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How the Hitler myth took hold in Germany. Manipulating masses

The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, by Ian Kershaw. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press. 297 pp. $49.95. THIS book takes on a classic political problem: the emperor with no clothes. And, like the child's parable, it focuses attention not on the emperor, but on the audience.

Hitler projected an image of himself as sacred hero, omnipotent warrior, the embodiment of national unity and purpose. Nazi propagandists drew on new technologies to dress the image: film, phonograph records, radio, the aeroplane. After all, Hitler was the first to take political campaigns to the air, literally descending from the heavens with a message of hope (and hate) for long waiting audiences on the ground.

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Ian Kershaw is not the first to note that Hitler made exaggerated claims for himself. The strength of Kershaw's study is that he moves beyond a description of the construction of the ``Hitler myth'' to analysis of its strength and resiliency. He is interested in how Germans responded to this image, in different social and economic classes, different regions, over time. The picture that emerges of the audience is far more differentiated than that image of fawning masses hawked in Nazi propaganda films.

The sources of Hitler's immense popularity, Kershaw argues, have to be sought in ``those who adored him,'' rather than in the leader himself: their readiness to trust political ``salvation'' to a ``strong man,'' their failure to develop (or willingness to suspend) ``educated cynicism and critical awareness,'' their ``retreat into the private sphere'' in the face of mounting evidence of Nazi horrors.

The search for genuine public response to the Hitler myth takes Kershaw into vast quantities of data. His material comes from two sources: ``morale'' and ``situation'' reports from official state and party agencies, and reports on shifts in public opinion documented by the socialist opposition. Both sources have built-in biases, but in opposite directions.

Kershaw also draws heavily on content analysis of sources as various as Hitler's public speeches, newspaper reports, letters from the front, and death announcements of the period. (The latter often contained expressions of gratitude to the F"uhrer.) He makes available to an English-speaking audience much recent German scholarship on the Nazi period.

Perhaps the first achievement of Kershaw's book is that he doesn't get lost in his data. He frames analysis around key periods and raises questions worth answering. In the process, he challenges popular views of German fascism, contending that:

Most Germans did not warm to the notion of a new war, even to find a ``place in the sun.'' They were concerned with getting out of a world depression and were ``overwhelmingly frightened by the prospects of another war.''

Most Germans were not confirmed anti-Semites, and the drawing power of Hitler's vision of racial ``purity'' as the determining element in winning support for the Nazi Party has been exaggerated.

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Support for the leader did not come in one great wave. A close reading of weekly intelligence reports suggests very unstable public moods, even (and especially) during what has been termed Hitler's ``springtime.''

Kershaw's most consistent finding is that the public admired Hitler far more than it supported his policies or his party. Kershaw sees this acceptance of ``the Hitler myth'' as performing an ``integrating function'' for the Nazi leadership: diffusing discontent and consolidating support for the regime.

Germans, he argues, passed off the most monstrous Nazi violations in the belief that the abuses were the fault of wicked subordinates: The F"uhrer didn't know, and once he did, the abuses would be corrected. Thus the mass murder of the leadership of the Nazi storm troopers, which took place on the ``Night of the Long Knives,'' came to be understood (in what Kershaw describes as a total inversion of reality) as overcoming corruption within the party and ``paving the way for a moral renewal.'' The assault on the churches, early military reverses, and even the Holocaust (to the extent it was known) were by slight-of-myth disassociated from the F"uhrer and therefore from his regime.

Early economic and foreign policy victories, Kershaw argues, reinforced the image of Hitler as statesman and man of peace, able to achieve German foreign policy objectives without loss of life. This image, along with the formidable apparatus of repression and terror Hitler built up about him at the same time, allowed him to retain power even though most Germans disagreed with the specific ideas and policies he advocated.

To support this understanding of German politics, Kershaw needs to convince readers that the responses he is measuring are genuine. A tall order, and one he mentions frequently but rarely takes on systematically in his analysis.

The challenge is to balance the claims of myth and terror in explaining Hitler's hold on power, for while Hitler's propaganda mechanism was manufacturing myth, a parallel coercive mechanism was manufacturing fear. The positive responses to Hitler that Kershaw finds in his data may be genuine expressions of attachment to the leader as ``symbol of national revival.'' They may also represent fear of storm troopers or the Gestapo. If the latter, then Kershaw's claim that the Hitler myth ``unquestionably'' functioned as ``compensatory mechanism'' and sustained the regime needs to be scaled down, perhaps considerably.

There is, nonetheless, much to be learned from a book that grapples with the Nazi period in terms of weeks and months, instead of fitting an explanation to ``rise and fall.'' This book illumines the character of political choice: the choice of leaders to build politics around images, subsequently falling victim to their own myths; the choice of citizens to substitute trust in personality, sentiment, or symbol for clear political judgments. It hints at ``paths not taken,'' fragile moments before the Nazi terror apparatus was firmly in place, when other political outcomes may have been possible, when a word fitly spoken might have made a difference.

Gail Russell is on the Monitor staff.