Book Review/Analysis: The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (2001)
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Ian Kershaw’s book The ‘Hitler Myth’ Image and Reality in the Third Reich examines the creation, expansion, and decline of the manufactured phenomenon known as the “Hitler Myth” which was the dominating factor in the implementation of Nazi ideology into policy. It is often questioned how Hitler and the Nazi party were able to maintain power and carry out atrocities at the level they did. In this account, Kershaw focuses on the image-building propaganda utilized by the Nazi Party. He states that Hitler’s success had less to do with who he was and more to do with the image that the German population had been receiving and welcoming. Through brilliant and tactical staging and propagandizing by the Nazi party, Hitler at the peak of his popularity was revered infinitely. Therefore, Kershaw contends that by building and exacerbating the nineteenth century nationalistic (Volkisch) notions of a “fuehrer” or “heroic” qualities, the Nazi party successfully manufactured the “Hitler Myth” which manifested Hitler’s policies because it (i) “served as an integrating force in the Third Reich” and (ii) the myth lucratively elevated Hitler’s image that was venerated and sanctified by his constituents.
The idea of a “Führer” was not created by Hitler, but was deeply rooted in nineteenth century German nationalism and was utilized by the Nazi Party efficiently to create the “Hitler Myth” which would in turn create a personality cult that would be essential. The ‘heroic’ values are associated with conservative, Volkisch thought that emphasized militarism, heroism, and national unity and were shrouded in religious and mystic symbolism. These qualities are important to the Germans as they are associated with former leaders such as Bismarck and ideology so close to home. These notions became prevalent post WW1 and it’s largely due to the Great War that such a fabrication or “myth” thrived. Post WWI, Germany was in a state of shock, devastation, and as the Weimar government slowly crumbled, the “mortal crisis of the entire political system allowed the image of ‘heroic’ leadership to move from the wings of politics to centre stage”. With the success of fascist [Mussolini] government in Italy, the need for a single leader became even more rampant. Consequently, this incessant and innate need for a “heroic” change paved the road for the ‘Hitler Myth” and the successful personality cult seemed ubiquitous once fully established. One of the driving factors that helped develop this personality cult develop was the fact that there was so much detachment from the Weimar government and the successive leaders with the German people.
The deeper the internal rifts of a society, one might speculate, and the greater the gulf between high expectations from a government and an actual performance so disappointing as to undermine the legitimacy of the political system, the greater is the potential for the spread of notions of ‘charismatic’ or ‘heroic’ leadership, seeming to offer a fundamental break with the past and a new and great future.
Personality cults seem to be ingrained in German culture as they inspire feelings of nationalism, religion, and a localized connection with one’s identity. Therefore, it is apparent why in this situation the creation of the ‘Hitler’ Myth was so successful and necessary for the Nazi party. The proper cultivation and propagandizing of this myth will perpetually serve to unite the German people under Hitler’s image until the personality cult collapses.
Not only did The ‘Hitler Myth’ start a personality cult, but it served as an integral function both internally and externally. First, it must be firmly grounded what exactly the ‘Hitler Myth’ was. To briefly summarize, it was a fabrication or distortion of Hitler’s being grounded in the aforementioned Volkisch qualities of a “heroic” leader manufactured and propagandized by the Nazi party to both unite their platform and their people (in a precarious climate), to ensure control, stability, and power. Second, it must be mentioned that the myth not only provided a solid base for the party itself, but for the unrealistic policies that eventually became realistic. Internally, the myth integrated the party on all levels. The Nazi Party was disenfranchised for a while and when evaluated in 1928, only earned a meager 2.6% in the Reichstag. During 1925-1928, the Nazi party revitalized itself by collecting the right-wing support and then proactively initiating the “Führer” myth which would essentially be synonymous with Hitler, even before Hitler himself came to terms with it. Once the myth had started to encompass the NSDAP, it soon became clear how important it was, “the Führer figure provided the cement binding together the ‘following’ of ordinary Party members and subordinate Party leaders…An outward sign of the binding of the Party faithful to the figure of their leader was the introduction within the NDSAP in 1926 of a compulsory ‘Heil Hitler’ fascist-style salute…”. In 1933, 90% in the plebiscite, 87.8% in the Reichstag election was bound to Hitler. Furthermore, early on, ridiculous policies and actions were legitimized because of how well executed the propaganda was. For example, when Hitler ordered the purge of the SA’s, instead of holding him accountable as a murderer, the public applauded him for it, because he expunged of all the traitors and potential threats to the nation mostly due to his always right image.
