Jung and Nazism

In the aftermath of World War 2 and since, controversy has raged about Carl Jung’s attitude to Nazism, with some condemning him as a Nazi sympathiser, and others defending him in the strongest terms. After reading Deirdre Bair’s detailed biography of Jung, and following up my recent post (and as yet unpublished book) on Jung and the Middle Way, it seems increasingly clear to me that this is a classic case of a messy Middle Way strategy being misunderstood by polarised interpreters on both sides.

Jung was a citizen of Switzerland, which remained neutral throughout the Second World War. However, throughout the 1930’s he remained the president of an international psychoanalytic society that was based in, and dominated by, Germany. From the time of the rise of Hitler in 1933 this society was subject to Gleichgeschaltung, the regulations by which the Nazi government ensured conformity to Nazi values in organisations of civil society. In many ways Jung was a convenient tool for the Nazis, as they were able to use him as a source of credibility for their gleichgeschaltet version of psychoanalysis, purified of what they considered the corrupting Jewish influence of Freud with his decadent emphasis on sexuality. Although there was ambiguity in this position, because the society was formally international, the Nazis were able to manipulate that ambiguity, and he was only finally able to resign from this presidency in 1940.

It is this involvement, together with a number of incautious public statements about the psychology of races and nationalities (some of which generalised about Jewish psychology as distinct from other races) that form the basis of a case against Jung that has been raised on a number of occasions by his detractors, and even led to one (not very realistic) proposal that he be prosecuted at the Nuremberg war crime tribunals. For his critics, any compromise with Nazism or involvement in Nazi-dominated organisations makes Jung a Nazi sympathiser, and any generalisations about the psychology of Jews make him anti-Semitic.

However, Jung’s position was highly ambiguous. On his own account, his motive in remaining involved with the Nazi-dominated society was to maintain the position of psychoanalysis and to help Jewish psychoanalysts. If he had tried to take a position of purity and refused to be involved, he would have lost the possible opportunity to help psychoanalysis survive in Nazi Germany, and the opportunity to help maintain the status of persecuted Jewish psychoanalysts. After 1940, with the cohesion of the international society destroyed and Freud having fled to England, it is fairly clear that he recognised such hopes as naïve. However, he did manage one substantial achievement, which was to employ an (ironically Jewish) lawyer called Rosenbaum to introduce lots of loopholes into the anti-Semitic regulations being introduced to the society by the Matthias Goering (cousin of the more famous Goering) – who effectively developed political control over it.

As in many such highly charged and polarised political contexts, there is plenty of evidence that can be seized upon and interpreted one way, and also plenty of evidence the other way. Any case thus becomes overwhelmingly a product of confirmation bias. There is also plenty of scope for hindsight bias if we assume that the attitude Jung took to Nazism earlier in the 1930’s should have been based on their later actions – but nobody knew the full horrors to come. Highly unscientific generalisations about the psychology of races were also common currency at the time.

Later in the war, Jung also became involved in support of a plot to get Hitler overthrown, effectively providing advice about Nazi psychology to a US secret service operative working in Switzerland, as well as psychoanalytic support to a close friend who was more directly involved, both of whom were working in support of a German officer involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Jung’s support for anti-Nazi activities may have even gone further than this. Allen W. Dulles, the US agent mentioned, is quoted by Bair as saying “Nobody will probably ever know how much Professor Jung contributed to the Allied Cause during the war, by seeing people who were connected somehow with the other side.” Dulles went on to decline to give further detail on the grounds that most of the information was classified.

What makes me think that Jung was attempting to practise the Middle Way in any sense in this complex and ongoing situation? Partly my reading of the Red Book, which mentions the Middle Way explicitly, as I have discussed elsewhere. Partly, however, it also seems the best way of making sense of Jung’s actions. He was not ideologically motivated, though he could often be accused of political naivete. He saw the justification of one action or another in the situation, even when that situation was one dominated by Nazism, rather than solely in the terms of an ideal situation in which Nazism was not dominant. His moral values were those of individuation (as he usually called it) or what I would tend to call integration, the actual practice of which depends on the quality of judgements rather than any pre-formed general rules about the objects of those judgements.

His involvement was thus deeply messy, and he obviously left himself vulnerable to blame from both sides. It was not Nazi or Anti-Semitic, but neither was it Anti-Nazi in a way that would have made his activities less effective at the time by seeking purity from Nazism. However, it does also seem that he could have followed this path more effectively than he did: by developing more politically awareness, by seeking clearer evidence than he had before making racial generalisations, and by making the Middle Way a more explicit basis of action so as to reduce the chances of being misunderstood. Like the rest of us, however, Jung had limited knowledge, limited abilities and limited understanding with which to work, and the path of the Middle Way only requires reconciliation and adaptation to these conditions, not an unrealistic expectation of transcending them, as a basis for responsibility.

