Laurence Rees - 'Hitler's Charisma'

Laurence Rees - 'Hitler's Charisma'


The cover for *Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions Into The Abyss*

In 1913, when Adolf Hitler was twenty-four years old, nothing about his life marked him out as a future charismatic leader of Germany. Not his profession; he eked out a living as a painter of pictures for tourists in Munich. Not his home; he lived in a small room, rented from Josef Popp, a tailor, on the third floor of a house at 34 Schleissheimer Strasse, north of Munich’s main station. Not the clothes he wore; he dressed conservatively, if shabbily, in the conventional bourgeois apparel of the day—black coat and trousers. Not his physical appearance; he was distinctly unprepossessing in looks, with sunken cheeks, discoloured teeth, a straggly moustache, and black hair lying limply across his forehead. Not his emotional life; he found it impossible to sustain any lasting friendship and had never had a girl friend.

Laurence Rees has written a number of books on World War II. His glowing production skills grounded and grew a few series, perhaps most revealing and human of which is Auschwitz: The Nazis and The Final Solution, also available in exultant book form.

Rees writes clearly and passionately about his subjects, horrific and scary as they are. He doesn’t wax about things of the past because he is obsessed; instead, he details why and how events happened, and represents people in the manner of Arthur Conan Doyle: as they were, sans garish verve. Most often in their own words, brought via his own interviews.

This is not simply a result of digging through archives. What is here delivered as a neat book is a sprawling spectral analysis of the most infamous fascist in history: Adolf Hitler. Or rather, Hitler’s charisma, and how he developed from grey mouse into powerful demagogue.

In a three-decade long series of events laid out chronologically, Rees paints a picture of Hitler. Meetings are detailed by people who attended them, Hitler present. German citizens describe how Hitler appeared to them, both during his rise and after his fall.

His chief distinguishing characteristic was his capacity to hate. “He was at odds with the world,” wrote August Kubizek who had lodged with him in Austria several years before. “Wherever he looked, he saw injustice, hate and enmity. Nothing was free from his criticism, nothing found favour in his eyes … Choking with his catalogue of hates, he would pour his fury over everything, against mankind in general who did not understand him, who did not appreciate him and by whom he was persecuted.”

It’s quite interesting to see which of Hitler’s main features went through his life like one vast, onerous streak. ‘Hitler had always despised debate and only wanted to lecture.’ Many people attest to this, both Nazis, ‘neutral Swedes’, and the so-called Allies.

Still, one can not become a leader whose actions led to millions of deaths unless you are fixed to have your audience swallow your bile. Rees argues that Hitler’s charisma, rather than his patchwork of stolen artefacts that fragmentedly formed his ideology, is what pulled people in.

“When I first saw him address a meeting at the Hofbräuhaus [a large beer hall in Munich],” says Emil Klein, “the man gave off such a charisma that people believed whatever he said. And when someone today says that he was an actor, then I have to say that the German nation must have been complete idiots to have granted a man like that such belief, to the extent that the entire German nation held out to the last day of the war … I still believe to this day that Hitler believed that he would be able to fulfil what he preached. That he believed it in all honesty, believed it himself … And ultimately all those I was together with, the many people at the party conferences everywhere, the people believed him, and they could only believe him because it was evident that he did [believe it] too, that he spoke with conviction, and that was something lacking in those days.”

Hitler’s antisocial characteristics remind me of those seen in modern sorts of followers, for example, those who admire people who claim to only need three or four hours of sleep per night:

He had always found it hard to connect with other individual human beings—a “normal” friendship was impossible for him. It was just that now this characteristic worked to his advantage. Many of Hitler’s followers witnessed his apparent lack of need for personal intimacy and thought it the mark of a man of charisma. Indeed, the mark of a hero.

Some people would see Hitler’s way of ‘reasoning’ as a sort of ‘my way or the highway’, but it really boils down to imperative resistance to the views of others:

Hitler walked out of a meeting with Dickel in fury and quit the Nazi party altogether. Once again he had shown that he was both unwilling and unable to participate in intellectual debate.

The first reason for Hitler’s success was the power of his intransigence. He refused to accept anything less than the chancellorship, even when success looked impossible.

During his time in prison, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, a jumble of hate against, mainly, The Jew and the Soviet Union. Hitler’s words fall very flat because of his conceit and unhinged mind. In his mind, everything is axiomatic, true or false, and the threat is always from the outside, never from oneself, except where his officers fail to realise his vision, unrealistic in the very extreme.

