Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss

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Overview

Uniquely comprehensive and compelling: an historian's effort to explore the inexplicable amalgam of circumstances and events that transformed a lost individual into one of the most famous/infamous historical figures of our time.

At the age of twenty-four, in 1913, Adolf Hitler was eking out a living as a painter of pictures for tourists in Munich. Nothing marked him in any way as exceptional, but he did possess certain distinguishing ...

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Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss

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Overview

Uniquely comprehensive and compelling: an historian's effort to explore the inexplicable amalgam of circumstances and events that transformed a lost individual into one of the most famous/infamous historical figures of our time.

At the age of twenty-four, in 1913, Adolf Hitler was eking out a living as a painter of pictures for tourists in Munich. Nothing marked him in any way as exceptional, but he did possess certain distinguishing characteristics: a capacity to hate, an inability to accept criticism, a massive overconfidence in his own abilities. He was a socially and emotionally inadequate individual without direction, from whence came a sense of personal mission that would transform these weaknesses and liabilities into strengths—certainties that would provide him not only with a sense of identity, but of purpose in a communal enterprise. This is the focus of Laurence Rees's social, psychological, and historical investigation into the formation of a personality whose determination and vision would at the outset convince a small group of like-minded political and social outcasts and would end up articulating the hopes and dreams of millions of Germans.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A searching study that addresses the question, not why so many Germans and Austrians accommodated Adolf Hitler, but why they so ardently embraced him. Fresh from the news that the Nazi labor- and death-camp system was much more widespread and widely known than hitherto thought, British historian Rees (World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, 2009, etc.) examines Hitler's career through a Max Weber–ian perspective of charisma, noting that Hitler promised not just decent wages and orderly streets, but "broader, almost spiritual, goals of redemption and salvation." In the end--and Rees is rightly emphatic about this--Hitler was, like any politician, willing to compromise on almost any front except his central program: the extermination of the Jews. Apologists explain away German and Austrian acquiescence to this program, but Hitler made no effort to disguise his intentions; it was his ability to sell it with impassioned speeches and to cow his opponents with popularly supported terror that won the day for him, at least for a while. Rees looks into several questions and punctures a few myths along the way: Hitler was no slouch in battle, no mere "paper-hanger," but was a brave and selfless soldier on the World War I front (and commended with an Iron Cross by his Jewish commander), if given to "haranguing those around him about any subject that took his fancy." He was able to gather followers among religious Germans by professing Christianity, much as he despised it. He rose to power at a time when Germans were begging for an authoritarian figure to solve their economic woes, and though he had a propaganda chief, he himself was one of the best propagandists in history. So how did Hitler convince his generals to invade Russia and his subjects to ignore the genocide around them? This readable, fascinating book, a worthy addition to the vast literature surrounding Hitler, has plausible answers.
From the Publisher
“Laurence Rees asks, as always, the right questions, and provides excellent answers. Blending oral testimony of contemporaries with documentary evidence, he offers sharp insight into the adulation of Hitler by millions of Germans that underpinned his ‘charismatic rule.’”
—Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography
 
“Offering acerbic insight into Hitler’s ‘charismatic rule,’ this is an arresting account.”
The Telegraph (London)
 
“A useful vehicle for many of the first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses and participants . . . The book flows briskly and provides some illuminating perspectives along the way.”
The Independent on Sunday (London)
 
“A fascinating study.”
—Antony Beevor, author of The Second World War

“So how did Hitler convince his generals to invade Russia and his subjects to ignore the genocide around them? This readable, fascinating book, a worthy addition to the vast literature surrounding Hitler, has plausible answers.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Rees moves easily from the broad themes of German politics and economics to the individual voices of those who supported and opposed Hitler. Incorporating most of the latest scholarship on Hitler, Rees provides valuable insights here into a topic that is not new.”
Library Journal

“Rees's spotlight on charisma forces us to think hard about what it means to persuade, to argue, to reason—or simply to assert one's will.”
—The Chronicle of Higher Education

