Published in 1962, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came out during an era where the aftermath of World War II still influenced Americans and a fear of non-democratic government had begun to emerge due to the start of the Cold War (Faggen xix). Kesey’s novel shows some signs of influence from the autocratic governments that existed during this period, particularly that of the Nazi regime. Nurse Ratched, the domineering and matriarchal figure of the ward, uses several techniques similar to those practiced during Germany’s Third Reich (or Third Empire) in the 1930s and 440s Hitler, leader of the Nazi party, emphasized total control over his country to maintain his power and to accomplish his idealistic world consisting purely of the Aryan race (Hendrick).
The Big Nurse works in an asylum that Chief Bromden describes as “a factory for the Combine” and also exploits her total authority over the men there as a means to uniformly “adjust” them to be like those who live on the Outside (36).
Nazism and Nurse Ratched resemble each other in their managerial techniques, their use of an oppressive staff, and their treatment of those they rule. These similarities also reflect aspects of the cultural and social dictatorships of modern society.
Of the totalitarian regimes during the World War II era, the Nazi Party of the Third Reich was not only the most well-known but the most notorious. Adolf Hitler, the founder, and leader of the party committed horrible acts of genocide too to rid the world of all ethnicities except for the Aryans, what he called “the master race” (Hendrick).
In his book, The Nazis, Robert Herzstein writes that those of the proper pedigree had a “tall, long head, narrow face, narrow nose, fair hair, light eye,s, and pink white skin,” which included only the Western Europeans and Americans (98). To exterminate those not of the “master race,” Hitler formed a German group of perfect Aryan lineage called the SS (short for Schutzstaffel which means “protection squad”) led by Heinrich Himmler (82). With this force behind him, Hitler formed one of the basic principles of Nazi ideology: the use of fear to control the public. The SS themselves even admitted to fearing him (25-6). The brutal experimentations and killings performed on the Jews in the concentration camps during the Holocaust also boosted the horrifying image of the SS and Hitler’s power (172-4). Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s Minister of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda accompanied him in his campaign against the non-Aryan races.
Goebbels helped Hitler justify the murder of countless Jews by blaming them for essentially every problem Germany experienced. The citizens of the country accepted Hitler’s claims and, in turn, gave him the power that he craved (124). He believed in three things that defined the whole of Nazism: force, power, and struggle (25).
The Big Nurse possesses several psychologically intrusive techniques (such as her “genius for insinuation”) to govern her ward, but perhaps the most powerful of these is her use of fear to manipulate her subordinates (57). Nurse Ratched prefers for those institutionalized to dread her rather than to respect or trust her, and she imposes this notion upon her staff as well. In his article “Two Novelists of the Absurd: Heller and Kesey,” Joseph Waldmeir of The University of Wisconsin Press describe Nurse Ratched’s “black boys” as “frightened semi-sadists who relish their permission to tyrannize the patients as compensation for their fear of the nurse and their strong feeling of inferiority” (199). They, like all those around Nurse Ratched, recognize her as a dictator and yield to her commands. similarly one of Hitler’s SS said “we each possess just so much power as the Fuhrer wishes to give” (Herzstein 26). The nurse distributes authority in only small amounts to keep her dominance and to remind her staff that they, like the inmates, must obey her. In one particular instance towards the beginning of the novel, she terrifies her orderlies when she sees them mumbling together instead of working. Chief Bromden watches as she, “goes into a crouch and advances on where they’re trapped in a huddle” (5). afterward the nurse’s “black boys” quickly flee to their stations. Once Hitler rose to supreme power in Germany he said, “I lead the movement alone,” and his SS fearfully respected his superiority (Herzstein 26). He, like the nurse, made clear the extent of his dominion and all those who fell under it. Occasionally he succumbed to fits of anger and after witnessing him in such a state, one of his officers said, “Every time I face Hitler, my heart falls into my trousers” (25). The intimidation tactics that both the nurse and Hitler use keep even their most authoritative personnel subdued by reminding them of how little power they hold when confronted by that their commanders.
The nurse dispenses with any faults she may have by projecting her flaws and mistakes onto others. After the death of BillBabbitttt, Nurse Ratched turns on McMurphy and says, “First Charles Cheswick and now WilliaBabbitttt … gambling with human lives – as if you thought yourself to be a God!” in an attempt to thrust her responsibility for Billy’s death on him (274).
She uses scapegoats such as McMurphy to preserve the men’s awed image of her. Likewise, Hitler justified the Holocaust by saying that the Jews brought about “the misfortune of our people,” and Goebbels frequently broadcasted to Germany that, “the Jews are to blame for everything” (Herzstein 124). Rather than accept a moment of weakness, both the Nazi Party and Nurse Ratched blame those around them to keep their unblemished image of authority. However, the two also use propaganda and sentiment to appeal to those under their rule. Hitler demanded lessons to be taught in every primary school that depicted the Jews as “the greatest scoundrels in the whole Reich” (Herzstein 128). In this way, Hitler portrayed himself as the German salvation from the Jewish influence. The Nurse, in comparison, explains to the men after she rations their cigarettes that the only reason she holds such dominion over them is that they “could not adjust to the rules of society in the Outside world,” and tells them that “it is entirely for your good that we enforce discipline and order” (170). Both Hitler and Nurse Ratched justify their tyranny by convincing their subordinates that without their guidance and protection, they would fall subject to corruption.
