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Twentieth Century Paranoia and World Events

Updated on December 27, 2016
J Schatzel profile image

J. Schatzel works in healthcare administration in rural upstate New York and has a master's degree in history.


Throughout the twentieth century, instances of paranoia among world leaders led to a series of policy decisions resulting in such measures as political conflicts, economic disasters, wars, and even genocide. Instances such as Hitler’s fear of Jewish Bolshevism, Stalin’s paranoia surrounding Hitler’s whereabouts, Roosevelt’s fear of a Nazi Alpine Redoubt, Mussolini’s paranoia of German expansionism, and Truman’s fears of Soviet expansionism, are only a few of the myriad of examples of such paranoia. Historians such as Vladislav Zubok, Modris Eksteins, Peter Frietzsche, Ian Kershaw, Robert Paxton, and David Stafford have presented analyses of the turmoil throughout twentieth century Europe and the world, presenting glimpses into the impact of paranoias held by entire countries and individual leaders on the political decisions of the empowered elite. Often reasonable, however sometimes unjustified, paranoia was prevalent among twentieth century policymakers; influencing the actions of leaders, militaries, and entire populations in the process.

Paranoia is defined by the American Medical Association as a thought process heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs concerning a perceived threat towards oneself.[1] While it is not possible to definitively diagnose figures of the past as having had paranoia, the term paranoia is used herein to reflect patterns of behavior reflective of the fears held by political leaders, which led to their rational and sometimes irrational behaviors in response to those fears. Such paranoia encapsulated divisions within the European theatre, between Capitalism and Socialism, Jews and Christians, Fascists and non-Fascists, and wartime sympathies, throughout two world wars, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

[1] Stedman’s Medical Dictionary 28th Edition, New York: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006. P.608

World War I

In the early twentieth century, the spread of Fascism contributed to a global paranoia of Fascist expansionism. As American paranoia of German and Italian Fascism grew, President Woodrow Wilson attempted for three years to calm American fears of German fascism and increasing U-boat threats. However, the sinking of the Lusitania and a general increase in German submarine warfare were perceived by Americans as an attack on global commerce and democracy. As a result, Wilson and the American congress declared war on Germany in April of 1917; officially entering the United States to the Allied ranks which eventually defeated German expansionist attempts.[1] Amidst an “undercurrent of paranoia” of German intentions, the United States and the Allies embarked upon a campaign of trench warfare, in which American fears of German Fascism appeared justified and German Fascist expansionism was temporarily defeated. The “modern impulse”[2] of World War I was undertaken by Wilson, Nicholas II, Clemenceau, George V, and Allied nations as a whole in a wake of paranoia caused by German Fascism; believing the German cultural revolution in which European turn of the twentieth century social movements created unique conditions of artistic expression; manifested through political polarization, to be instead a geopolitical struggle for European territory and political legitimacy.[3] Whereas Germany viewed the war to be its struggle for national identity in an avant-garde movement towards cultural modernity and political depersonalization, American paranoia of Germany’s growing Fascist movement ultimately led to Wilson’s declaration of War against Germany on April 2nd 1917.[4]

[1] Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989). P.233.

[2]Eksteins, 43.

[3] Eksteins, 255.

[4] Eksteins, 133.

Between the World Wars

Following the war, Russian veterans of World War I found that their high military rank, intensive training and experience, and veteran status did not ensure their sense of stability and security within Soviet society. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, believing in the potential of a military coup and attempting to prevent dissention within his Soviet ranks, initiated a series of purges in 1937 of his high-ranking military officials; Stalin’s paranoia of a potential coup led him to believe that his military stood in opposition to his policies, and would disobey or even depose him.[1] Due to his paranoia of his own military, and understanding of a present though perhaps exaggerated presence of resentment of himself and authority in general among the Russian people,[2] Stalin ordered the “Great Terror” lethal purges of his talented and experienced military leaders 1937; a move that proved to be a devastating blow to the Soviet military as it stood on the brink of World War II.[3] The resulting lack of experienced and trained military officials presented Hitler with an opportunity to wage war on the Soviet Union, without a reasonable expectation of an organized, well-equipped, Soviet military response.[4]

Historian Ian Kershaw asserts that it was Stalin’s paranoia which made a slight possibility appear to Stalin to be an imminent threat; Stalin believed his military would make an attempt to overthrow his power, so he launched a preemptive purge of his upper military ranks.[5] Meant to serve a dual purpose of reinventing the Soviet military and preventing a military challenge to Stalin’s despotism, the military purges also inadvertently weakened Soviet military efficiency and bureaucratic stability.[6] Through the purges, experienced veterans of World War I were executed, drastically weakening the Red Army’s leadership and lessening its’ influence in negotiations with Stalin and foreign diplomats.[7]

[1] Kershaw, 263.

