Neal Ascherson writes: Thousands of people around us daydream about world conquest, fondle hate fantasies about what they might do to immigrants or jihadists, lap up conspiracy theories or impress their mates – after a pint or six – with bellowing rants about politicians or bankers. Most of them, fortunately, stay below the political radar. They lack a soil in which their urges can swell until they overshadow the earth. They lack the licence of Alasdair Gray’s Law of Inverse Exclusion (outlined in his novel Lanark), which ‘enables a flea in a matchbox to declare itself jailer of the universe’. And they lack a weapon.
But Hitler, hopping mad in his own matchbox, had all three. Fermenting Munich after a lost war and a failed revolution provided the soil, while his weapon was oratory: Hitler’s one tremendous gift and his only natural talent. One day in Munich, as a lecture to demobilised soldiers ended, the speaker noticed a knot of men in the emptying hall. They were listening ‘transfixed by a man who was speaking to them with growing passion and an unusual guttural voice’. The lecturer saw ‘a pale, drawn face underneath a decidedly unmilitary shock of hair, with a trimmed moustache and remarkably large, light-blue, fanatically cold, gleaming eyes’.
Hitler had an excellent voice, and his harsh ‘Austrian’ (actually Lower Bavarian) accent seems to have given North Germans an impression of sincerity rather than provincial uncouthness. But to read or listen to his speeches today is disconcerting: how could anyone have taken seriously such stagy bellowing and preposterous ideas? What we are missing now is not only the desperation and paranoia which his early audiences brought with them into the beer cellar or the stadium, but the tricks of Hitler’s trade. He required a strong warm-up before, deliberately late, he strode into the hall. He insisted where possible on seating that was spread horizontally before him rather than a narrow corridor reaching far back: this gave him as much close impact as possible. Cleverly, he channelled his own tendency to throw tantrums into a speech-style: beginning with long, droning and ostensibly sober recitals of fact and analysis, he would suddenly shift his voice upwards almost an octave, double its pace and explode into yelling demagogy. (I once saw Oswald Mosley do exactly this in the 1950s, and in spite of my contempt for all that he was saying, that sudden gearshift raised all the hairs on my neck.) His old trench comrade Max Amann saw him in 1919: ‘He yelled and indulged in histrionics. I’d never seen the like of it. But everyone said: “This fellow means what he says.” He was drenched in sweat, completely wet. It was unbelievable.’
The discovery of this gift of rhetoric, and the techniques to intensify its impact, set Hitler on his way. [Continue reading…]