Authoritarian character

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The concept of the authoritarian character goes back essentially to Erich Fromm , who developed it at the Institute for Social Research under the direction of Max Horkheimer in the 1930s.


Erich Fromm uses the term “authoritarian character” to describe a certain pattern of social attitudes or personality traits that, in his opinion, have a negative impact on social behavior. a. through prejudice , conformity , destructiveness , authoritarianism , extreme obedience to authorities , racism and ethnocentrism , d. H. Rejection of the foreign and foreign cultures.

With his mass psychology of fascism, Wilhelm Reich had delivered the first major discussion of fascism or National Socialism from a psychoanalytical and socio-critical point of view in 1933 . In it he asserts a fundamental connection between authoritarian drive suppression and fascist ideology . The patriarchal (forced) family as the nucleus of the state creates the characters who submit to the repressive order, despite hardship and humiliation. Reich saw the concept of “authoritarian character” later created by Erich Fromm as a diluting plagiarism of his theory.

Theory according to Erich Fromm

When Erich Fromm became head of the social psychology department of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1930 , he wrote several basic essays for the journal for social research . In his work On Method and Tasks of an Analytical Social Psychology from 1932, he placed the following sentence at the end of the list of tasks: “The theory of how ideologies arise from the interaction of the psychological instinct and socio-economic conditions will be a particularly important part of this. “(1932, p. 54). The next issue was followed by a contribution on psychoanalytic character studies. Without these essays and without his theoretical and empirical contributions to the collective work Studies on Authority and Family of the Institute for Social Research in 1936, the later projects of the Frankfurt Institute, u. a. not understanding the authoritarian personality .

Fromm coined the term “ social character ” or “social character”, which, in contrast to “ individual character ”, only encompasses those characteristics that result from the common way of life and basic experiences, through typical social expectations, through the requirements for adapted behavior or through oppression be conveyed by deviant behavior . In contrast to an abstract sociological view of social and state conditions in general or of a social milieu , Fromm deals with concrete social-psychological events: the social character of a person is primarily formed in the family . In doing so, Fromm created a bridge concept between sociology, social psychology and differential psychology (character studies).

Authoritarian personality traits

Fromm sees the striving for freedom and justice as fundamental characteristics of all people. However, many people are not up to this freedom or have acquired a social character through upbringing that is oriented towards power and obedience . In his book Escape from Freedom (1941), Fromm described the psychodynamics of this fear and flight from freedom. Spiritual conformism does not tolerate dissenters and a pluralistic world. As typical traits of the authoritarian character, Erich Fromm named submission to authority figures, as well as destructiveness (lust for destruction), self-exaltation and rigid conformity. This consistent orientation towards power and strength includes a way of thinking that is based on conventions , has at the same time superstitious and stereotypical features, rejects sensitive and artistic aspects and, above all, rejects everything foreign, foreign people and customs . The authoritarian personality tends to follow ideologies , is compliant, in extreme cases it is "potentially fascist" and destructive. Fromm did not see the deeper reason why this character structure develops primarily in an instinctual structure , but in the inability of people to deal with their fundamental freedom - they flee from this self-responsible freedom into a conforming security and orient themselves towards authority. This social character is conveyed primarily through typical basic experiences within the family and in the context of social conditions and adjustments.

Here Fromm used the term “authoritarian character” synonymously with the term “sadomasochistic character”, which comes from psychopathology . In the active variant, this occurs predominantly with sadistic tendencies (pleasure in mastering a weaker person, satisfaction through exercise of power) and in the passive variant predominantly with masochistic tendencies (pleasure in submission to a stronger person, satisfaction through obedience). In social hierarchies , Fromm argues, the authoritarian character fits in without criticism, because in identifying with those in power he no longer sees himself confronted with his nullity and powerlessness , but can compensate for these feelings . The authoritarian social structure therefore produces needs for obedience, submission and the exercise of power and at the same time binds the individual to authorities and hierarchical structures that satisfy these needs.

