What would it be like to talk to Hitler?

Even the worst perpetrators among the “great” figures in history have always been people of the word. This is particularly true of Adolf Hitler. The talent to speak effectively was what gave him the power that made his misdeeds possible.

On the day of his greatest diplomatic triumph, Adolf Hitler quarreled with himself and the world. In the Munich Agreement of September 29, 1938, Great Britain, France and Italy had given him Czechoslovakia practically at his free disposal. The Greater German dream was thus realized and, as it seemed, world peace was secured. But Hitler had wanted a war - and now his opponents had allowed him so much that he no longer had any reason to.

That Hitler wanted a war was connected with his deepest ideological convictions and with his belief in himself. For him life was a constant struggle for survival of individuals and peoples. It was a matter of proving your own superiority over and over again. Hitler was convinced that permanent acquisition of territories was only possible with force. He believed that only he was able - and destined by providence - to win the great war of conquest he had planned to secure living space in the east; and he feared that he would have little time for it, assuming that he would die early and that his opponents would soon grow stronger.

Prototypes

The Hitler we encounter here corresponds to the most widespread image the world has of him as one of the great conquerors and destroyers in world history. The most striking feature of such people is their immoderation. They expand their goals and demands for every success, up to world domination. Because of this excess, they, or at the latest their successors, regularly fail. The prototypes are Alexander, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon and Hitler, with some restrictions Caesar. But even in comparison with such and other conqueror figures, Hitler has a unique position in world history. It lies not only in the singularity of his actions, but also in his use of language.

Even the worst perpetrators are always people of the word. Language prepares, propagates, and justifies or disguises their actions. It is true that deeds are also possible without words preceding or accompanying them. But only words raise deeds above the mere "animal", and finally they in turn can bring about deeds.

The question of the role of language thus becomes part of the question of the "big" perpetrators and their role in world history. It must at least be implicitly compared. This in turn results in a historicization. The following statements are committed to such a historical-comparative access. The goal is not a relativization that leads to a trivialization of the deeds. Rather, it is about approaching a reality that cannot be isolated, but in which the deeds, misdeeds and benefits, are related to one another. The main thesis is: Hitler's special position in world history, also and especially as a perpetrator, is to a large extent based on the speech, while all of his historical "competitors" have achieved their power base either through physical violence or through a traditional form of legitimacy transfer. What is special about Hitler is initially not the use, but the thorough failure of violence. In their place came the word from which the crimes par excellence then grew.

The spoken word

Adolf Hitler was a talented and successful speaker, although he could not (and would not) claim literary qualities for himself. This fact was undisputed after only a few appearances that he had as an agitator in the Reichswehr and as head of propaganda for the NSDAP in 1919/20; and he himself captured it in 1925 in "Mein Kampf" in stylized form: "I could talk!" Marcel Reich-Ranicki described him as the "greatest speaker of the German tongue", while Thomas Mann, more realistic and at the same time more devious, spoke of an "unspeakably inferior, but mass-effective eloquence".

What made the speaker Hitler so talented? No convincing answer has yet been given to this question. At first glance, the comparison with the great classical speakers and preachers from Demosthenes and Cicero to Bernhard von Clairvaux and Bossuet to Churchill is obvious. However, such judgments quickly meet with doubts and even rejection. This has to do with a mix-up of standards in which quality and success are equated.

Hitler was not a great speaker in the aesthetic-literary sense. But he was an extremely successful speaker in terms of influencing his audience. However, no miracle stories should be derived from it. Once Hitler noticed his talent, he and his followers tended to exaggerate its extent. He owed his success less to a rhetorical-literary than to a demagogic talent. In doing so, he made considerable use of extra-linguistic elements, on effects that often had a theatrical character, with the staging of the Nuremberg party congresses as the highlights.

The great perpetrators, who sooner or later all failed because of their excessive attempt to conquer the world, have attained the basis of power with the help of which they initially achieved their goal to a large extent (but never completely) in two different ways. Either they prevailed by force and fought for power or they put in a coup, like Caesar and Napoleon, but also - through usurpation - Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Or they gained power through succession to the throne (albeit often only after fighting) like Alexander.

Something similar can be observed with world revolutionaries. Lenin is the prototype for this. But Stalin and Mao also fit into the picture, although the question remains open with them whether they really wanted to revolutionize the whole world.

Hitler's career initially followed this pattern. He tried to come to power through a coup. But he failed with his attempted coup on 8/9. November 1923 in Munich pathetic across the board. He was arrested and imprisoned for one year. The decisive factor for Hitler's further fate was that he carried out a fundamental change in his strategy. This certainly contributed to the fact that he, as the only one of the great conquerors, had no military training that would have brought him further than private. Instead of trying with insufficient means to win power in his country by force, between 1923 and 1933 he used one great strength that he had and that he himself knew very well: his talent for speaking. The coup d'état was replaced by the consistent building and expansion of the supporters, the party or, as he preferred to put it, the movement.

