Bipolar Disorder & Despotism: Is There A Link?

napoleon hitler stalin

Although published some eighteen years ago, A Brotherhood of Tyrants: Manic Depression & Absolute Power by D. Jablow Hershman and Julian Lieb is a book that has only recently come to my attention. I was initially very much intrigued by the central thesis of the book, namely that the unholy trinity of Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin all manifested clear signs of bipolar disorder, and that this underpinned their tyrannical and despotic behaviour.

Drawing on a wide range of literature, Hershman and Lieb make links between their subjects’ lives and behaviour to construct their argument that each case has consistently exhibited manic-depressive symptomology and behaviours.

Notwithstanding the fact that posthumous diagnoses are fraught with difficulties, the data relating to Napoleon renders, at least in my opinion, the most convincing case. The authors make clear links between Napoleon’s mania and depression and his behaviour on the battle field, in addition to erratic governance and patterns of working.

The case for Hitler is much less convincing.  That Hitler had mood swings, uncontrollable rages and was prone to periods of depression is attested to in contemporary accounts of his closest colleagues.  This alone however, does not account for his extreme narcissism and indifference to the fate of others.  Could an underlying personality disorder account for much of his behaviour? Also, although Hershman and Lieb make reference to Hitler’s drug taking, they do not give it the weight it deserves in assessing the role that bipolar disorder had in propelling Hitler towards a nihilistic and utterly irrational dictatorship. That said, it is clearly very difficult to tease out these differing strands in Hitler’s moods/personality traits and to come to a definitive conclusion.

Less convincing again is the case of Stalin, whose own physician diagnosed him as suffering from chronic paranoia; this was borne out in Stalin’s widespread and irrational purges, driven by an insatiable desire to control and to assert his own will on all aspects of Soviet life. Was bipolar a factor in his behaviour? Well, despite Hershman and Lieb’s conclusions drawn from their interpretation of the available data – I wouldn’t be confident enough to make that assertion. As with Hitler, there is evidence in the record that a personality disorder was at play related to Stalin’s paranoia and inability to sustain close personal relationships. But then again I am not a clinician, so I make these points with that caveat very much in open view; Lieb, on the other hand, is a practising Psychiatrist.

One of the puzzling aspects of the book is that the authors go on to write briefly about Saddam Hussein as a tyrant. Quite how this fits in to their overarching thesis is unclear. There is little specific evidence that Hussein suffered from a mood disorder and this seems to be conjecture on the part of Hershman and Lieb. Equally puzzling is the epilogue, which presents a cursory glance into the lives and crimes of some contemporary mass killers – David Koresh, Jeffrey Dahmer, Jim Jones and Colin Ferguson. Again, the evidence presented is scant.

Overall I found A Brotherhood of Tyrants: Manic Depression & Absolute Power to be a fascinating and thought-provoking read. Those of us who live with bipolar disorder are perhaps more comforted by reading those books which link the condition to creativity and even genius! What we must never do is to ignore the negative manifestation of this disease on behaviour; A Brotherhood of Tyrants: Manic Depression & Absolute Power certainly delves deep in to such areas in a manner that prompts much reflection. Nevertheless, as a lay-person, and I emphasise that once again, I found myself struggling to be persuaded by the central thesis of the book, namely that bipolar disorder is the driver that explains Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin’s behaviour as cruel dictators and tyrants. Perhaps that is too difficult a task given the passage of time? Whatever the case, Hershman and Lieb are to be congratulated for taking on this difficult, but important, task.

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One thought on “Bipolar Disorder & Despotism: Is There A Link?

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