Hitler and Rhetoric

As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy says, anyone looking at the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust is likely to wonder: “How was it possible for a nation as sophisticated as Germany to regress in the way that it did, for Hitler and the Nazis to enlist an entire people, willingly or otherwise, into a crusade of extermination that would kill anonymous millions?” (1) The conventional answer is to attribute tremendous rhetorical power to Adolf Hitler. Kenneth Burke calls Hitler “a man who swung a great deal of people into his wake” (“Rhetoric” 191). William Shirer, who was an American correspondent in Germany in the 30s, describes that, listening to a speech he knew was nonsense, “was again fascinated by [Hitler’s] oratory, and how by his use of it he was able to impose his outlandish ideas on his audience” (131). Shirer says Hitler “appeared able to swing his German hearers into any mood he wished” (128). Shirer is clear that Hitler owed his power to his rhetoric: “his eloquence, his astonishing ability to move a German audience by speech, that more than anything else had swept him from oblivion to power as dictator and seemed likely to keep him there” (127).

Scholars don’t necessarily agree, however. Ian Kershaw says, “Hitler alone, however important his role, is not enough to explain the extraordinary lurch of a society, relatively non-violent before 1914, into ever more radical brutality and such a frenzy of destruction” (Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution 347). While Hitler’s personal views were important, and neither the Holocaust nor war would have happened without his personal fanaticism and charisma, they weren’t all that was necessary: “Concentrating on Hitler’s personal worldview, no matter how fanatically he was inspired and motivated by it, cannot readily serve to explain why a society, which hardly shared the Arcanum of Hitler’s “philosophy,” gave him such growing support from 1929 on—in proportions that rose with astonishing rapidity. Nor can it explain why, from 1933 on, the non-Nationalist Socialist élites were prepared to play more and more into his hands in the process of “cumulative radicalization.”” (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution 57)

In other words, Hitler’s followers were  not passive automatons controlled by Hitler’s rhetorical magic. So, how powerful was that rhetoric?

The answer to that question is more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests for several reasons. First, while Hitler was quick to use new technologies, including ones of travel, most of the Nazi rhetoric consumed by converts wasn’t by Hitler. People like Adolf Eichmann talk about being persuaded by other speakers, pamphlets, even books.

Second, no one claims that Hitler was a creative or inventive ideologue: “Hitler was not an originator but a serial plagiarist” (O’Shaughnessy 24). Joachim Fest said Hitler’s beliefs were the “sum of the clichés current in Vienna at the turn of the century” (qtd. in Gregor, 2), and Gregor says, “Neither can one claim that Hitler was an original thinker. There is little in his writings or speeches that we cannot find in the penny pamphlets of pre-1914 Vienna where he began to form his political views. His racial anti-Semitism rehearses the familiar slogans of many on the pre-war right. His visions of German expansion echo the ideas of the more extreme wing of the radical-nationalist Pan German movement [….] And, in essence, his anti-democratic, anti-Socialist sentiments similarly reproduce the conventional thinking of broad sectors of the German right from both before and after the First World War.” (2)

If Hitler wasn’t saying anything new, to what extent can we say he persuaded people? What did he persuade them of?

A closely related problem is that large numbers of Germans supported Hitler politically but rejected the central aspects of his ideology—such as his eliminationist racism and his desire for another war. Although he’d long been absolutely clear that those were central to his views, when he began to downplay them (especially in 1932 and 33), many people believed those were trivial aspects that could be ignored. Many people supported him strategically, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches, both of which were outraged by the Social Democrats’ (democratic socialists) liberal social policies (e.g., legalizing homosexuality, supporting feminism, and, especially, breaking the religious monopoly on primary schools). Since Hitler and the Nazis were socially conservative, and Hitler promised to allow the churches more power than the Social Democrats would allow, many Protestants voted for Nazis, and the official Catholic Party (the Centre Party) Reichstag members voted unanimously for Hitler taking on dictatorial power (for more on this background, see Evans; Spicer).

Some scholars refer to “the propaganda of success,” by which they mean that Hitler gained the support of people not because he put forward good arguments, or even because of anything he said, but because they liked his locking up Marxists and Socialists, industrialists liked his support of big business, people liked the increased amount of order, they liked the improved economy, they liked his conservative social policies, a lot of Germans liked his persecution of immigrants, and a lot of people either liked or didn’t mind the legitimating and legalizing of discrimination against Jews (even the churches only objected to discrimination against converted Jews). And large numbers of Germans didn’t particularly like the idea of democracy—the premise of democracy is that political situations are complicated, and that there aren’t obvious solutions. Or, more accurately, there are solutions that appear to be obviously right from one perspective, but are obviously wrong from another perspective. Democratic processes assume that the various perspectives need to be taken into consideration, and so the best policy for the community as a whole will not be perfect for anyone and will take a lot of time to determine—many people would rather that a powerful leader make all the decisions and leave them out of it. After Hitler had been in power a year, many people felt that their lives were better, and that’s all they really cared about—that they were headed down a road that would make their lives much worse didn’t concern them because they didn’t think about it.

Finally, many people came to support Nazis because they liked that Hitler made them feel proud of being German again. He didn’t make them feel proud of being German by changing their minds about anything, but by insisting publicly and endlessly that they were victims—that nothing about their situation was the consequence of bad decisions they had made. He wasn’t saying anything that was new, but it was new for a political leader—he was simply the first major German political figure in a long time to say, unequivocally, Germany was for Germans, and Germans were entitled to run Europe (if not the world).

All these characteristics of Hitler’s relationship with his supporters—his lack of originality, strategic acquiescence, hostility to democracy, narrow self-interest on the part of many Germans, and the propaganda of success—mean that it’s actually an open question as to whether Hitler’s rhetoric was unique, let alone how much power we should ascribe to it. And so this course will consider the questions: what were Hitler’s rhetorical strategies? how unique or unusual was (is) it? what kind of impact does it have? to what extent (and under what circumstances) does it work?


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.'” Philosophy of Literary Form. U of California P, 1974.

Evans, Richard. The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin, 2005.

Gregor, Neil. How to Read Hitler. Norton, 2005.

Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Yale U P, 2009.

O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas. Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. Oxford UP, 2016.

Shirer, William. The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.

Spicer, Kevin, ed. Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust. Indiana UP, 2007.

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