[2] Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War, From Stalin to Gorbachev. USA” University of North Carolina Press, 2009. P.55

[3] Kershaw, 250.

[4] Kershaw, 292.

[5] Kershaw, 245.

[6] Kershaw, 478.

[7] Kershaw, 255.

World War II

During the 1940s; the climate of spreading German Nazism and Italian Fascism throughout Europe led to President Roosevelt’s paranoia of Fascist expansionism. As a result of this growing paranoia, Roosevelt agreed to provide guns and other aid to England.[1] Not wanting to upset the American people by sending their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers to fight in a foreign war, Roosevelt’s fear of the impending German fascist expansionism was too strong for Roosevelt to helplessly stand by as England faced a possible invasion by German forces. By the spring of 1940, Roosevelt felt that American supplies were necessary to help England in its fight against the “Nazi menace.”[2]

Roosevelt recognized that it would be an illusion to believe that the United States could remain aloof amidst a global war; he increasingly believed it necessary for America to become engaged in the European conflict as the actions of Adolf Hitler proved to Roosevelt that Hitler was not acting out of sane, justified logic.[3] In the spring of 1940, Roosevelt agreed to send two thousand guns to France to support the allied war effort.[4] In June of 1940 upon Italy’s entrance to the war, Roosevelt promised to extend to the Allied powers the resources at American disposal for the purposes of fighting the Axis powers; financially engaging the United States in a war which he believed the American military would inevitably be required to enter for the defense of Democracy.[5] In agreeing to help England through all means “short of war,” Roosevelt extended American resources such as warships to the disposal of England; in staunch opposition to Nazism and Italian Fascism.[6]

As German U-boats attacked Allied vessels “at alarming rates,”[7] Roosevelt believed it increasingly necessary to provide American warships to accompany merchant vessels to discourage such attacks.[8] To Roosevelt, a German invasion of England and eventual Nazi attempt to control all of Europe seemed imminent. To keep the promise he had already made to the American people that he would not commit American soldiers to a fight in the European theatre, Roosevelt committed the American people economically to preventing further German expansionism through every means possible short of sending American soldiers to the defense of England.[9]

Whereas Roosevelt’s paranoia of Nazi Germany was validated through constant German invasions of Allied powers and attacks by German U-boats, Adolf Hitler’s paranoia of Jewish Bolshevism remains unwarranted. Beginning as an anti-Semitic worldview and developing throughout the early twentieth century into an irrational desire to cleanse the Aryan race of Jewish blood through his “Final Solution,” Hitler’s illogical fear of the power of Jews and Slavs was exemplified through his enforcement of the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1920s, Hitler believed it necessary and inevitable that Jewish Bolshevism should be destroyed. In his hopes to spread the German Reich throughout Europe at the expense of the Soviet Union, Hitler believed that Jewish Europeans were the foremost obstacle to such a plan.[10] Since Nazi Germany could not garner English support in their fight against Jewish Bolshevism as Hitler had initially desired,[11] Hitler decided that such a wave of destruction through which he could establish his Aryan Nazi empire could only be established through a declaration of war on the Soviet Union.[12] Ian Kershaw contends that such paranoia of Jewish Bolshevism is evidence of Hitler’s “irrational lunacy,”[13] the very quality Roosevelt had earlier feared would lead to an imminent need for American involvement in the European war.

In June of 1941, Nazi forces invaded Russia in a step towards Hitler’s fight against the Jewish Bolshevism of which he was paranoid.[14] Due to Stalin’s military purges of 1937, the invasion proved devastating to Russia and bolstered Hitler’s belief in the potential for success of his anti-Semitic rule.[15] Hitler regarded Bolshevism as a form of Jewish rule, and in his possibly rational suspicions of Bolshevism, Hitler made the irrational leap to holding Jews responsible for Bolshevik power; in effect inspiring Hitler’s yearning for the eradication of Jews from his empire.[16] Through his intended defeat of Jewish Bolshevism in part through the invasion and defeat of Russia, Hitler aspired to gain a sense of German national security through the establishment of a large Aryan empire in which the material resources at Russian disposal would be controlled by him as the head of the Nazi party.[17]

