Mortal and Monster: Remembering the Social Roots of Hitler’s Evil

by Nathan Stoltzfus

From Downfall 2004 ‘Der Untergang’ Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

From Downfall 2004 ‘Der Untergang’ Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel

We should remember Hitler in a way that is the most challenging to the most people. Imagine that as a call to responsibleness like Viktor Fraenkl’s proposal for a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast to remind Americans that freedom is not a mere license to do anything. Hitler was not a great man who took power and wielded it primarily by forcing the majority to suppress their own will, but instead became a monster in considerable part through widespread popular projections of power onto him. Certainly there are many persons more worthy of study than Hitler, but we remember him in order to learn individual and social responsibility. We also remember great natural disasters like the destruction of Pompei, but we study Hitler to learn about how great numbers of persons contribute, over time, to the power and crimes of a tyrant. If we see Hitler as having power because so many believed he was a great leader, we have something to learn about human agency across the board, including the place of “ordinary persons.” This is learning not just about how to protect yourself and yours but about fending off socially-induced catastrophe.

There are many histories we can study to see the role which masses play, once collectivized and given a purpose by a strongman claiming to represent their interests and we need to be careful about making comparisons to Hitler. From the moment he sought power as Germany’s Leader, Hitler was charting a course toward persecution of Europe’s Jews and a war of genocidal annihilation. He moved toward those goals within a western and Christian civilization, as Yehuda Bauer has written, and massive contemporaneous support not only from masses of Germans but from important western leaders and opinion setters as well. While no comparisons with Hitler dare rehabilitate that monster or set the stage for revisionism, the relationship between Hitler and his believers makes an especially useful comparison precisely because Hitler attracts so much attention, and he was so forthright in proclaiming that his authority rested first of all and primarily on his mass movement of believers.

It is axiomatic that resistance to tyranny including fascism must start at its beginnings, before it has taken control of the media, police, and official agencies. Hitler got his start, as he did not tire of saying, by attracting a growing crowd. Much has been written to damn mob rule since Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd set the tone in 1895, but it takes a tyrant to make a mob really dangerous. The view that crowds are treacherous inherently has recently focused on the mob insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, sometimes without noting the critical role President Trump played in licensing hate groups and far right extremists generally, and then inciting and directing the mob to take their murderous rage to Capitol Hill. Like other autocrats including Hitler, Trump’s image built on a range of lies, from small to large, that urged people to believe him and his myth in a post-truth presidency, as the contemporary interpreter of autocracy Timothy Snyder writes, rather than the Enlightenment language of facts and reason.

In the decades since Hitler, those of the twenty-first century so far most clearly demonstrate the base of the power of a strongman in the people who believe in him, and just as importantly find each other and collectivize because of him (so far we have had no notable women playing the strongman role). Beginning some years after the turn of the century, at the height of confidence that western-style democracies had triumphed and would set the tone for the new century, we have seen a growing number of strongmen come to power at the expense of democracy. When is it useful to remember Hitler as a way to identify key characteristics of autocrats and would-be dictators in our own time? As Trump’s presidency evolved, more and more pundits found it possible to make comparisons between him and others who have destroyed electoral democracies for personalized rule, backed by the appearance of popular support through rigged elections and control of the media. Victor Orban, Recep Erdogan, and Vladimir Putin are leading examples of contemporaries who have broken down the institutions of democracy they used to take power, manipulating them to sustain nondemocratic rule.

Many have been reluctant to compare such men with Hitler, considering his race ideology and perpetration of the most vile crimes. Some while not comparing him to Hitler, have argued that by the time he incited an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Trump bore the marks of fascism, the form of totalitarianism Hitler represents. The American philosopher Susan Neiman, who lives in Germany and has dual citizenship, for example identified Trump as a fascist for several reasons: support of paramilitary groups, attacks on the free media and an independent judiciary, demonizing of political opponents and intellectuals in general, nostalgia for a non-urban past, belief that some parts of the populace are real members of the nation while others are not, the repetition of a lie so often it is eventually perceived as truth.

Many have been tempted to castigate Trump by comparing him with Hitler, analogies which New Yorker author Alex Ross warned against until he saw a possibility in Trump’s defeat, with Hitler stripped of his power. Cornered in his bunker as suicide drew near, Hitler had become a figure so commonplace psychologically that it licensed a comparison, he wrote. Trump had not done as much damage to democracy as Hitler, but both men were experiencing comeuppance for their hubris. But do we need Hitler as a comparison to a psychologically ordinary man or one who has attacked democracy?

