more helpless the mass individual because of his upbringing“, the more intense the desire for an – authoritarian – substitute father. But „[only] then, when the [psychological] structure of a leader personality sounds together with mass individual structures of broad circles, a ‚leader‘ can make history“.
In Germany around 1930 this was more true for Adolf Hitler than for anyone else. The „petit-bourgeois origin“ of his ideas coincided in the main features „with the mass-psychological milieu of the structures that willingly accept these ideas“. That the National Socialist „mass organisation succeeded“ was therefore „because of the masses and not because of Hitler“.

Since the fascist movement owes its success largely to psychological constellations that have been produced for generations, the confrontation with the capitalist economic order is not enough to erradicate fascism. Ultimately, it is patriarchy and its authoritarian-emotionally suppressive socialisation that must be combated.

But does what Reich described back then still apply today? To what extent do we live, measured by the factors that according to Reich were jointly responsible for „right“ developments – destructiveness generating churches and small families, sexual repression, patriarchy, capitalism – to what extent do we live under similar circumstances?

In my brief communications on this I will confine myself to Germany, but I assume that the same applies to conditions in other countries as well. However, developments in Spain and Portugal show that there are already significant differences in Europe, at least in terms of the political impact. Perhaps we could go into that in more detail in our discussion afterwards.

Now, first, the role of the – German – churches.

Today, they influence political trends much less than 100 years ago. As long as the state provides them with 460 million euros each year in addition to church tax – no matter how many believers still belong to them -, as long as almost nationwide Christian religious school education remains installed and more than half of Germans are at least formally „church-bound“, churches continue to have an impact on their own and world views. And not only in the sense of charity and peacekeeping.
The Catholic Church’s attitude to contraception, premarital and extramarital sex, homosexuality and celibacy continues to have an emotionally and sexually suppressive and thus destructive effect – as demonstrated by the sexual abuse rampant in its institutions.
In 2014 some statements by military bishop Sigurd Rink reaffirmed: Even in the once strongly pacifistically committed Protestant Church, the triad’s advocacy of arms exports, war missions and foreign policy aggressiveness is growing.
In 2016, surveys once again proved that Christian attitudes do not protect against „right-wing“ ideas: With regard to right-wing extremist attitudes, „the non-denominational (i.e. the neither catholic nor protestant people) attain the lowest values and the Catholics the highest“, members of the Protestant Church were in between.

Conditions in German small families are now far less restrictive than on the eve of the „Third Reich“. Until 1998, however, the „right of corporal punishment“, i.e. the parental mistreatment permit, still applied in the Federal Republic of Germany. Only in 2000 did the Bundestag finally include the folllowing passage in the Civil Code: „Children have a right to an upbringing free of violence. Physical punishment, psychological injury and other degrading measures are inadmissible.“ Nevertheless, according to the German Children Protection Organisation Kinderschutzbund Deutschland, three children die every week in Germany due to abuse or neglect. Severe neglect is experienced by ten percent of children, easier forms of neglect by 50%. 17% are emotionally mistreated, 15% physically – the same number suffer sexual abuse, two percent of them in severe form.

Nevertheless, compared to the first half of the 20th century, the extent of open sexual repression in Germany is lower. But even a sexuality permanently marketed through advertising, the porn industry and prostitution are diametrically opposed to a sex life that can actually be called free or healthy. In an EU study published in 2014, 12% of all women reported having been subjected to sexual harassment or abuse by adults before the age of 15, 33% reported having suffered physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15, and 5% reported having been raped. In this study, Germany performed worse than the average of European countries.

Patriarchal traits also still exist in Germany. We profit economically from women’s and child labour in strictly patriarchally structured countries such as India. Every year thousands of women come to our country, who in the worst case are physically and emotionally ruined as forced prostitutes, in the more favourable case they work as „care migrants“ under conditions that can often be classified as „modern slavery“. But also old-established German Federal Republic citizens receive on the average eight per cent less wage than their male colleagues, and since they work far more than men in badly paid jobs with smaller weekly working time, they carry 22% less gross wage back home.

It is so clear that we live in a capitalist system that I will not go into it here. Reich has repeatedly pointed out that healthy psychosocial conditions cannot be established in class societies. Alienated work, exploitation, unjust distribution of money, possessions and life-forming possibilities as well as permanent subordination and dependence in the sphere of work lead to a deepening of mental deformations formed in childhood. Neoliberalism, which is itself pronouncedly „right-wing“, is exacerbating all this at the moment.