I can even find some inspiration in the way that Jung handled this difficult series of situations, not despite, but because of the many human failings that his biography has made me all too aware of. Would I, or any of us, have done better? Adopting the principle of charity seems to be the first requirement for reading the situation – a principle that allows us to appreciate the strength of messy achievement without idealising it.


About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

7 thoughts on “Jung and Nazism

  1. It is easy for those who did not live in Nazi Germany to make moralistic judgements on those who did. How a ‘civilised’ society such as Germany could be involved in the atrocities of the 1930’s & 40’s is commonly questioned and explored. Any answer will be complex and must take into account the conditions that could have influenced each of the, many, individuals involved: fear, financial/ social desperation, prejudices, cognitive bias, and so on. To assume that Jung was an ideological Nazi based on the evidence available is an act of gross over-simplification. Criticising what he did or did not do to challenge the situation, on the other hand, seems a much more reasonable pursuit.

    I had long believed that the Catholic Church had supported the Nazi party, and in a way they did, but not for the simplistic anti-Semitic reasons that I had assumed. The Pope at the time (I forget his name) did make an early deal with Hitler, but there is evidence to suggest that he did this in order to protect the Catholics who lived in Germany from persecution. Of course one could argue that he should have defied the Nazi regime, regardless of the consequences, but this might not have seemed such a clear choice at the time. I wonder if many of the people living in the shadow of the Nazi regime, Jung included, had to make similar decisions. As it happened, Hitler broke the terms of his agreement with the church and many Catholics, being seen as a threat to the Reich, were persecuted; a great many were murdered or sent concentration camps.

  2. What I have always found most interesting is the constant focus on Nazism in Western media and by Western intellectuals while other events like the starvation of six millions Ukrainians by the Communist regime in the Soviet Union, the 25 millions deaths by Stalin or the 50 million starved and killed in the Mao Communist regime in China gets overlooked.
    Why is that?
    I mean it cannot be cruelty which attracts all the attention to Nazism because the Gulag system cannot be said to be more humane, nor the starvation of millions in the Ukraine or China by the communist regime.
    So what is the reason that keeps Western academia spending hundreds of millions of Dollars each year on research regarding Nazism and Holocaust?
    What exactly attracts the attention? It probably must have to do with shadow part of our subconscious. The unwanted, surpressed desire to express our hatred and envy.
    What do you think?

    1. Hi Georg, I don’t really know the answer to your question. I could make some suggestions, and I suspect the most likely of them is simply geographical and cultural proximity for Anglophones and Western Europeans. The Holocaust as the deliberate genocide of an ‘othered’ racial group on a massive scale, with the cool calculation with which it was executed, also has a unique shock value that ‘mere’ mass execution of political opponents might lack. It’s not just about numbers.

      Could I ask you a question in turn? Why is this especially significant? The Holocaust was pretty bad by any standards, so is attention to it bad in some way, just because it’s not totally consistent? There’s a danger here of the tu quoque fallacy – namely assuming that hypocrisy by itself makes a claim wrong.

      1. Interesting. My intention was not to downplay the atrocities of the holocaust. Rather to ask the question what the interests are in continuous research on this topic. Of course, it is an impossible task to answer it.

        The other question is whether or not research on the atrocities of the communist regimes would be of benefit. This question goes much deeper as it might seem. At the foundation it is an ideology question as most political left probably would not be interested in researching the atrocities of a communist regime. In fact I think that some of the interest behind studying the holocaust is because of its affiliation with a far right wing party. In other words, it provides an easy argumentation against conservative policies.
        Maybe I am totally wrong with this speculation.

  3. Hi Georg, I appreciate the provisionality. I’m really no expert on either the Holocaust or Communist atrocities, but my impression is that both have been quite extensively researched and discussed by historians. I also can’t think of any influential left-wingers who would be likely to be opposed to research into Stalinist or Maoist atrocities. After all, many of the people Stalin and Mao killed were sincere Communists!

    1. Yes, I think the issue goes much deeper. After all Stalin and especially Mao made Hitler look like a romantic amateur in some sense.
      I think Jordan Peterson talks about ideology, politics and power and it’s connection to the atrocities of the 20th Century. He also talks about how communist regimes and their atrocities get comparably little attention which favors repetition of history.

      Ps. In case you want to get some attention on your website, listen to his maps of meaning lectures and write some posts about it! 👍

  4. In fact I believe that the 20th century provides a perfect example on how to apply a middle way philosophy. Jordan Peterson pointed out that with the loss of religion and the death of God the 20th century began and in the middle of the century was in at most chaos with Mao killing almost a 100 million people in the name of absolutist communist ideology.

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