Fromm does not use the terms " sadism " and " masochism " in relation to sexual practices, but in relation to authority. He justifies this as follows:

“This terminology is also justified by the fact that the sado-masochist is always characterized by his attitude towards authority. He admires authority and seeks to submit to it; but at the same time he wants to be an authority himself and make others submissive. "(1941/1978, p. 163)

In addition, the fascist system calls itself an "authoritarian" one, due to the predominant share of authority in its structure. The designation of authoritarian character also refers to theories of fascism . According to Fromm, obedience to established authorities and intolerance or aggression against the ideological opponent are often related to other attitudes: with unconditional loyalty to one's own reference group and its leaders, with the willingness to accept an ideology uncritically, with nationalism and religious fundamentalism . The authoritarian personality is conformist: Deviations from the “normal” are rejected, sometimes persecuted, individualism and liberal attitudes or cultural pluralism are not tolerated.

Fromm, as the sole author of the social-psychological part of the 1936 studies on authority and family , developed the basis for the famous study The Authoritarian Personality , which was later published in the USA and which Theodor W. Adorno et al. has been published. The fact that he is only mentioned there in two footnotes is probably due to the falling out with Adorno, who raised critical objections against Fromm to Max Horkheimer, the head of the Institute for Social Research, and who had pushed him out of the institute in 1939.

The spread of the authoritarian character

The questions about the spread and the increase and decrease of the authoritarian character in the German population in the 20th century or about differences between the populations of different countries require very precise definitions and representative studies. In the absence of such research results, the interpretations must remain speculative.

Even Niccolò Machiavelli in the Discourses in the 16th century and later Immanuel Kant put 1798 in his Anthropology in pragmatic ways he perceived differences between the German people and other peoples of Europe. Here, many of the still living are stereotypes of national self-image. Kant names the “hard work”, “honesty” and “domesticity” of the Germans, as well as the comparatively less developed “wit and artistic taste” and the great willingness to learn foreign languages. He emphasizes the disadvantageous aspects: the German “among all civilized peoples most easily and permanently submits to the government under which he is” and tends in a pedantic way to “between he who rules up to he who is supposed to obey to put on a ladder, on which each rung is marked with the degree of reputation it deserves ”(Kant 1798/1983, A 311), d. H. especially in terms of the title. - This anticipates some aspects of the authoritarian personality, as it was only described in more detail much later by Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm with a view to fascism and National Socialism.

Individual authoritarian traits or a typical pattern of authoritarian attitudes cannot be overlooked: in families, in politics and business, in schools, universities and clinics, in institutions as well as in private life and in religions. In post-war Germany in particular, the question arose how widespread these authoritarian attitudes were and how they could be influenced by a democratic upbringing . The German psychologists and sociologists have hardly taken up this question; Neither NSDAP members and fellow travelers nor the imprisoned perpetrators were investigated by the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.

Well-known literary examples in Germany of the 20th century in which this character is described are: Heinrich Mann's Der Untertan (1914) and the story Der Vater einer Morders by Alfred Andersch , published in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1980 . The well-known experiments in the USA in the 1960s, the Milgram Experiment and The Third Wave , on which the multi-filmed novel Die Welle is based, also provide clues.

Newer theories

Adorno's theory of authoritarian character builds on Freudian theory (e.g., on the concept of narcissism of small differences ), some of which had been viewed in some research in the 1960s as out of date. Parts of this theory, mostly more closely linked to sociological issues, have been further developed.

Beyond Fromm's theory of the authoritarian character, there are numerous publications and contributions to discussions from a socio-philosophical and socio-critical as well as current political point of view, not all of which can be included in the literature list.

Individual evidence

  1. For a summary of the criticism of Fromm from Reich's point of view with detailed quotations from several reviews see Bernd A. Laska : About Erich Fromm . In: Wilhelm-Reich-Blätter, Heft 5,6 / 79, pp. 123-137.
  2. Quotations and other references to sources, including from Fahrenberg / Steiner (2004) and Wiggershaus (1997)
  3. completed, first published in 1918
  4. See Sigmund Freud, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur , p. 243, in study edition, Vol. 9, pp. 191–286. Frankfurt am Main 1982.
  5. Jan Weyand: On the topicality of the theory of the authoritarian character , p. 56,57. In: jour fixe initiative berlin : Theory of Fascism - Critique of Society. Munster 2002.
  6. The publications of the Australian psychologist John J. Ray, which he collected in [1] , give a cross-section through the research of the 1970s and 1980s .