Hitler took his new strategy seriously and adhered to it while he was still in custody. Instead of planning amateurish violent actions, he used his trial as a propaganda platform with brilliant success, and he began to write "Mein Kampf". In this way, Hitler became a special case in world history in a very different respect than is otherwise emphasized. With the declaration of war on the USA on December 11, 1941, his goal was world conquest. He was no different from other big perpetrators. On the other hand, he made a fundamental change in the means used to seize power in his own country, away from naked physical violence towards political agitation.

Attempts to conquer the world will sooner or later stall. Then the followers of the leading perpetrator tend to fall away from their leader in increasing numbers. Violence has brought the conqueror to power, and violence takes it away from him again. He has used up his capital. It is astonishing that Hitler of all people seems to make an exception here. Time and again, the viewer noticed how long and completely Hitler's power over his supporters held, at least in the core area, in Germany. The position of power that Hitler had created for himself essentially through the speech turned out to be more durable than the power that rested on violence.

The written word

Adolf Hitler was not a good speaker in the literary sense. But he was a successful speaker who was able to direct and even inspire the masses - that is still the widespread opinion to this day. Hardly less widespread is the view that Hitler was a bad writer. Apparently it wasn't just literary talent that he lacked; his writings also had little success in a political sense. - The negative judgment can be based at least partially on the author himself. In the sixth chapter of the second volume of Mein Kampf, Hitler deals with political speech and the difference between speech and writing. He also reports on his early experiences. For political purposes, especially for the mobilization of the masses, speech is far superior to Scripture: «I know that one can win people less through the written word than through the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth grows thanks to great speakers and not to great writers. "

Hitler could undoubtedly speak better - although the speaker often approached the actor - than he could write. So it made sense for him to put speaking in appreciation over writing, to weight one's own skills more than one's own weaknesses.

Hitler, however, had a very high opinion of the script. No matter how important and effective the speech may be politically, it was ultimately a subordinate, derived quantity. According to Hitler, the starting point for them was a basic text. Here he got into religious territory. For him, a political movement that resulted in a "völkisch state" required a common background for all political texts. As a holy or land register, "Mein Kampf" was an obvious choice. In his foreword in 1925, Hitler said, rather clumsily: “Nevertheless, for a uniform and uniform representation of a doctrine, the basic principles of the same must be laid down forever. These two volumes should be considered as building blocks that I will add to the joint work. "

The idea of ​​the creed was derived even more directly from Christianity. His role received the party program with Hitler. He took the idea so seriously that he kept the NSDAP's program, which had not even been written by him, in the original version of February 24, 1920 until the end. It did not depend on the truth, but on the eternity and immovability of the basic texts. His followers went even further. Comparison with other holy books, especially the Bible, was widespread. But it was also found among opponents of National Socialism who made fun of Hitler and the NSDAP in this way. This may have caused Hitler to forego the last step of formal canonization.

Word and deed

Adolf Hitler was undoubtedly one of the greatest, most fatal and most criminal perpetrators in world history. What is special about him in world history, however, is less his perpetrator nature, his violence, although he probably surpassed all his predecessors in this regard, but more the fact that he was the only one of the great perpetrators who wanted to conquer the world to support the power base for his deeds Owed sharing the speech. Scripture contributed to this. Ultimately, however, Hitler's literary talent was too weak to enable him to seize power to such an extent that, with its help, he could have become a great perpetrator. The spoken word, the speech, is different. Hitler had such great oratorial talent that he was able to achieve great political successes with it; at least greater than by means of force. In this way, an unsuccessful man of deed turned into a successful perpetrator by going through the word.

The question remains: despite his failed coup, why did Hitler ultimately go from a speaker to a perpetrator, from a man of the word to the man of action in the most fateful sense of the word? After all, all previous great world conquerors had failed by military force. Therefore, the idea of ​​trying speech instead of deed (or misdeed) need not necessarily seem absurd. Nevertheless, the assumption was obvious that under normal circumstances power would come out of the barrel of a gun after all, especially in interstate traffic - which is why the attempt to conquer the world non-violently by means of speech and perhaps a holy book and a creed in the To accomplish the form of a party program, at best would be ridiculed. Hitler's rhetorical talent might be enough to give him power in Germany, whose language was his, but not to win world domination. His goal remained to become a man of action.

Prof. Dr. Jörg Fisch taught and researched from 1987 to 2012 as full professor for general modern history at the University of Zurich. Two years ago he published his study «The right of the peoples to self-determination. The domestication of an illusion »(in C. H. Beck). Jörg Fisch is co-editor of the "New Fisherman's World History". The text above is the (abbreviated) farewell lecture given on May 31, 2012 at the University of Zurich.