What made Adolf Hitler a charismatic leader?

Any random observer would easily have felt that an important event was about to start on this mild October evening in the impressive lecture hall at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics.

My friends and I had made sure to arrive on time and we were lucky to find a tiny spot on the stairs. As far as I know, the SBE hall is the largest one of the university and it was packed.

A cynic could conclude that this mere fact proves the truth of the title of tonight’s lecture: “The charisma of Adolf Hitler” still attracts a large crowd, however politically incorrect this may sound.

The Oxford Dictionary defines charisma as a “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.” With this definition in mind, the word charisma tends to have a positive connotation in everyday use. So, how can it possibly be applied to Adolf Hitler?

Oxford trained historian Laurence Rees is aware of this ambiguity and starts his lecture with a brief clarification of his choice of word. “Charisma” for him is value-neutral and he uses the term only in a descriptive way to evoke the personality traits that made Hitler the strong and unquestionable leader that he was.

Rees takes a clear, chronological approach to specify these personality traits, starting off in the year 1913 when the young Hitler moved to Munich.

The dark charisma of Adolf Hitler, by Laurence Rees

Vision and determination

Contrary to the popular view of someone charismatic Hitler was not a very social person. He was unable to build intimate relationships with people and failed at making friends. Yet, it was already clear at the time that Hitler possessed charisma.

Rees cites a couple of revealing anecdotes that illustrate the young man’s determination to undertake the most ambitious projects. According to his former housemate Kubizek, one day Hitler wanted to write an opera and the next, with equal vigour, he would decide to renew the sewage system in Vienna.

This, according to the historian, is the basis for charisma: having a clear vision and a mission on a subject and the determination to convince the world of that mission.

Kubizek in this regard recalled that Hitler, who was a passionate reader, tended to lecture him on the texts he would read and on what he thought about them. If Kubizek would question or argue with him, Hitler would lecture him further.

This attitude was a persistent feature that Hitler would later apply in his political speeches and that would make him a charismatic orator.

During the First World War Hitler voluntarily enrolled in the German army and this experience greatly shaped the political ideas he formed later.

The outcome of the war, the severe humiliation of Germany, laid the foundation for Hitler’s political agenda.

Just as he had lectured Kubizek a couple of years earlier, he would now lecture his audiences. Although he was still unable to establish a personal contact with people, large crowds did not hinder him.

In his speeches he built upon feelings which were already present in German society and said out loud what many were thinking privately.

But he also magnified these pre-existent sentiments. Anti-semitism was nothing new in Germany, especially among the middle class, but Hitler propelled this notion by persistently scapegoating the Jews for all the wrongs within German society and by blaming them for the humiliating loss of the First World War.

Tans lecture, Maastricht University: Laurence Rees on the The Charisma of Adolf Hitler, October 2012

Unwavering conviction

In the 1920s, only a minority of Germans sympathised with Hitler, as became clear with his failed putsch in 1923 and his defeat in the elections of 1928, where he obtained only 2,6 percent of the votes.

What proves Hitler’s charisma in these events, according to Rees, was the way he dealt with them. Loss only strengthened his conviction and he would share his ideas with increased vigour with everyone who crossed his path.

Hitler wrote Mein Kampf during the period of imprisonment that followed his lost putsch and he stated after the elections of 1928 that he soon would become the next Chancellor of Germany. Hardly anyone believed him.

This is where history helped him a little, Rees says. The Great Depression that hit the country hard in 1929 changed many people’s political stance. Without it, Rees claims, it is likely that Hitler would have remained a mere footnote in the history books.

At this point his never-decreasing self-confidence made the difference. His victory at the elections of 1933 had a very strong impact on those who had doubted his capacities.

Guideline to becoming a charismatic leader

Here lies a strong aspect of Rees’ vivid and instructive lecture: whilst discussing Hitler’s profile, the British historian mentioned several anecdotes and examples to make his point about charismatic leadership in general.

He repeatedly made comparisons between Hitler and Stalin to demonstrate why Stalin cannot be considered as a charismatic leader (i.e. Stalin lacked Hitler’s vigour in defending a single, clearly defined cause).

In doing so, Rees offered the audience a sort of “guideline to becoming a charismatic leader”.

Yet, the historian admits that every charismatic leader, Hitler included, depends on the course of history and on the way speeches land among audiences.  To a certain extent this can be controlled by outstanding presentation skills, but the listener’s background and state of mind will always play a role as well.

With a telling look towards the audience, Rees ended this talk with a matter-of-fact statement: “I’m sure opinions on my talk tonight will vary!”

By Inge Römgens

After graduating from University College Maastricht in 2007, Inge Römgens obtained a master’s in Arts and Heritage at the Maastricht University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She first worked at the Theater aan het Vrijthof and did PR work for the Musica Sacra Maastricht festival. She now works at the Marketing and Programming department of Parkstad Limburg Theaters where she designs and positions the theatre’s program in the market.

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