What made Hitler so charismatic?

Disenchantment of the charismatic leader

Ludolf Herbst: "Hitler's Charisma", Verlag S. Fischer, Frankfurt 2010

Reviewed by Stephan Malinowski

Adolf Hitler (AP archive)

Hitler had no charisma, claims the Berlin historian Ludolf Herbst, and neither did he cast a blind following people into his charismatic ban - Hitler was a messiah invented by others.

Anyone who uses the term charisma to analyze the National Socialist dictatorship can no longer hope to be considered original. In the social sciences, charismatic rule denotes an unstable relationship between leader and follower, between sender and recipient, which are symbiotically connected to one another. The concept has long been used by international research to analyze National Socialist rule. Max Weber's work on domination theory is almost always the inspiration for this.

Ludolf Herbst's study is largely based on edited and well-known sources. It deals with Hitler's early political career, a subject that has been analyzed a thousand times over, but is nonetheless original in every respect. However, Herbst tries less to reinterpret Hitler's charisma than to radically disenchant it. If you follow Herbst, Hitler had no charisma, nor did he cast a blind following people under his charismatic ban - Hitler was a messiah invented by others.

Herbst sees the charismatic show as an externally produced fiction, a coup, a theatrical performance. With good arguments he warns against reading the intoxicating propaganda recordings as an expression of Hitler's radiance and points out that here too the moon was only made of cardboard:

Of course you can still be carried away by these film strips today; because as Bert Brecht remarked about the National Socialist propaganda stagings: 'This is very interesting theater.' And the main actor had evidently learned his role: 'He learned, for example, the stage step, the step of the heroes, in which you push your knee through and put your sole on completely to make the gait majestic. He also learned the impressive way of crossing his arms, and he was also taught how to be relaxed. '

The thesis and argumentation are as simple as they are astonishing and one asks oneself while reading, why the thesis of the constructedness of social realities, one of the most important central ideas of modern historiography, was not applied so consistently to a subject that was so often mirrored earlier. Herbst considers Hitler's charisma to be a myth and tries to demonstrate how this myth was invented and honed. His analysis is limited to the early years between 1919 and 1923, i.e. between the return of the front soldier Hitler and his first major appearance as a failed putschist in Munich.

The homeless returnees from the front, Hitler, who stayed afloat on the fringes of the Reichswehr, had neither the biologically charged anti-Semitism, nor the shining sense of mission that his name will later stand for. The figure shown here is more like a sponge than a messenger between the Reichswehr and the volkisch marshland of Munich. The 30-year-old reporter and soldier from the front, who was in the pay of the Reichswehr as a spy and informant in 1919, was not a charismatic organizer, but a driven man in search of bonds and political orientation. Hitler's transition "from drummer to leader" has been told countless times and often brilliantly analyzed. Herbst, however, makes considerable corrections to the picture because he emphasizes the collective fabrication of a leader figure, not an alleged inner luminosity.

In 1919 Hitler did not appear on the political stage as a charismatic personality, but his charisma was promoted to a certain extent by the Reichswehr. Hitler's talent for speech, his charismatic talent, is discovered, trained and put on its way in the Reichswehr, so it is 'generated' in a subsystem ...

Book cover: Ludolf Herbst - Hitler's Charisma (S. Fischer) Hitler's time as a Reichswehr spy, as a political informant and paid speaker led him to extremely successful swimming attempts in the seething and confusing swamps of the right wing extremist scene of post- and counter-revolutionary Munich. Herbst describes the transition between the Reichswehr and the right-wing radical scene as well as the network of people developed here as central to the development of what will later be declared as mission and charisma.

Herbst distinguishes three different circles among Hitler's followers - firstly, a group of mostly older men who acted as mentors and advisers. Second, a group of mostly admirers, bodyguards and disciples of the same age. Herbst identified the third group as the broad circle of sponsors, sympathizers, financiers, publishers and intellectuals.

Even if Hitler began to gather "disciples" around himself very early, in the phase up to 1923 the input from outside is more important, Hitler still appears here as a taker of ideas, not as a source of ideas. For the large-scale political attempt by the German and Bavarian right to launch Hitler as "F├╝hrer", at least since Mussolini's "March on Rome" in October 1922, the model of Italian fascism has played an important role.

From his donors and ideas, Hitler found circles where he learned how to hold a fish knife and tie a tie. Here Hitler is connected to members of the various functional elites on various levels. If one follows Herbst, Hitler's charisma at this point in time was little more than the transfer of the messianic expectations of others to the figure of Hitler. To put it bluntly, the early Hitler is presented here as a charism representative.

The book en passant renews the doubts about a later intoxicating bond between the entire German people and their leader. Herbst does not describe a feel-good dictatorship, but emphasizes the coercive mechanisms for the period after 1933:

(Everyone knew) that equality before the law was abolished in the 'Third Reich', that petty offenses were repeatedly punished disproportionately harshly and that, in addition to legal recourse, which had become unsafe enough, there were extra-normative terrorist enforcement organs and institutions such as the concentration camps that exercised arbitrariness, an arbitrariness that gave Hitler's official charism something oriental unpredictable. Everyone who met Hitler personally or saw him had a disposition to fear that sent a shiver down his spine, which to call "holy" required considerable suppression skills.

The author refers to the process of everyday life described by Max Weber, which affects every form of charismatic rule like acid. He also emphatically refers to the technical modernity and complexity of the Nazi state, in which the bureaucratic rule became steadily stronger, while the theatrical character of the charismatic component became more and more evident.

With this book, Ludolf Herbst disconnects one of the main power cables that have been supplying the Declaration of the Third Reich with energy for decades. The explanatory figure of the charismatic rule is switched off like a bedside lamp. If this interpretation prevails and Hitler's charisma is disenchanted as a myth, new sources of light will soon have to be found.

However, it appears problematic that the core analysis does not extend beyond the year 1923. Because even if the charisma was as constructive as Herbst emphasizes, the concept for the later phases - such as the transfer of power in 1933, the euphoria of victory from 1940 to 41 or the Wagnerian downfall of 1945 - is indispensable for the time being, if it applies to explain the specifics of this regime. To have questioned the figure of the charismatic leader skeptically, astutely and through precise source interpretation is the great achievement of this remarkable book.

Ludolf Herbst :: Hitler's charisma. The invention of a German messiah
Verlag S. Fischer, Frankfurt 2010