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By Catherine Thorbecke

Adolf Hitler, the brutal totalitarian dictator whose name is still synonymous with terror even generations after his death, was once looked at as a saviour to the German people. In 1939 he was TIME magazine’s “Man of the Year” and reached a level of world-wide fame never before achieved by a German. Many people forget that he initially did not seize power through military might or fear, but rather he was democratically elected; chosen by the majority of the German people to be their Chancellor. He was such a charismatic public speaker that he sold out whole arenas for his speaking engagements. Women fainted in his presence. At every public appearance, crowds formed to get a glimpse of the man. He reached a level of fame and celebrity almost unheard of in this day where people literally would follow his every command and end all their conversations with “Hail Hitler,” according to war historian Anthony James Nicholls in his Weimar and the Rise of Hitler.

       Historians are captivated by Hitler’s immense popularity despite his less-than-appealing political ideas. The climate of Germany as well as Hitler’s own hunger and obsession with fame were a fatal mix. The climate in 1930’s Germany was desperate and gloomy. The country  had suffered a humiliating and morally taxing defeat in the First World War that left its people a deep sense of shame. The Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 propelled the whole world into a crippling economic depression. Conflicts within the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany left people disenchanted and spiritually hopeless. As hyper-inflation spread like wildfire people saw their life savings become virtually worthless, and as the economy continued to worsen the morale and social values of the people grew more desperate and decayed. Prostitution was legalized. The German people were calling out for a saviour, anyone who would improve the morale and pride of the nation that once was the industrial powerhouse of Europe and one of the most progressive countries in the world. Hitler’s rise to fame was rapid and dangerous. He credited himself as saving Germany’s failing inter-war economy, and  he reminded people of the once-great nation Germany was. People began to worship the man so much that they no longer questioned his ideas. “He had the ability to tap into a reservoir of feelings that made people forget about logic when he spoke…they believed that he had their interests at heart,” said Dr. Rolf Wolfswinkel, a history professor at NYU and expert on Nazi-Germany. “He made you feel like he knew better what was good for you than you knew yourself.”

In four years he went from being relatively unknown to holding the majority of the German parliamentary seats. In 1928, Hitler’s party had 12 democratically elected seats in the Reichstag (the German Parliament), a relatively small figure considering there are more than 500 seats. A year later, Hitler had 107 seats. In 1932, Hitler had 244 seats, making him the largest party represented in Parliament. Wolfswinkel cites an undeniable charisma, a “magnetism” that Hitler possessed, as well as his skills as a performer for his rise to fame. “Hitler is a first class actor but he doesn’t know he is acting,” said Wolfswinkel.

Robert Griffin, a war historian, cites the recent apostasy and contemporaneous rejection of religion in Germany as a key to Hitler’s Godlike worship in his work, Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Political Religion. “Nazism suggests that de-Christianization did not lead to agnosticism or atheism, but rather left a spiritual yearning, a void waiting to be filled with another content,” Griffin writes.  Hitler used strong language, reminiscent of biblical prophets that absolutely mesmerized large crowds. This was effective in creating a religious-type following in that it “emphasizes Nazi form (the hypnotic power of a new charismatic faith) over Nazi content (the message of that religion and to whom it appealed).”

Another historian who analyzed Hitler’s assent to fame was Michael Munn, who examined Hitler’s own self-obsession and deep desire for fame. “Fame was more important to him than governing, although in his mind they became one and the same,” Munn writes in his book Hitler and the Nazi Cult of Celebrity. “Culture and art became politics. Even suicide was a macabre element to his celebrity, his legend and his sense of immortality, which were all irrevocably connected to the final act of his life-long drama; he would write his own ending,” Munn seems to suggest here that Hitler was more obsessed with his fame and his image, even after his death, than he was his own life.

Wolfswinkel states that what really set Hitler apart from other German leaders at the time was a magnetism in his speaking that can only be described as “charisma,” a characteristic that continues to set famous people apart from the merely talented or intelligent. Wolfswinkel states that when you read the speeches that Hitler gave they seem meaningless, “But when he speaks you are hypnotized by the words themselves, independent of their meaning; everyone in the audience felt like they were being addressed personally-students, housewives, dock workers, business men- they would all do away with their sense of criticism….that is charisma.”

 

Sources:

Dr. Rolf Wolfswinkel, NYU Professor of History and War Studies/Nazi Germany expert.

Griffin, Roger. Fascism, Totalitarianism and Political Religion.

Munn, Michael. Hitler and the Nazi Cult of Celebrity

Nicholls, Anthony James. Weimar and the Rise of Hitler.