How Was Adolf Hitler So Persuasive?
Why Study Hitler's Persuasive Method?
Adolf Hitler is considered to be perhaps the most villainous man of the twentieth century. His vile and ruthless deeds are common knowledge. In fact, the name Hitler has now become synonymous with evil. What many often forget, however, is that Hitler was not only a coldblooded tyrant but that also a brilliant persuader of men. He personally oversaw the deaths of millions of people, including the near extermination of the Jewish race while maintaining the full support of the German people.
The entire German population was certainly not as heartless and cruel as Hitler was, so it stands to reason that Hitler must have been a masterful propagandist in order to persuade the Germans that his policies were necessary and just. However, one must remember that Hitler was not born the cruel, vicious tyrant that he became. His life was governed by both his choices and his life experiences, so it is important to examine these along with his persuasive method to gain a comprehensive understanding of why he used his gift of persuasion in the way that he did.
Hitler's Formative Years
Adolf Hitler was born into a middle class family in April of 1889. His father, who died in 1903, was an Austrian customs official whom young Adolf quickly learned to fear. His mother, whom he loved very much, died four years later in 1907. Adolf dropped out of high school and moved to Vienna, hoping to become an artist. He was twice rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, so he lived off of his father’s pension and spent his early twenties working as a freelance painter of postcards and advertisements (“Adolf Hitler,” pars. 3-4). Vienna at this time was very nationalistic, and it was here that Hitler came into contact with the Christian Socialist Party, which espoused anti-Semitic ideas and favored the lower-middle class. He agreed with these ideas and began to thoroughly despise Jews and by extension Marxism, which he believed to be a Jewish concept. Although he had previously been classified as physically unfit for military service by the Austrian government, once war had been declared in 1914 he immediately volunteered for the German army. He was injured during the war and received the prestigious Iron Cross, First Class in recognition of his bravery (Craig et al. 967).
Following the war, Hitler joined the German Worker’s Party, later to be renamed the Nazi party, and was soon put in charge of the party’s propaganda. He had found his niche. It was in the German Worker’s Party that Hitler met Ernst Röhm, who helped him quickly rise in the party ranks and later became one of Hitler’s top advisors. Party leaders felt threatened by Hitler’s ambition and bold propaganda. Nevertheless, in July 1921 Hitler was made party leader and began to hold weekly meetings, during which he gave speeches that were eventually attended by thousands of people, including several men who would eventually become infamous Nazi leaders.
Two years later, Hitler was involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against the government and was jailed for nine months (“Adolf Hitler,” pars. 5-8). It was during this imprisonment that Hitler wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), his autobiography and statement of political philosophy. This book was very influential in spreading his idea of the master race, and by 1939, 5,200,000 copies had been sold (“Mein Kampf, paras. 1-3). After he was released from prison, Hitler reestablished himself in the Nazi party and eventually ran for president in 1932. Although he lost, he received over thirty-five percent of the votes and was appointed to the chancellorship in 1933. Hitler quickly gained more power; following the death of the president the following year, he assumed the presidency in addition to the chancellorship, giving him absolute power. Thus, Hitler became a dictator. (“Adolf Hitler,” pars. 8-17).
Hitler the Dictator
As dictator, Hitler began systematically taking away civil rights and removing his opposition. He primarily made general policies that he left to his subordinates to carry out. In order to be sure that none of them would attempt a coup against him, he gave them overlapping spheres of power and authority so that they would fight amongst themselves and so that none of them would ever gain enough power to usurp him. Having left the detailed domestic policy to his advisors, Hitler focused principally on foreign policy. He used his incredible skill for being able to intuit the mood of others and the ability to use those observations to manipulate people for his own benefit. He was able to negotiate the annexation of the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia into Germany without firing a single shot.
Hitler's Persuasive Method
At this point in his career, Hitler began to unleash his propaganda upon all of Germany. He had previously used his persuasiveness to further himself in the Nazi Party and to gain supporters, but it was not until he was dictator that that his persuasive style was fully manifested. Adolf Hitler’s persuasive method was built upon the foundation of treating the German people as a group, rather than as individuals. He explained this technique in the following statement:
The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. (“Adolf Hitler: quote on propaganda”)
Hitler and the Nazi Party treated the German people as if they were one entity, because individuals are rational, think for themselves, and are concerned about their own well-being; whereas groups are unintelligent and easily persuaded. Sigmund Freud stated that groups tend to have the characteristics of “weakness of intellectual ability,…lack of emotional restraint,...incapacity for moderation and delay, [and] the inclination to exceed every limit in the expression of emotion.” Freud went on to say that groups “show an unmistakable picture of a regression of mental activity to an earlier stage such as…children” (qtd. in Bosamajian 69). Hitler used this understanding of groups to strategically manipulate the German people.
