Hitler’s Power: Iconic Authority – Part I

The origins of the personality cult that gave rise to Hitler’s power in Nazi Germany are still debated. The underlying reasons for Hitler’s success as a leader and his unquestioned authority can be difficult to ascertain and certainly may never be settled. Nevertheless, a close look at the mentalities of the politics of both the conservatives and the leftists in the 1920s and 30s in Germany reveals a desire on both sides for an iconic and savior-like leader. In the discussion of how Hitler perpetrated the Holocaust and what led to his dictatorship, some allege that Germans in general were extremely anti-Semitic. While this may have been true by 1940s, it was not clearly so previously. Levels and kinds of anti-Semitism present in pre-Nazi Germany are insufficient to account for Hitler’s popularity or continued control of the nation. Hitler’s force of personality was a notable contributor to his success, as was the public’s desire for a great leader. Despite a fractured military leadership at the end of his reign and pockets of social resistance to the Nazi Party, Hitler maintained supreme leadership of Germany and was able to commit atrocities—not because the entire German population was rabidly anti-Semitic, but because of an inherent and heightened German cultural need for a central iconic leader exploited by effective propaganda portrayals of Hitler as the solution to said need.

Claims that anti-Semitism was an integral component in Hitler’s power abound. The banner of anti-Semitism was certainly highly promoted and relatively unquestioned within the Third Reich. However, for this to have been the foundational reason for Hitler’s rise to power and his later supreme control of Germany to have validity, the population must have been unequivocally anti-Semitic before the Nazi government solidified its power and curtailed individual rights. Real frustrations with the Jews, and not a vague undercurrent of irritation at them, is what is necessary to explain Hitler’s popular appeal. A definition of anti-Semitism clear enough to replace other reasons for Hitler’s popularity is then useful to examine his rise to power. When constructed and examined, such clear definitions of anti-Semitism are insufficient to explain Hitler’s popularity.

To further elaborate on the nature of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s regime, there are three possible real bases for German frustration with the Jews. The first that may leap to mind is a frustration of a religious nature—that Germans in general were anti-Semitic because of a difference in religious beliefs; however, this does not appear likely. This notion suggests that the prevailing religious groups and mentality would be in direct conflict with the Jews, and that then Hitler must have utilized such in his campaigning. Goebbels actually notes Hitler’s hatred of Christianity in his diary. Hitler’s approach appears more anti-religious. In fact, SA officers paraded through towns singing anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic songs.1 A positively Nietszchian morality seems to be what Hitler advocated, so religious frustrations of the people would not coincide with Hitler’s own, nor his government’s practices.2 In addition, this notion of religious strife disregards the large numbers of rather irreligious Jews, as well as irreligious non-Jews, whose views would not have been driven to any great degree by religious bigotry.3

The second possibility is that Jews refused to integrate into the culture of Germany, but economically, Jews were found in the areas they had historically been allowed to work, largely being doctors, lawyers, journalists and shop owners. While the majority of Jews in the Wiemar Republic were middle class as mentioned above, but there were a few groups of refugees from elsewhere in Poland that were less well off.4 The Jews were contributors to German heritage and the arts in Germany, as is evidenced by the Nazi party’s banning of many pieces of art and music that had been labeled Jewish or otherwise detrimental to German society.5 Furthermore, Jews were not refusing to frequent German businesses, or refusing them service. Instead, they were actually prohibited from intermingling with other Germans by the Nazi regime. There may have been some sort of cultural divide, as would be common to Europe in general, but this was insufficient to explain the Holocaust itself.6 Hitler deliberately, slowly, and carefully crafted legislation and public opinion to allow him to separate the Jews out from the rest of the public.7

Thirdly, Jews might have been separated by distinct looks, but this racial distinction was also deliberately created. Hitler himself, as well as Goebbels, and Göring, were not models of his so-called Aryan race.8 Hitler’s own niece was complimented on her good looks by his associates, and she was not blond, blue-eyed, or tall—all common descriptors of Hitler’s ideal Aryan.9Hitler’s own associates weren’t convinced of his racist ideology, or so their actions indicate.

While Hitler himself seems convinced that the Jews really were a drain on society, it was his conflation of these three possibilities with Communism and Bolshevism that was truly effective in uniting the people against this supposed common enemy (Hitler coined the phrase Judeo-Bolshevism). None of this would have been as effective as it was, but for Hitler’s popular appeal—outside of his anti-Semitic views.

1 David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion Under Nazism (Cambridge, MA, 1996), 39.

2Joseph Goebbels, The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941 (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 1983), 304-305; J.P. Stern, Hitler: The Führer and the People (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975), 43-48.

3Eric A. Johnsonand Karl Heinz Reuband, eds., What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazy Germany: An Oral History (Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2005), 164; Peter Gay, My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin (Harrisonburg, VA: Yale University Press, 1998), 48-51.

4“Jewish Communities of Prewar Germany,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website, http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007052 (accessed Oct 20, 2010)

5Ibid; William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1990), 242-243.

6It can be noted, that while German Jews weren’t particularly culturally distinct from Germans, the same was not true in Poland. Polish Jews actually spoke a different dialect of Polish, with an obvious accent.

7Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot, eds. Documents on the Holocaust (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), 65-66, 72-73, 78-79, 91, 99-101, 115-121; Bankier, 121.

8Gay, 94-95.

9Anna Maria Sigmund, Women of the Third Reich, (Richmond Hill, ON: NDE Publishing, 2000), 133.


1 Comment

Filed under History, Leadership, Nazism, Philosophy, Politics, Socialism, Sociology, WWII

One response to “Hitler’s Power: Iconic Authority – Part I

  1. Interesting argument. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the paper.

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