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Robert George Leeson Waite (February 18, 1919 – October 4, 1999) was a historian, psychohistorian, and the Brown Professor of History (1949–1988) at Williams College who specialized in the Nazi movement, particularly Adolf Hitler.
Early life and undergraduate education
Waite was born in Cartwright, Manitoba, on February 18, 1919. His father was a minister of the United Church of Canada. He grew up as a "preacher's kid," in the prairie towns of Manitoba and Minnesota. When describing his life, he captured the flavor of these small towns, adopting the cadence, regional expressions, and accents of the Scandinavian farmers and the families with whom he grew up.
In the fall of 1937, Waite entered Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the midst of the Great Depression. To supplement his scholarship and to earn whatever spending money he could, Waite held a variety of jobs, from working in the open pit mines of the Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota to guarding the supposed corpse of John Wilkes Booth in a traveling carnival.:131
Upon graduating from Macalester in 1941, he entered military service from which he was discharged three years later as a corporal—a distinction he insisted be included in his curriculum vitae.:131 With weak eyes and a deaf ear, he was assigned to limited duties, one of which was guarding the Mendota Bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Paul. In later years, he jokingly suggested that no enemy plane had ever dared to bomb the Mendota Bridge because he guarded it so well. Robert Waite never served overseas.
Graduate education and academic interests
Following World War II, Waite completed graduate studies in history at the University of Minnesota, where he received his master's degree. He then entered Harvard University and began researching German history with particular emphasis on the Nazi period. His dissertation on the Freikorps movement in post-World War I Germany, written under the supervision of H. Stuart Hughes, was published under the title, Vanguard of Nazism (1952). Upon receiving his PhD in 1949, Waite was appointed to the faculty at Williams College in Massachusetts where he began his pioneering psychohistorical work on Adolf Hitler.
Depression and academic impact
Waite's interest in psychohistory was influenced in part by his own experience during his first year of teaching at Williams College, where he suffered from depression—what he called "black despair." The young professor convinced himself he was a total failure and even submitted his resignation. Then the college president, James Phinney Baxter, refused to accept his resignation and personally arranged an appointment with a well-known psychiatrist. Waite took medical leave with the assurance that his job would be waiting for him.
His struggle with depression influenced his studies greatly, particularly when he began researching the psychohistorical profile of Adolf Hitler. He frequently told colleagues: "the career of Adolf Hitler raises questions that can be answered neither by psychology nor by history working alone.":130
Robert Waite returned to Williams College and resumed his study of Hitler. His personal experience encouraged him to psychoanalyze historical personalities. Common-sense psychology would not prove adequate, he believed, in understanding Hitler's pathological personality, and so Waite immersed himself in psychoanalytic theory and consulted with experts like Erik Erikson, Norbert Bromberg, Lawrence Climo (a staff psychiatrist at the Austen Riggs Center), and Peter Loewenberg, a historian and psychoanalyst. The numerous distinguished historians he consulted with included William L. Langer, James MacGregor Burns, and Hans Gatzke. As Waite had anticipated, his Hitler biography, published in 1977 as The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler, produced intense controversy. A criticism of the volume from an admiring professor who assigns the book regularly in his course on Hitler and the Holocaust is that because of the author's awe of those with psychological credentials, he does not adequately distinguish the value of their work
Even before his book was published, Professor Waite became an internationally known advocate for psychohistory, much sought after as an eloquent and engaging speaker not only at professional conferences and conventions, but also at alumni gatherings and local history societies. His life's venues included lecture halls, church pulpits, high school classrooms, and private residences. A man of strong and sometimes stubborn views, he could act emotionally even in the public eye, once walking out of a television interview that included the Nazi apologist David Irving.
Academic philosophy and psychohistorical approach
Robert Waite was committed to objective history. To be objective for him meant that the historian must avoid distorting the evidence to fit a subjective interpretation. It did not mean that the historian should be morally neutral, however. "How can one be morally neutral about [the Nazi death camp] Auschwitz?" he would demand with a quivering voice.
Waite attempted to suspend his moral judgment whenever possible even if the topic demanded otherwise. Because he invested himself academically in the Nazi movement, particularly its leader Adolf Hitler, this was often a difficult task.
The tension between moral judgment and empathic understanding is often present in Waite's work, not only in The Psychopathic God, but also in his earlier work on the Freikorps and in his psychohistorical comparison of Hitler and Emperor Wilhelm II, Kaiser and Führer, which he wrote in retirement and was published in 1998. Indeed, for Waite that tension was especially acute, since as a scholar he confronted in Hitler and the Nazis what he, in The Psychopathic God, called "the heart of darkness."
Waite's primary source solution
Waite's psychohistorical solution for balancing judgment and understanding was to rely extensively on quotations from those he studied. In Vanguard of Nazism, he quoted the Freikorps fighters at length "to convey their spirit as accurately as possible by letting them speak for themselves." Relying on their own words not only gave his readers access to the Freikorpsmen's psychological and political universe, it also allowed Waite to scrutinize them more accurately and in context. He quoted the members of the Freikorps so extensively, Waite told the readers of the Vanguard of Nazism, "had I relied on paraphrase, it seems probable that I would not have been believed.":130
Waite also focused on individual personalities in history and how they produced events. Disregarding the role of the individual in history, he noted, was not unlike trying to stage Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
Waite retired from teaching in 1989 but privately continued his studies and psychohistorical writing. He was active in the affairs of the First Congregational Church of Williamstown, served as expedition historian on numerous Williams alumni trips to Europe and other parts of the world, and lectured frequently for community and alumni organizations. He taught courses and organized a "French" table at the retirement home in which he spent the last decade of his life. With his full beard, shaven head, knitted skullcap, and West Highland Terrier, Waite was a familiar figure in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Waite published his massive comparative study of Hitler and Wilhelm II and completed a light-hearted memoir entitled, Hitler, the Kaiser, and Me: An Academic's Procession, which appeared only weeks before his death and now serves as his valedictory.:131
Death and lasting relevance
Robert G.L. Waite suffered a massive stroke and died on October 4, 1999, at the age of 80. His sophisticated approach to psychohistory (particularly the psychological analysis of primary source materials) as well as his numerous publications remain serious contributions to his chosen field.
- Hitler and Nazi Germany, (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965)
- Hitler, The Kaiser, and Me: An Academic's Procession, (R.G.L. Waite, 1999)
- Juvenile Delinquency in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945, (State University of New York at Binghamton, 1980)
- The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler, (Da Capo Press, 1993)
- Vanguard of Nazism, 1918-1923, (Harvard U.P; Oxford U.P, 1952)
- Vanguard of Nazism: the Free Corps Movement in Post-war Germany, 1918-1923, (Harvard University Press, 1969)
- Thomas Kohut and John M. Hyde, "In Memoriam: Robert G. L. Waite," Clio's Psyche vol. 6, no. 3 (December 1999): 129-131.
- Douglas Martin, "Robert G. L. Waite, 80, Dies; Wrote Hitler's 'Psychohistory'," NY Times, (Oct. 10, 1999), Sec. 1 pp. 52.
- Martin, "Robert G. L. Waite, 80, Dies," NY Times, (Oct. 10, 1999), Sec. 1 pp. 52.