Hitler’s pathological anti-Semitism fuelled his paranoia of Jewish Bolshevism; which in turn led to Hitler’s decisions to invade Russia, and formally initiate his “Final Solution” throughout Europe.[18] Jews were perceived by Hitler to be the lifeblood of Bolshevism, and the population density of Jews in places such as Poland after the deportation of German Jews led Hitler to the genocidal trajectory of the Holocaust,[19] with the establishment of concentration camps to systematically exterminate millions of Jews, such as those camps constructed at Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka, Flassenburg, Ravensbruck, and Neuengamme.[20] Hitler’s answer to the “Jewish question” was extermination, which he hoped to achieve through a genocidal sweep of Europe in which the elimination of Jews from the population would eliminate the threat of Bolshevism to his Nazi regime.[21]

As Hitler’s Nazi Germany spread throughout Europe and Nazism increasingly fulfilled traditional definitions of radical Fascism,[22] Fascist Italy was seen by Mussolini as being left behind as Hitler’ Reich spread rapidly throughout the European continent. Paranoid about the possibility of Italy being left behind in a wave of German expansionism, Mussolini feared that Italy would be left with no means of expanding its own territory. With limited opportunities for expansion and worries that Italy was being left behind in the Fascist land-grab of the 1940s, Mussolini’s paranoia-driven invasion of Greece on October 28th 1940 was an attempt to gain territory and resources to alleviate its sense of jealousy of Hitler’s growing empire and expansionist successes of which Italy had no comparable achievements to boast. The invasion, which became known as the Balkans Campaign, proved unsuccessful and led to the need for an eventual Nazi intervention in April of 1941.[23] The fruitless invasion of Greece lead to a dramatic turning of the Italian people against Mussolini, and Mussolini’s eventual deposition from power and assassination. However, the invasion that many felt was a useless waste of Italian resources and manpower, was believed by Mussolini in his paranoia of German success overshadowing Italian power, to be a means of securing further territory for the potential growth in power and scale of Fascist Italy.[24]

With the initial goal of occupying an area encompassing the southern coast of Albania, and the islands of Zante, Corfu, Cephalonia, and Greece, Mussolini harnessed his paranoia of being left behind into an unsuccessful although fanatical attempt to stretch Italian power as far as possible.[25] Poor roads for transportation of men and supplies, under-preparedness of the Italian military, a shortage of Italian man-power, and underestimation of Greek resistance made the Greek occupation attempt a costly failure for Italy.[26] Mussolini wished for a rapid victory to prevent the opportunity for Greece to seek reinforcements from England,[27] however such a victory proved impossible as the occupation rapidly transformed into an unmitigated Italian military disaster.[28]

Four years later, during the final stages of World War II, American paranoia was directed largely toward the presence of a possible Alpine Redoubt and the existence of German Werewolves.[29] Believing in the possibility of a fortified Nazi last stand in the forests of Austria, the Allies believed in the existence of a potential Nazi “Alpine Redoubt.”[30] In 1944, The New York Times published an article which detailed the possibility of such a potential “hideaway” for Hitler and other top Nazi officials in the event of an apparent Allied victory, from which the Nazi regime could survive.[31] Paranoid about the potential for a last stand of the Third Reich, and as a result overestimating the probability of there being an actual Alpine Redoubt, the Allies sent various missions to investigate and search for such a fortification throughout Bavaria. Believed to hold tunnels and caves in which food, supplies, and weapons could be stored, an Alpine Redoubt was predicted by the American Communist Party to be the potential place of a Nazi last stand.[32]

Although no such Redoubt was ever found, paranoia regarding the potential existence of such a fortress stood at the heart of Axis and Allied military strategy throughout the final months of the war. Nazi Reichsfuhrer Henrich Himmler sought to take advantage of such paranoia, believing that if Allied belief in such a Redoubt’s ability to survive and continue was strong enough, a negotiated peace in which Allied powers would split from Soviet aid might be possible; the Third Reich could then recover and resist the jaws of defeat.[33] Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, in turn used rumors of an Alpine Redoubt to reinforce Hitler’s stance that the Third Reich would not surrender, in an attempt to bolster German morale and support as supplies and man power began to diminish.[34] Goebbels even instituted special units of agents, whose assignment was to spread such rumors throughout Germany and the world.

