The classical German sociologist Max Weber famously wrote about charismatic leadership and authority. Of it, he noted charisma derived from the leader's personality, which in turn inspired their followers to internalise self-discipline and duty. But in a dialectic of mutual exchange, the leader is under constant pressure to affirm their worthiness by performing deeds. Support therefore is conditional on the delivery of promises. You could be forgiven for thinking he was writing of Hitler, had Weber not died three years before the Nazis attracted national attention. Nevertheless, despite bequeathing sociology the basic conceptual tools for unpacking how charismatic leadership works, the way Hitler bewitched Germany and led it willingly into the abyss continues to fascinate, appall and mystify in equal measure. Therefore the BBC series, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler serves as an interesting entry into unravelling the riddle.
Hitler's story of his rise to power and cataclysmic fall is well-known and certainly doesn't need repeating by me at any length. Dark Charisma's first episode deals with the rise of the Nazis, the second on the consolidation of power and how Hitler's charismatic leadership persuaded the overwhelming bulk of Germans to assent to a war of conquest, and finally what happened when things went wrong and Germany was crushed between the vice of the Allied and Soviet armies.
The early part of Hitler's career, between joining the far right movement in Munich as an army spy in 1919, to the renewed upturn in the Nazis fortunes during the Depression, Hitler and the Nazis established the cornerstones of his leadership. Firstly, there was Hitler the person. Here we had a man with a dead emotional life, a burning hatred of his self-defined enemies, an inability to make friends, iron-certain self-belief, overweening ambition bordering on the delusional, inflexibility, intolerance, and a knack for rabble-rousing. Upon joining the far right German Workers' Party, Hitler very quickly made a splash in Munich's nationalist scene. He possessed a simple message that explained Germany's defeat in the Great War, provided a scapegoat, and condensed the sorts of qualities the Kaiser and his underlings lacked. This was his mission, and his inability to brook other views was not a weakness, but a strength.
After the fiasco of the Beer Hall putsch, Hitler's views were recorded in all their rambling posterity by his dutiful lapdog, Rudolf Hess, and later published as Mein Kampf. Anyone who's actually read the dreary tome will know it as an incoherent and seemingly endless monologue about blood and soil, foreign affairs, reminiscences, Social Darwinism, the Jews, the Slavs, lebensraum, and the manifest destiny of the German people. Mein Kampf reads like a series of fanatical sense impressions. There is no justification or argumentation supporting the beliefs - they are held by Hitler to be self-evidently true. Here we have the authoritative articulation of his vision, albeit one that was left deliberately vague and unclouded by the petty detail of policy.
Following his release from prison, Hitler worked on himself as an agitator and public speaker. He had a number of photographs taken to study and perfect his oratorical mannerisms (example) and took on board a number of manipulative interpersonal tricks. He was said to have trained his gaze to look at someone directly for longer than is normal. Many a German described it as if he was looking straight through you and deep into your soul. He used flattery and simple confidences, and was adept at having his immediate circle compete among themselves for his favour. These personal cues combined with a carefully crafted public performance allowed Hitler and the Nazis to project a figure into which all manner of hopes and desires could be poured, while simultaneously (and contradictory) offering stability and certainty. This was the foundation of Hitler's connection to the population at large.
The foundation stones of Hitler's charismatic leadership - mission and strength, vision and appeal were all in place before the Depression hit. Small wonder that the narratives and solutions offered by the Nazis were received sympathetically by millions of people groaning under the weight of hyperinflation and unemployment. But this was not enough in and of itself. Charismatic leadership requires popular deeds. With the economy and politics in chaos, attempts by the mainstream right to cut a deal with Hitler and have him as part of a governing coalition were rejected by him. His refusal to get drawn into intrigue underlined his integrity, and in holding out for the chancellorship the faith of his followers was awarded when the machinations of von Papen handed Hitler the keys to state power.
Over the space of the next couple of years, the Nazis used the state to cement Hitler's charismatic leadership. In the first few months he abolished all other political parties. He ruthlessly cut out the "unruly" SA, which in reality saw real and imagined rivals in the Nazi movement physically liquidated. You had the myth-making factory of Goebbels' propaganda ministry cranked into production. Cinemas were full of Leni Riefenstahl's paean to fascist totalitarianism, The Triumph of the Will. The indoctrination of the young began in earnest in the schools and the Hitler Youth movement. And Hitler's claims to providence were given religious cover by the Deutsche Christian Movement - the national socialist wing of the protestant church.
Hitler said he would take power. He would clear out the other parties. He would put the German economy on an even keel. He would bring stability. And, above all, restore the nation's pride in itself. All of these Hitler achieved, as the Nazi propaganda reels never ceased showing. But as we know, this was not enough for Hitler. The problem he faced was persuading a seemingly content populace to risk everything on an aggressive war of expansion.
Hitler's first big gamble (bizarrely, not covered in the documentary) was the reoccupation of the west bank of the Ruhr - a zone demilitarised under the Versailles Treaty. This emboldened him two years later to march into Austria without so much as a shot fired. Instead of resistance, the Wehrmacht were greeted with ecstatic crowds. Hundreds of thousands turned out to see the Fuhrer visit Linz and Vienna. The tanks soon rolled into the Sudetenland and then what is now the Czech Republic occupied and Slovakia set up as a puppet state. At each step, the Hitler myth, his charisma grew as his vision and certainty were seemingly confirmed by events.
