15.03.2022 change 15.03.2022

Professor Janusz Heitzman: You can not say a dictator is mad or sick, he knows exactly what he is doing

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He is not mad or a sick person; a dictator knows perfectly well what he is doing; he has a sense of mission to carry out and manipulates others to achieve his goals, says Professor Janusz Heitzman, forensic psychiatry representative at the Minister of Health.

The expert is the Vice President of the Polish Psychiatric Association and the head of the Forensic Psychiatry Clinic of the Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in Warsaw. In an interview with PAP, he admits that the dictators have certain paranoid traits. However, this is not paranoia understood as a mental disease and delusions. It is a pathology of personality or character, resulting from a permanent sense of distrust, the search for enemy and excessive vigilance.

Professor Janusz Heitzman believes that a dictator is perfectly aware of what is going on around him, he monitors reality. However, it is characterized by extreme egocentrism, and as a result impervious to criticism. Criticism causes rage and a need to respond to failure with vengeance. The end of a dictator therefore takes place when those closest to him notice that are losing on this relationship, and the level of fear of revenge exceeds their ability to subordinate.

PAP: What are the dictators such as Vladimir Putin capable of? Over 25 years ago, before Putin came to power, you wrote in Rzeczpospolita that 'when we combine an immovable, fanatical stability of beliefs of a madman with the cunning genius, we will get an enormous power, capable of rallying the masses in any age'. It sounds quite ominous.

Professor Janusz Heitzman: To give sense to his actions and not have to explain his lust for power to anyone, a dictator creates an idea in his mind and turns it into a sense of mission. This can be a long-term process. He begins to believe it so strongly that he becomes certain of his genius and starts making decisions without any doubt. He fails to recognize that the historical mission becomes an idea beyond any values, one that is not yet a mental disorder, a delusion, but an  idée fixe, accompanied if not by a lack, then by a serious disruption of criticism.

PAP: There have been many such figures.

J.H.: Examples include Stalin and Hitler, Mao Zedong in China or the Kim dynasty in North Korea, Pol Pot in Cambodia, as well as Sellassje Hejle I in Ethiopia, who called himself the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Ryszard Kapuściński described him in the book The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat. However, it is worth distinguishing between two concepts: a dictator and an autocrat.

A dictator is a ruler and a leader, and dictatorship is a certain form of rule. Meanwhile, autocrats function not only in politics, this term has a broader application. Of course, dictatorship also contains the term autocrat. You can not be a dictator without being an autocrat, one who negates democracy. If even a dictator retains the appearances of democracy, it is only for maintaining dictatorship.

PAP: Let's focus on dictators. Are they fanatics with madness in the eyes?

J.H.: I am far from putting a psychopathological diagnosis as to whether we are dealing with a madman and a mentally ill person. We can only colloquially say that someone becomes a mad person, because he is different and does not meet our expectations, he contradicts our cision of governance and leadership. Putting a medical psychopathological diagnosis, identifying the disease and having humility towards that fact is different from a colloquial attempt to explain incomprehensible behaviour and decisions that we describe as madness out of our own helplessness.

PAP: What traits must a dictator have?

J.H.: There are quite a lot of these traits, most of them associated with his personality, childhood and functioning in the family. A dictator does not appear out of the blue, he is a product of people who his contemporaries, mentally-alike in terms of life experiences, who create a fertile ground for a grain of dictatorship to sprout and grow, and then eventually crush its soil. At that point, a dictator is considered unpredictable. We know from history that each dictator slaughtered those that raised him to power. The best example is Stalin. However, you can not say that he was mad or sick. He simply only certain character traits that skewed his ability to evaluate the world and analyse phenomena, because he looked at everything only from his point of view. A dictator only sees his point.

PAP: How does a person become a dictator?

J.H.: In his head there are ghosts from the past associated with various fears. Because generally it is a weak, wavering and uncertain person with low self-esteem. To defeat this, he develops a certain way of thinking about the world and others that the whole world is against him. And to retain his identity and remain intact, he must defeat this world somehow. A weak man looks for opportunities to appear strong and control others.

PAP: How does he try to do that?