As the birthplace of Nazism and Hitler’s home, Bavaria seemed to the Allies to be a plausible place for Hitler and other top Nazi officials to seek refuge, as opposed to Stalin’s theories of Japan and Spain being potential hideouts.[35] Sometimes referred to as a “National Redoubt,” the Alpine Redoubt was the source of American, English, and French paranoia; fuelled by rumors of the existence of a fortified woodland hideaway modeled after the Swiss fortification built to defend Switzerland from Nazi invasions after the fall of France to the Third Reich in 1940.[36] Dwight Eisenhower believed in April of 1945, that since many “Nazi faithful” were heading south, a twenty thousand square mile region south of Munich was the most likely place in which an Alpine Redoubt might be found.[37] From such a fortress, it was thought by Eisenhower and other Allied military officials that Nazi commanders would dispatch guerilla units that numbered from two to three hundred thousand troops, believed by both American and British military intelligence to be preemptively gathering at the Redoubt.[38] While justified in their fears due to uncovered plans for a Nazi Redoubt and the suspicious southward relocation of Nazi sympathizers, no such Redoubt was proven to exist through the investigative missions launched by The United States and England. Fred Warner, an American airman in a special operations unit dispatched to investigate the whereabouts of a possible Alpine Redoubt, was a member of one of nine special operations groups dedicated to investigating the National Redoubt.[39]

Soon after Allied paranoia of an Alpine Redoubt began to diminish, Stalin’s paranoia of Hitler’s last stand continued to grow. Not willing to be duped by the dictator who had threatened the security of Russians and declared war upon Russia, Stalin did not trust that Hitler was deceased by the summer of 1945. As paranoid fears that Hitler was in hiding in Spain or elsewhere instead of being dead spread, Stalin launched Operation Mif to investigate such rumors. Stalin steadfastly believed that Hitler was indeed still alive and well, unwilling to accept that Hitler had suddenly perished after such a reign of power and terror. Due to the possibility that Hitler and Eva Braun could have flown from Germany before the bunker was surrounded and Hitler allegedly took his own life, Stalin believed that Hitler was alive and had fled to any of a number of potential locations, including Spain, Argentina, and even Japan. Upon learning that Nazi submarines carrying gold and other German treasures had been found heading for Japan, Stalin believed that Japan was Hitler’s likely hiding place and that Hitler had escaped via such a vessel. Throughout the summer of 1945, Stalin lived in fear that Hitler was alive and well, merely hiding out in an undisclosed location while the rest of the world believed him to be dead.[40]

Through what historian David Stafford contends was a combination of paranoia and political calculation, Stalin ordered his Soviet propaganda network to spread various rumors regarding Hitler’s possible whereabouts. Although there was acceptable proof for Stalin that Mussolini had perished, no such evidence was available surrounding Hitler’s death, and the scant evidence to support claims of Hitler’s death have still in the twenty-first century not been genetically or otherwise substantiated. The persistent denial of Hitler’s death by Stalin resulted in German officials changing their stance on Hitler’s whereabouts; German officials who had once claimed that dental records had confirmed Hitler’s death, now claimed that Hitler may have escaped in the last possible moments, and that his current whereabouts was then unknown.[41] Amidst such questionable evidence of Hitler’s death and the persistent denial that the death had occurred by Stalin, General Dwight Eisenhower, Stalin’s Soviet propaganda “henchman” Lavrenti Beria, Count Bernadotte, Marshal Zhukov, and many others in positions of power were inclined to believe Stalin’s theories. Stalin’s paranoia that Hitler was still alive grew into a detailed theory, that Hitler had caught a flight on a small plane bound for Hamburg in the minutes before the Red Army arrived at his Berlin bunker. In a period during which the soviet economy struggled under the weight of wartime population losses and rebuilding infrastructure after a lengthy and costly war, Stalin spent time, money, and effort investigating Hitler’s possible whereabouts through Operation Mif, and used Soviet propaganda to propagate his paranoia.

[1] Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940-1941. (N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2007) p.186.

[2] Kershaw, 186.

[3] Kershaw, 193.

[4] Kershaw, 198.

[5] Kershaw, 211.

[6] Kershaw, 220.

[7] Kershaw, 222.

[8] Kershaw, 225.

[9] Kershaw, 313

[10] Kershaw, 66.

[11] Kershaw, 62.

[12] Kershaw, 52.

[13] Kershaw, 55.

[14] Kershaw, 55.

[15] Kershaw, 57.

[16] Kershaw, 57.

[17] Kershaw, 64.

[18] Kershaw, 57.

[19] Kershaw, 451.

[20] David Stafford, Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II. New York: Back Bay Books, 2007, p. 263.

