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Adolf Hitler: A Political Archetype of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Where textbook examples of propaganda, political manipulation, megalomania and control freakery is concerned, Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, author of the resoundingly unhinged blueprint for genocide Mein Kampf and initator of the Second World War is widely regarded as one of the best examples. Indeed, so glaring is this example that it is overused to the point where we must often look for better examples in political debate to compare to lest we be justly accused of reaching for low-hanging fruit.

This fact nothwithstanding, Hitler and the movement he created remain archetypal examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect. What is the Dunning-Kruger effect you ask? Well, Wikipedia defines it as follows:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which low-ability individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive inability of those of low ability to recognize their ineptitude and evaluate their ability accurately. Their research also suggests corollaries: high-ability individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.

Dunning and Kruger have postulated that the effect is the result of internal illusion in those of low ability, and external misperception in those of high ability: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

From the point of view of Dunning-Kruger, Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf is particularly telling in terms of his total lack of insight into his own limitations. A budding narcissist, Hitler’s recounting of his schooling describes his propensity to argue with adults despite not having yet received his education. ‘I think that an inborn talent for speaking now began to develop and take shape during the more or less strenuous arguments which I used to have with my comrades,’ he reflects in Chapter 1. ‘ I had become a juvenile ringleader who learned well and easily at school but was rather difficult to manage.’

Anyone who teaches for a living will tell you that rowdy students don’t tend to learn well and easily, ‘juvenile ringleaders’ most of all; if anything they are the kids who are having trouble learning and try to disrupt everyone else in order to assuage their own anxiety. When it comes down to it did Hitler ever do anything else but try to cope with internal conflicts he couldn’t and eventually wouldn’t do anything about? If that isn’t a telling sign of Dunning-Kruger, it’s hard to know what is.

Hitler’s commentary on his arguments with his father are also telling, as he notes that ‘the juvenile disputes I had with my father did not lead him to appreciate his son’s oratorical gifts in such a way as to see in them a favourable promise for such a career, and so he naturally could not understand the boyish ideas I had in my head at that time.’ Unmissable here is the assumption that Hitler Snr. should have been able to understand the boyish ideas Hitler had in his head; we are the only ones reading ‘boyish’ as ‘juvenile.’ When Hitler writes ‘boyish,’ what he clearly means is, ‘when I was a boy.’ Nevertheless, as Hitler recounts it, ‘It was decided that I should study.

Considering my character as a whole, and especially my temperament, my father decided that the classical subjects studied at the Lyceum were not suited to my natural talents. He thought that the Realschule 2) would suit me better. My obvious talent for drawing confirmed him in that view; for in his opinion drawing was a subject too much neglected in the Austrian Gymnasium.

A moment ago Hitler was telling us that his father didn’t understand him; now he tells us that his father does understand him and so sent him off to the school to do drawing because his temperament precluded him from being able to grapple with the kinds of complex ideas that lead into tertiary study. Reading between the lines it sounds like Hitler Snr. understood his son all too well, if not that Hitler developed an inferiority complex where classical subjects were as well.

Many, many pages later but still within the same chapter, Hitler discusses the evolution of his political convictions — specifically, that ‘there arose in me a feeling of intense love for my German-Austrian home and a profound hatred for the Austrian State.’ He wrote,

That kind of historical thinking which was developed in me through my study of history at school never left me afterwards. World history became more and more an inexhaustible source for the understanding of contemporary historical events, which means politics. Therefore I will not “learn” politics but let politics teach me.

We can gather some idea of what a great student of history Hitler was by how reflecting on successfully and completely he repeated it. What is clear here is the haughty belief in his own capabilities, which in the text of Mein Kampf are asserted again and again and again with mind-numbing monotony — as if a small child is trying to convince themselves of the claim through sheer repetition. And let’s face it, he probably was.

Hitler maintained his habit arguing with his father by digging his heels in over the kind of career he should choose — his father wanting him to become a civil servant and him wanting to become a painter. ‘I went a step further and declared that I would not study anything else,’ he recalled.

