Name: Adolf Hitler
Born: April 20, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria
Died: April 30, 1945 in Berlin, Germany
Length of rule: January 30, 1933 - April 30, 1945 (12 years)
Means of ascent to power: Quasi-democratic
Means of removal from power: Committed suicide to avoid capture
Style: Police state, cult of personality, fascist, national socialist
Even though Adolf Hitler is arguably the 20th century's most infamous dictator, his very notoriety makes him a difficult topic to analyze rationally. We in the Western world all know the man's basic biography by now: born in Austria, a failed artist, wounded in the first world war, attempted to overthrow the German government in a clumsy putsch, took power more or less democratically before seizing total power, started a ruinous war, instituted genocide and finally, killed himself and his girlfriend to avoid capture by the Soviet Red Army. In fact, thanks to Hitler's infamy, he may be the most intensely studied dictator in world history. Ever watch The History Channel? The Hitler Channel is more like it. No matter where we go, there are comparisons of X to Hitler, warnings about "new Hitlers", footage of Hitler, soundbites of Hitler, usage of Hitler as a metaphor for raw evil, and so on.
All of this is fine and useful up to a degree, but the West's ceaseless interest in all things Hitler tends to overlook the finer points of what Hitler was like as a dictator. How did he assume power so easily? Who were his political role models? What was his relationship with other leaders really like?
We know that Hitler was certainly faced a gap between his boundless political ambition and his actual political conviction. Hitler drew his inspiration from Europe's contemporary revolutionary movements. Hitler certainly admired Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's fascist doctrine, but what good is mere ideology alone? Hitler also greatly respected the willingness of the burgeoning socialist revolutionary movements to resort to utterly ruthless violence to achieve their political ends. At some point, Hitler appears to have asked himself: what if Red violence were tied to the power of a fascist state? What would the characteristics of empire engaging in a perpetual statist revolution be? While Josef Stalin arguably beat Hitler to the punch in mixing leftist revolutionary violence with omnipresent state authority, Hitler nevertheless found the combination quite potent.
As a dictator, Hitler let his cunning and unerring political instincts fill in any troublesome ideological gaps. When Hitler wiped out his potential political rivals during the infamous night of the long knives, no less an authority than Stalin himself exclaimed admiringly, "that's how you do it!" And while his comical penchant for dramatic Wagnerian aesthetics and military pageantry was ridiculed at home and abroad, Hitler's innate grasp of politics found a way to make his dictatorship resonate emotionally with the masses in a way that eluded Stalin or Mussolini. After all, Hitler argued, the all-powerful state is the culmination of your revolution!
With a pervasive cult of personality to win the adoration of the masses and a disciplined secret police to weed out enemies, Hitler kept himself at the center of attention at all times, recognizing the need for the dictator to constantly be the focus of political attention. His admirers, both domestic and foreign, were enthralled by how the drab little Austrian became an electrified man of action in rebuilding a Germany shattered by war. And Hitler certainly recognized the value of being the center of world attention. No other dictator in history, not even Saddam Hussein, managed to crowd the spotlight so effectively. Even 60 years after his death, Hitler's loathsome fans find a way to stay enthralled. How many dictators can say that?
So where did Adolf's hold on power slip? It's quite simple: he flatted himself into believing that he possessed a talent for military leadership that simply didn't exist. While his political instincts were excellent (Hitler correctly foresaw the willingness of France, England and the Soviet Union to capitulate to German demands), he wound up biting off far more than he could chew when he insisted on overruling his generals on actual military decisions. Leading the masses is one thing, but leading troops? That's a job best left to the professionals.
In a way, it's a shame we've (somewhat understandably) reduced Hitler to an empty cartoon embodiment of pure evil, because this gets in the way of understanding the real man and real events of his time with the proper distance and seriousness they deserve. Hitler is the most famous dictator on my top 10 list, while simultaneously being the most frustrating to talk about. The most analyzed tyrant in history is also still the biggest blank slate when it comes to putting the pieces together. People have attempted to build psychological profiles of Hitler to little avail. We've asked if he was a homosexual, what role his vegetarianism may have played in his personality, how deep his anti-semitism ran on a personal level, what impact his failure as an artist had on his ambitions, and so on ad nauseam. I could talk about Hitler for a month straight and still feel like I've added nothing new.
So perhaps the readers who voted for Hitler in the last Top 10 profile contest can tell me: what do you want to know about Adolf Hitler?
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Name: Adolf Hitler