The Führer Myth How Hitler Won Over the German People

By Ian Kershaw

Part 5: Fatal Narcissisim

Hitler's conquest of the masses had the vital consequence, therefore, of extending his autonomy from any possible constraints within other sections of the regime. This helped to ensure that the ideological fixations which Hitler obsessively maintained since the beginning of his political "career" -- the "removal" of the Jews and the pursuit of "living space" -- were by the later 1930s emerging not simply as distant utopian dreams, but as realizable policy objectives. The process had been promoted at all levels of the regime through a readiness to "work towards the Führer." But this in itself was a reflection of the dominance that Hitler had so rapidly established after taking over power, then consolidated and extended, backed at crucial stages by the plebiscitary acclamation which the expansion of his popularity had produced.

Finally, there was the impact of the expanded Führer cult on Hitler himself. Some of those in his close proximity later claimed to have detected a change in Hitler around 1935-6. He became, so it was said, more dismissive than earlier of the slightest criticism, more convinced of his own infallibility. His speeches started to develop a more pronounced messianic tone. He saw himself ever more -- the tendency had been long implanted in his personality, but was now much exaggerated -- as chosen by Providence. When, following the successful Rhineland coup, he remarked, in one of his "election" speeches: "I follow the path assigned to me by Providence with the instinctive sureness of a sleepwalker," it was more than a piece of campaign rhetoric. Hitler truly believed it. He increasingly felt infallible.

By the mid-1930s, at the latest, the narcissistic trait in his own personality, the extreme flattery and sycophancy that surrounded him, and the immense adulation of the masses that repeatedly stimulated him, combined to magnify the belief that Germany‘s destiny lay in his own hands, and that he alone could guide his country to final victory in the ever closer great conflict. "It depends essentially on me, on my being, on my political skills," he told his generals on the eve of the war. He stressed, as part of this reasoning, "the fact that no one else will ever have the trust of the whole German people as I do. There will never be a man in the future, who has more authority than me. My being is therefore a huge value factor … No one knows how much longer I will live. Therefore, it is better to have the conflict now."

By this time, August 1939, all sections of the regime, and the masses who had been so jubilant at Hitler's every "success," had ensured that their fate was tied to the decisions of the Führer. So it would remain down to 1945. In the wartime years, as seemingly glorious victory gave way to mounting, inexorable calamity, as defeat on defeat inevitably eroded the charismatic basis of his leadership, and as it became plain that he was leading Germany into the abyss, the fateful bonds with Hitler that had been sealed in the "good years" of the 1930s ensured that there was now no way back. The German people, having supported Hitler's triumphs, were now condemned to suffer the catastrophe into which he had led them.


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