New German Biography: Hitler's Underestimated Charisma

Interview conducted by Jan Fleischhauer

Hitler's "formidable abilities as an actor are often overlooked," says historian Volker Ullrich. Zoom
AP

Hitler's "formidable abilities as an actor are often overlooked," says historian Volker Ullrich.

There's no disputing Adolf Hitler was responsible for some of the most monstrous acts ever committed. In an interview about his new biography, however, historian Volker Ullrich discusses a dictator who was an anti-Semite but also a man of considerable charm.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ullrich, how normal was Adolf Hitler?

Ullrich: He was not as crazy as some scholars of psychohistory would have us believe, at least, with their far too simplistic lines of argumentation. He may even have been more normal than we might wish.

SPIEGEL: Most people consider Hitler a psychopath. Many historians, too, believe that someone capable of committing such crimes cannot have been normal.

Ullrich: Hitler was without a doubt exceptional in his criminal deeds. Yet in many respects, he was not at all out of the ordinary. We will never be able to understand the terrible things that happened between 1933 and 1945 if we deny from the outset that Hitler also had human characteristics, and if we fail to take into account not only his criminal energies, but also the appealing qualities he had. So long as we view him only as a horrifying monster, the allure he undoubtedly exerted will remain a riddle.

SPIEGEL: Joachim Fest published a comprehensive biography of Hitler in 1973 and Ian Kershaw another one, in two volumes, beginning in 1998. What was your motivation for producing a third major biography?

Ullrich: Fest approached Hitler from a position of abhorrence and aversion. One central chapter of his book is titled "View of an Unperson." Kershaw was primarily interested in the societal structures that made Hitler possible, while the person himself remains somewhat pallid in his treatment. I bring the man back to the forefront. This creates not a completely new picture of Hitler, but still a more complex and contradictory one than we're familiar with.

SPIEGEL: "Hitler the Person" is the name of a chapter that you yourself describe as the key chapter in your book, which will be published this week. What was Hitler like as a person?

Ullrich: The remarkable thing about Hitler was his talent for dissimulation. His formidable abilities as an actor are often overlooked. There are only very rarely situations where we can say he was being genuine. This is what makes it so difficult to answer the question of what he was like as a person. He could be very pleasant, even to people he detested. Yet he was also incredibly cold even to people very close to him.

SPIEGEL: At one point in the book, you write of a "captivating charm." Charm is a quality not usually associated with this criminal of the century.

Ullrich: A good example of his ability to ingratiate himself is his relationship to German President Paul von Hindenburg, who initially had considerable reservations about the "Bohemian corporal," as he called Hitler. Yet within a few weeks of being appointed chancellor, Hitler managed to get Hindenburg so completely wrapped around his finger than he would sign off on whatever Hitler demanded of him. Joseph Goebbels noted frequently in his diaries that the dictator not only could chat very pleasantly among his close acquaintances, but absolutely knew how to listen as well.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, there would sometimes be these switches into uncontrolled behavior. The seemingly smallest incident could trigger a fit of rage.

Ullrich: My impression is that most of his rages were staged. He did this deliberately, to intimidate people, when just talking with his political opponents didn't achieve what he wanted. Within minutes, he could be once again behaving with complete control over himself and playing the attentive host.

SPIEGEL: There was little in Hitler's background initially that would seem to suggest a career as a mass murderer. Instead of fulfilling his father's wish that he become an upstanding bureaucrat, Hitler withdrew to draw and read. "Books were his world," one childhood friend said.

Ullrich: Hitler was an avid reader, a passion that stayed with him through all the phases of his career. The Federal Archives in Berlin has receipts, showing titles and prices, from the Munich bookstore where Hitler purchased his books. These show what an immense quantity of books he ordered, especially on architecture, although biographies and philosophical works interested him as well. Hitler consumed books incredibly quickly, but also very selectively. He only read works that fit his worldview and that would be of use in his political career.

SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to call him an artistically minded person?

Ullrich: His interest in art was certainly exceptional. On home leave in September 1918, he spent his time not in brothels, as his comrades did, but at Berlin's Museum Island.

SPIEGEL: In other words, perhaps we could say: Beware of artists in politics.

Ullrich: That's a good bon mot. But Hitler was never more than average as an artist. His great talent was for the games of politics. It's easy to underestimate the exceptional qualities and abilities he brought to bear in order to succeed in this field. In the space of just three years, he rose from an unknown veteran to the king of Munich, filling the city's largest halls week after week.