This is also demonstrated by the fact that at least one third of the EU population aged between 18 and 65 – an average of 83 million people – are affected by those mental health problems, according to long-term studies, to the list of which the official disease catalogues such as ICD 10 are limited, above all depressive and anxiety disorders. Almost every second person affected received more than one such diagnosis. This also applies to Germany, where more than 10% of the population even receive „four or more diagnoses“.
If, in contrast to ICD 10, we add the destructive authoritarian character orientations that can be seen in right-wing extremist attitudes as symptoms of mental disturbance, it is clear that we still live in a society that Erich Fromm rightly called „ill“ in 1955. 

Sociological surveys show just how ill our society is in the latter sense.

Since 2002, a Leipzig research group led by Oliver Decker and Elmar Brähler has been investigating right-wing extremist attitudes in the „middle“ of the German population. All of these „middle of the population“ studies prove „right“ ideas among supporters of the entire spectrum of parties. In 2016, the division looked like this: More than 6% of CDU/CSU voters and almost 7% of SPD voters had pronounced right-wing extremist attitudes. But the same was true for just under 4% of green voters and more than 4% of left-wing voters. At the populist extreme right-wing AfD-party, by far the largest proportion of this potential was concentrated: On average, a quarter of their voters had extreme right-wing attitudes. In the case of non-voters, too, still 12% of the population had extreme right-wing attitudes.

In 2016, almost five and a half % of those questioned declared their support for a „closed right-wing extremist world view“. This corresponds to about four million of our fellow citizens, who „predominantly“ or „completely“ agree with statements such as the following:

„We should have a leader who rules Germany with a strong hand for the good of all.
Actually, Germans are superior to other peoples by nature.
As in nature, the strongest should always prevail in society.
The Federal Republic of Germany is alienated to a dangerous degree by the many foreigners.
The Jews work more than other people with evil tricks to achieve what they want.
There is valuable and worthless life.
The crimes of National Socialism have been exaggerated in history.“

In addition, there are many more people who judge these statements as being „partially“ correct. In 2014, there were up to 22 million Germans thinking like this. And: An even higher number stand for other xenophobic positions.
In 2016, 50% agreed with anti-Islamic statements, almost 60% defamed Sinti and Roma. About as many contradicted the statement that asylum seekers had „suffered real persecution“ or were „threatened by it“. More than 80% (!) rejected the demand that „the state should proceed generously in examining asylum applications“. One of the richest states on earth, who can afford to permanently offer the „upper ten thousand“ gifts in the millions, should renounce „generosity“ when dealing with this group of people, thus renouncing a deeply desirable attitude that has nothing to do with waste! Four-fifths of us say that.
„Authoritarian aggression“, the authoritarian characters´ willingness to kick down, to kick the people below, was identified in 2016 by the outcome of this „middle of the population“ study in 67% of the German population – that is more than 48 million citizens. The „authoritarian subservience“, the hunchbacking that completes this type, rose to 23%: more than 16 million people.
These attitudes also run to varying degrees through the electoral groups of all parties.

But even those who, no matter which party they vote for, oppress or beat their children – both are not uncommon – only leave out „authoritarian aggression“ on other socially weaker people than asylum seekers. Authoritarian aggression may also be the background for the fact that almost half of all German adults said in 2016 that „most long-term unemployed people“ would only „make a comfortable life at the expense of society“. Even those who cultivate a „welcome culture“ for refugees, but belong to the 40% of the population who find it „disgusting“ when „homosexuals kiss in public“, have probably only chosen other people who appear „strange or foreign“ as a target for their anger.

However, the hostility towards homosexuals – almost a „right-wing“ tradition – is once again not bound to individual parties. The CDU/CSU voters‘ rejection of homosexual marriage in 2016, at 43%, was even slightly higher than in the AfD, but it still marked almost 20% among the „Greens“.
To reject AfD is therefore by no means identical with not carrying a psychic potential within oneself, to which „right“ movements can fall back.

It is therefore about a disturbance of society as a whole – which does not end at national or party borders.
It would therefore be naive to see „right-wing“ groups, movements or parties as representatives of minorities. They represent traditional psychosocial structures that are widespread far beyond the circle of their members and voters. „Right“ partisans are only the tip of the iceberg, „symptom carriers“ of a psychosocial disorder with which countless others, those who understood themselves as democratic, liberal, „green“ or „left“, were also „infected“. Similar to an epidemic, these symptoms can spread rapidly, for example as a result of economic crises. In the 1930s, the Germans, who were previously considered to be of high cultural standing, made the case. Prohibitions of „right-wing“ parties can therefore never get to the root of the evil: The mass destruction only looks for new forms and names.