Library Journal
Rees (former creative director, history programs, BBC; WW2History.com; Auschwitz: A New History) builds on his earlier BBC television documentaries and their companion books, also authored by him, to reflect on why so many Germans willingly followed Hitler to destruction. This book also accompanies a BBC documentary. Rees adroitly points out that prior to 1918 few would regard Hitler as possessing charisma; he was not good at debating politics (preferring instead to yell at those who disagreed with him) and lacked the ability to connect emotionally. Yet by 1933 Hitler's intransigence was depicted as visionary political principle, while his inability to form emotional bonds was now described as one of the qualities of an inspired leader whose complete devotion to his people placed him above ordinary human connections. Rees situates this transformation from lost soul to charismatic leader both in Hitler's own innate political sense and in the unique circumstances of the Weimar Germany in which the dictator evolved. Rees moves easily from the broad themes of German politics and economics to the individual voices of those who supported and opposed Hitler. VERDICT Incorporating most of the latest scholarship on Hitler, Rees provides valuable insights here into a topic that is not new. For all readers who study the Nazi era.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll., OH
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307377296
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/23/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 974,848
  • Product dimensions: 6.62 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

LAURENCE REES is a historian and former creative director of the BBC's history programs. He wrote, produced, and directed the television series Auschwitz: A New History, as well as the companion book. The book was selected as History Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. In 2010 Rees launched WW2History.com, a subscription multimedia educational resource that Antony Beevor calls "the most authoritative and important website on WWII." Rees's most recent book and accompanying series was World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West.

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Read an Excerpt

Hitler's Charisma

Leading Millions into the Abyss
By Laurence Rees

Pantheon

Copyright © 2013 Laurence Rees
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780307377296

Introduction
 
My parents had very firm views about Adolf Hitler. Having both experienced the war—with my father’s brother killed on the Atlantic convoys—they thought Hitler was the embodiment of all evil. But even as a child I can remember thinking if Hitler was the Devil in human form how did he get so many people to do his bidding? In a way, that’s a question I have been thinking about ever since, and one that I attempt to answer in this work.
 
Adolf Hitler was, at first sight, the most unlikely leader of a sophisticated state at the heart of Europe. He was incap­able of normal human friendships, unable to debate intellectually, filled with hatred and prejudice, bereft of any real capacity to love, and ‘lonely’. He was, undoubtedly, ‘as a human figure, lament­able.’ Yet he played the most important part in three of the most devastating decisions ever taken: the decision to invade Poland that led to the Second World War, the decision to invade the Soviet Union, and the decision to murder the Jews.
 
But Hitler did not create all this horror on his own, and alongside his many personal inadequacies he undoubtedly possessed great powers of persuasion. ‘My whole life,’ he said memorably in 1942, ‘can be summed up as this ceaseless effort of mine to persuade other people.’ And I’ve met many people who lived through this period who confirmed that judgement. When pressed on the reason why they found such a strange figure so persuasive they pointed to a myriad of factors, like the circumstances of the time, their fears, their hopes and so on. But many also described simply the powerful sense of attraction they felt for Hitler—something that a number of people ascribed to his ‘charisma’.
 
But what exactly is ‘charisma’? The word has Greek roots meaning a grace or favour divinely bestowed, but charisma, as we use the term today, is not a ‘divine’ gift but ‘value neutral’—nasty people can possess it just as much as nice ones. The original meaning also implies that charisma is an absolute quality that exists—or does not exist—in a particular individual. But Adolf Hitler’s charismatic appeal was not universal. It was present only in the space between him and the emotions of his audience. Two people could meet Hitler at the same time and one might find him charismatic and the other might think he was a fool.
 
Our modern understanding of the concept of ‘charisma’ begins with the work of the German social theorist Max Weber, who famously wrote about ‘charismatic leadership’ at the turn of the last century. Even though he was writing long before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, his work is still full of relevance for anyone interested in the study of Nazism in general and Hitler in particular. Crucially, what Weber did was to examine ‘charismatic leadership’ as a particular type of rule—rather than a personal quality that a pop star can possess as much as a politician. For Weber, the ‘charismatic’ leader must possess a strong ‘missionary’ element and is almost a quasi-religious figure. Followers of such a leader are looking for more than just lower taxes or better health care, but seek broader, almost spiritual, goals of redemption and salvation. The charismatic leader cannot exist easily within normal bureaucratic structures and is driven forward by a sense of personal destiny. Hitler, in these terms, is the archetypal ‘charismatic leader’.
 