What is missing in some comparisons of strongmen to fascism generically or Hitler specifically, is the symbiotic relationship between these strongmen and their believers which some pointed out as Trump’s election neared. The Republican Party has served as the important elite promoter of Trump, although again and again we hear that Republican representatives are bound to support Trump because their constituency does. Similarly, Hitler became unignorable to Germany’s keepers of the government during the Weimar Republic because of his enormous popular backing. It is this relationship whereby masses of persons project their hopes and beliefs unto a specific person that allows us to see Hitler as more of an ordinary person, beholden somewhat to circumstances and dumb luck, who committed unprecedented atrocities, and to perceive some responsibility for him that stretches across society.

Hitler’s Power and Human Agency across Society

If you make room for human agency among ordinary civilians without positions of power, in discussing autocracy and in particular fascism there is much more to compare, much more about human behavior to observe. Moving the focus of remembrance away from the great man who terrorized everyone into obedience, toward the relationship between the strongman and the masses eager to support him because they think he will rule on their behalf, yields considerations about recurring tendencies of behavior at this moment in our evolutionary biology.

The search for a strongman who unites people feeling like they finally have power once he unites them, together with the appearance of a person ridiculous enough to claim to be their strongman who alone can lead them out of their crisis, continues to repeat itself. Holocaust history and our understanding of Hitler does carry a sense of mystique for many, but carry lessons about remembrance for us. One way of thinking considers the Holocaust as an evil outside of history—unimaginable, unspeakable. Some have argued that it is not only incomprehensible but that we must also not try to comprehend it lest we fall into justifying the perpetrators as victims of traumatizing personal experience. Yet the more Hitler is viewed as monopolizing power, with power emanating only from him rather than also percolating up from the people, the less there is for other societies to learn, and the more the history of his Third Reich resembles a biography of the man who was the dictator.

Hitler was of course the most repugnant of men, which raises the question of why so many millions fell in line to enable his crimes. How did he convince foreign leaders and journalists that he was trustworthy and morally just? Masses of Germans who wanted to believe in him saw him as serving their personal interests. German officials who appointed him German Chancellor in 1933 underestimated him but many soon came to believe in him as he made dreams into reality: the return of their nation to global greatness, the unification of Austria and Germany. This turns the focus not so much on whether Hitler was truly great but on why he stirred the impulse of worship, or at least of a love affair. The question may be even starker in the case of Trump who showed little to no interest in helping his followers or the nation, racking up trillions of additional debt, ignoring any plan for addressing a pandemic, and leaving far more Americans jobless when he left than when he arrived, to name just some of his wreckage.

Recent efforts to portray Hitler as a mortal, a politician in search of support rather than only as a monster, have faced withering criticism. In 2002, a planned four-part miniseries on the life of Hitler by a US television network was cut short when influential persons who had not even read the script, objected that focusing on Hitler’s early years, at the hands of an abusive father and other traumatizing experiences, would trivialize that dictator’s crimes and detract from our understanding that he was absolutely evil. Better to keep the focus on Auschwitz as the symbol of the Holocaust itself. The German film director Oliver Hirschbiegel encountered a similar wall of flat objections when he released his 2004 film “Downfall” about Hitler’s final days as enemy troops close around his bunker and he commits suicide as he had said he would if his party failed. David Denby of the New Yorker applauded the actor Bruno Ganz for making “the dictator into a plausible human being” while doubting that this had put his “virtuosity” to good use.

“The attempt to re-create Hitler in realistic terms has always been morally and imaginatively questionable, a compromise with the unspeakable, and it still is . . . forc[ing] the audience to engage in such inanities as freshly appraising Hitler’s relation to his secretary, his cook, and his dog.

Alex Ross in recent comments agrees, disparaging the historical sources the film draws on. But the film illustrates the belief underpinnings of Hitler’s power. Since it takes time for tyranny to undermine the institutions of democracy it is not only possible but vital to make analogies between the ways other would-be tyrants attempt to destroy democracies and the way that Hitler came to power.

What to Learn from the German “Downfall”

Whatever its faults, “Downfall” succeeds in indicating a basic mechanism underlying Hitler’s power that reflects truth: masses of Germans preferred to trust a charismatic leader above their own reason and conscience. Blind trust of someone who appears strong and invites it is a universal temptation all too common in times of crisis. Part of Hitler’s seduction was his invitation to Germans to unconditionally trust his leadership, exchanging individual identity for a sense of belonging to a great people and a mighty nation. Beliefs once established in personal and group identities, are notoriously difficult to dislodge.

In the film Downfall, Eva Braun, the woman Hitler married in his last hours, explains the two sides of Hitler, mortal and monster. Hitler can be very caring, but as the Führer he must be brutal rather than weak. Hitler explains to Braun that disobeying him is treason and for treason there can be no exception to punishment. But Hitler doesn’t shoot traitors himself. Who does this on his behalf and why? The film suggests that those who obey Hitler’s will no longer have a will of their own. Their resources for independent thought and action have atrophied over the years of blind trust so that by this point they can’t imagine any other course of action, even as it leads directly to death and destruction of Germany.