Wrapped around this central vision of hate, struggle and conquest, Hitler tried to create a coherent story out of his autobiography, demonstrating the consistency of his views over his lifetime. But as we have already seen, and as historical research over the last twenty years has demonstrated, many of these auto-biographical sections were simply a crude attempt to rewrite history. Hitler was never as certain in his views prior to 1919 as he pretends to have been in Mein Kampf.

The “Aryan” race, wrote Hitler, was a “superior” race responsible for “all the human culture.”

If we shave away the notion of everything that Hitler should have learned of culture during his young days as an artist, blaming the Jews for everything was his lodestar; They and the Bolsheviks carried the blame for what Hitler felt was the core of all things Evil.

He, most often, convinced a very loyal and close staff. He created waterproof containers between them. Unlike Stalin, he was not utterly paranoid. While Stalin terrified his generals into acquiescence, Hitler persuaded his to accept his vision; As time passed, Hitler would let resentment against his head officers and generals turn into profound hatred; Hitler took matters into his own hands, as Rees shows in this paragraph, regarding changes in 1941:

Hitler now had a series of important personnel decisions to take, and the most important was who should replace Brauchitsch as head of the army. Hitler needed someone on whom he could utterly rely. Someone, he must have felt, given this list of sick and feeble military commanders, who was tough enough to deal with the stress of this war of annihilation. And by this point the only man who measured up to all this, in Hitler’s view, was Adolf Hitler. He appointed himself the head of the German army and added this title to his growing list—which now included Supreme Commander in Chief of all German armed forces, Chancellor, Führer of the German people, and head of state.

As far as possible, he did not keep a paper trail that would reveal his thoughts; Euphemisms were applied for as long as possible, even ‘The Final Solution’ was one. He disguised his true intents for as long as possible, especially to his voters, even after he became Chancellor and took fascist rule over Germany.

One example of this is that Hitler knew that he needed the approval of the Christian clergy for Nazism to be successful. He acted as though Nazism was a Christian cult, promised German Christian leaders the world and appealed to the most antisemitic of the highest members of the clergy, while secretly planning to dispose of Christianity as soon as he would become Führer.

“The Führer is a man totally attuned to antiquity,” wrote Goebbels in his diary on 8 April 1941. “He hates Christianity, because it has crippled all that is noble in humanity.” That same year, chatting to five of his cronies—including Ribbentrop and Rosenberg—Hitler said, “The war will be over one day. I shall then consider that my life’s final task will be to solve the religious problem.” Declaring that “Christianity is an invention of sick brains,” he said that “the concrete image of the Beyond that religion forces on me does not stand up to examination.” Instead Hitler said, he dreamt “of a state of affairs in which every man would know that he lives and dies for the preservation of the species.”

Rees’s many interviews with Holocaust survivors, Nazis, and other persons are extremely effective in diversifying views: both the hypnotic powers of Hitler and of Nazism as a universal silver bullet for Germans are laid bare. Most of the quotes in this book have not been printed before.

But though there were a number of attacks on Jews in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, it was the political enemies of the Nazis who were particularly targeted. “Right at the beginning,” says Maria Mauth, then a schoolgirl in northern Germany, “the first Communists and Social Democrats were carted off. I even saw it myself—the lorries—but it did not make us think. They were only Communists after all … they were enemies of the people.”

Almost everything Hitler did was legal, as Martin Luther King pointed out. He did this through the people, most of which voluntarily voted him into becoming the Führer of Germany. The Reich Chancellor. The one, true leader for the new Teutonic Reich.

Hitler had power in his monologues, but he seems to have been at his best with his immediate leadership. Hitler was keen to stare into the eyes of his subjugated leaders for slightly too long. He would launch into monologues that carried on for more than 1.5 hours at a time. Many people who met with Hitler would attest to having felt under his spell, that they were part of something significant.

Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, recalls that Hitler “never betrayed a sign of weakness nor indicated that he saw any situation as hopeless … It fascinated me to see how he contrived to put a positive value on setbacks and even succeeded in convincing those who worked closely with him.” In part, Hitler achieved this effect by using the same methods he had for years—staring longer into someone’s eyes than normal, a sense of stillness in the moment, an absolute lack of doubt, and a direct and personal appeal for loyalty. But by now every officer who stood in front of Hitler also knew that they were in the presence of a man who had over the last three years led Germany to great victories—and these successes had not been forgotten, even now, in the face of recent defeats. Maybe, just maybe, the Führer did still know “best.”

On the other hand, not all attendees felt this way. Hans Dahlerus, a forty-nine-year-old Swedish businessman, was a close friend of Hermann Göring. In early July 1939, he met Hitler.