SPIEGEL: Hitler was a lone wolf. He didn't smoke, didn't drink, and eventually became a vegetarian. How does such an eccentric become a magnet for the masses?

Ullrich: Munich around 1920 was an ideal environment for a right-wing agitator, especially one who could give speeches as fiery as Hitler's. But he was also a skilled tactician, outmaneuvering his competition step by step. He surrounded himself with followers who looked up to him devoutly. And he secured the support of influential patrons, especially the Bruckmanns, a well-respected couple in the publishing world; the Bechstein family, who made pianos; and of course the Wagners in Bayreuth, who soon came to treat him like one of the family.

SPIEGEL: Even the earliest reports of Hitler as a speaker note the exchange of energy between him and his listeners. "I had a peculiar sensation," one eyewitness wrote in June 1919, "as if their excitement was his doing and at the same time also gave him voice in return."

Ullrich: To understand Hitler's power as a speaker, we must consider that he was not just the bellowing tavern demagogue we always picture, but in fact constructed his speeches very deliberately. He began very calmly, tentatively, almost as if he were feeling his way forward and trying to sense to what degree he had a hold of the audience so far. Not until he was certain of their approval did he escalate his word choice and gestures, becoming more aggressive. He continued this for two or three hours until he reached the climax, an intoxicating peak that left many listeners with tears running down their faces. When we watch clips of his speeches now, we're generally seeing only the conclusion.

SPIEGEL: The writer Klaus Mann, who observed Hitler devouring a strawberry tart at Munich's Carlton Tea Room in 1932, afterward wrote, "You want to be dictator, with that nose? Don't make me laugh." Did it require a certain sort of disposition to be fascinated by Hitler?

Ullrich: Klaus Mann had an instinctive, aesthetically motivated repulsion from the outset. But there are also reports of people who held a very negative view of Hitler at first, yet still got swept up and carried away when they experienced him. Among the effects of Rudolf Hess, who served as Hitler's private secretary starting in 1925, I found letters in which he described to his fiancée their agitation tours around Germany. In one letter, he describes a gathering of business leaders in the city of Essen in April 1927. When Hitler entered the room, he was met with frosty silence, complete rejection. After two hours, it was thunderous applause. "An atmosphere such as at (Munich's) Circus Krone," Hess wrote.

SPIEGEL: The slavering fervor of Hitler's party convention speeches sounds in our ears to this day. How did his voice in private differ from the one he used in public?

Ullrich: Very few recordings exist in which Hitler can be heard speaking normally. But in those that do exist, it's evident he possessed quite a warm, calm voice. It's a completely different tone from what he used in his public appearances.

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1. optional
danm 10/11/2013
A very interesting article. No one doubts that Hitler was a monster, but the intense desire of others to define him witha sense of "otherness" is to deny the monster that is inside all of us and this is a very foolish thing to do. Civilization is a choice and behaving like a monster is a choice too. We shouldn't let ourselves off the hook by acting like Hitler is a different species from the rest of humanity. He is simply a horrible, dark example of what humanity is capable of doing.
2. Hitler's Amphetamine Use
Dwight44 10/11/2013
My understanding is that Hitler's physician began injecting him about 1936 with amphetamines. Given our knowledge of how speed, over time, degrades the body and induces paranoia - I think any assessment must address the possibility that he was in fact a classical speed freak in the ensuing years,a nd not try to rehabilitate him otherwise.
3. Thanks !
quark@mailinator.com 10/12/2013
Unfortunately the Spiegel Online only very rarely produces such interesting, deep and scientifically correct content. The interesting question here (and in other cases) is - why does it take more than half a century to bring a historically correct representation to the masses ? It seems to me that almost always such a representation comes arround when it is no longer of any hot interest. For instance we just now get realistic information about the real economic facts concerning the German Economic Wonder after the war - not based on the Marshal Plan, but on "theft" of the East German intellectual elite. Also the truth about the beginning of the Corean War would be an example. It's frustrating. But better late than never.
4. The charisma of a sociopath
senzen 10/14/2013
Understanding the psychology doesn't mean accepting it.
5. Charisma?
verbatim128 10/15/2013
Hitler's charisma had hardly been possible without a willing reception. Being lied to gets all the help it can get from being incidental to self-interest in some part, and stupidity in the rest, of the same audience.
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ABOUT VOLKER ULLRICH
  • Jörg Müller/ Agentur Focus/ DER SPIEGEL
    Volker Ullrich, 70, is a German historian, journalist and author. He has published numerous influential books and articles on 19th- and 20th-century history. Since 1990, Ullrich has been head of the political section of weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

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