From The Nazis To Nice, Teasing Out The Logic Of Evil

Terrorists and mass murderers are often seen as maniacs. But that may hide an uncomfortable truth: You don't have to be insane to commit atrocities.

Nice killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel
Nice killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel
Joachim Käppner


"They're insane."

"Only a total lunatic, a psychopath, would do such a thing."

"How sick is that?"

"You've really got to be crazy."

You hear sentences like these on a daily basis, from friends and colleagues, in newspapers and on TV. Internet forums are full of them. It's common knowledge, after what happened in Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Ansbach — these very different, but all highly disconcerting crimes — that the Tunisian guy with the truck, the boy with the axe, the person running amok with the gun and the guy with the backpack full of explosives all must have mental issues.

But how does this categorization help? Not at all, according to forensic experts. "Of course, it's a common colloquialism to call the guy who blows himself up in the middle of a crowd insane," says one German psychiatry professor. "In that sense, the Nazis were crazy, too. But from a clinical and legal point of view, this pathologizing doesn't work at all."

Calling these offenders crazy is a natural thing to do: the pathologization of their crimes is an attempt to make some kind of sense from the incomprehensible. Naturally, it also blurs the culprit's image, involuntarily relieving person of responsibility. Thinking that someone who commits such a horrible crime must be mentally ill, and therefore considering the crime itself proof of the offender's mental incapacity, is as old as criminality itself. It's the strategy employed by lawyers everyday to save their clients from conviction.

In those attributions of insanity, which are often false, one can see society's degree of preconceptions concerning mental illness. If someone's "somehow strange," sad or disturbed, full of hate, he or she might conceivably lose it at some point. Some commentators don't hesitate to openly draw connections between depression and going berserk.

The consequence of such opinions is the stigmatization of those who are truly ill. And it's unclear whether the depression David S. in Munich was treated for eventually led to his rampage. Experts know that depression usually leads to withdrawal, listlessness, torpidity and suicide rather than deadly aggression towards others.

"It's highly unlikely that the culprit's depression is the reason for his act in Munich," noted Ulrich Hegerl, a chair of the German Foundation for Depression Relief.

But such distinctions are blurry. At the Würzburg Clinic and Polyclinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy, professor Marcel Romanos sees a dangerous trend of "continuously equating mental illness with sociopathy and being a danger to the public." Doing so is absurd considering that in Germany, one in three people suffers from a mental illness at some point, but most never become dangerous.

On the other hand, in his book Social Anxiety Disorder, fear researcher Borwin Bandelow observes that "many terrorists are the result of their paranoid personality disorder." He also differentiates among narcissistic, antisocial and paranoid terrorists. The narcissists want to go down in history as heroes; the antisocial hide their pleasure in killing behind ideology; and the paranoid feel persecuted by the world. Bandelow further explains that a terrorist with a borderline personality could become a dangerous suicide attacker out of impulsivity.

Reproachful conclusions

All of this obviously does not explain how strong a personality disorder is and to what extent it can be held responsible for a specific attack. The greater the disorder, the lesser the perpetrator's responsibility. The case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik shows how delicate using the scales truly is, even for experts.

The first expert opinion in 2011 declared Breivik paranoid, schizophrenic and certifiably insane during the attack. A second opinion claimed he indeed suffered from a narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder, but said he was not mentally ill to an extent that would justify what he had done. Breivik went to court and was convicted.

Youth psychiatrist Romanos notes that such cases are extremely rare. "Only a few mental disorders lead to exemption from criminal responsibility," he says. Psychiatrists estimate that nearly half of Germany's inmates are mentally ill. Some prisoners suffer from personality disorders with an obvious lack in empathy; others are violent criminals with antisocial traits. And yet all are criminally liable. Otherwise they'd be in an asylum, not in prison.

That's what's so problematic about stereotyped thinking when it comes to mental illness. Every time the public finds out that a criminal like David S. in Munich had been undergoing psychological treatment, critics quickly come to reproachful conclusions: Why didn't anybody notice anything? How could they let him go free?

Germany's major youth psychiatric facilities treat thousands of patients each year, about one tenth of whom are hospitalized. Some obviously have violent tendencies. But if you tried to lock away in a psychiatric institution anyone who might one day become a threat — a move that is, incidentally, out of step with the times — there would be no room for all the patients. If there's only the slightest doubt about the propensity of certain individuals for violence, the same critics often claim, then you're locking them away unscrupulously, treating them like dangerous maniacs.

The theory of mental illness as a cause of terrorism further misjudges the influence of social structures and peers. Without trying to compare the incomparable, the Nazis' killing was, to the victims of that time, nothing more than what today's Islamic terror is to us: a series of incomprehensible atrocities, committed by people who clearly live in a psychic universe that shuns all rules of morality, sanity and peaceful cohabitation.

The degree of brutality that is required for a human being to beat Jewish children to death or kill dozens of innocent people with a truck, as happened in Nice, is hard to bear, as is the carnage in civil wars all over the world. The so-called evil isn't a medical category.

Paradoxically, calling the culprits "maniacs" has backward consequences. It makes the guilty not legally responsible. Today's terror doesn't work that way, and neither did the racial fanaticism of the Nazis. Their devastating racial madness was, of course, delusional. When in 1941 the Nazis killed 33,000 Jewish civilians, they were following a construct of ideas that was completely detached from reality. And young people who learn about the crimes of the past ask the same questions when faced with the horrifying acts that have shocked the Western world recently: How can people do such things? How sick do you have to be?

The answer is disconcerting: Not sick at all. You don't have to be mentally ill to commit horrible crimes. Ideology makes people do things the rest of the world considers delusional. According to the system the doer is in, the person's behavior is normal, even heroic. That's why suicide attackers take as many people as possible with them. According to their logic, this is the best way to head for paradise. In the mass-murder dynamic of the Nazis, people who killed thousands of Jews proved themselves "decent human beings," in the words of Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler.

Psychiatrist Romanos has recently witnessed a whole different form of mental suffering in Würzburg. Many unaccompanied young refugees have been hospitalized because they are at risk for suicide. "These are traumatized young people other teenagers now accuse of being sleepers and terrorists," he says. "And that kind of psychological strain has become almost unbearable for them."

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Stories from the best international journalists.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
Already a subscriber? Log in