Hitler’s Personality And Rise To Power
Adolph Hitler’s rise to power over the course of the 1920s and 30s was due to a confluence of political and personal factors which served to make Hitler the ideal person to take control of Germany’s failing fortunes. In many ways one may view Hitler’s frightening success as a case of being the right person, in the right place, at the right time, because his peculiar personality was an almost perfect match for the disillusioned Germans suffering from the ignominy and economic disaster which followed their defeat in the first World War. Numerous researchers have attempted to diagnose Hitler’s personality in psychological or psychiatric terms, and while these studies some useful insights, this study will focus more on Hitler’s personality as it relates to his audience, because regardless of the specific neuroses Hitler exhibited, the image he cultivated in the minds of Germans and some in the international community was dependent on a perceived logic, humility, and charm, even as his actions and speeches, from the perspective of the historian, appear illogical, fanatical, and megalomanic. Combining recent historical work with contemporary accounts of Hitler given by those who engaged with him during his rise will help to demonstrate how Hitler exploited a fairly inaccurate view of personality, psychology, and their relationship to power in order to couch his bigoted ideology in the language of science, reason, and national pride, thus ensnaring a population already primed to receive this ideology due to their fear and ignorance regarding the actual causes of Germany’s misery.
Before addressing Hitler’s successful manipulation of widespread assumptions regarding personality and its relation to power, it will be helpful to provide some background information on the state of Germany following World War I and the initial emergence of the National Socialist party. As is now widely realized, Hitler’s rise would likely have been impossible without the devastating ramifications World War I had on the German economy and national identity and the unexpected consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. Following the war and the punitive reparation measures included in the treaty of Versailles, “the economy was in seeming freefall, and social divisiveness was so great that many Germans thought a Soviet-style revolution was likely,” and indeed, there was a brief uprising in Munich which partially served to justify the paramilitary groups that would provide the backbone for Hitler’s National Socialist party (Redles 24).
These paramilitary organizations were almost following the end of World War I, as the Treaty of Versailles “mandated reduction of Germany’s armed forces and prohibition of military weapons at target ranges,” thus excluding numerous returning veterans from the social and political organization which had previously structured their life (Imhoof 464). The result was the emergence of what were essentially highly nationalist, politically-minded gangs. Thus, the Versailles treaty did not actually keep Germany from training up militants, but rather forced the training of these militants and the groups themselves outside of official channels, which ultimately only made them more susceptible to assimilation by the emerging National Socialist party.
In particular, the sharpshooting clubs which rose to prominence following World War I, being the only legal means by which men could train, provided the an ideal local community organization from which the National Socialist party could organize support. The emergence of sharpshooting as a popular pastime and the new found importance granted to sharpshooting clubs in the 1920s “provided the institutional and ideological basis for its integration into the Third Reich” (Imhoof 463). Thus, far from precluding the dangerous buildup of military power in Germany, the restrictions included in the Treaty of Versailles only served to create the conditions for a different form of military power, one that could be co-opted far more easily than a standard military.
At the same time that sharpshooting clubs and paramilitary groups were rising to prominence in Germany, the state of the economy was rapidly deteriorating without any sign of a reversal. Thus, coupled with the fundamentally new ways of war making introduced during World War I and the previously unheard of scale of the conflict, the economic and social divisions on Germany presented such seemingly insurmountable problems that “many Germans interpreted Wiemar Germany as a culture of apocalypse” (Redles 25). Old political organizations were rapidly deteriorating while “the new parliamentary democracy, so long sought after by many liberals, was rejected by just as many other Germans as being more a cause of political chaos rather than its solution,” leaving Germany, including the leadership of the Wiemar government, in an almost infantile state of helplessness (Redles 24). The only forms of social organization that were seemingly not dissolving before the eyes of the public were nationalist paramilitary groups and other ideological organizations that sought to reject the perceived failures of both imperial and parliamentary government. Far from proposing new, productive ides regarding the future of the country, however, these ideologies were marked an infantile reliance on comfortable assumptions and preexisting stereotypes.
As in any time of marked globalization and rapid political and social upheaval, the population of Germany was being forced to confront problems born out of a global system they had no way of wholly conceiving due to the fact that the shared consciousness of the public is almost always behind when it comes to understanding the actual structures of power, as new theoretical knowledge and critical tools take time to disseminate and ingratiate themselves into public consciousness. When faced with such overwhelming, bewildering developments, people tend to retreat towards the oversimplified answers provided by religiosity and other forms of restrictive thinking, such as bigotry and nationalism, and this phenomena helps to explain the formation and rise of the National Socialist party at the beginning of the 1920s as well as the appeal of a domineering personality such as Hitler’s.
