Benjamin Carter Hett on the paradox of Hitler and his rise to power

The Death of Democracy explores one of the great questions in history: what caused the fall of Germany, one of the most progressive governments in 20th century Europe, and its rise as one of the most terrifying? Benjamin Carter Hett looks at one of the pivotal periods in modern history and the paradox of Hitler.


If you look carefully at Hitler’s words, you notice that from the beginning of his political career to the end, he thought the German people were ignorant, weak, and foolish.

Hitler’s argument then took a curious turn. Having just advocated the telling of huge lies for political gain, he blamed the people he imagined to be his main enemies for being the real liars. “From time immemorial,” he wrote, “the greatest experts on the possibilities for the application of untruths and slanders were the Jews.” The great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, said Hitler, had called “the Jew” “the Great Master of Lies.” If you did not realize the “truth” of Schopenhauer’s insight, or if you did “not wish to believe it,” you would “never be able to lend a hand in helping Truth to prevail.” What truth it was you might be helping to prevail, which you would presumably do by telling lies yourself, remained unclear.

Another striking fact emerges from these passages: Adolf Hitler had nothing but contempt for the German people. This may sound surprising. Everyone knows that Hitler was an extreme nationalist. He dreamed of making Germany great again, expanding its wealth and territory, and he sought to found an empire on the superiority of the Germans’ human matériel. Were Germans not the master race? Yet, if you look carefully at Hitler’s words, you notice that from the beginning of his political career to the end, he thought the German people were ignorant, weak, and foolish.

“The mass of the people are lazy and cowardly,” he writes in Mein Kampf. There was no point in trying to reach them with sophisticated messages about tariffs or tax levels or the minutiae of foreign treaties. It was the mistake of “bourgeois” (middle-class liberal) politicians to try to do this, to deliver learned and dry policy lectures. Ordinary people couldn’t understand these things and wouldn’t bother to try. To sink into the minds of average people, a message had to be simple. It had to be emotional—hatred worked well—not intellectual. And it had to be endlessly repeated.

Indeed, Hitler vented his frustration over the “quality” of the German people at various times throughout his political career. Mein Kampf contains a colorful passage about the corrupting influence of urban poverty on a working-class family. In his so-called Second Book—a 1928 sequel to Mein Kampf that was published only after the Second World War—he complains that the German people do not “have the average quality of, for example, the English,” although if “the Englishman . . . may never reach the dangerous depths of our people” neither would he “reach the illustrious heights.” As the Second World War started to go wrong for him, a typical and often-repeated observation was that “if the German people turned out to be weak, they would deserve nothing else than to be extinguished by a stronger people; then one could have no sympathy for them.”

There is a second paradox about Adolf Hitler that is at the heart of his puzzling political success. Here was someone, historians always tell us, who was utterly closed off from other human beings. He loved only his mother. Everyone else was just someone to use. He had no close male friends, or, if he did, he broke with them eventually, or even had them killed. He had no close romantic relationships with women. (His mistress Eva Braun was only another person he used.) People who spent a lot of time with him said that he always remained remote and unknowable.

Yet this man had a remarkable intuition for the thoughts, hopes, fears, and needs of other people—both as individuals and as crowds. Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s longtime foreign press chief, described this quality with a technological analogy: “As soon as some person of interest—and there was no one he did not find interesting for a time—joined his company, you could almost see him mobilizing his internal machinery,” Hanfstaengl recalled. “The asdic pings of inquiry would go out and within a short time he had a clear image of the wavelength and secret yearnings and emotions of his partner.” Hitler’s interlocutor would then begin to imagine “that there lay in Hitler immense depths of sympathy and understanding.” Hanfstaengl concluded that Hitler “had the most formidable powers of persuasion of any man or woman I have ever met.”

As Hanfstaengl noted, this wasn’t just a trick Hitler could pull with crowds. He made a favorable impression on a string of seasoned world statesmen, such as the British prime ministers David Lloyd George and Neville Chamberlain. Some of this had to do with his acting ability— one of his great talents, along with speaking. Hitler could appear quiet, modest, and reasonable when it suited him. Similarly, his famous outbursts of rage or his tears of emotion were often just performances, done for effect, as was his trick of shaking hands with supporters while looking deeply into their eyes for a long moment, which seldom failed to leave a powerful and lasting impression.

Hitler practiced tirelessly in order to achieve the effects he wanted, both on crowds and on individuals. His personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, took picture after picture of Hitler in speaking pose, so that he could refine every hand gesture and facial expression. His biographer Konrad Heiden, who relied on many high-level sources within the Nazi Party, wrote about how Hitler prepared to meet an important visitor with the help of his devotee Rudolf Hess. First, Hitler sent Hess to meet the visitor so that Hess could deliver a full report back to Hitler and the two could rehearse the encounter, with Hess playing the role of the visitor. The guest would expect “natural authority,” Hess told Hitler. “It is alright for you to speak for a long time. Your will is unshakeable.” So he should speak with a firm voice without yelling? Hitler asked. “Certainly,” said Hess. Hitler tried the approach, while Hess urged him to speak “more calmly, no passion, commanding. You want nothing from him. Fate speaks . . .” Eventually, Hitler was satisfied with the approach, and after speaking for a few more minutes, he broke off and told Hess, “So, I think we have it now.”

Doubt, mystery, and debate endure over most of the things we would really like to understand about Hitler, even after the publication of countless biographies.

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