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Harrison Koehli – Lobaczewski and the origins of Political Ponerology

Beginning immediately after World War II and continuing in the decades after the imposition of Soviet dictatorship on the countries of Eastern Europe, a group of scientists – primarily Polish, Czech, and Hungarian – secretly collaborated on a scientific study of the nature of totalitarianism. Blocked by the State Security Services from contact with the West, their work remained secret, even while American researchers like Hervey Cleckley and Gustave Gilbert were struggling with the same questions.1 The last known living member of this group, a Polish psychologist and expert on psychopathy named Andrzej Łobaczewski (1921-2007), would eventually name their new science – a synthesis of psychological, psychiatric, sociological, and historical studies – “ponerology”, a term he borrowed from the priests of the Benedictine Abbey in the historic Polish village of Tyniec. Derived from poneros in New Testament Greek, the word suggests an inborn evil with a corrupting influence, a fitting description of psychopathy and its social effects.

Most of what we know about this research comes from precious few sources. Łobaczewski’s sole contact with the researchers was through Stefan Szuman (1889 – 1972), a retired professor who passed along anonymous summaries of research between members of the group. The consequences for being discovered doing this type of forbidden research were severe; scientists faced arrest, torture, and even death, so strict conspiracy amongst their little group was essential. They safeguarded themselves and their work by sharing their work anonymously. This way, if any were arrested and tortured, they could not reveal names and locations of others, a very real threat to their personal safety and the completion of the work. Łobaczewski only shared the names of two Polish professors of the previous generation who were involved in the early stages of the work – Stefan Błachowski (1889 – 1962) and Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902 – 1980).2 Błachowski died under suspicious circumstances and Łobaczewski speculates that he was murdered by the State police for his part in the research. Dąbrowski emigrated and, unable to find work in the States, took a position at the University of Alberta in Canada. A close reading of Dąbrowski’s published works in English shows the theoretical roots of what would become ponerology.3

Like Lobaczewski, Dąbrowski considered psychopathy to be “the greatest obstacle in development of personality and social groups”.4 He warned, “The general inability to recognize the psychological type of such individuals [i.e. psychopaths] causes immense suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization. … As long as the suggestive [i.e. hypnotic, charming, “spellbinding”] power of the psychopaths is not confronted with facts and with moral and practical consequences of his doctrine, entire social groups may succumb to his demagogic appeal”.5 In perhaps the first explicit mention of “political psychopathy”, he remarked that the extreme of ambition and lust for power and financial gain “is particularly evident in criminal or political psychopathy”:6

Methods are developed for spreading dissension between groups (as in the maxim “divide et impera” [divide and rule]). Treason and deceit in politics are given justification and are presented as positive values. Principles of taking advantage of concrete situations are also developed. Political murder, execution of opponents, concentration camps and genocide are the product of political systems at the level of primary integration [i.e. psychopathy].7

In a passage decades before its time, he observed that less “successful” psychopaths are to be found in prisons, while successful ones are to be found in positions of power (i.e., “among political and military national leaders, labor union bosses, etc.”). He cited two examples of leaders characterized by this “affective retardation”, Hitler and Stalin, to whom he referred repeatedly in his books8 and who both showed a “lack of empathy, emotional cold­ness, unlimited ruthlessness and craving for power”.9

Dąbrowski and Łobaczewski experienced this horror firsthand. In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland using a false-flag operation that has come to be known as the Gleiwitz Incident. This was part of the larger SS project Operation Himmler, the purpose of which was to create the illusion of Polish aggression as the pretext for “retaliation”. In other words, the Germans needed a plausible excuse or cover story to invade the country. Germans dressed as Poles attacked a radio station and broadcast anti-German propaganda in addition to murdering a German-Silesian sympathizer of the Poles, Franciszek Honiok, and placing his body at the scene.10 The Nazis used these operations to justify the invasion, after which they instituted a regime of terror that resulted in the deaths of an estimated six million Poles. As part of a larger goal of destroying all Polish cultural life, schools were closed and professors were arrested, sent to concentration camps, and some murdered. Psychiatry was outlawed. According to Jason Aronson of Harvard Medical School, the Nazis murdered the majority of practicing psychiatrists. Only 38 survived out of approximately 400 alive before the invasion.11 During this tumultuous time Łobaczewski worked as a soldier for the Home Army, an underground Polish resistance organization, and his desire to study psychology grew.

