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A Few Reflections on Adolf Hitler

I have just finished reading, Hitler: Ian Kershaw’s brilliant, two-volume biography on Adolf Hitler. Over the course of 1432 pages, Kershaw uncovers why Hitler, a man not all too dissimilar from other tyrants in history, has become synonymous with evil.

Kershaw also reveals the gap between Hitler’s public image and private personality. He reveals the difference between the rabble rouser capable of captivating the masses by exploiting their fears, prejudices, and desires, and the lacklustre reality. Kershaw shows how Hitler transformed Nazism into a national religion – complete with its own songs, fables, and rituals – and how he transformed himself into its demagogue.  

Hitler projected a persona that embodied all the ideals of German nationalism. He presented himself as the archetype of German pride, efficiency, and self-discipline. In Hitler, the German people found the living embodiment of their fears and aspirations.

Furthermore, Hitler presented himself as the saviour of a nation on the brink of ruin. This was not entirely his doing, by the early-thirties things had grown so dire in Germany that people were willing to throw their lot in with anyone promising to restore law, order, and honour. Hitler promised all that and more. Utilising what we today would recognise as identity politics, Hitler promised to restore national pride and wreak vengeance on Germany’s enemies. He divided the world into victims (the German people), perpetrators (international Jewry and Marxists), and saviours (the Nazis).

It would be far too simplistic, however, to conclude that Hitler brainwashed the German people. Rather, Hitler and the German people became intertwined in the same unconscious conspiracy. Hitler may have been the one to espouse the kind of murderous ideas that led to Auschwitz and Stalingrad, but it was the German people who gave those ideas their full, unconscious support. As time marched on, Hitler’s sycophancy was taken as political genius.

By telling the German people what they wanted to hear, Hitler was able to present himself as a national saviour. The reality was far different. He was a man with virtually no personality. He had no connection whatsoever with ordinary people. He never held an ordinary job, never had children, and only married his mistress, Eva Braun, the day before his suicide. Albert Speer, the Nazi architect and one of the few men Hitler counted as a friend, described him as a duplicitous, insecure individual who surrounded himself with shallow and incompetent people, laughed at the misfortunes of others, and retreated into “fantastic mis-readings” or reality.

Furthermore, whilst Hitler presented himself as the hardworking political demagogue of unmatched genius, he was, in reality, a lazy, egotistical man whose rise to power rested on the cynical manipulation of national institutions. Far from being the tireless worker he presented himself to be, Hitler actually proved unable to deal with numerous major crises during the War because he was still asleep. He saw his role as being the creator of Nazi ideology. The actual running of Germany he left to his functionaries.

When Hitler toured Paris following the fall of France in 1940, he made a special visit to the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. Saluting the Emperor’s marble tomb, Hitler commented, in typical egotistical style that like Napoleon his tomb would only bear the name “Adolf” because “the German people would know who it was.”

He was not entirely wrong. The name Adolf Hitler is remembered today. However, far from being remembered as the founder of a thousand-year Reich, he is remembered as a genocidal fruitcake whose legacy is as inglorious as his life. Hitler and Napoleon may have been similar in many ways (both were foreigners to the countries they would end up ruling, both reigned for a short period of time, and both significantly altered the course of history), but where Napoleon left a legacy that is still very much with today, Hitler failed to leave anything of lasting significance

But perhaps that is precisely what Hitler wanted. Carl Jung has a dictum: if you want to understand someone’s motivations for doing something, look at the outcome and infer the motivation. In his brief twelve-years in power, Hitler led the German people into a war that cost fifty-million lives, presided over a Holocaust that murdered eleven million people, and oversaw the destruction of the old Europe. If Adolf Hitler could be summarised in a single quote, the line from the ancient Hindu text, Bhagavad Gita would prove sufficient: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

THE RIDDLE OF INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY

Defendants At Nuremberg Trials

On November 20th, 1945, twenty-four leaders of the defeated Nazi regime filed into Courtroom 600 of Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice to be tried for some of the most reprehensible crimes ever committed. Over the next ten months, the world would be shocked to learn of the depth and extent of the Nazi regime’s mechanised horrors. By the end of the trial, twelve of the defendants would be sentenced to death, seven would be sentenced to periods of imprisonment, and three would be acquitted.

Contrary to what one may believe, the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not psychopaths, sadists, or otherwise psychologically disturbed individuals. Rather, their actions arose, as psychologist Gustave Gilbert (1911 – 1977) concluded, from a culture which valued obedience. The observation that mass-horror is more likely to be committed by normal men and women influenced by social conformity would later be categorised by Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) as the ‘banality of evil.’

This shouldn’t be as too much of a surprise. After all, human beings are hard-wired to obey orders from people they deem superior to themselves. In 1961, Yale Psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933 – 1984) carried out a famous experiment which explored the conflict between authority and personal conscience. Milgram’s experiment was inspired by an interview with the Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (1900 – 1947). Höss was asked how it was possible to be directly involved in the deaths of over a million people without suffering emotional distress. Chillingly, Höss answered that he was merely following orders.

The process of the experiment was simple. Two participants, one who whom was actually a researcher, would draw to decide who would take the role of teacher and who would take the role of student. (The system, needless to say, was rigged to ensure the actual participant took the role of teacher). The teacher and student were then separated, and the teacher was taken to a room with an electric shock generator consisting of a row of switches ranging from fifteen to four-hundred-and-fifty volts.  Supervising the teacher was an experimenter in a grey lab coat (an actor in reality). Through the experiment, the teacher was to ask the student questions and administer an electric shock every time the student got a question wrong. As the experiment continued the student would deliberately give wrong answers. As the shocks got more and more severe, the student would scream and beg for mercy. When the teacher expressed concern, however, the experimenter would insist that the experiment continue. By the end of the experiment, Milgram had concluded that all participants would continue to three-hundred volts whilst two-thirds would continue to full volts when pressed.

The Nazis were able to create such obedience through a well-calculated propaganda campaign. Hitler outlined the principles of this campaign in Mein Kampf:

  1.  Keep the dogma simple. One or two points only.
  2.  Be forthright and powerfully direct – tell or order why.
  3.  Reduce concepts down to black and white stereotypes
  4.  Constantly stir people’s emotions
  5.  Use repetition.
  6.  Forget literary beauty, scientific reasoning, balance, or novelty.
  7.  Focus solely on convincing people and creating zealots.
  8.  Find slogans which can be used to drive the movement forward.

Similarly, Hitler’s speeches also followed a very specific and calculated formula:

  1. Hitler would unify the crowd by pointing out some form of commonality.
  2. Hitler would stir up feelings of fear and anger by pointing out some kind of existential threat.
  3. Hitler would invoke himself as the agent of a higher power.
  4. Hitler would present his solution to the problem.
  5. Hitler would proclaim the utilisation of the solution as a victory for both the higher power and the commoners.

In essence, the Nazi propaganda machine facilitated feelings of group identity and then used conformity to gain control over that group. They gambled that the majority of people preferred being beholden to a group than identifying as an individual.

If there is any lesson which can be derived from the Holocaust it is that the distance between good and evil is shorter than we like to believe. As clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson is fond of pointing out, if the Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary people and you’re an ordinary person, the only logical conclusion is that you too are capable of horrendous evil. It is not enough to be critical of those in powers, eternal vigilance means being critical of our own need to conform and obey. Our freedom depends upon it.