  • Theodor W. Adorno , Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, R. Nevitt Sanford: The Authoritarian Personality. Harper and Brothers, New York 1950.
  • Daniel Dravenau: Condescension, rigorism, conformity: class habitus and authoritarian character. In: Uwe H. Bittlingmayer, Rolf Eickelpasch, Jens Kastner, Claudia Rademacher (eds.): Theory as a struggle ?: on the political sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Leske and Budrich, Opladen 2002. ISBN 3-8100-3352-9
  • Jochen fahrenberg, John M. Steiner: Adorno and the authoritarian personality. Cologne Journal for Sociology and Social Psychology, 2004, Vol. 56, 2004, pp. 127–152.
  • Erich Fromm : About the method and tasks of an analytical social psychology. Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. 1, 1932, pp. 28-54.
  • Erich Fromm: The psychoanalytic characterology and its meaning for social psychology. Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, Vol. 1, 1932, pp. 253-277.
  • Erich Fromm: Social psychological part. In: Studies on Authority and Family. Research reports from the Institute for Social Research. Alcan, Paris 1936, pp. 77-135.
  • Erich Fromm u. a .: Second department. Surveys. In: Studies on Authority and Family. Research reports from the Institute for Social Research. Alcan, Paris 1936, pp. 229-469.
  • Erich Fromm: Escape from Freedom. Farrar and Rinehart, New York 1941 (English edition, The Fear of Freedom. Routledge and Kegan Paul. London 1942; German edition Die Furcht vor der Freiheit. Zurich: Steinberg, Zurich 1945, new translation. Ullstein, Frankfurt a. M. 1983 ).
  • Erich Fromm: Social psychological part and surveys. (Introduction). In: Studies on Authority and Family. Research reports from the Institute for Social Research. Alcan, Paris 1936, pp. 77-135, pp. 220-469.
  • Erich Fromm: Workers and employees on the eve of the Third Reich. A social-psychological investigation (edited and edited by Wolfgang Bonß). Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, Stuttgart 1980. ISBN 3-423-04409-8
  • Wilhelm Heitmeyer, Aribert Heyder: Authoritarian attitudes: rabid demands in uncertain times. In: Wilhelm Heitmeyer (Ed.): German conditions: Series 1. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2002. ISBN 3-518-12290-8
  • Christel Hopf: Authoritarian Behavior. Approaches to the interpretation of right-wing extremist tendencies. In: Hans-Uwe Otto, Roland Merten (Hrsg.): Right-wing extremist violence in united Germany. Youth in social upheaval. Federal Agency for Political Education, Bonn 1993. ISBN 3-89331-170-X
  • Max Horkheimer (Ed.): Studies on Authority and Family. Research reports from the Institute for Social Research. Alcan, Paris 1936. (Reprint: Lüneburg 1987).
  • Immanuel Kant : Anthropology in a pragmatic way. Writings on anthropology, philosophy of history, politics and education. Immanuel Kant edition in 6 volumes. Volume 6 (edited by Wilhelm Weischedel). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1983. (pp. 395-690).
  • Ulrike Popp : Myths and Motives of Authoritarian Action: A Cultural Psychological Contribution to Research on Authoritarianism. Campus publishing house, Frankfurt a. M. 1989. ISBN 3-593-34115-8
  • Wilhelm Reich : mass psychology of fascism. Verlag für Sexualpolitik, Copenhagen / Prague / Zurich 1933 (the book of the same title, which has been published by several publishers since 1971, is a version revised and greatly expanded by the author in 1946)
  • Rolf Wiggershaus : The Frankfurt School. History, Theoretical Development, Political Significance. Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, Munich 1988. (5th edition 1997, p. 193 ff.). ISBN 3-423-04484-5

Newer presentations or theoretical concepts

  • Jan Weyand: On the topicality of the theory of authoritarian character. In: jour fixe initiative berlin (ed.): Theory of Fascism - Critique of Society. Unrast, Münster 2000, ISBN 3-89771-401-9
  • Ute Osterkamp : Theoretical approaches and forms of defense in psychological analysis of the phenomenon of racism / xenophobia, in: Institute for Social Pedagogical Research Mainz eV (ed.): Racism - Xenophobia - Right-Wing Extremism, Bielefeld 1993
  • Annita Kalpaka, Nora Räthzel (ed.): The difficulty of not being racist. Cologne: Dreisam Verlag, 1994. (There the term rebellious self-submission , see: Gudrun Hentges: Rassismus - Streit um die Causes . In: Die Zeit, July 23, 1993)
  • Nora Räthzel: Rebelling self-submission. An attempt to interpret everyday racism. in: links no. 91, pp. 24-26.

See also