Stop for a moment and imagine Adolf Hitler. Picture him in your mind. Who do you see? I imagine you see a figure not unlike the portrayal of Hitler in the film Downfall (2004). A shouting, aggressive, unhinged character. Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in Downfall, shook and screamed so much that one key scene from the movie has become an internet phenomenon, with comical subtitles on a host of subjects being set to Ganz’s incredible ranting.


But while it’s true that in his last days Hitler was at times scarcely rational, it’s not representative of the whole history. Moreover, the trouble is that this image plays into a deep desire I think most of us secretly possess. We want Hitler to have been a lunatic from start to finish. We want Hitler to be mad because it makes the monstrous crimes he committed – particularly during the Second World War – easy to explain.

A scene from the 1963 film 'Naked Among Wolves', depicting a Nazi concentration camp

It’s simple, we can tell ourselves comfortably, Hitler was a madman who somehow hypnotised millions of ordinary Germans to do things against their better judgment. Well, he wasn’t a madman, and he hypnotised no one.

Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933 by democratic means. A large number of the German elite – sharp, clever people – decided to back him. Why would they support a lunatic? And the way Hitler conducted himself between 1930 and 1933 demonstrated that he was an astute – but wholly unscrupulous – politician. His calculations about where power really lay in Germany and how to best manipulate the emotions of ordinary Germans were extremely sophisticated.

Democratic gains

In addition, Hitler generated enormous – and genuine – support. His views very often matched those of huge numbers of the German population. That’s something incomprehensible if we take at face value the portrayal of Hitler as a screaming nightmare.

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I’ve been making documentary films and writing books about the Nazis and the Second World War for 20 years now and have met hundreds of people who lived through this period – including many who dealt personally with Adolf Hitler. And the picture they paint of the führer is a much more complex and nuanced one than the dribbling lunatic of Downfall. In particular, many talk of the incredible ‘charisma’ that they felt Hitler possessed.

Fridolin von Spaun, for example, met Hitler at a dinner for Nazi supporters in the early 1930s. As Spaun saw Hitler staring at him he felt as if Hitler’s eyes looked directly into his innermost thoughts. And when Hitler held on to the back of von Spaun’s chair, Spaun felt “a trembling from his fingers penetrating me. I actually felt it. But not a nervous trembling. Rather I felt: this man, this body, is only the tool for implementing a big, all-powerful will here on Earth. That’s a miracle in my view.” As for Emil Klein, who heard Hitler speak at a beer hall in Munich in the 1920s, he believes that Hitler “gave off such a charisma that people believed whatever he said”.

Deposed Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, German officer Paul Schmidt and Adolf Hitler survey damage at Hitler's eastern front military headquarters, ‘the Wolf’s Lair’, hours after a failed bombing attempt by Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

What we learn from eye-witnesses like von Spaun and Klein is that charisma is first and foremost about making a connection between people. No one can be charismatic alone on a desert island. Charisma is formed in a relationship. As Sir Nevile Henderson, British ambassador to Berlin in the 1930s, wrote, Hitler “owed his success in the struggle for power to the fact that he was the reflection of their [ie his supporters’] subconscious mind, and his ability to express in words what that subconscious mind felt that it wanted.”

It’s a view confirmed by Konrad Heiden, who heard Hitler speak many times in the 1920s: “His speeches are daydreams of this mass soul… The speeches begin always with deep pessimism and end in overjoyed redemption, a triumphant happy ending; often they can be refuted by reason, but they follow the far mightier logic of the subconscious, which no refutation can touch… Hitler has given speech to the speechless terror of the modern mass…”

People like von Spaun and Emil Klein were predisposed to find Hitler charismatic because they already believed in large amounts of the policies that Hitler advocated. So did Albert Speer, who first attended a Hitler meeting in the early 1930s: “I was carried away on the wave of the enthusiasm which, one could almost feel this physically, bore the speaker along from sentence to sentence… Finally, Hitler no longer seemed to be speaking to convince; rather, he seemed to feel that he was expressing what the audience, by now transformed into a single mass, expected of him.”

