Nelson, Hitler and Diana by Richard D Ryder

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Nelson, Hitler and Diana by Richard D Ryder

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An interesting look at psychobiography, with three famous people linked through problems with the loss or death of their mothers while at an impressionable age. It's not perfect but can be very convincing.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 150 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Imprint Academic
ISBN: 978-1845401665

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Was Horatio Nelson, a navy officer of great renown, forever thrusting himself into the limelight, doing it because his mother passed away when he was nine? Was Hitler overly affected by his father dying in a time of paternal disapproval, and a kind of Oedipal reaction to being the man in the house making him suffer when she herself died? And can Diana, Princess of Wales' parents' divorce lead to a claim she was a sufferer of borderline personality disorder?

This is a triumvirate of biography, history and psychiatry. For Nelson, we see other details that might have shaped his outlook and career - his lack of stature, his ineffectual, fusty, dusty father, his career sailor uncle - but it is what our author points out when it comes to him defending his motherland - and hence mother - and gaining a maternal romance with Emma Hamilton, that makes for a convincing case. There was also the factor of Nelson's mother being of a higher class than her husband, which may have compelled Horatio to gift her a titled son.

With Hitler's chapter we get one of the more bizarre images I'll read all year - that of Hitler wearing a pinny and cleaning the kitchen, while his mother lived out her last few months. He of course also had a lot of regard for a Motherland - even though as an Austrian there is a bending of logic there - and the psychiatry involved in this most infamous of characters is well worth study. (The Americans did their profiling of him to aid their war effort - but did not have the benefit of hindsight, which alludes to Christmas being a fatal, fateful time for him.)

This book looks through Hitler's allegedly odd sex life, his potential for being bipolar, and more, to get under his skin and see why certain things were as they were. But even more close to modern time, and with even more source material to use, the look at Diana is perhaps even more revealing, especially to the likes of me who certainly didn't care for her at all. The minutiae of her mind as she seemed to live all her life with the weight of her parent's split when she was six, are spelled out compellingly.

There is a very successful fourth part to the book, as well, which shows what the findings here might mean for Blair-watchers, Dubya-haters, and more. Darwin too lost his mother early, and threw himself into science, but seemed not to have the psychological problems of our three subjects - although his long-term illnesses might perhaps have been partly psychosomatic.

This is a very nicely easy-to-read study into the psychology of three people. The science here is very well done, and if anything our author leans towards repetition too much to avoid any lack of clarity. This raises a problem for me - while the more forensic details about Hitler were intriguing, and made a lot of sense, when Ryder reduces his conclusions to a pair of comparisons and some blunt statements, and offers them too often, it seems to lose a lot of realism.

He also loses his grip when it comes to Diana - surely calling her beautiful three times in the same paragraph is a bit subjective? I dare say I'm nearly unique in finding her completely unremarkable, but such language is not needed in a serious volume such as this. He does mention her adultery, and suggests psychological roots for it, but never mentions the inappropriateness of some of her choices - a rugby player, and a Royal-baiting Muslim or two.

I would have liked a paragraph too to reflect on Hitler's legacy - just because he had some severe psychological causes behind his crimes, to what extent can the copious neo-Nazi movements be linked to his psychobiography?

This book was a good first look for me at that discipline, and it is certainly recommended for those who might be similarly interested. Ryder is a very good companion for any future biographer of any of these three to share an hour or two with. It's educative, if not wholly convincing throughout, and so while readable for all is perhaps only a qualified success.

I must thank Imprint Academic for my review copy.

For a good companion to this we still recommend In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind by Eric R Kandel.

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Magda said:

I though about asking for this book and then decided it would be too annoying for me. Your review proves I was right.

I intensely dislike psychological (or rather, borderline psychoanalytical) explanations for historical events and personalities. Possibly because I think that the personalities of people like Hitler or Stalin or Nelson or whoever are the least interesting part of the whole story. Although there are some that claim that dogmatic and totalitarian tendencies are temperamental and hard wired.

But ultimately, I strongly believe that in most of the cases if it wasn't one person, there would be another - although one can argue that for example genocidal racism of the Third Reich was strongly down to Hitler's individual obsessions. I suspect that some form of it - some form of sacrificial group - would have emerged anyway.

With Diana, it's kind of more appropriate as she wasn't part of a grander scheme of things.

And by the way, I also never understood why she was constantly referred to as abeauty - but I though it was a special British thing that I couldn't get.