Childhood Origins of Tyranny
By Mitch Hall
September 2010

In a recent phone conversation, a close friend read to me a contemporary rabbi’s account of a dream in which the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the mystical founder of Hassidism, saw the birth of a totally evil being with a dark heart. He beat against the heart in order to destroy this being and prevent the violence and suffering he would cause, but then the Baal Shem Tov stopped trying to kill the being because he saw deep within the dark heart the image of an innocent baby. Does this dream convey an important insight? Consider the following.

Stephenson (1998) documented the life stories of 14 20th century tyrants. In every case, their childhoods were marked by pervasive, traumatic humiliation and abuse. Their lives lacked sufficient reparative relationships that could have turned them in healthier directions and thereby prevented their perverse acting out of insatiable, paranoid, violent rage directed against their selected enemies, scapegoats upon whom they projected revenge for their suffering. Adolf Hitler is a significant case in point. Hitler’s alcoholic father, whether sober or drunk, repeatedly beat the boy mercilessly, even dragging him out of bed from his sleep and whipping him until he fell unconscious (Miller, 1983; Stephenson, 1998). Hitler’s father was the illegitimate son of a Jewish man and his gentile, female servant, and the first Polish town that Hitler ordered be razed to rubble was the birthplace of his father (Miller), as if that could symbolically obliterate traces of his own Jewish ancestry. Hitler’s extreme humiliation history had many layers (Miller; Stephenson). His appeal to so many millions of Germans and Austrians was made possible by the fact that shockingly abusive child-rearing practices were normative for generations in those cultures (Miller; deMause, 2002, 2006). In other words, his pathology resonated with that of his followers. Numerous researchers have documented the abusive and/or neglectful childhoods that lead to adolescent and adult violence (Barry, 2007; Gilligan, 2006; Karr-Morse & Wiley, 1997; Perry, 2002; Schore, 2003).

By contrast to the abuse and humiliation suffered in childhood by Hitler and his followers, the gentile rescuers of Jews, “no more than one-half of 1 percent of the total population under Nazi occupation” (Oliner, et al., 1992, p. 6), had been raised nonviolently, with rare-to-no physical punishment, and with “close family relationships in which parents model caring behavior and communicate caring values” (Oliner & Oliner, 1988, p. 249). To explicate the childhood roots of tyranny and social violence is not to excuse or condone these wrongs. Rather, it is to enlighten humans about the vital importance of child rearing if we are to create a less violent world.

Barry III, H. (2007). Corporal punishment and other formative experiences associated with violent crimes. The Journal of Psychohistory, 35(1), pp. 71-82.

deMause, L. (2002). The emotional life of nations. New York & London: Karnac.

deMause, L. (2006). The childhood origins of the holocaust. The Journal of Psychohistory, 33(3), pp. 204-222.

deMause, L. (2007). The psychology and neurobiology of violence. The Journal of Psychohistory, 35(2), pp. 114-141.

Gilligan, J. (1996). Violence: Reflections on a national epidemic. NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Karr-Morse, R. & Wiley, M. S. (1997). Ghosts from the nursery: Tracing the roots of violence. NY: The Atlantic Monthly Press.

Miller, A. (1983). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in childrearing and the roots of violence. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.

Oliner, P.M., Oliner, S.P., Baron, L., Blum, L.A., Krebs, D.L., & Smolenska, M.Z. (1992). Embracing the other: philosophical, psychological, and historical perspectives on altruism.

Oliner, S. P. & Oliner, P. (1988). The altruistic personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. New York: The Free Press.

Perry, B.D. (2002). The vortex of violence: How children adapt and survive in a violent world. Retrieved June 6, 2008 from

Schore, A. N. (2003). Early relational trauma, disorganized attachment, and the development of a predisposition to violence, pp. 107-167, in Solomon, M. F. & Siegel, D. J. (2003). Healing trauma: Attachment, mind, body, and brain. New York & London, W. W. Norton & Company.

Stephenson, J. (1998). Poisonous power: Childhood roots of tyranny. Diemer, Smith Publishing Co., Inc.

Mitch Hall is a member of PTAVE's Board of Directors. See his Web site, Beathe Peacefully, at

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