Over last weekend, I became embroiled in a conversation about Adolf Hitler–an occupational hazard–that included this question, directed at me, “Do you think Hitler was a genius?”
To revise and extend my answer, I’ll concede that Adolf Hitler was a man with some superlative features. His capacity for hatred knew no bounds. He was a irrepressibly bold gambler, willing to risk catastrophe in pursuit of his aims. (The Germany he left in ruins was a monument to the bet he lost.) He had a knack for publicity and was comfortable using both extreme rhetoric and violence to generate it. He could rouse a rabble with an intoxicating combination of divisive attacks on his opponents and wild visions of a triumphant German future.
While these are all useful gifts for a man who’d like to pursue a political career, or run a PR firm, or lead a cult, they don’t point to a towering intellect. Hitler was pig ignorant. His ideas about German history were more romantic fantasy than fact. His aesthetic was an mishmash of classicist and Bismarckian cliche. Of math and science he knew almost nothing. His ideas about the foreign peoples he dreamed of subjugating came from a series of children’s adventure stories. Hitler did read, but he restricted his reading only to those works that confirmed his ideas.
The products of his mind are pedestrian at best. We may wonder what might have happened had the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna accepted the young Hitler as an artist, but his works give us little reason to think their rejection was in error. His paintings are a lifeless collection of watercolors similar to those one can find at a million craft fairs. His architectural projects were, for the most part, absurd, childish monstrosities, lacking all sense of proportion. And Hitler’s writings…God…his writings… It says a lot about how badly written Mein Kampf is that its virulent antisemitism isn’t the worst thing about it. It is the dullest political tract ever composed, marred by weird digressions that sometimes eat entire chapters and whole sections that never manage to reach their promised points. If the book offers anything, it offers us a chance to know what it would be like to spend a year trapped in a cell with Adolf Hitler. (Such was the fate of Rudolf Hess, who took dictation from Hitler for the book.)
So why, if Hitler was such a mediocrity, did his followers believe him to be the greatest German in history, endowed with special powers? I think the answer is that they believed it because they wanted to believe it. Germans in general and Germans on the political far-right in particular were impatient with the vicissitudes of democracy and market capital (both of which, in fairness, had proven ineffective at helping Germany recover from the economic and political toll of the first world war), and held out hope that a leader would rise to save them. From Goebbels’s diary:
July 4, 1924
“We need a firm hand in Germany. Let’s put an end to all the experiments and empty words, and start getting down to serious work. Throw out the Jews, who refuse to become real Germans. Give them a good beating too. Germany is yearning for an individual, a man — as the earth yearns for rain in the summer.”
Two years later, Goebbels got to meet the “firm hand” in person. His impressions:
April 13th, 1926:
“… I learned that Hitler had phoned. He wanted to welcome us, and in fifteen minutes he was there. Tall, healthy and vigorous. I like him. He puts us to shame with his kindness.
We met. We asked questions. He gave brilliant replies. I love him… I can accept this firebrand as my leader. I bow to his superiority, I acknowledge his political genius!”
It should be noted that most people were tall to Goebbels. Hitler was 5’8″, average height for a man of his era; Goebbels was a somewhat shorter 5’5″. Also Goebbels, who’d suffered all his life from serious ailments, would have been tempted to read into Hitler a health that Goebbels coveted for himself. Little is known of Hitler’s actual state of health, but he was hardly an athlete even on his best days, and he’d long complained of a variety of ailments (some probably psychosomatic).
Goebbels goes on:
June 26th, 1926
“Hitler is still the same dear comrade. You can’t help liking him as a person. And he has a stupendous mind. As a speaker he has constructed a wonderful harmony of gesture, facial expression and spoken word. The born motivator! With him, we can conquer the world. Give him his head, and he will shake the corrupt Republic to its foundations.”
Back in those days, it should be noted that lots of Germans had no trouble disliking Adolf Hitler as a person. (Even some within the Nazi party disliked him, as his conflict with the Strasser brothers demonstrates.) As for Hitler’s “stupendous mind”, this is for Goebbels an act of extreme self-abasement. Goebbels, an academic with a doctorate in dramatic literature, was by any sane measure a much brighter and more sophisticated man than the untraveled, unlettered, uneducated Austrian. In later years, Goebbels treated the rest of the Munich leadership of the Nazi party with undisguised contempt, but never Hitler. Why?
Because at long last, Goebbels had found what he’d been looking for. Though there would later be periods of disillusionment, he’d always come back out of a religious reverence for Hitler. This is less because Goebbels had discovered Hitler was a god than because Hitler gave Goebbels just enough raw material for his imagination to shape Hitler into a god.
Of course, Hitler was not a god, or a genius, or even a somewhat smarter than average man. He had certain talents at propaganda and boundless reservoirs of hatred on which to draw. It took the magical thinking of his supporters to burnish his reputation to shine and transform this strange Austrian mediocrity into a nightmarish titan.