Hitler and the Nazis recognized that if the German people had a group mentality they would be much more receptive to Nazi ideology and propaganda. To reinforce this mindset in the German people, or Volk, the Nazis held events that required mass participation and did not invite individuality, such as “parades, mass meetings, semi-religious rituals, [and] festivals” (Boasmajian 70). Anyone who did not openly participate or share the emotion of the rest of the crowd was easily identified and dealt with by either the crowd itself or by security personnel. One did not even have to be resistant or cause a disturbance to be viewed as subversive; indifference alone was enough to infuriate the crowd (Bosamajian 69-70).
Freud said that a crowd demands “strength or even violence” of its leaders: “It wants to be ruled and oppressed and to fear its master” (70). Hitler and the Nazis fulfilled this psychological need by infusing the Volk with the idea that the Nazi Party was strong and powerful, and thus, to the feeble mind of the crowd, trustworthy. This was accomplished through a myriad of ways, some obvious and others subtle. One of the most overt ways that Hitler conveyed a sense of strength and power was through his speeches, during which he would yell and wave his arms violently. The Nazis displayed strength through demonstrations of military might. During the frequent military parades, the army would march with its distinctive goose-step walk. The Heil salute made famous by the Nazis added to their powerful image, as did Hitler’s title, Der Führer, which meant “the leader.” Some of the more subtle ways that strength was portrayed include the excessive use of common Nazi symbols such as the eagle, the swastika, and trigger words such as “sword”, “fire”, and “blood” (Bosamajian 70).
Hitler’s inordinate use of trigger words helped him to maintain the support and attention of his audiences and allowed them to get exceedingly excited about his speeches. These words added to Hitler’s tactics of persuasion by creating word association. When referring to Germany, he used words that conveyed strength. When speaking about enemy nations or about Jews and Marxists, he used words that alluded to weakness, his favorite of which was pacifist; he used this term to refer to anything and everything that he disagreed with. To Hitler, pacifism was the ultimate sign of weakness (Bosamajian 71).
Another technique Hitler employed in his speeches was the “either-or” fallacy. By creating a false dilemma in the mind of his audience, he was able to convince them that although something was unethical, it was the only option. The shallow nature of the group was not able to comprehend that a statement such as “either the German people annihilate the Jews or the Jews will enslave them” is not logically true. According to Bosamajian, “either-or” dilemmas “appealed to the crowd mentality…because of the definiteness and strength in the ‘either-or’ presentation. There is no compromise…[or] weakness in ‘either-or’....‘Either-or’ [is] power and strength” (73-4). These arguments created a sense of urgency in the audience; they were a call to action.
The final tactic Hitler used to persuade the Volk through his speeches was convincing his audience that the rest of the world thought of Germany as inferior, second-class citizens. This angered the crowd, who had been comprehensively indoctrinated to believe that they were the master race. Hitler offered up as evidence the Treaty of Versailles, which he believed treated the Germans as subhuman. The average German must have thought, “How dare those pacifist cowards call us, the perfect Aryan race, second class or inferior?” He would have doubtlessly been enraged. Hitler furthermore blamed Germany’s relegation to second-class status on the Jews, who he claimed both caused Germany to lose World War I and stole wealth that rightfully belonged to those of German descent. The irrational nature of the crowd caused the Germans to be very accepting of this idea and to defer blame to those it felt possessed something of which they were undeserving (Bosamajian 74-6).
The Legacy of Hitler's Persuasion
Hitler and his use of persuasion have had an inestimable impact on the world. His persuasive and inspirational abilities catapulted him from the lowly status of a high school dropout to the most feared man in the world, a dictator who used his persuasiveness to unite and inspire a nation to wreak havoc on the rest of Europe. Many historians regard Hitler as the man solely responsible for starting World War II (“Adolf Hitler,” par. 38), which changed Europe forever and will never be forgotten. Hitler’s policies, though quickly repealed after he committed suicide and Nazi Germany was defeated, had far-reaching effects. Families were torn apart, entire nations were laid to waste, and an entire race was nearly exterminated. As a result of the “scientific” horrors performed on Jews during Hitler’s administration, many countries, including the United States, realized how inhumane the idea of eugenics was, and immediately aborted all efforts to create an advanced or super-race. Sadly, some of Hitler’s ideas are still alive today; there are various neo-Nazi sects scattered throughout the world that cling to a version of Hitler’s racist beliefs.
Adolf Hitler was an extraordinary orator and persuader of men; the fact that no matter how vile his policies became he retained the support of German popular opinion bears witness to this. He used this gift not to benefit society, but rather to deceive and destroy millions of lives. Hitler’s name will forever remain in the annals of history, but it is not categorized as he had believed it would be. He is not remembered as the man to cleanse the master race from all impurities, nor is he remembered as the patriarch of a new empire. He is instead remembered as a merciless tyrant who murdered millions based only upon their race, political views, or sexuality. He is remembered as the man who inspired millions to march willingly to their deaths in defense of this vile cause, and he will forever be remembered as the coward who committed suicide rather than do the same.
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