Göring arranged a meeting between Dahlerus and Hitler in the Reich Chancellery in the early hours of 27 August, at which Dahlerus hand-delivered a letter from Lord Halifax expressing the British desire for peace. That Göring thought this anodyne note could change anything showed both how desperate he was to avoid war with the British, and how anxious he was to please Hitler by demonstrating his influence with powerful figures in the British government. Dahlerus was taken on the same grand route through the new Reich Chancellery to Hitler’s office that Hácha had followed a few months before. When Hitler met Dahlerus he stared intently at him and then launched into a monologue about German history. Dahlerus noticed how Hitler managed to work himself up into a state of excitement—seemingly without outside stimuli.

“He had a seductive way of putting his own viewpoint in the most favourable light,” wrote Dahlerus, “but he suffered from lamentable incapacity to see or respect the other party’s point of view.” Hitler boasted about the power of the German armed forces, and when he mentioned the strength of the Luftwaffe, Göring—who had been sitting quietly thus far—“giggled contentedly.” By now Dahlerus had formed the view that Hitler’s “mental equilibrium was patently unstable” and so, when he could get a word in, he spoke softly in an attempt to calm the German leader. But when Dahlerus mentioned that Britain and France were also powerful military nations the reaction was instantaneous. Hitler “suddenly got up and becoming very much excited and nervous, walked up and down saying, as though to himself, that Germany was irresistible and could defeat her adversaries by means of a rapid war. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the room and stood there staring. His voice was blurred and his behaviour that of a completely abnormal person.

He spoke in staccato phrases, and it was clear that his thoughts were concentrated on the tasks that awaited him in case of war. ‘If there should be war,’ he said, ‘dann werde ich U Boote bauen, U Boote bauen, U Boote, U Boote, U Boote.’ [‘I will build U boats, build U boats, U boats, U boats, U boats.’] His voice became more indistinct and finally one could not follow him at all. Then he pulled himself together, raised his voice as though addressing a large audience and shrieked, ‘Ich werde Flugzeuge bauen, Flugzeuge bauen, Flugzeuge, Flugzeuge, und ich werde meine Feinde vernichten.’ [‘I will build planes, build planes, planes, planes, and I will destroy my enemies.’]

He seemed more like a phantom from a story book than a real person.” The meeting ended with Dahlerus trying to discover just what Hitler wanted from the Poles. But, like many others before him, he found it impossible to get Hitler to articulate detailed terms. Dahlerus left, appalled both by Hitler’s behaviour and by the way Göring abased himself before his Führer. Whilst as a piece of political history this remarkable encounter is not hard to explain—Hitler must have felt that he should exploit even the slightest chance that Britain could be persuaded to stay out of any conflict over Poland, though he knew how unlikely such an outcome was—as an insight into Hitler the charismatic leader it is a good deal more intriguing.

Dahlerus, never having met Hitler before, did not find Hitler “charismatic”: indeed, he wrote that he “had not seen a trace of the extraordinary fascination which he was popularly supposed to exercise upon everyone.” In fact, Dahlerus thought Hitler was not of sound mind. Hitler, of course, lost his temper on a regular basis and had never had the ability to conduct normal negotiations over a long period, politely and in detail.

One of Rees’s strengths lies in his uncanny ability to show how disharmonic Hitler’s reason was while he did become Chancellor and murder millions. He simply stood alone at the top, far above the clouds, and could not see the people he ruled over, whose lives he destroyed. In his mind, the murder of millions was obligatory to ensure life for ‘the Aryan race’.

Stalingrad marked the turning point in perceptions of Hitler’s charismatic leadership. For soldiers of the 6th Army, like Joachim Stempel, this was the moment when their faith was destroyed.

The battle for Stalingrad was a turning point in World War II. Hitler’s decisions went against those of his experienced commanders while Stalin’s generals were allowed to make decisions. Hitler micro-managed and led troops that were thousands of miles from him, while Stalins generals were in place.

We can never know for certain what was the motivation for Hitler’s promise about Stalingrad. Perhaps his decision was influenced by the fact that the city bore Stalin’s name. More likely it was that Hitler realised that he needed to rebuild confidence in his promises after the debacle of the previous year, and here was a promise to the German people that he genuinely thought he could deliver. In addition, as Antony Beevor says, Hitler “somehow believed that if the German soldier holds firm he will always be right. It was this whole notion, ‘the triumph of the will,’ and the idea that somehow moral decision and decisiveness would overcome everything.”


Rees paints a sterling portrait of Hitler’s charisma throughout life. It is terrific writing by a masterful historian, and Rees’s books have since long joined the pantheon of great historical writing. This book will stay with me for life, as with his other books.

I recommend his book The Holocaust: A New History and to visit his wondrous World War II site.