Hitler’s Charisma

Leading Millions into the Abyss, Laurence Rees, Pantheon.

Prior to his political rise, Adolf Hitler experienced a notable lack of personal and professional success. As A.N. Wilson noted in his short biography Hitler (2012), the man “had very little energy, a modest education, no obvious ‘leadership’ qualities, and in many respects almost no interest in politics.”

So how did Hitler get millions of people to do his bidding—to embrace his bleak and violent vision? That is the question Rees seeks to answer in “Hitler’s Charisma,” an exhaustive social, psychological, and historical investigation into the formation of the Führer’s personality—and an explanation of why millions of German people embraced him.

In a nutshell, Hitler’s ascension to power was built around his rhetorical skill and powers of persuasion, says Rees, a historical filmmaker who has conducted hundreds of interviews with “perpetrators and eyewitnesses” who lived through Hitler’s rise and fall. But it was the circumstances of the times, especially the failure of democracy to effectively address the economic crisis of the 1920s, that made people willing to listen to what otherwise might have been perceived as unhinged ranting.

Vital, too, is that Hitler didn’t hesitate to take bold risks, and initially (say, pre-1941), his reckless decisions seemed to pay big dividends. In fact, for a time the German people referred to him as “General Bloodless,” because he managed to make territorial gains (Austria, the Sudetenland, and Poland) without spilling much German blood.

“As long as success seemed assured it was not necessary for [the German people] to dwell on the consequences of failure,” explains Rees. But the high point in terms of faith in Hitler came on July 6, 1940, the day Germany celebrated its military triumph over France with a parade in Berlin. It was all downhill from there, says the author, who maintains that charismatic leadership relies on a connection between leader and those being led—a connection based on faith that the leader knows best.

Predictably, faith in Hitler declined precipitously beginning in 1941 after Germany found itself unable to defeat the Red Army on Soviet soil. And subsequent failures on faraway battlefields and attacks on the German homeland led to growing disenchantment with the Nazi regime.

By the end, even the most prominent Nazis were seeking to distance themselves from Hitler, a rare case “of the sinking ship leaving the rat,” as Ian Kershaw (author of “Hitler: A Biography”) once put it.

“What had changed was other people’s perception of [Hitler],” writes Rees. “Repeated failure and broken promises had badly damaged Hitler’s charismatic appeal not only amongst the broad German population, but amongst many of his core supporters.”

Bottom line: “Hitler’s Charisma” makes for surprisingly fascinating reading, considering that the reader already knows the arc of the story—and how it ends.