The fact that four-fifths of Germans reject the generous processing of asylum applications also means that only a fifth see it differently. That alone is a clear minority. Moreover, the surveys do not show that those who advocate generosity here have none of the other prejudices against refugees, that they have no resentment towards Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, the unemployed, the poor or other groups of people they classify as „strange or foreign“ or women. It can therefore be assumed that the number of those who are actually free from all this is extremely small.

Wilhelm Reich wrote in 1946, in the third edition of „Mass Psychology“:

„You can’t neutralize the fascist amok runner if you look for him, depending on the political situation, only in the Germans or Italians and not also in Americans and Chinese; if you don’t track him down in yourself, if you don’t know the social institutions that hatch him daily.“

This could be updated as follows: „One cannot render the fascist amok runner harmless if one suspects him […] only in Germans or Italians“ – or only with rights, in AfD and PEGIDA. This „madman“ can only be successfully counteracted if he is identified „also in the Americans and Chinese“ – and among democrats, Christians, liberals, Greens and leftists, „if one […] traces him within himself, if one […] knows the social institutions that hatch him daily“.

And, I would like to add: if you fight these institutions. Authoritarian-emotionally-suppressive socialization is not a sufficient condition for fascistic degenerations, but a necessary condition for it. This is probably the most important condition for the emergence of destructive social systems. If we could ensure that this kind of socialisation no longer takes place, these systems would no longer exist either. Mentally healthy people do not want and do not tolerate oppression, especially when it is carried out as brutally as in fascism. No destructive social system without destructive people!

The current „right“ trends in Germany, Europe and probably also in the USA can be summarized as follows: The increasingly aggressive neoliberal capitalism is tearing down the already thin walls behind which the never-understood, let alone healed, mass destruction potential was lurking.
In Germany, the mental deformations left behind by the Empire, by fascism and war were never really dealt with after 1945, and the old character characteristics in both East and West were only passed on to a lesser extent. The end of „real socialism“ did not lead us to catch up with the past either. On the contrary: under the one-sided demonization of the German Democratic Republic and the equally one-sided idealization of the Federal Republic of Germany, reality sank even deeper.
After the collapse of the socialist world system, the potential for destruction, largely tied up in the East-West system confrontation, may have been hindered by a Western democracy that seemed even more credible at the time, by the relatively high level of prosperity that many were relatively certain to achieve, and by hopes of positive developments.
But these hopes were disappointed. Since 1990 the danger of war has not decreased, but increased. Wars have taken place and are now even taking place „on our doorstep“. Prosperity, as it turned out, was just a patch on a wound which continued to fester. Poverty and insecurity of the masses increased together with the profits and arrogance of the rich and powerful. It became abundantly clear that the latter are in fact largely responsible for the – small – extent to which democracy is allowed in the Federal Republic. Since 2015, the blame for the negative trends triggered by all this can be projected onto refugees. This led to a renewed boom in „right-wing“ ideologies.

But what can we, what can each and every one of us, do to help reverse this shift to the right?

In 1934 Wilhelm Reich summed up his insights into psychosocial contexts in this way:

„If one tries to change the structure of man alone, society is reluctant. If you try to change society alone, people are reluctant. This shows that none can be changed on its own.“

As essential points from which the „structure of people“ can be constructively influenced, Wilhelm Reich worked out, among other things, the living conditions of pregnant women, the way of birth (natural instead of medicalised birth), non-authoritarian education and training, fulfilling sexuality and partnership, psycho- and body psychotherapy. In the 1980s, the German Democratic Republic psychotherapist and body psychotherapist Hans-Joachim Maaz further developed these approaches to the concept of a „therapeutic culture“, which he introduced into the political upheavals of 1989/90. Adults should, according to the underlying idea, work on their mental and psychosomatic disorders and ensure that their children and grandchildren are spared these disorders. A psychosocial revolution must be added to the undoubtedly necessary upheavals in the political and economic spheres!

Especially therapists who strive to work holistically, who integrate soul, body, energy, relationship, life history, family and social factors into their treatment – as Wilhelm Reich did here in Berlin from 1930 – have a specific responsibility in this respect.
They are repeatedly confronted with the mass disturbances without which there could be no fascism and no shift to the right, they experience what caused these disturbances and what entertains them. And they experience how these disorders can be cured or at least alleviated.
To go public with the knowledge about these interrelationships has become even more urgent since 2014 than it already was.


© der Übersetzung: Martina Weitendorf.