It is one of history’s great conundrums. How could Adolf Hitler, a figure so patently absurd – a megalomaniac with a comical moustache – have so enthralled millions that they slavishly followed him into the abyss of the Second World War?
William Shirer, who as a foreign correspondent in Berlin in the 1930s saw Hitler at close quarters, thought his power lay in his piercing, ice-blue eyes: ‘They stared through you. They seemed to immobilise the person on whom they were directed, frightening some, fascinating others, but dominating them in any case. I would observe hardened old Nazi party leaders freeze as he paused to talk to one or the other of them, hypnotised by his penetrating glare.’
Now the Second World War historian Laurence Rees analyses Hitler’s lethal magnetism in his new book, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler. He too refers to Hitler’s ‘famous stare’, in which he would hold the eyes of the person looking at him much longer than was normal.
This ability to exert an almost supernatural hold over people was experienced by Nazi sympathiser Fridolin von Spaun, who attended a dinner with Hitler soon after he came to power. Years earlier, when seeing him from a distance, von Spaun had dismissed Hitler as a small, insignificant figure ‘in a shabby coat’. Now, as he felt Hitler’s eyes bore into him from across the dinner table, he was struck by his forceful presence. Hitler then rose to talk to someone while holding on to the back of von Spaun’s chair. ‘I felt a trembling from his fingers penetrating me,’ he later recalled. ‘But not a nervous trembling. Rather, I felt that this man, this body, is only the tool for implementing a big, all-powerful will here on earth. That’s a miracle, in my view.’ The small man in a shabby coat had transformed himself into a messiah.
The word ‘charisma’ has Greek roots meaning a divinely-bestowed gift or power, and many Germans did indeed perceive Hitler as someone sent by the gods to lead their country to greatness. As Rees points out, the quality of charisma is ‘value neutral’ – the wicked can possess it as well as the benevolent. And throughout the whole of human history, no one used it to more catastrophic effect than the Führer of the Third Reich.
It was the German philosopher Max Weber who, at the turn of the 20th century, first wrote about the concept of ‘charismatic leadership’. This is when a leader rules through the sheer force of his magnetic personality and possesses such a strong missionary element that he becomes a quasi-religious figure. His followers want more than the routine improvements to daily life which ordinary politicians promise. They seek nothing less than national salvation and redemption. Weber was writing long before the emergence of Adolf Hitler, the very embodiment of charismatic leadership.
Charisma can only exist in the interplay between individuals or between one person and his audience. In order for a man such as Hitler – coarse, ill-educated, deluded – to have held sway over whole populations, the circumstances of the time had to be right. And in the wake of Germany’s humiliating First World War defeat they were at their optimum, making the Germans predisposed to fall for Hitler’s charismatic appeal. They were hungry, unemployed, frightened of the widespread violence on the streets, feeling betrayed by the broken promises of Germany’s democratic Weimar government…and wanting to hear that all this was the fault of someone else.
Hitler’s charismatic leadership and rise to power were rooted in his rhetorical skill. He had an instinct for mass psychology and was a genius at manipulating the emotions of his audience. When we watch his speeches today in archive film footage he comes across as a ludicrous demagogue. But to millions of his contemporaries he was intoxicating. Rees’s book includes scores of testimonies from people with first-hand experience of Hitler. A typical example is Kurt Lüdecke, who was a young man in 1922 when he first heard Hitler speak in public: ‘His words were like a scourge. When he spoke of Germany’s disgrace I felt ready to spring on an enemy. His appeal to German manhood was like a call to arms, the gospel he preached a sacred truth. I forgot everything but the man.’
From the beginning Hitler expressed open contempt for democracy, believing that only a solitary strong leader, a visionary like himself, could solve the country’s ills. And he understood that to unite the population behind him he would have to give them a common enemy to hate – the Jewish people. It wasn’t unusual at that time to use the Jews as scapegoats, to paint them as a race of predatory financiers and war profiteers – claims which didn’t stand up to any intelligent reasoning. But Hitler’s fanatical loathing of the Jews went far beyond the standard anti-Semitism of those on the extreme right, and paved the way for the Holocaust.
Hitler was helped by another important quality which he exuded – a sense of total certainty in his views, which left no room for doubt or the consideration of differing opinions. In Hitler’s mind the world was black or white. And this worked in his favour, because the dejected, confused citizens listening to him at a time of political and economic crisis yearned for unequivocal leadership.
People could see that Hitler was a loner with weird aspects to his personality. In particular he found it hard to connect with individual human beings (as opposed to vast crowds) and form normal friendships. But this only added to the sense that he was somehow special and above the everyday concerns of ordinary politicians. As Rees puts it: ‘Hitler’s followers witnessed this apparent lack of need for personal intimacy and thought it the mark of a man of charisma. Indeed, the mark of a hero.’
