Hitler’s underestimated charisma

Volker Ullrich, author of a new biography of Hitler, says that although the Holocaust — “this last, radical extreme of the political utopian vision of a racially homogeneous society” — was supported by “very many Germans,” it would have been “unimaginable without Hitler.”

Would another Holocaust be imaginable without another Hitler?

In terms of the scale of his destructive impact, Hitler was not unique. Stalin is widely viewed as having been responsible for 10 million or more deaths, yet rarely does one hear the phrase “another Stalin.”

Among genocidal dictators Hitler is singled out as exceptional. But those who warn of the danger of another Jewish Holocaust seem to imply that Hitler was the expression of an undercurrent of evil which could at any time give rise to another and equally dangerous manifestation — another Hitler.

The problem with this treatment of Hitler as a timeless embodiment of antisemitism is that it separates a principle of evil from an individual and the historical context in which he gained power.

While it’s certainly possible that there will be another genocidal dictator who turns out to be just as destructive as Hitler, there won’t be another Hitler. There might be another Holocaust, yet there seems just as much if not more risk that its victims turn out to be Muslims rather than Jews.

Volker Ullrich: [Hitler’s] great talent was for the games of politics. It’s easy to underestimate the exceptional qualities and abilities he brought to bear in order to succeed in this field. In the space of just three years, he rose from an unknown veteran to the king of Munich, filling the city’s largest halls week after week.

SPIEGEL: Hitler was a lone wolf. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and eventually became a vegetarian. How does such an eccentric become a magnet for the masses?

Ullrich: Munich around 1920 was an ideal environment for a right-wing agitator, especially one who could give speeches as fiery as Hitler’s. But he was also a skilled tactician, outmaneuvering his competition step by step. He surrounded himself with followers who looked up to him devoutly. And he secured the support of influential patrons, especially the Bruckmanns, a well-respected couple in the publishing world; the Bechstein family, who made pianos; and of course the Wagners in Bayreuth, who soon came to treat him like one of the family.

SPIEGEL: Even the earliest reports of Hitler as a speaker note the exchange of energy between him and his listeners. “I had a peculiar sensation,” one eyewitness wrote in June 1919, “as if their excitement was his doing and at the same time also gave him voice in return.”

Ullrich: To understand Hitler’s power as a speaker, we must consider that he was not just the bellowing tavern demagogue we always picture, but in fact constructed his speeches very deliberately. He began very calmly, tentatively, almost as if he were feeling his way forward and trying to sense to what degree he had a hold of the audience so far. Not until he was certain of their approval did he escalate his word choice and gestures, becoming more aggressive. He continued this for two or three hours until he reached the climax, an intoxicating peak that left many listeners with tears running down their faces. When we watch clips of his speeches now, we’re generally seeing only the conclusion.

SPIEGEL: The writer Klaus Mann, who observed Hitler devouring a strawberry tart at Munich’s Carlton Tea Room in 1932, afterward wrote, “You want to be dictator, with that nose? Don’t make me laugh.” Did it require a certain sort of disposition to be fascinated by Hitler?

Ullrich: Klaus Mann had an instinctive, aesthetically motivated repulsion from the outset. But there are also reports of people who held a very negative view of Hitler at first, yet still got swept up and carried away when they experienced him. Among the effects of Rudolf Hess, who served as Hitler’s private secretary starting in 1925, I found letters in which he described to his fiancée their agitation tours around Germany. In one letter, he describes a gathering of business leaders in the city of Essen in April 1927. When Hitler entered the room, he was met with frosty silence, complete rejection. After two hours, it was thunderous applause. “An atmosphere such as at (Munich’s) Circus Krone,” Hess wrote.

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One thought on “Hitler’s underestimated charisma

  1. delia ruhe

    It’s hard not to wonder what’s achieved by supressing the (fatally) attractive elements in Hitler’s personality, by representing him as the exclusively evil and repulsive killer of Jews — as he has been. Indeed, the historian Ronald Smelser writes that “Far from scarcely being mentioned in World War II narratives, the Holocaust has practically absorbed the war itself to become its central theme of the war in popular culture.” Historian Gavriel Rosenfeld agrees: ‘‘the years since the late 1970s have witnessed such a proliferation of Holocaust-related films, memorials, museums, and commemorative holidays that the genocide of the Jews has become regarded as the signature event of the entire Nazi experience.’’ But as Gerhard Weinberg writes, ‘‘the discussion of the Holocaust is far too divorced from its wartime context’’ — and that, to my mind marks a serious deficiency, not only in popular culture but also in most of the academic histories of the holocaust.

    Do we really believe that the German wartime generation was exclusively fixated on antisemitism and lusted after the annihilation of all European Jews? If that’s what you want to believe, then Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” is the book for you. Or are we going to put the holocaust back in the context of the most violent and destructive war in human history, and put that war in the context of Germany’s loss of WWI, the punishing Versaille Treaty, the multi-party political infighting – both verbal and physical — of the Weimar Republic (whose parliament makes the current American Congress look like a smoothly running institution), the complete collapse of the German economy, only to be followed by the Great Depression. Hitler did not become Chancellor because he won the most votes, or because he was antisemitic — far from it. As if by magic, he solved all those excruciating problems and because of those seeming miracles, he suddenly had charisma, much more in spite of his antisemitism than because of it. Moreover, not unlike those Americans who continue to insist upon American exceptionalism, Germans, plagued by a deeply impoverished sense of self-worth since the end of WWI, found Hitler’s idea of the superiority of the Aryan race irresistible.

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