J.H,: He makes various choices regarding, for example, a professional career. He is looking for a place that allows him to hold power, gives him an opportunity to reign over others and destroy those who he believes threaten him, can threaten him in the future. Such a person is often found in armed forces, uniformed services, security, etc., which offer an easy sense of dominance over others, apparent 'power'. Although they are weak internally, they are empowered by being able to operate in the shade and have a sense of agency, and if they have the opportunity - they exact revenge.

PAP: Revenge? What for?

J.H.: For example for 'I used to be beaten by my parents, peers, humiliated, ridiculed. And now I can make them all pay'. Not only those who hurt me then, but the whole world. This is the beginning of the journey to becoming an autocrat and developing certain character traits. However, for this to be possible, this person must operate in a favourable community.

PAP: Why do people choose such persons as their leaders? Are they so gullible and fail to see the threat?

J.H.: Such a person infects others with something. A sense of mission, an idea I mentioned. This is due to the fact that people need a strong and powerful leader. It gives them a sense of confidence and stability, as well as clearly defined rules. Dictators skilfully show people what they want to see. That they are better, they deserve more. They fuel the megalomaniac aspirations even in those who have nothing, that if they are the sons of a great country, they deserve more than the sons of a small country.

In the initial period, a dictator arouses both fear and admiration. He can defeat his opponents with various methods, he is strong and wins, and a wreath of adulators and supporters forms around him. They think that when they are close to him, they will bask in his glow, including his sense of agency. And together with him they will eat the cake that will be up for grabs.

PAP: And what about those who do not benefit, at least not directly, and do bask in his light? What about the masses?

J.H.: The public starts to believe in the idea of uniqueness and mission, which the dictator skilfully suggests. That he is the one who will defend all of them, while the bad world around threatens them. This unites the masses around the dictator. He uses sociotechnical methods and social psychology to rally the people behind him, reward sycophants who are presented as career models and find imitators. That's why you can not say that a dictator it is a mad and sick person, he knows exactly what he is doing. And special personality and character allow him to control it.

PAP: Does that include acting talent?

J.H.: True, leaders and dictators are often people with special acting talent, although a more appropriate description would be they can act and manipulate well. Putin is an actor of his own stage, he shows the ability to dramatize, which helps hum to be a better social manipulator. Because dramatization helps to convince others to believe what the dictator proclaims, and he himself is more authentic and convincing. He says: 'enemy at the gates'; we have to go beyond our gates to defeat the enemy.

PAP: And what about Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

J.H.: Unlike Putin, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an actual actor, a charismatic leader and a charismatic actor. There is no room for something artificial, scenic - he is painfully authentic.

PAP: When can people turn their backs on their dictator?

J.H.: Only when the dictator begins to reveal those personality traits that have always been there, but now they start to threaten the strong position of his closest collaborators and can turn against them. During the time of failures, his suspicions, vigilance and permanent sense of danger may turn them into his victims. A dictator starts to look for the causes of defeat, of course not in himself, but in others. He eagerly accuses the closest collaborators of disloyalty, betrayal and acting to his disadvantage.

PAP: This is a paranoid behaviour...

J.H.: Dictators have certain paranoid features. However, this is not paranoia understood as a mental disease and delusions. In this case, everything is compact coherent, logical and authentic. We say that they are characterized by a morbid suspiciousness, the have a sense of distrust towards everyone, they are focused on looking for enemies and excessive vigilance. Although they live in a sense of mission, its source can be so mixed out that it is not known whether it includes any occurrences from the early period of development or subsequent experiences. On top of that, there are also irrational prejudices and fears, and distrust causes the dictator to live in loneliness.

PAP: In loneliness? What about red carpets, cheering crowds, army of supporters, servile and devoted people?

J.H.: The fact that dictators walk by cheering and applauding people does not cause a sense of satisfaction and pride in them. Their thinking goes in a completely different direction - who among them is against me and will pull out a weapon? Look at their posture. It is called a negative geotropism, they do not walk with their heads to the ground, on the contrary - they levitate. They raise their heads to be higher than the crowd, even if they are not too tall. This gives them a greater confidence. Another characteristic feature is their clothing, for example uniforms, and a suit, tie, their colour, can also be a uniform. They want to arouse fear with their attitude and looks. They do not look into the eyes of others, and if they do, it's just to introduce fear.

