How Does Putin Think?

(Photo: Kremlin.ru/CC BY 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

It is surprising that no commentators have mentioned the parallels, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on a peaceful neighboring country has many similarities to Hitler sending German armies to invade Poland and Czechoslovakia. Even though there are many obvious differences historically, culturally and psychologically between Hitler and Putin, it is still of value to look back on what was known about the former German dictator, and indeed other 20th century dictators, to see if that elucidates the thought processes that underlie such an outrageous, wanton challenge to a peaceful world-order.

These considerations are helped by the fascinating report on “The Personality of Adolf Hitler” produced in 1943 by Dr Henry Murray, one of the leading U.S. clinical psychologists of his day. This insightful report made predictions about Hitler’s future behavior, with the notably prescient claim that he would commit suicide when defeated. That seems unlikely for the much more obviously self-possessed 69-year-old Putin. Murray makes this prediction because he sees Hitler as driven by “intense and stubborn efforts to overcome early disabilities, weaknesses and humiliations and to revenge injuries and insults to pride.”

Putin, by contrast, seems to have moved steadily up the ranks of the intelligence service organization after completing his law degree successfully. Like Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain for 35 years, the skill of organizing others, being a forcefully effective bureaucrat, whilst cleverly reading the emerging opportunities for power, would seem to have been Putin’s road to supreme control of Russia, rather than taking advantage of the desperate state of the country’s economy to create a vision of enemies within and outside, as Hitler did.

However, Murray’s assertion that Hitler had an admiration of brute strength, a vision of himself as ultimately superior, being divinely appointed to lead his people to power and glory, being never wrong, all ring true of Putin. Hitler played on the devastating consequences for Germany of the First World War. Whilst Putin is not so obvious, his references to the totally unfounded claim that Ukraine is a Fascist country, harks back to Putin’s own memories, shared by most Russians of his generation, of many deaths in his family brought about by Germany during the Second World War.

It always amazes me that dictators around the world manage to bring their countries to their knees whilst still having enough support from key people around them to keep on with their evil mission. This iron grip has been achieved, as long as states have existed, by a mixture of brutal suppression and corrupt patronage that enables the state, and especially the military to keep functioning. This despite the obvious perils in which it places the whole country.

Importantly, being surrounded by those who have benefited and those who hope to benefit, from the dictator’s influence, provides a social- psychological context that supports the megalomania at the heart of Putin’s psychology. The remarkable aspect of all this is that ordinary soldiers, so far from direct influence or benefit from Putin and his entourage, are so trained and commanded that they will follow orders to attack a citizenry that has been even recently referred to as brothers. The psychological studies of obedience, most often linked to the, admittedly contested, experiments of Milgram, a salutary in revealing the possibilities for getting ordinary, rational individuals to carry out morally unacceptable activities.

It was clearly sensible of the United States O.S.S. to commission Murray’s consideration of Hitler’s personality, (and a much longer report put together by Walter Langer) as well as Hitler’s likely future actions and ‘suggestions for dealing with him.’ I wonder if any of the countries which now are so engaged in how to deal with Putin have commissioned any similar reports? If they had done so they may have come to the conclusion much earlier that Putin was, simply, not to be believed. He happily welcomed various heads of state to talk about peace, while it gave him the opportunity to prepare for war. History never exactly repeats itself, but as far back as ancient Roman generals, it has been recognized that  understanding the psychology and motivations of the leaders of the  enemy has always been essential.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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