[21] Kershaw, 451.

[22] Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism. N.Y.: Random House, 2004. P.121

[23] Kershaw, 131.

[24] Stafford, 168-169.

[25] Kershaw, 171.

[26] Kershaw, 171-172.

[27] Kershaw, 175.

[28] Kershaw, 176.

[29] Stafford, 456.

[30] Stafford, 68.

[31] Stafford, 68-69.

[32] Stafford, 69-70.

[33] Stafford, 219.

[34] Stafford, 219-220.

[35] Stafford, 511.

[36] Stafford, 68.

[37] Stafford, 70.

[38] Stafford, 70.

[39] Stafford, 213-214.

[40] Stafford, 511.

[41] Stafford, 511.

Cold War

In the post-World War II power struggle for European influence, atomic weapons development and economic turmoil, American paranoia of Soviet expansionism and Communist Imperialism parallel to Soviet yearnings for compensation led to a series of decisions and situations which became the Cold War. A nuclear arms race, brinkmanship, unilateralism, and the struggle between Democracy and Communism took center stage throughout the mid to late twentieth century. Feeling slighted and undercompensated for Russian wartime contributions to the Allied war effort, Stalin was paranoid of a multitude of world powers; including the Grand Alliance as a whole. Following World War II, Stalin felt that the Grand Alliance was withholding what was due to the Soviet people, whose economy, population, infrastructure, and military had been ravaged in the fight against Axis Fascism. The division of Germany, the securing of Russian satellites, and the Iron Curtain were Soviet means of securing some semblance of security and presenting the potential for Soviet expansionism despite Grand Alliance withholding of the compensation Stalin felt Russia was due. According to historian Vladislav Zubok, Soviet circumstances of post-World War II economic chaos were used by Stalin as a justification of Soviet expansionist ideology. However, Americans and the West perceived such expansionism to be imperialist ideology, instigating further American paranoia. As Soviet satellites formed and Russian nationalism encouraged a Soviet "imperial project," America and the West became increasingly paranoid about Soviet expansion and Communism’s potential spread.[1]

Stalin's unilateral approach to post-war foreign policy was in large part caused by his mistrust of foreign leadership after World War II, and was justified by Stalin due to the treatment of Soviets as an ostracized "other" after the economic, social, military, and population sacrifices made by Russians during the war.[2] Feeling betrayed by the Grand Alliance after the war and engulfed in paranoia of his former supposed allies, Stalin sought to reestablish Russian authority through the establishment of an empire to keep Eastern Europe within Soviet control.[3] Stalin's postwar embrace of the Soviet "revolutionary imperial paradigm" emphasized the need for and justification of a Soviet Socialist empire in which the Soviet Union acted as a major world power with heavy European influence.[4] With a dual purpose of security and regime building, Stalin implemented such steps as social and political reforms, continued military purges, as well as the suppression of opposition to his policies throughout Eastern Europe.[5] Portraying Germany as a "mortal enemy of the Slav world,"[6] Stalin is argued by Zubok to have handed down the struggle between “progressive humanity” of the communist world and the capitalist west to his succeeding Kremlin, which through the leadership of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev, continued to elevate American paranoia through the Red Scare, the Arms Race, Brinkmanship, and Detente.[7]

[1] Vladislav M. Zubok, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War, From Stalin to Gorbachev. USA” University of North Carolina Press, 2009. P.11

[2] Zubok, 18-19.

[3] Zubok, 21.

[4] Zubok, 19.

[5] Zubok, 21-22.

[6] Zubok, 23.

[7] Zubok, 98.


Throughout the twentieth century, a series of paranoias among world leaders led to a sequence of policy decisions; resulting in such measures as political conflicts, economic disasters, wars, and Holocaust. Instances such as Hitler’s fear of Jewish Bolshevism and resulting “Final Solution,” Roosevelt’s fear of a Nazi Alpine Redoubt, Mussolini’s paranoia of German expansionism, and American fears of Soviet expansionism, are only a few of the many examples of such paranoia explored by historians such as Zubok, Eksteins, Frietzsche, Kershaw, Paxton, and Stafford. Sometimes reasonable yet oftentimes unjustified, paranoia was prevalent among twentieth century policymakers; influencing the domestic policies, foreign policies, and military strategies of countries such as The United States, England, Russia, Italy, and Germany.

Special Thanks

Special Thanks to my husband for encouraging my continuing research!
Special Thanks to my husband for encouraging my continuing research!


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