With such declarations the situation became still more strained, so that the old gentleman irrevocably decided to assert his parental authority at all costs. That led me to adopt an attitude of circumspect silence, but I put my threat into execution. I thought that, once it became clear to my father that I was making no progress at the Realschule, for weal or for woe, he would be forced to allow me to follow the happy career I had dreamed of . . . I do not know whether I calculated rightly or not. Certainly my failure to make progress became quite visible in the school. I studied just the subjects that appealed to me, especially those which I thought might be of advantage to me later on as a painter. What did not appear to have any importance from this point of view, or what did not otherwise appeal to me favourably, I completely sabotaged. My school reports of that time were always in the extremes of good or bad, according to the subject and the interest it had for me. In one column my qualification read ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. In another it read ‘average’ or even ‘below average’. By far my best subjects were geography and, even more general history. These were my two favourite subjects, and I led the class in them . . . When I look back over so many years and try to judge the results of that experience I find two very significant facts standing out clearly before my mind. First, I became a nationalist . . . Second, I learned to understand and grasp the true meaning of history.

Despite being in his own humble admission a raging success at school and an exceptional student of history, Hitler found yet that ‘The curriculum and teaching methods followed in the middle school were so far removed from my ideals that I became profoundly indifferent.’ Happily, however, ‘Illness suddenly came to my assistance.

Within a few weeks it decided my future and put an end to the long- standing family conflict. My lungs became so seriously affected that the doctor advised my mother very strongly not under any circumstances to allow me to take up a career which would necessitate working in an office. He ordered that I should give up attendance at the Realschule for a year at least. What I had secretly desired for such a long time, and had persistently fought for, now became a reality almost at one stroke.

Skipping forward a lot of pages again, all filled with Hitler’s favourite topic of discussion (no prizes for guessing what that is) to chapter 2. Here we find Hitler in Vienna, trying to get into art school.

And now I was here for the second time in this beautiful city, impatiently waiting to hear the result of the entrance examination but proudly confident that I had got through. I was so convinced of my success that when the news that I had failed to pass was brought to me it struck me like a bolt from the skies. Yet the fact was that I had failed . . When I left the Hansen Palace, on the Schiller Platz, I was quite crestfallen. I felt out of sorts with myself for the first time in my young life. For what I had heard about my capabilities now appeared to me as a lightning flash which clearly revealed a dualism under which I had been suffering for a long time, but hitherto I could give no clear account whatsoever of the why and wherefore.

Having been encouraged to try architecture apparently as a softener to the profound blow to his own illusory superiority, Hitler decided to become an architect.

But of course the way was very difficult. I was now forced bitterly to rue my former conduct in neglecting and despising certain subjects at the Realschule. Before taking up the courses at the School of Architecture in the Academy it was necessary to attend the Technical Building School; but a necessary qualification for entrance into this school was a Leaving Certificate from the Middle School. And this I simply did not have. According to the human measure of things my dream of following an artistic calling seemed beyond the limits of possibility.

From Hitler’s own admission, he managed to sabotage his own prospects by arguing with his father the same way he argued with his teachers who didn’t buy into his nationalism, both of whom were trying to help him, and in refusing to study subjects at at school such that he failed them before relishing in the opportunity to leave school behind permanently and do what he had fought tooth and nail with his father to do, before failing at. Nevertheless, the next thing that comes from him is this:

It was during this period that my eyes were opened to two perils, the names of which I scarcely knew hitherto and had no notion whatsoever of their terrible significance for the existence of the German people. These two perils were Marxism and Judaism.

In other words, it’s the Marxists and Jews who are making life shitty for everyone, not the poor judgement we display or our own lack of insight into its consequences. Having just admitted he cause all his problems, Hitler buries the implications completely and rushes headlong into an antisemitic diatribe that ended with the Nazi death camps. His idea of reflection on the problems he creates for himself is to write:

I am thankful for that period of my life, because it hardened me and enabled me to be as tough as I now am. And I am even more thankful because I appreciate the fact that I was thus saved from the emptiness of a life of ease and that a mother’s darling was taken from tender arms and handed over to Adversity as to a new mother. Though I then rebelled against it as too hard a fate, I am grateful that I was thrown into a world of misery and poverty and thus came to know the people for whom I was afterwards to fight.