Next it must be analyzed, how the ‘Hitler Myth’ served as an integral function externally [constituents]. This is largely due to the fact that the myth was able to infect such a large number of people and over just a few years, gain incredible number of followers, who pledged their utmost loyalty and devotion to the image of Hitler. One way it was necessary was because the manufactured myth served as a stabilizing mechanism for the people when trouble brewed. To elaborate, the way Hitler’s image was depicted; it detached him from the party, making Hitler and his party dichotomous in nature. Consequently, this also detached him from any responsibility that eventually the Nazi party eventually bore. This was vital to Nazi rule because the ‘Hitler Myth’ “had a crucial stabilizing and integrating function within the Nazi system in defusing discontent and offering a sphere of national policy and nation interest lying outside the normality of daily life which drew even the critics of the Regime to support major aspects of Nazi rule”. Due to Hitler’s image being elevated beyond the realm of his party, the worst of worst attitudes at the time became something along the lines of: To Hitler, Yes. To the party, No. Furthermore, the documentaries exported by the propaganda machines served to further collectivize the population and solidify the Myth, in turn consolidating Nazi ideology within the legislature. “In 1934-5 the Fuhrer cult also began increasingly to determine the constitutional doctrine of the Third Reich…legitimizing through mystical notions of the incarnations of the will of the people in the person of Hitler the omnipotence of the Fuhrer and reducing the government to his mere advisory body”. The Fuhrer became one with the people and the people one with their Fuhrer.
The ‘Hitler Myth’ was only so successful because of the incredible propagandizing that drove it, which worked most of the time and only failed once the personality cult came crashing down. There are many examples that Kershaw provides to demonstrate this. First, to create and expand the myth, Hitler was not just emphasized as a leader, but the embodiment of the “rebirth of the nation” and a messianic figure. This was achieved by perpetually staging events, countless eulogies, and connecting Hitler to “heroic values”. For example, through his positive interactions with Hindenburg (former leader, also an embodiment of German values), he was elevated as a national figure, leader, and true beneficiary of the German people. Subtle propagandizing like this eventually led to not just accumulating followers but more importantly isolating those who didn’t join the Hitler bandwagon and making them feel like outsiders. Another example was that he was marketed to be an ‘economic miracle’, in response to helping mass unemployment, settling a new economy, and improving living standards. Second, propaganda of the ‘Hitler Myth’ continued to build upon different personas of Hitler to secure his image amongst his constituents. To elaborate, the propaganda aimed to give Hitler’s fabricated genius multitude of levels. Hitler was depicted as a divine embodiment with mortal tendencies and this allowed Hitler’s charisma to remain “outside” the realm of criticism and responsibility. The way this was done was largely in thanks to the propaganda linking every success of any action or policy at the time to Hitler, not the Nazi Party. The one façade of the myth that really helped were the actions regarding foreign policy. Even though, Hitler own agenda was kept discrete (Lebensraum, the Jew Question, etc), all of the foreign successes went to establish the “myth” further for “the positive image of Hitler as statesman, national politician and leader of Germany…striving to eradicate the perceived injustice nad discrimination suffered by the German people since WW1…at the same time, however, he was portrayed as a man of peace”. The foreign policy tactics of Hitler earned him great praise, such as the denouncements of Versailles Treaty, solving issues “without” bloodshed, and most importantly keeping his image sin-free amidst the people. The propaganda was shockingly successful, even with those who the party struggled to get on board, recognized the Hitler’s image in some fashion. At the climax of the ‘Hitler Myth’, Hitler was contrived to be a “personification of the nation, an “economic miracle”, representative of “popular justice”, “hostile, but sincere” towards matters of church, “upholder of Germany’s rights, distinguished military genius, and a prophesier of some sort who could pick out the nation’s enemy—all attributes which were far from Hitler’s reality.