The National Socialist party was founded in 1920, with the renaming of the German Worker’s Party. Though Hitler was supposedly the seventh man to join the party, he soon became “the man’ in the group” as a result of his speaking skills (Scheffer 382). Hitler’s speaking and emotive abilities were remarked upon by many of those who saw him firsthand, and these responses undoubtedly served to craft the strictly manicured public image that Hitler sought for himself. However, this carefully crafted image was not one of a naturally gifted speaker, but rather sought to portray Hitler’s success as born out of the undeniable “truth” of his ideas, which entranced listeners almost in spite of his own dull presence. Thus, in 1923 a German reporter remarked that Hitler’s “voice is certainly not unpleasant, but neither is it exactly fascinating” even as he claims that “in spite of the speaker’s moderate tone, a very hurricane of elemental passion seems to be sweeping down upon the audience” (“Hitler New Power In Germany,” New York Times 1923).
This perceived contrast between Hitler’s own natural persona and the force of his speech was perfectly suited to engage a populace in the throws of an almost religious response to economic and political problems, because it allowed Hitler to appear almost disinterested in his own success (as well as allowing for comparisons to Moses, another political leader whose personality and speaking abilities were considered sub-par). This served to simultaneously give Hitler the veneer of humility and service while implicitly making the argument that “only this man can save us and no one else” (Redles 25). As his early audiences oftentimes consisted of “the ‘de-classed’ middle class: creatures visibly down at the heel, spiritually crushed in the struggle with everyday reality,” Hitler’s persona in the 1920s served first and foremost to appeal to the emotional and uncritical receptivity of his audience (Scheffer 384).
One of the most common psychological diagnoses of Hitler’s personality helps to explain his ability to simultaneously appear singularly worthy of power while at the same time humble, because Hitler is most commonly described as suffering from borderline personality disorder with an attendant narcissism (Schmitt 475). Borderline disorder is partially characterized by an ability to rapidly vacillate between emotional extremes such that one is able to deploy power over others not through explicit command or coercion but by positioning oneself in an apparent position of powerlessness. Thus, Hitler managed to appear singularly capable of saving Germany precisely because of his ability to make it seem like he did not want to, or was otherwise unqualified. In essence, Hitler secured immense personal power by repeatedly claiming that that power was not actually his, but rather in the hands of those exhibiting “a little of the old Germanism” (“Hitler New Power In Germany,” New York Times 1923).
However, the attraction of a messianic figure in the apocalyptic atmosphere of Germany in the 1920s is not enough to explain Hitler’s rise, because governance requires a simultaneous (imagined) appeal to reason, due to the fact than any politically minded person likes to believe that he or she arrived at his or her political beliefs through a logical process, regardless of how fantastical those beliefs actually are. Thus, while establishing himself as a kind of messianic figure uniquely capable of saving Germany, Hitler’s political discourse relied on a language of science and logic, such that his reactionary, ignorant ideologies would be regarded as unassailable fact. This is not to say that Hitler actually appealed to people’s logic, but rather that his speeches pretended to flatter his audience’s intellectual capacities while actually addressing their emotional responses. This allowed Hitler to appeal to a wide range of individuals, such that after one speech “a professor remarks, ‘No college instructor can excel this man in the unshakable logic of his construction” (“Hitler New Power In Germany,” New York Times 1923).
The hindsight which allows the historian to recognize the logical failures of Hitler’s reasoning leads one inexorably to question how so many others at the time seemingly could not, and to answer this one may examine some of the primary sources discussing Hitler’s public performances. Put simply, it is not that people at the time were incapable of thinking critically or logically, but rather that a widespread ignorance regarding personality and its relation to politics precluded many from seeing Hitler’s performances for what they really were. For instance, in the 1923 New York Times article describing a recent speech, the author never once mentions any of Hitler’s political or social positions. Instead, the entirety of the article is given over towards describing the emotional effect of the speech on the audience members, such that the article implicitly suggests that Hitler must be right about something, if people are reacting so strongly (“Hitler New Power In Germany,” New York Times 1923). This reflects a kind of “charismatic legitimation,” in which the ability to evoke an emotional response from an audience is taken to imply an attendant logical underpinning to that emotional response (Nolzen 512).
Hitler actually used this assumption in Nazi propaganda in 1936, which saw the publication of a book arguing that for “a Fuehrer principle” which suggests a kind of essential linkage between the “Fuehrer personality of the old Prussian monarch” Frederick the Great and Hitler, further demonstrating the celebration of individual personality and the ability to evoke emotional responses over the actual content of one’s political ideologies (“New Support for Hitler,” New York Times 1936). However, perhaps the most egregious example of this misguided attention to personality over ideology came in 1939, when the Associated Press reported that “three English girls who tap-danced before Adolf Hitler in the Berlin Wintergarten returned home today with praise of the Fuehrer’s ‘marvelous eyes, dynamic personality, and magnetic attraction for women'” (Girls Who Danced Before Hitler Praise His Personality” Los Angeles Times 1939). This glowing review of Hitler’s personality from visiting English dancers came just over a year before the Blitz killed over 40,000 English citizens.
