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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Schizophrenic Nations

Some political leaders are born mad, some achieve madness and some have madness thrust upon them.

Kind Ludwig II was one of those who was born mad. He ruled Bavaria from 1864 to 1886 and seems to have suffered from manic depression. During the manic phases he would stay awake for 48 hours at a stretch, order the construction of fabulous fantasy castles and occasionally go outside to bark at the moon like a dog.

In Britain, a few decades earlier, we had King George III who suffered from bouts of madness, due, probably, to an inherited metabolic defect. George was, at times, a model of reason but at other times was agitated, hallucinating, and jabbering for hours without a break. He ended up in a straightjacket in Windsor castle. Mercifully, there was a parliament running the country so his illness did not significantly affect the welfare of the nation.

The Bavarians were less fortunate, given that Ludwig was not only king but also chief of government. In the grip of his mania King Ludwig managed to drain the state coffers with his fantastic architectural schemes. Later, depressed and paranoid, he embroiled Bavaria in the Franco-Prussian war.

Ludwig was finally removed from the throne on medical advice. He subsequently committed suicide, after apparently trying to prove his sanity by murdering his psychiatrist.

More dangerous still are those leaders who are not born mad but gradually achieve madness -- who build up an unassailable power base while they are still more or less sane and then drag the nation with them into the nightmare of their advancing mental disease.

Both Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII started off as fairly responsible monarchs. It was only in later life that they became uninhibited, sadistic and emotionally unbalanced. It has been suggested that both men were suffering from neurosyphilis, a delayed form of brain damage which occurs many years after the initial syphilitic infection.

I have frequently heard it said that Idi Amin suffered from the same illness. However, if Amin had syphilis in his youth he could easily have been cured with penicillin. Some experts have suggested that Amin was simply an uneducated man, manifestly out of his depth in international politics, who became bombastic, vicious and paranoid in his attempts to compensate for his intellectual failings.

Saddam Hussein fits the same description, as did Joseph Stalin. But this is not sufficient to explain their terrible acts of genocide. So what happened to them? Is it true that power can make a person mad?

In practice it is very difficult to actually drive someone bananas. A single life experience can make you neurotic; but to render someone psychotic -- to scramble up their thoughts so that they permanently lose touch with reality -- is more or less impossible, unless they suffer from some pre-existing genetic or metabolic defect.

However, there are certain situations which create a temporary form of madness. In his impressive book "An Evil Cradling," former hostage Brian Keenan describes the very vivid hallucinations he experienced in solitary confinement in Lebanon. During prolonged sensory deprivation, the imagination blurs with reality, to the point that you cannot distinguish between the two. I believe absolute power has the same effect.

The imagination tends to be self-actualizing: You imagine some people are out to get you so you have them rounded up and persecuted, then suddenly they really are out to get you which confirms your original mistaken belief. Living in this kind of virtual reality, a completely autocratic ruler is almost guaranteed to become psychotic. In 1945, incarcerated in his bunker, Hitler was somehow able to believe he was winning the war. No one else in Europe shared that belief.

Our concept of sanity is changeable. At any period of history other than his own, Napoleon would have been regarded as a violent megalomaniac, but arriving as he did, in the mess which followed the French Revolution, his dreams of unity through conquest seemed thoroughly reasonable.

In the same way, in any time but his own, Churchill would be considered slightly unhinged. According to his physician, Lord Moran, Churchill suffered from bouts of depression which he overcame by forcing himself into periods of intense activity. When the war came this behavior suddenly represented the norm, as did his various coping strategies: Churchill had become an expert in the psychological trick of denial and that was just what we needed in 1939. After 1945 he was just a depressive old man and he swiftly slipped from favor.

The mood of nations fluctuates. They become insecure and cautious and choose someone like John Major. They discover intellectual freedom and choose Vaclav Havel. They become nostalgic for their youthful idealism and choose a bloke like Bill Clinton. Sometimes conflicting pressures force nations into a period of weird and disordered thinking. These nations become aggressive, paranoid, deluded and downright schizophrenic. It is at times like these that they vote madmen into power.

Which explains, I suspect, how the loony ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky managed to scoop so many votes. This is the man who said he would drop a nuclear bomb on Japan and Germany, who hates the Jews even though he himself is probably half-Jewish, and who still regards Alaska as a part of Russia.

If he walked in to a psychiatric clinic we would probably say he had a personality disorder. We would write in his medical notes that he was an intelligent but confused outsider compensating for a lifelong inferiority complex. Unfortunately this is a pretty apt description of modern Russia. The abiding fear now is that Zhirinovsky's madness is so appropriate to the zeitgeist -- the spirit of the age -- that it will be mistaken in his own country for sanity.

John Colley is a medical columnist for The Observer. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.