There were notable turning points that caused a dramatic shift in the popularity of the ‘Hitler Myth’ which rested mostly upon foreign policy, as well as the eventual destruction of the personality cult. The first turning point was the war; invasion of numerous countries but that wasn’t big enough to collapse his support because of the efficient propaganda machine that deemed it necessary for German survival. It wasn’t just the foreign actions, but the conditions at home were worsening as food and coal shortages became prevalent, but people still held on the ‘Hitler myth’. However, once the war reached its eastern front in Stalingrad, the situation completely turned. This was the legitimizing turning point and the focal factor in the deterioration of the personality cult. The German loss at Stalingrad was ridiculously immense, especially since back at home, victory was promised. This was also the first setback or loss that Hitler directly bore responsibility for. The second and most important turning point was the Allied bomb raids on German towns which obliterated many villages and countless lives. The last turning points were the false promises made by Hitler that brought closure to his fabricated myth and that no propaganda could save. It even led to countless Germans wishing the “assassination attempt” at him was successful. It must also be mentioned that many people were shocked when the truth about the atrocities came out. It was argued that most people had not pledged to the genocide carried out by the Nazis and that Anti-Semitism wasn’t even a prevalent issue for most people. Most people that signed up for war were loyalists who blinded by the myth, supported the fight for nationalistic purposes and for its own survival. Anti-Semitism, although recognizable and inherent in the status quo was not a motivating factor for most people and considered “subsidiary” to the “Fuhrer’s” image. Therefore, the collapse of the personality cult highly depended on failed foreign policy moves regarding the war that even the best propaganda couldn’t save.
Kershaw offers a very interesting approach/argument, however, has a few limitations. First, on a quantitative level, some of the statistics used seemed a bit sketchy. There would be mention of a report but with no consideration of what sample was used, the number of people asked, the area it covered, and so on. It almost seemed misleading or out-of-context. Second, on a qualitative level, the reports and material used seemed very linear at times. It was consistently SD reports which frankly, could be biased, considering it was the Nazi intelligence agency. Also, many of the times, the opinions were from one region only, such as Bavaria. Furthermore, the evidence presented, although Kershaw himself states how unreliable or unfeasible it might be, is still a drawback considering a bulk of his argument rests on that. Much of the opinion gathered was at the time where censorship was prevalent and slandering was considered treason, so to that also plays a huge role in the overall evaluation. Furthermore, to admittedly have weak evidence, especially for the vital parts of the arguments is inherently a limitation, particularly because many of his generalizations and conclusions come from those statistics and reports. Lastly, “the Jewish Question” section seemed a bit contrived considering the contradicting evidence he kept presenting. He stated that the Jewish problem was not a prevalent issue but then cited numerous examples and statistics which emphasized how it was, especially in regards to the Reichstag speech (1939) and then the anti-Jewish documentaries shown. Furthermore, he states that Hitler kept from talking about the Jewish problem openly, because of misconceptions in his image. However, Jewish resentment was fairly well established within the culture and these sentiments “hardened during the war…as there is sufficient evidence” pointing to it, which contradicts it being a subservient issue, primarily because the weakness of the reports and evaluation. In addition, how is it firmly established that it was because of his image that Hitler didn’t speak or talk about when a few years he massacred his own people and admirals (SA) and was well applauded for it? Couldn’t the reasons have been more foreign or diplomatically based, rather than saving his image amongst an “unaware” people? Although, these limitations were a few, overall, Kershaw does his argument justice.
Conclusively, Kershaw presents an enlightening argument about how the manufactured ‘Hitler Myth’ served as an integral function in both stabilizing the Third Reich and the German people and how that helped execute Nazi agenda and implement the policies of Hitler. Through countless examples, evidence from reports, newspapers, and speeches, Kershaw was able to depict the exportation of the myth among the general public and more importantly, the receiving of it and how that helped the Nazi Party maintain control. It was due to a fabricated image built upon former nineteenth century values that the ‘Hitler Myth’ embodied, not Hitler himself that served as the crucial point in Kershaw’s stance. The imperative and essential propaganda that went behind in manufacturing this image was clearly explained and how it served in relation to Kershaw’s overall argument. Kershaw’s argument has relevance to present and future societies that it must always be weary and skeptical of eradicating democratic means in place of “seemingly well-intentioned political authority”.