PAP: Dictators are also distinguished by 'an enormous power, capable of rallying the masses in any age'.

J.H.: Dictators have a sense of omnipotence and identify with superior ideas, to which they attribute the value of their own product. Their overriding status, however, is so large that these ideas are given a divine nature. Dictators often to refer to themselves 'we', not 'I'. There is no personal thread of presenting an argument. It is always 'we' think so, and 'you', that is, the others, must subordinate to it. The loneliness of dictators is associated with this, because they do not reveal their hidden fears, unpleasant experiences and a need for revenge. They are deprived of empathy, the ability to experience and understand the emotions of another person. This is completely alien to them.

PAP: Loneliness corrupts a person.

J.H.: First of all, the loneliness of dictators is conducive to greater suspicion towards others and searching for enemies. However, to maintain this sense of agency and infect the masses to carry out the dictator's will, the enemy must be demonised. And demonising the enemy means using manipulation, lies and arousing social phobia. It is not an accident that opponents are described with the worst epithets as 'Banderites', "Nazis", 'junkies' and 'ordinary gang'. They are attributed false qualities to scare people with them. This allows to arouse social phobia and fears. The masses do not understand the meanders of power and do not know what really is happening. Fortunately, there are not many people who want such absolute power. They appear as a product of a given era and their environment once a few dozen years.

PAP: How can a dictator behave when he is cornered by the world and his collaborators? Does he become unpredictable to the extent that he can act on the principle 'After me, the flood'?

J.H.: A dictator obviously notices what is happening around him. However, he is characterized by such an an extreme egocentrism that he is not susceptible to criticism. Criticism causes his rage and a need to respond to failure with vengeance. He notices failure, but does not accept it as a result of see his own mistakes. He is not of capable of suddenly changing from a wolf into a lamb under the influence of failures,. The more so that he is bereft of guilt and remorse. Such people never apologize.

PAP: Why?

J.H.: Because of their narcissistic personality. At the same time, this narcissism is not just about self-worship. In this case, this is a completely different trait. In my work of psychopathological evaluation of killers, narcissism is often identified. This narcissism is destructive, it induces aggression. A sense of superiority, dominance and narcissism prevents a change of thinking. Even if such a dictator is removed from power by his collaborators, he continues to be convinced that he is right. He will not take into account that he neglected something, at most he regrets that he failed to remove those he could suspect would act against him. Vindictiveness of dictators does not end with the loss of power. They continue to apply the defence mechanisms that confirm the rightness of their choices and beliefs.

PAP: Apparently all power corrupts...

J.H.: Yes, there even is a saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Dictators are corrupted to a certain degree. In his book In Sickness and in Power: Illnesses in Heads of Government during the Last 100 Years, British doctor and politician David Owen described the trait of arrogance. Many people can be arrogant, but arrogance accompanies every dictator. It is manifested by extreme egocentrism, a sense of omnipotence and conviction that my reason resulting from history and historical necessity is the highest reason, there is non other. This also makes those people unpredictable and dangerous.

PAP: How do the dictator's traits and personality develop?

J.H.: That's where we started this conversation: a dictator must have some sort of a seed of dictatorship, and at the same find a fertile social ground that needs this type of leader. Favourable conditions include social unrest, frustration, for example because of poverty, when a community sees that others have it better. Such people do not know that under these conditions they can not be better off. They are, however, susceptible to the claims that this is not up to them, their inefficient work and poor education, that others are responsible for their situation. When else says it, they start to believe it. They eagerly remove the burden of responsibility for their own fate and put it on others, on the external enemy. And what someone offer them an idea, they start seeing it as their own. That is what a dictator does to push his goals and intentions.

PAP: When does the rule of a dictator end, is it only with his death?

Professor J.H.: First of all, when those closest to him notice that are losing on this relationship, and the level of fear of revenge exceeds their ability to subordinate. Because they also become victims of the dictator. To save themselves, they can infect others, even the masses. This is what happens and ultimately dictators are always overthrown, often at the expense of many human lives.

PAP - Science in Poland, Zbigniew Wojtasiński

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