The gothic style school that he would later attend, Jagiellonian University, suffered greatly during the war years as part of a general program to exterminate the intellectual elite of the city of Krakow. On November 6, 1939, 144 professors and staff were arrested and sent to concentration camps. They had been told that they were to attend a mandatory lecture on German plans for Polish education. Upon arrival, they were arrested in the lecture hall, along with everyone else present in the building. Thankfully, due to public protest, the majority was released a few months later and despite the University having been looted and vandalized by the Nazis, survivors of the operation managed to form an underground university in 1942.12 Regular lectures began again in 1945 and it was probably then that Łobaczewski began his studies under professor of psychiatry Edward Brzezicki13,14 Łobaczewski probably also met Stefan Szuman, a renowned psychologist who taught at Jagiellonian, at this time. Szuman later acted as Łobaczewski’s clearinghouse for secret data and research.

While Jagiellonian and the other Polish universities enjoyed three years of freedom, this quickly ended in 1948 when Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union and the Polish United Workers’ Party took full control of University life. With the establishment of the Polish Democratic Republic, Poland was placed under the Soviet sphere of influence; medical and psychiatric services were socialized, and clinical psychiatry reduced to strictly Pavlovian concepts. Thus the “Stalinization” of Polish education and research picked up where Hitler left off. Łobaczewski’s class was the last to be taught by the pre-Communism professors, who were considered “ideologically incorrect” by the powers that be. It was only in their last year of schooling that they fully experienced the inhuman “new reality” which was to inspire the course of Łobaczewski’s research for the rest of his life.

During the three decades he spent living under the Communist dictatorship, Łobaczewski worked in general and mental hospitals. The dictatorship provided intensified conditions and opportunities to improve his skills in clinical diagnosis – essential skills for coming to terms with this new social reality. He was also able to give psychotherapy to those who suffered the most under such harsh rule. Early on, as others involved in the secret research observed Lobaczewski’s interest in psychopathology and the social psychology of totalitarianism, he became aware that he was not the first to pursue such research and was asked to join their group. Originally, he only contributed a small part of the research, focusing mostly on psychopathy. The name of the person responsible for completing the final synthesis was kept secret, but the work never saw the light of day. All of Łobaczewski’s contacts became inoperative in the post-Stalin wave of repression in the 1960s and he was left only with the data that had already come into his possession. All the rest was lost forever, whether burned or locked in some secret police archive.

Faced with this hopeless situation, he decided to finish the work on his own. But despite his efforts in secrecy, the political authorities came to suspect that he possessed “dangerous” knowledge that threatened their power. One Austrian scientist with whom Łobaczewski had corresponded turned out to be an agent of the secret police, and Łobaczewski was arrested and tortured three times during this period. While working on the first draft in 1968, the locals of the village in which he was working warned him of an imminent secret police raid. Łobaczewski had just enough time to burn the work in his central heating furnace before their arrival.15 Years later, in 1977, the Roman correspondent to Radio Free Europe, to whom Łobaczewski had spoken about his work, denounced him to the Polish authorities.16 Given the option of a fourth arrest or “voluntary” exile to the United States, Łobaczewski chose the latter. All his papers, books, and research materials were confiscated and he left the country with nothing.