In particular, I think it is hard to underestimate the importance of understanding that charisma is created in an interaction between individuals. And in this context my ability to meet and question people who lived through this extraordinary period has been of enormous benefit. In writing this book I’ve been fortunate to have access to a unique primary source—the hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses and perpetrators conducted for my work as a historical filmmaker over the last 20 years. Only a small fraction of this material has ever been published before, and so the vast majority of the testimony that is quoted in this book appears here in print for the first time.
 
I was hugely privileged to be able to travel the world and meet these people—from those who worked closely with Hitler to those who committed murders in pursuit of his aims, from those who suffered at his hands to those who finally helped destroy him. I was also lucky, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to be one of the first to travel into the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe and record open and honest interviews about Nazism with people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. What they said was often both shocking and surprising.
 
I’ve also benefited from the lengthy discussions I’ve held with many of the world’s greatest academic historians—material I gathered for my educational website WW2History.com—as well as studying information from archival and other more traditional research sources. But it was meeting and questioning people who met Hitler and who lived under his rule that offered me the greatest clues into the nature of his appeal. (One must treat eyewitness testimony with considerable care and I’ve written elsewhere of the many tests and safeguards we used when gathering this material.)
 
I’ve also learnt a great deal from studying reel upon reel of archive footage from the period—particularly footage of Hitler’s speeches. I had thought, when I started my work on Nazism 20 years ago, that the ‘charisma’ of Hitler might somehow be visible in the footage. However, it soon became clear—at least for me—that Hitler is decidedly uncharismatic on film today. But, of course, this is precisely the point. I felt nothing because I am not a person of that time; a person, moreover, already predisposed to accept Hitler’s charismatic appeal. I was not hungry; humiliated after the loss of a war; unemployed; frightened of widespread violence on the streets; feeling betrayed by the broken promises of the democratic system I lived in; terrified of my savings vanishing in a bank crash; and wanting to be told that all of this mess was the fault of someone else.
 
It’s also important to state emphatically that people who accept the ‘charisma’ of a leader are most definitely not ‘hypnotized’. They know exactly what is going on and remain completely responsible for their actions. The fact that someone chooses to follow a charismatic leader cannot subsequently be used as an alibi or excuse.
 
Yet Hitler was not, it has to be said, only a leader with charisma. He also used threat, murder and terror to get his way, and I attempt to show how these aspects fitted into the history of his rise to power and his subsequent rule. There were certainly some people who carried out Hitler’s desires only out of fear, just as there were others who never found Hitler charismatic at all.
 
Finally, whilst this work is entirely about Hitler, I do believe that it has relevance 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’, the longing for salvation and redemption: none of this has changed in the world since the death of Hitler in April 1945.
 
Human beings are social animals. We want to belong. Life, otherwise, can be a very cold experience indeed. And only by understanding how those who seek power try to influence us, and how we often actively participate in our own manipulation, can we finally understand the dangers we face if we leave rationality and skepticism aside and, instead, put our faith in a leader with charisma.



Continues...

Excerpted from Hitler's Charisma by Laurence Rees Copyright © 2013 by Laurence Rees. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION
PART ONE—THE ROAD TO POWER
1. Discovering a Mission
2. Making a Connection
3. Searching for a Hero
4. Developing a Vision
5. Offering Hope in a Crisis
6. Being Certain
PART TWO—JOURNEY TO WAR
7. The Man Who Will Come
8. The Importance of Enemies
9. The Lure of the Radical
10. The Thrill of Release
11. Turning Vision Into Reality
PART THREE—RISK AND REWARD
12. The Great Gamble
13. Charisma and Overconfidence
14. False Hope and the Murder Of Millions
PART FOUR—BLOOD AND DEATH
15. Last Chance
16. The Death of Charisma
PHOTO SECTION CREDITS
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
NOTES
INDEX
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    An absolutely riveting look into the details of what made Adolf

    An absolutely riveting look into the details of what made Adolf Hitler, arguably the most evil man in history, a charismatic leader. I was enthralled by this book. I couldn’t put it down.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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