Many Germans were eager to see Hitler as their unquestioned Leader just as Hitler gladly played that part. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who we see committing suicide after he and his wife kill their six children, lays this out coldly to an army officer who objects to sending teenage boys without weapons to stave off the onslaught of the Red Army. He cannot find any sympathy for them, Goebbels says, because the German people gave the Nazis a mandate to lead them. The result of their decision is that now “they’re going to have their little throats cut.”

Hitler did not trust the German people to support the Holocaust, as shown by the regime’s attempt to carry it out behind their backs, although faith in his leadership allowed Hitler to conduct genocide. Both Goebbels and Hitler repeatedly claimed the support of “racial” Germans as the basis of Nazi authority. Even top military brass, considering resisting Hitler in 1938, decided against this since Hitler was so popular that if they did anything against him the people would rise up in fury and demand the return of their Fuehrer. The majority seemed to give up their civil liberties in exchange for Hitler’s promise of security in the face of crisis and terror. Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties and limited executive power proved to be no stronger than the popular will to defend them. Downfall is a warning against racism. It is also a warning against unquestioning trust in the myths and false promises of a tyrant claiming to rule on behalf of an entire people.

In a new era of popular autocracies, how can we remember Nazism responsibly?

While we are guarding against trivializing Hitler and the Holocaust we should also take care not to slip into the complacency of thinking we could never bear any resemblance to Hitler and the Germans who supported him as he came to power and consolidated it. There is disagreement not only about comparisons to Hitler but about whether it is fair to describe our border detention centers as concentration camps, suggesting a parallel with Nazi camps. Some say that, as popular autocracies replace democracies around the globe, it is only conscientious to make such comparisons, if done responsibly. New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen wrote that it would be wrong to give ourselves the easy pass of thinking that, since we in the US don’t do such things, concentration camps must not be here. “The problems begin,” wrote Timothy Snyder “when we take the past to mean that we are always innocent – that past horror demonstrates our present righteousness and that, therefore, that whatever we are doing now is justified.”

A comparison of how both Hitler and President Trump have used the propaganda of martyrdom and genius to destroy social and political norms illustrates how comparisons can be levelheaded. Fitting comparisons can also challenge citizens to question their own capacities and behavior rather than comfortably assuming that in such dire circumstances they would do better. By making claims without evidence, Trump may seem harmless when in fact this provokes new patterns of discussion—not just about the facts but about their emptiness, as people began to question established methods for making judgments.

By mocking Trump for labeling himself as a genius (stable or not) we are missing how central that self-identification is both for himself and for his supporters. Trump sees in himself “unmatched wisdom,” and such a genius, following conventions going back hundreds of years, is free to stage himself entirely beyond the usual frameworks and norms. “We need a dictator who is a genius, if we want to get back up again Hitler exclaimed on April 15, 1922..” Trump also claimed that, “I’m the only one who can fix our problems.” Hitler also promised to make his country great again.

Trump uses another tactic Hitler favored: representing himself as a victim of our norms, a martyr for the nation because he is being prevented from benefiting us all. Being the victim also justifies breaking our usual system: it justifies victimizes others, going off track for the moment to set things right overall. “No President in the history of our Country . . . has been treated so badly,” Trump claimed. His opponent Joe Biden, on the other hand, is the one that did a very, very bad thing,” and if Republicans did the same thing "they'd be getting the electric chair right now." During the early 1920s Hitler instructed his circle to welcome an identity as victims, both as a matter of duty and as a way of growing the Nazi movement. Prison and sacrificing life itself was a small sacrifice for wresting Germany from the treacherous Jewish foundation of democracy and capitalism. “We have known from the beginning that our Leaders must go through prison; precisely this will make our movement great,” Hitler said on September 23, 1922.

Americans, if my students are illustrative, have been too quick to think we will most definitely defend democracy because we have learned to love it. Fascism could not take over here, a student once volunteered, because we’re a nation of gun owners and we will shoot them when we see them coming. But Hitler chose not to take power through an armed coup and others in this century around the globe have followed his method of taking power through the people’s institutions that they subsequently destroy. Tyranny arrives step by step, often with a smile and in the guise of trusted institutions. History rhythms, or repeats itself without us recognizing the repetition, if we are not paying attention and if we are not ready to see the worst of history as a challenge to ourselves.

Nathan Stoltzfus, Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies, Florida State University

Analysis by

18 January 2021

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