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.