Upon arrival in New York City, the Polish security apparatus utilized their contacts to block Łobaczewski’s access to jobs in his field. He was terrified to learn that “the overt system of suppression I had so recently escaped was just as prevalent, though more covert, in the United States.”17 In short, the U.S. was infected with the same sickness and the “freedom” they offered was little more than an illusion. In the case of scientists living abroad, the Polish secret police’s modus operandi was to suggest certain courses of action to American Party members, who then gullibly carried them out, unaware of the real motivations for their actions. Łobaczewski was thus forced to take a job doing manual labor, writing the final draft of his book in the early hours before work. Having lost most of the statistical data and case studies with his papers, he included only those he could remember and focused primarily on the observations and conclusions based on his and others’ decades of study, as well as a study of literature written by sufferers under pathocratic regimes.

Once the book was completed in 1984 and a suitable translation made into English, he was unable to get it published. The psychology editors told him it was “too political”, and the political editors told him it was “too psychological”. He enlisted the help of his compatriot, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had just previously served as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser and who initially praised the book and promised to help get the book published. Unfortunately, after some time spent corresponding Brzezinski became silent, responding only to the effect that it was a pity it hadn’t worked out. In Łobaczewski’s words, “he strangled the matter, treacherously”.18 In the end, a small printing of copies for academics was the only result, and these failed to have any significant influence on academics and reviewers. Suffering from severely poor health, Łobaczewski returned to Poland in 1990, where he published another book and transcribed the manuscript of Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes onto his computer. He eventually sent this copy to the editors of and Red Pill Press, who published the book in 2006. His health once more failing, he died just over a year later, in November of 2007. While other scientists conducted important research into these subjects over the years, Łobaczewski’s book remains the most comprehensive and in-depth. It is truly an underground classic.


  1. Cleckley wrote the classic book on psychopathy The Mask of Sanity and Gilbert wrote The Psychology of Dictatorship based on his analysis of the Nazi Nuremberg war criminals.
  2. It’s unclear if Łobaczewski was aware of more but refused to share their names for fear of their well-being.
  3. Unfortunately, like Gilbert’s book, Dąbrowski’s books are now out-of-print. A DVD containing scans of his work is available here.
  4. Translated by Elizabeth Mika in “Dąbrowski’s Views on Authentic Mental Health”, in Mendaglio, S. (ed) Dąbrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (Scottsdale, AZ: Great Potential Press, 2008), pp. 139 – 53.
  5. Dąbrowski, K. (with Kawczak, A. & Sochanska, J.), The Dynamics of Concepts (London: Gryf, 1973), pp. 40, 47.
  6. Dąbrowski, K. 1996 [1977]. ‘Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions’ (Lublin, Poland: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego, 1996 [1977]), p. 33.
  7. Ibid, p. 153.
  8. Ibid, p. 21; ‘The Dynamics of Concepts’, p. 40; Dąbrowski, K. Personality-shaping Through Positive Disintegration (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 202; Dąbrowski, K. Psychoneurosis Is Not An Illness (London: Gryf, 1972), p. 159.
  9. Dąbrowski, K. (with Kawczak, A. & Piechowski, M. M.) Mental Growth Through Positive Disintegration (London: Gryf, 1970), pp. 29 – 30.
  10. See Wikipedia, “Gleiwitz Incident”.
  11. Preface to Dąbrowski, K. Positive Disintegration. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), pp. ix – x.
  12. Błachowski taught at one such underground university in Warsaw. See Wikipedia, “Stefan Błachowski”.
  13. On the arrest of Jagiellonian staff, see here.
  14. See Jagiellonian University website.
  15. Later, in Bulgaria, he attempted to send a second draft to a contact in the Vatican via a Polish-American tourist, but to his knowledge it was never delivered.
  16. Łobaczewski only learned the identity of his denouncer from the Polish Institute of National Remembrance in 2005. See interview conducted November 19, 2005.
  17. Łobaczewski, A. Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes (Grande Prairie, AB: Red Pill Press, 2006), p. 23.
  18. In Memoriam: Andrzej M Łobaczewski

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