At each step, Nazi Germany's 'peaceful' conquests were cloaked in the language of liberal internationalism, of self-determination of peoples and as revisions of an unfair, unjust peace treaty. Who could possibly disagree? And to his inner circle, Hitler's personality was as, if not more, mesmerising. He would typically spend long periods alone to brood on a decision. This reinforced the view that his inner conviction had been divinely cultivated as time and again his choices proved correct. To a degree, this distance Hitler kept from his cronies fed into the projection of his leadership - the day to day particulars of Nazi administration was not the Fuhrer's province. His person floated above the cares and concerns of ordinary Germans. "If only Hitler knew" was a refrain that greased the wheels of what was actually a creaky and often chaotic administration, and helped keep the whole thing going.
Through these series of foreign policy triumphs, Hitler was able to soft-pedal the inexorable slide to war not as conquest but as restitution. Restoring the Danzig corridor to the Reich was presented in exactly the same way, as a question of "fairness". Hence the invasion of Poland wasn't a war of aggression and Britain and France's declaration of war was an unjust defence of the status quo.
The apparent ease with which Poland was crushed, and then in turn how quickly Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and France fell to the Wehrmacht confirmed the faith millions had placed in Hitler. The belief in Hitler's leader cult was confirmed in the glory of easy and almost unbelievable victories.
But what happens to a charismatic leadership when the dialectic between faith and deeds break down? Up until the Winter of 1941, the Nazis and their allies appeared to be winning. Hitler's empire stretched from the Pyrenees to the suburbs of Moscow. All was driven before the Nazi juggernaut. But the Wehrmacht suffered its first serious reverse as Red Army reservists from Siberia took the offensive and drove the Germans back. Hitler ordered his troops to stand firm and fight to the last bullet - against the advice of his generals. By chance, this prevented a complete rout. The Germans were battered but nowhere were they broken. Again, Hitler was proved right.
However, this was less a question of military cunning and more an expression of the inflexibility of his personality. As the fortunes of war turned, again and again Hitler turned to the stock order of 'stand and fight'. Precarious situations turned into unmitigated military disasters in Stalingrad, later in Kursk, Belarus and Northern France. The inflexibility that was an asset as the Nazis rose to power and the 3rd Reich began its conquests had become a millstone around Germany's neck.
As the lands contracted, the gulf between the vision and the promises on the one hand, and the reality of around the clock bombing and defeat became apparent to the most fanatical. The dialectic of faith and delivery was increasingly substituted by the fairy tales of propaganda and Gestapo's knock-on-the-door. Belief in Hitler gave way to despair and fear of the future.
Come the end of the 3rd Reich in a bunker beneath bombed-out Berlin, and with the Red Army closing in, Hitler's final testament showed exactly the same personality traits and deluded self-belief as Mein Kampf. The documentary concludes that while the basic elements of what made Hitler a success were still present, the structure of perceptions around him had literally been snuffed out by unparalleled destruction.
Unfortunately, while Dark Charisma is at pains to demonstrate there was nothing mystical about Hitler's appeal, it does skip over some necessary detail. I'm sure some readers would have been outraged that the disunity between social democrats and communists were glossed over. Some liberties can never be avoided but for an introductory piece the account offered of Hitler's charisma between the debacle at Stalingrad and the battle for Berlin falls short - and this is surprising considering the script consultant was Ian Kershaw, author of the definitive two volume biography of Hitler, and the masterful The End: Hitler's Germany 1944-45.
As we saw earlier, despite having a clear racist vision of a new German empire and standing for a set of unambiguous principles, Hitler's charisma was the deposit of hope and aspiration. But in a society denuded of all other ideological resources, and strained by internal terror within and military defeat without (Kershaw estimated from July '44 to the end that Germany's dead were piling up at around 330,000 every month), Hitler's leadership became something else - a crutch. For millions of Germans the dialectic had broken down into a talisman that they clung too. The leadership cult remained because there was nothing else, and, strangely, was strengthened by it. Pathetic hopes that Germany had something in the bag, that somehow everything would come good if it hung on long enough wasn't just something spewed out of Goebbel's ministry - it was an attitude, a way of making sense of the awful everyday that had been inculcated down the years. How else to explain situations, described in Kershaw's book, of "traitors" being summarily executed in German towns scant hours before the arrival of British or American troops?
The person of Hitler was more than 'just Hitler', it was a social force in and of itself. It was a movement, a key organising principle of a society, but one in which a single individual had stamped his will more so than any before or since - except perhaps for the dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and the North Korean monarchy. Hitler was the focal point of the 3rd Reich and Nazism. Without him as a figurehead for the social forces drawn in his leadership train, collapse was inevitable. And because of that, because of how deeply rooted Hitler's person was in German society, by the latter part of the war the only way of crushing Nazism was town by town. The Second World War was of a savagery we can barely conceive of today. But ultimately, it was absolutely necessary regardless of the motives of the powers ranged against Hitler.
Despite Dark Charisma's flaws, the show offers a way into a properly materialist way of understanding Hitler's appeal.