But if you didn’t believe in the policies Hitler proselytised then he exercised no charismatic power at all. Josef Felder, for instance, was appalled when he listened to Hitler’s outpouring of hatred against the Jews: “When I left that meeting, we would get together and talk in groups. And I said to my friend, ‘After that speech, my impression is, that this man, Hitler will hopefully never come to political power’. We were agreed on that then.” And Herbert Richter, a veteran of the First World War, came across Hitler in a café in Munich and “immediately disliked him” because of his “scratchy voice” and his tendency to “shout” out “really, really simple” political ideas. Richter also thought Hitler’s appearance “rather comical, with his funny little moustache” and that he was “creepy” and “wasn’t quite normal”.

However, if Hitler did make a connection with his audience, then he built on that bond in a number of other ways to consolidate this charismatic link. Crucially, Hitler was always certain in his judgements. He never expressed doubt about anything to his audience. He knew the problems Germany faced and he said he knew the solutions. In addition he presented himself as a heroic figure – a simple, brave soldier from the First World War – who wanted his supporters to have ‘faith’ in him. As a result, some Nazi supporters even drew blasphemous comparisons between Hitler and Jesus – both had been 30 when they started ‘preaching’ and both sought the ‘salvation’ of their people.

Going nowhere

But in 1928, nine years after Hitler first became involved with the German Workers’ Party – subsequently the National Socialist German Workers’ party, or Nazis for short – and seven years after he became party leader, it seemed as if the Nazi party was going nowhere in German politics. In the 1928 election the Nazis polled just 2.6 per cent of the vote – so more than 97 per cent of the German electorate rejected any charismatic power Hitler may have possessed. It was clear that unless Hitler could make a connection with the mass of Germans, then he could not succeed.

It took the Wall Street Crash and the dire economic crisis of the early 1930s to make millions of Germans responsive to Hitler’s appeal. Suddenly, to people like student Jutta Ruediger, Hitler’s call for a national resurgence made him seem like “the bringer of salvation”. So much so that by 1932 the Nazis were suddenly the biggest political party in Germany. But then Hitler and the Nazis seemed to hit a brick wall – in the shape of President Hindenburg. State Secretary Otto Meissner reported that Hindenburg said to Hitler on 13 August 1932: “He [ie Hindenburg] could not justify before God, before his conscience or before the Fatherland, the transfer of the whole authority of government to a single party, especially to a party that was biased against people who had different views from their own.”

Heck cows, the result of Nazi breeding experiments. Seven Heck cows had to be put down in January 2015 after they tried, on multiple occasions, to attack Devon farmer Derek Gow. (Photo by Jim Wileman/Alamy Stock Photo)

In this crucial period between Hindenburg’s rejection of Hitler’s bid for the chancellorship of Germany, and his final appointment as chancellor in January 1933, two different perceptions of Hitler’s charisma came together – and in the process revealed a very different side to Hitler the politician than the slavering incompetent of Downfall. Hitler, during these months, had never been more impressive to devoted followers like Joseph Goebbels.

On 13 August 1932, Hitler discussed the consequences of Hindenburg’s rejection with his Nazi colleagues. “Hitler holds his nerve,” recorded Goebbels in his diary. “He stands above the machinations. So I love him.” Hitler exuded confidence that all would come right, saying in December 1932 that he still intended to wait until he was offered the chancellorship. He promised, “that day will come – it is probably nearer than we think”. Success depended on “our unity and on our unshakable faith in victory; it depends on our leadership”.

Mystical messiah

But while Hitler’s followers continued to bask in his magnetism, the chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen, found it hard to see what all the fuss was about. Von Papen recognised in a statement he made in Munich in October 1932 that Hitler was not like a “normal” politician, and the Nazi movement not a “normal” political party. He referred to the Nazi party as “a political religion” whose followers professed a “mystical messiah faith” in Hitler. But while von Papen acknowledged that millions of Germans now recognised Hitler as a “mystical messiah”, he himself was immune to Hitler’s charisma. When he first met Hitler, in the summer of 1932, he found him “curiously unimpressive”. Hitler was not from the “officer” class, and seemed to von Papen to be the “complete petit bourgeois” with his “little moustache and curious hair style”. Equally dismissive was President Hindenburg, who referred to Hitler as a “Bohemian corporal”.