Thus, Hitler’s ability to manipulate large masses of people into uncritically receptivity actually has less to do with his individual personality and more to do with the “great man” theory of history “which had traditionally been a strand of German historicism” (Kershaw 10). This is not to say that his personality was irrelevant, but rather that it was merely the personality best suited to manipulate the assumptions and fears of the German populace. Thus, is some ways “Hitler was like a shaman; his power was magic,” not in the sense of actual, literal magic, but rather that he was able to use the assumptions of his audience in order to misdirect their attentions away from the more frightening implications of his ideology, so that by the time the world realized his “trick,” it was already too late (Sickinger 108).
It is worth making it completely clear that this usage of “magic” does not refer to any kind of supernatural ability, because the fascination with Hitler’s possible interest in the occult serves to grant him undue power in much the same way that the “great man” theory of history serves to disregard the innumerable social variables which precede the rise of any so-called great leader. In the same way that a shaman exploits people’s ignorance of biology in order to give the application of certain medicinal herbs the appearance of supernatural intervention, so too did Hitler exploit the German population’s fear and ignorance regarding the causes of their economic and political problems in order to give himself the appearance of singular competency.
Like many politicians, Hitler’s success actually had less to do with any innate ability on his part and much more to do with the particular historical context in which he found himself. However, this is not to entirely discount the centrality of Hitler’s personality in his rise to power, because he effectively used his public persona to manipulate the assumptions and fears of the German populace during the 1920s and 30s. The consequences of the Treaty of Versailles ensured not only that Germany would suffer catastrophic economic and political failures, but also that it military ability, far from being dismantled, would organize itself outside official channels of control, thus making Hitler’s rise all the easier. A belief in the power of certain “great men” to disproportionately influence the course of history led to Hitler being viewed as a kind of messianic savior of Germany, and the religiosity engrained in his appeal allowed him to rely solely on the emotional manipulation of his audience while pretending to address them as logical individuals. Thus, more than anything Hitler proved himself to be not necessarily a skilled leader, inspiring loyalty through the strength of his arguments, but rather an expert manipulator, achieving success through the manipulation of fear and ignorance.
“Girls Who Danced before Hitler Praise His Personality.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current
File): A. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1987). Aug 03
In this almost tragically naive account of a 1939 performance for Hitler, this article gives some insight into the dominance of personality as the means by which Hitler was considered in the press.
“Hitler New Power in Germany.” New York Times (1923-Current file): XX12. ProQuest
Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Jan 21, 1923.
This primary source offers a useful insight into the early reception of Hitler’s public appearances, as it discusses not only the emotional responses of the audience, but the varied demographic makeup of that audience.
Imhoof, David. “Sharpshooting in Gottingen: A Case Study of Cultural Integration in Weimar
and Nazi Germany.” German History 23.4 (2005): 460-493.
This examination of sharpshooting clubs reveals some of the unintended consequences of the Treaty of Versailles which helped set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power.
Kershaw, Ian. “Personality and Power: The Individual’s Role in the History of Twentieth-
Century Europe.” Historian 83 (2004): 8-19.
This essay challenges the notion of “great men,” and helps to demonstrate how a reliance on this form of historicism actually allowed Hitler to present himself as uniquely capable of leading Germany.
“New Support for Hitler.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 4. ProQuest Historical
Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2007). Aug 17, 1936.
This article offers an example of how the focus on personality was actually used in explicit Nazi propaganda in order to further legitimize Hitler’s reign.
Nolzen, Armin. “Charismatic Legitimation and Bureaucratic Rule: The NSDAP in the Third
Reich, 1933-1945.” German History 23.4 (2005): 494-518.
Nolzen’s theory of “charismatic legitimation” helps explain the gap between the content of Hitler’s rhetoric and the perceived logic of it.
Redles, David. “The Nazi Old Guard: Identity Formation during Apocalyptic Times.” Nova
Religion 14.1 (2010): 24-44.
Redles’ look at the gloomy atmosphere of Germany following World War I helps to reveal the apocalyptic, uncritical environment in which Hitler first began his rise to power.
Scheffer, Paul. “Hitler: Phenomenon and Portent.” Foreign Affairs (pre-1986) 10.000003 (1932):
Scheffer’s contemporary account of the Nazi party allows one to see how Hitler was considered in the academic press at the time of his rise, as well as how he managed to change the German Worker’s Party into the infinitely more powerful National Socialist Party.
Schmitt, Hans A. “Kaiser and Fuhrer: A Comparative Study of Personality and Politics.” The
Journal of Military History 63.2 (1999): 474-475.
This review offers a phsychological consideration of Hitler, which offers some insight into his particular propensity for emotional manipulation.
Sickinger, Raymond L. “Hitler and the Occult: The Magical Thinking of Adolf Hitler.” Journal
of Popular Culture 34.2 (2000): 107,107-125.
Though it gives a little too much credence to certain conspiracy theories regarding Hitler’s interest in the occult, this essay nonetheless provides a good metaphor for considering how Hitler was able to manipulate his audiences.
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