Most astonishing, for such an unprepossessing and curiously asexual man, was Hitler’s allure for women. On the streets they often swooned in his presence. His secretary Traudl Junge would open his mail and read the love letters unknown women sent him. For Traudl he was a kindly father figure. She witnessed none of his notorious rants. On the contrary, years after the war she recalled his ‘courteous manner’ and the ‘gentle, flattering tone’ he used with her and the other secretaries.
According to historian Andrew Roberts, Hitler was kinder to his immediate staff than Churchill was to his. ‘In terms of man-management, Hitler was the more considerate boss. Churchill’s secretaries often became exasperated by his rudeness and lack of indulgence, whereas the Führer was adored by those who worked closest with him. He remembered their names and birthdays, visited them when they were ill, and they repaid him with lifetime devotion.’
In his earlier years he was taken under the wing of besotted wealthy older women. They included Helene, wife of the piano manufacturer Carl Bechstein, who told friends she would love Adolf to be her son. Hitler would sit at her feet while she stroked his hair tenderly and murmured ‘mein wölfchen’ (my little wolf). The Bechsteins introduced him to Munich’s powerbrokers and financed the purchase of the Nazi party newspaper, but Helene’s hope that Adolf would marry her daughter Lotte came to nothing.
The widowed Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of composer Richard Wagner, was infatuated with him, too, but was thwarted in her reputed desire to become Adolf’s wife. Hitler was married to the Reich, members of his entourage would tell anyone inquiring about his ‘love life’.
Women admired him even as he denied them any role in public or professional life. William Shirer attended a two-hour talk Hitler gave to the Nazi women’s league: ‘Hitler told his feminine audience there was to be no emancipation of women…that was reserved for the German man. He made it plain that in Nazi Germany the place of the woman was in the home, the kitchen, the nursery. That was all they could look forward to. It did not sound like much to me, but the 10,000 women in the audience applauded him warmly.’
The pretty blonde Magda Goebbels was so fascinated by Hitler that she married his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels in order to be near him. (The fatal attraction would lead her, in the end, to commit suicide with him in the bunker and murder her six small children to save them from living in a post-Hitler world. His frivolous companion Eva Braun wasn’t the only woman to die willingly for the Führer.)
In the years following his election as Chancellor in 1933 he had a succession of easy triumphs which reinforced the German public’s view that he had been sent by the gods. He accomplished the unthinkable: re-occupation of the Rhineland, Anschluss (union) with Austria, the absorption of the Sudetenland and even the take-over of Czechoslovakia. He restored German territory and pride after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile, unemployment fell from six million in 1933 to just 34,000 in 1939. Small wonder that he was regarded as a mystical messiah who couldn’t put a foot wrong.
Even outside Germany his charisma worked its spell on many. Members of the British elite – and not just giddy upper-class girls such as Unity Mitford – were captivated by the Führer. Even an experienced politician such as former prime minister Lloyd George could write in 1936 that Hitler was ‘a born leader of men. A magnetic and dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart.’
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain himself – still appeasing Hitler even after his invasion of Czechoslovakia – clearly revised his first impression of him as ‘the commonest little dog I have ever seen’. He later admitted to the Cabinet that ‘it was impossible not to be impressed by the power of the man’. Some members of Chamberlain’s government feared he had been ‘hypnotised’ by Hitler.
Most Germans were not eager for war but when Hitler instigated it they happily put their faith in his judgement, and the swift defeat of France seemed to justify their trust. His charismatic aura intensified. ‘When the Führer speaks, all doubts fall away,’ commented a typical citizen of the time. They were not yet aware that their leader’s ultimate goal was a ‘war of annihilation’ in which either the enemy were destroyed or they would be destroyed themselves. For Hitler, individual life meant nothing. He cared only for the supremacy of his volk – his people. But if they could not win this fight to the death they deserved to be exterminated. By the time the German population realised this, it was too late. They were already nearing their destruction.
Yet even towards the end Hitler could retain his hold on those around him. ‘He was already a sick man,’ says Wehrmacht officer Ulrich de Maizière, ‘with a severe shaking paralysis in his right arm, a shuffling gait and poor eyesight. But he had lost none of his demonic charisma. I know very few people who succeeded in resisting the personal charisma of this man, no matter how ugly he was to look at.’
Only in the final days of Hitler’s life did many of the leading Nazis – including Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring – finally lose faith in him and distance themselves. The historian Sir Ian Kershaw called it ‘a rare case of the sinking ship leaving the rat’.
Whilst his book is about Hitler and a historical chapter which ended nearly 70 years ago, Laurence Rees says it is relevant to us today. ‘The desire to be led by a strong personality in a crisis, the craving for our existence to have some kind of purpose, the quasi-worship of “heroes” and “celebrities”…none of this has changed in the world since the death of Adolf Hitler in April 1945.’ Only by understanding how we allow the powerful to influence us can we understand the dangers we face if we cast aside common sense and put our faith in a charismatic leader.