Tuesday 13 November 2012

Was Hitler a Charismatic Leader?

This question arises in response to the programme on BBC TV last night, titled the Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.  The tv series, three episodes in all, is based on the book of the same name by Laurence Rees.  Judging by the first episode, I am far from convinced that Hitler possessed much in the way of charisma, even of the dark kind.

The programme did not offer anything in the way of what might constitue charisma in a political leader, but simply focussed on Hitler himself.  We were shown lots of footage of the great man in flowing oratory, usually accompanied by flashing lights as a way of alerting us - here comes a bit of charisma - you dumb viewers.  Apart from the staring eyes and a penchant for long tubo-charged speeches, it is not clear just how Hitler was that different from other would be leaders.

For the central point to bear in mind is that for most of his career, Hitler was a spectacular failure.  He was a brave soldier in the First World War, but a complete failure as an artist, as a revolutionary leader - the botched attempt at a putsch in Munich - and a failure to win over many voters in elections.  What changed things for Hitler was the Great Crash and the Great Depression.  Now it seems to stretch things a bit to claim that Hitler's charisma caused the Great Depression.  For no mistake without this depression Hitler was going nowhere.  The response of the German elites - political, financial and business - to this catastrophe was to use mass unemployment as a policy tool.  No wonder extremists began to flourish.

It is also worth remembering that Hitler and his Nazi party never won more than 37% of the popular vote.  That was in the July election in 1932.  By the time of the November election in the same year his share of the vote had dropped to 33%, while the vote for the communists increased.  Not a lot of evidence of charisma here.  It was after the November elections that Hitler was appointed Chancellor, thus giving him the levers to shortly thereafter assume dictatorial powers.  It quite beggars belief that Hitler should have won the Chancellorship after losing votes!  Yet this is what the leaders of the Centre Party did.  In a vain effort to protect their own interests and out of their greater hatred of the communists.  A good lesson to remember when people today extoll the virtues of moderates.  

The programme itself was OK as a basic account of Hitler's rise, though it did flit around too much from  the 1920s to the 1930s.  This lack of a clear narrative framework lessens the value of the programme.  Less about Hitler's charisma and more about the social and economic realities of German would have been welcome.

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