Presumably in talking about toughness Hitler is referring to the career tantrum of blaming Jews and Marxists for the combination of institutional injustices and his own poor choices for which he since became in practical terms an archetype of evil, and such and example of low-hanging fruit in that respect that comparisons of contemporary demagoguery to the Nazis are often avoided these days for being too easy and simplistic.

Nevertheless, the evolution of this story does beg the question as to how someone so ineffectual at life was able to garner so much support. Wilhelm Reich, a former student of Freud’s in Germany and a practicing psychoanalyst in Austria, argued in The Mass Psychology of Fascism that moralistic repression of all the personal drives towards individual assertion and self-fulfillment, be they physical or existential, diverted such energies instead into service of the totalitarian state. For the loyal subject of the Nazi state, Reich argued, the stereotype of the Jew provided a suitable scapegoat for its destruction of their individuality, and war a suitable outlet for otherwise frustrated energies (cue L7’s Wargasm).

With these aspects of Nazi social engineering taken care of and the bread and circuses arranged to keep the peasants from revolting, Reich argued, Hitler was able to bring the entire nation of Germany behind a militaristic project that resulted comprehensively in its destruction. Most relevant for us today was Reich’s observation that the dynamics driving the Nazi war machine were anything but limited to Germany in the 1930s. They were, on the contrary, a dangerously acute example of psychological and emotional tendencies far more pervasive in individual human subjectivity. There was, in other words, a little bit of Hitler in all of us — various attempts to portray the Nazi leader as somehow something other than human, as opposed to someone who was in reality all too human, notwithstanding.

Another German, Erich Fromm, reached similar conclusions. Fromm, who was a student of Jung, took a less mechanistic approach to authoritarian psychology. He argued in books such as The Fear of Freedom that the power of totalitarian regimes in particular derived at least as much from the inculcation and development of a relationship of emotional attachment to and dependence on authority as from the repression of personal physical drives. Many people, Fromm found, had essentially the same kind of relationship with the state and with religious hierarchies that they had with codependent romantic partners.

Not only were these kinds of codependent political relationships ruinous of happiness, wellbeing and the capacity of people to function effectively as individuals, Fromm argued, but they were also destructive of their ability to function outside of them; thus the longer and more inured people became to them, the harder it was for them to leave. Rather than being strong, healthy and vibrant individuals capable of standing on their own two feet, they became repressed, dogmatic, rigid and inflexible, fearful of their own shadow even before they got to the newsstand, and paralyzed by terror in the face of real freedom. For adherents to institutionalized religion who had reified their ideologically driven codependency into an imaginary paternal figure, such freedom was tantamount to rejection or abandonment, and no less painful a prospect.

All of this supported Reich’s arguments commentary insofar as the National Socialist movement provided a safe haven for budding Dunner-Krugerites who could entertain their cognitive biases and delusions of grandeur about their illusory superiority on the basis of things they had no control over (like the colour of their skin and ethnic heritage).

As Arthur Schopenhauer wrote,

Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.

For the self-proclaimed king of the übermenschen, nothing about Hitler ever once gave the impression he was internally resolved and self-contained. Managing to conquer the German state with nazi ideology and then most of Europe for a few years didn’t do a damn thing to address his characteristic status anxiety, much less to say resolve it. Even if he had won the war and wiped out every Jew and communist in Europe, Hitler would have still needed deviant figures to hate on to avoid having to address his own shortcomings. Maybe that’s why the Nazis came up with that idea of the Eternal Jew, as a pretext for permanent avoidance of self.

If this proves anything it’s how tangled are the webs that we weave at times, and in that none of us can be immune. If there’s a difference it’s trying to do something constructive about it instead of acting out your feelings about it in ways that get people hurt and you inserted into the history books as one of its villains. Hitler and and his Dunning-Krugerite minions would have no doubt been been better off addressing their own insecurities and negative feelings themselves than acting out and throwing a national tantrum all the way up to World War and the Holocaust — a particularly valuable lesson perhaps in the aftermath of the US Presidential elections.

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Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne. He is studying moral panics and the political economy of scapegoating. Twitter: @itesau  

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