Nurse Ratched’s methods of instilling fear to maintain order also reflect those practiced in Nazism. Hitler believed that physical and spiritual terror was needed to govern and wrote in his record of Nazi ideology called Mein Kampf that it would release, “a veritable barrage of lies and slanders against wwhatever[sic] adversary seems most dangerous until the nerves of the attacked persons break down. This is a tactic based on precise calculation of all human weaknesses, and its result will lead to success with almost mathematical certainty” (Herzstein 25). ISimilarly the nurse convinces the men after they return from the fishing trip that McMurphy only pretends to befriend them to con them. She “got the wonderings started by pasting up a statement of patients’ financial doings … [McMurphy’s] funds had risen since the day he came in,” which turns McMurphy’s men against him for a time (226). However, even though she only suggests that he was scheming against the men, Nurse Ratched successfully alienates McMurphy with false insinuation. Furthermore, Hitler’s statement about “precise calculation” reflects the often machine-like images that Chief Bromden associates with Nurse Ratched. At the beginning of the novel, he observes her while she works and says, “I see her sit in the center of this web of wires like a watchful robot” (26). He recognizes that, as a selfish strategist, the nurse scrutinizes the environment she governs from behind her wall of glass to determine her next move, for she is always wary of any situation that could dethrone her.
Hitler’s obsession with creating a world of purely Aryan blood led to the formation of a regime comparable to Bromden’s imagined force called the Combine. The Chief sees Nurse Ratched as an integral part of this uniformity-driven institution. Hitler’s concept of the “master race” that would dominate the planet resembles the Combine’s goal for an international standard of conformity. The nurse strives to make the Outside a place where, “houses looked so much alike that, time and time again, the kids went home by mistake to different houses and different families … [and] nobody ever noticed,” by the principles of the institution she works for (206). Similarly, Himmler established a program called the Lebensborn (or the Fountain of Life) that called upon the Aryan women of Germany to breed great numbers of the epitomized blond-haired and blue-eyed children. During one particularly successful event, a thousand women were impregnated in a single day to produce infants extremely similar to each other in their physical appearance (Herzstein 98, 100). Unvarying mass production enables organizations such as the Nazi Party and the Combine to create a body of predictable citizens.
Physical conformity gives the tyrannical institutions a way to recognize those who yield to their control and to punish those who flamboyantly rebel. Once the appearance-based submission is reached, the majority usually turns to mental compliance as well, therein giving itself totally over to the autocracy and granting it unquestioned authority.
One of Hitler’s major assets was his police force. The men enlisted in the SS had “a remorseless devotion to the obliteration of all enemies, real or fancied,” (Herzstein 19). In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched also has her special age agent “black boys.” They report to her and only her out of fear. Similarly, the SS knew that Hitler “stood as the sole repository and dispenser of power in Nazi Germany (26).” This small, but effective group of men clothed in black (juxtaposing the black boys clothed in white) was used to stop opposition against the Third Reich by exterminating those in concentration camps and stopping riots against the government in Germany. The Nurse’s “black boys” are also required to oppress the inmates by controlling where they go and how they behave when the Big Nurse is not nearby. Himmler, “functioned with ruthless efficiency … [and] he declared triumphantly, “Without pity, we shall wield a merciless sword of justice” (Herzstein 142, 83). The SS was known for its hatred of Jews and its brutality towards them, just as Nurse Ratched picks her aides according to if “they hate enough to be capable” (26). Both groups take pride in their hate and take pleasure in the privilege their superiors have given them to indulge their cruel and sadistic natures.
The element of experimentation that accompanies certain treatments used on the men in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reflects some Nazi practices used during the Holocaust. Nurse Ratched uses electroshock therapy (or EST) to ensure that her orders are obeyed. When McMurphy asks the men what EST is, Harding tells him how it was originally used to slaughter cows. Not all of the bovines died, however, and the ones that lived experienced something reminiscent of a seizure. It was decided to test the therapy on humans and Harding explains that “no one knew why [it worked); they still don’t” (161-2). The fact that the technique was first used on cows suggests a savage perception of the insane that Nazi scientists shared about those in the concentration camps. Jews in the death camps were “used as guinea pigs in a wide range of medical and scientific experiments … [in which] fluids from diseased animals were injected into humans to observe the effect” (Herzstein 172). Additionally, during the rebellious party McMurphy hosts in the ward, Harding says, “We shall all be shot at dawn Miss Ratched shall line up all against the wall, where we’ll face the terrible maw of a muzzle-loaded the shotgun,” (262) which strongly resembles the shootings carried out by Nazis in the concentration camps when Jews rebelled or were finally considered unusable (Herzstein 162, 169). The treatment of their underlings indicates the true perspective that the Nazi Party and Nurse Ratched had of them: inferior and disposable. The similarities between Nurse Ratched and the Nazi Party of Germany in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest suggest a more sinister interpretation of American intuitions and government. These likenesses may be Kesey’s way of communicating his concern about the changes in America. Through an increasing obsession with what is and is not considered “normal”, Americans move toward a lifestyle dictated by uniformity. As the voting rate declines, they allow the government to slowly gain power in its jurisdiction. If the nurse’s ward really is “a made-to-scale prototype of the big world Outside” as is asserted in the novel, then that suggests that similar practices of coercion are used by the United States government to “adjust” its citizens (44). Perhaps the underlying message of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not how to escape reaches of conformity, but how to recognize the hidden dictatorships of society.