Then, in the November 1932 election the Nazis saw their share of the vote drop by 4 per cent to 33 per cent while the Communist party increased its share by two million votes. It looked like support for the Nazis had peaked. But the German elite were more concerned about the dangers of communism than Nazism. Without the Nazis participating in some way in an authoritarian government that would willingly deal with the dangers of Communism there would be no popular mandate for change.

President Hindenburg still found Hitler unimpressive, yet he now began to think of him as a possible chancellor. And the reasons why he started to change his mind were purely pragmatic. The most important was von Papen’s offer to be vice chancellor. He offered to serve as vice chancellor to Hitler’s chancellor in a cabinet in which only a minority of posts were to be given to Nazis. Then there was Hindenburg’s age – he was 85 in December 1932 (and would die 18 months later). “He felt his age,” said Josef Felder, who was elected as a Socialist member of the Reichstag in 1932. “And he realised that he was becoming physically weaker, very much weaker. He could barely carry his marshal’s baton any more.”

August Friedrich Kellner, pictured in 1923. (Photo from Kellner family archive)

Hindenburg’s son, Oskar, also supported the idea of Hitler as chancellor and Von Papen as vice-chancellor, and he certainly influenced his father. Then came Hitler’s masterstroke. Almost more than anyone, he understood the importance of timing in all political decisions, and he now ordered the Nazis to commit a vast – seemingly disproportionate – effort in state elections to be held in the tiny district of Lippe-Detmold on 15 January 1933. The tactic worked. When the results were announced, the Nazi vote had increased by around 20 per cent – from 33,000 to 39,000. The Nazis, it appeared, were still capable of increasing their support.

On the afternoon of Sunday, 29 January 1933, Hindenburg agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor, with von Papen as vice chancellor, and both assumed office the next day. Joseph Felder remembered that “we believed we could still control him [ie Hitler] through parliament – total lunacy”. As for Hitler supporters like Reinhard Spitzy, this moment signalled the end of democracy in Germany. Something that he was pleased to see.

“I have never myself been a democrat,” said Spitzy. “I believe a country should beruled like a big company. That means a certain council of specialists and so on, but I didn’t believe in the role of parliament. When we had such a terrible crisis, like an economic crisis, and hunger and unemployment, and in such a moment, we were longing for a new general director, like what happens in a big company. You find a man, and he has to bring the whole thing in order.”

For Hitler’s supporters this was the strongest proof yet of his power as a charismatic leader. When it had looked impossible that he would become chancellor he had asked them to have faith. And now he was chancellor. In the future, when they might doubt him, many would look back to this moment and remember that he had been right and they had been wrong. They trusted him now. When he asked them to have faith once again, then they would listen. As for von Papen, he would shortly discover that he had made one of the most spectacular political misjudgments in history. (After being marginalised, he resigned his post and was made ambassador to Austria).

We learn a number of important things, I think, from the story of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany in January 1933. We discover that Hitler could be an instinctive and extremely powerful politician – light years away from the broken and crazed man portrayed in Downfall. Above all, we can see the power of the situation to change perception. Hitler was dismissed as a peripheral figure in 1928, yet lauded by millions in 1933. What changed was not Hitler but the situation. Economic catastrophe made huge numbers of Germans seek a charismatic ‘saviour’.

As we see economic events unfold in Europe today, it’s scarcely possible to imagine a greater warning from history than that.


This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine


Laurence ReesHistorian, author and documentary film-maker

As well as being a historian and author, Laurence Rees is a former Head of BBC TV History, and has won many awards for his work, including a British Book Award, a BAFTA and two Emmys.