Hitler’s Rant: The Efficacy of a Modern Rhetoric
by E. John Winner
With Mein Kampf in the news recently, we’ll here consider two rhetorical strategies found in Hitler’s text. The first targets the well-known anxieties of Hitler’s expected audience. The second finds Hitler identifying with his audience or rather, a particular segment of that audience, the young and rebellious. Hopefully, the reading will reveal something about the people who supported Hitler’s rise to power, as well as about the nature of Modern culture.
- Appealing to the audience
As a sign of (the Jews’) growing presumption and sense of security, a certain section of them openly and impudently proclaim their Jewish nationality while another section hypocritically pretend that they are German, French or English as the case may be. Their blatant behaviour in their relations with other people shows how clearly they envisage their day of triumph in the near future. The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people. 
Mein Kampf is replete in passages that seem to begin almost reasonably, only to swell emotively into tides of loathing that as verbal expression could only be called a rant; furious polemics filled with invective and name-calling, promising doom to many assorted opponents, real or imaginary. Given the volcanic wrath spewed in his speeches, the rant is probably the rhetorical form with which most people identify with Hitler.
Yet there’s a curious banality to many of Hitler’s rants. Most scholars find them horrifying, with justification, given their targets and topics, and given their practical effect on the German people which was disastrous. Yet, as instances or examples of this kind of polemic, many are disappointing.
The major source of this disappointment is a lack of invention. To threaten his readers with “the black-haired Jewish youth” who “lies in wait” for “the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce” may be offensive, but it’s hardly new, as far as racist rhetoric is concerned. Hitler could have quoted these phrases from many of the anti-Semitic tracts of his own time – or those distributed in the previous century .
A good rant, to achieve its power, ought to catch us off guard, with striking metaphors, vigorous turns of phrase, and an inner logic that so strips our experience of social negotiation and compromise that the rant passes for a flash of insight into a reality that, at least briefly, we are persuaded we have hitherto denied. In place of this, Hitler often gives us worn-out clichés, propelled only by a smug contempt, the target of which may be the subject of his rant, but might easily be his audience.
Consider the sexually predatory “Jewish youth” ‘lying in wait’ we’re threatened with. Not only is he a stock figure of racist propaganda, but more to the point, he isn’t even emblematic of what Hitler himself fears and hates about Jews. Hitler rarely showed interest in the threat of inter-racial sex. (Or sex at all – his rage against prostitution, for example, seems to do with the totalitarian’s fear that sex cannot be controlled. ) Rather, his anxiety involves a seeming dilemma: We ought to expect humans as embodiments of their given race to behave as expected for that race – but they don’t. Hitler’s resolution is identification of genetics and culture – a dialectical resolution of the problem of nature versus nurture: the two will be made one. Thus Hitler’s claim to have founded a ‘scientific’ racialism, one predicated on a clarification of the very notion of race, as a necessary category determinant of our existence. Race, being what we are, should determine what we do: genetics should determine culture.
It is a fundamental principle of Hitler’s thinking that nature’s grand plan is a struggle for racial dominance. This means that race determines the behavior of a person, in contributing to the dominance of his race – unless mislead by the deceptive behavior of those of an inferior race, working to further their own struggle for dominance. Genetics as ontology: to be true to Nature, culture must express race. When it doesn’t, it’s but a corrupt pantomime, deluding us.
When people of different races act similarly – sharing the same culture – therefore, it must be an exercise in deception. The member of the inferior race capable of this deception, then, must be the one to fear – especially in Hitler’s universe, where the genetic ontology realizes itself through conflict between the differing races.  In such a universe, it is the intellectual Jew who is dangerous.
The Jewish intellectual is, for Hitler, the ‘genetically advanced’ Jew, the ‘pure’ Jew, and so the bearer, propagator, and representative of Jewish culture at its most developed. But for Hitler, Jewish culture is inherently parasitical. This means that Jews express their culture’s greatest development by mimicking other cultures, with devious intent. The Jewish intellectual can pass for a non-Jew, but, presumably, it is a ploy in the ongoing effort to achieve global hegemony for Jewish culture. The Jewish intellectual is thus the tandard-bearer against whom Hitler judges himself and his own struggle for the ‘Aryan’ cause.
So much for the “Jewish youth lying in wait” in Hitler’s rant. Hitler doesn’t care about sex, only about race. Threatening the “unsuspicious girl” who is the object, presumably, of audience sympathy – is mere pandering. When Hitler resorts to clichés and stock figures, he addresses an audience that he believes cannot think through the metaphysics of race as he has and who will greet the appropriate clichés with the expected response – as so many have before.  The cynical manipulation of that audience is clear. The sharper members of the audience should have seen the pandering for what it was. While in print this strategy seems hackneyed, when delivered oratorically it proved quite effective. Why?
There is no use apologizing for the audience. They gave in to the pandering, the cheap theatrics, and one of the most talented orators of recent memory. They preferred suasion to reasoned thought and are, without doubt, culpable. It must be remembered that the success of Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric depended largely on the popularity of anti-Semitism in Germany at the time. No rhetoric succeeds if it does not express something – an idea, an aspiration, an emotion – that a receptive audience wants to hear. The clichés and stock figures are already in the minds of the audience, so however intellectually weak Hitler’s rants are, when they play upon these clichés and on the anxieties they evoke, they tap into the relevant consciousness. Otherwise, his speeches could not have resonated in the ways they did.
- Identifying with the audience
A resort to manipulation is not the only strategy Hitler has at his command. Consider a passage from his condemnation of the Volkisch movement that preceded and prepared the way for the popularization of Hitler’s fanatical nationalism.  It seems odd to find Hitler condemning this movement, since he would utilize many Volkisch ideas and symbols in his propaganda campaigns for National Socialism. But the Volkisch movement was primarily a cultural revolution with political overtones. Hitler’s revolution was truly totalitarian, driven by a holistic vision that was concerned with far more than simply changing people’s attitudes. Still, one might expect Hitler would make distinctions between the older movement and his own, in a manner respectful of his precursors. At worst, we might expect a mild rebuke to the older movement for being outdated or unfocused. Instead, we get this:
Anyone who fights for a so-called idea without being able to bring about even the slightest success, in fact without having prevented the victory of the opposite, has, with forty years activity, provided proof of his own capacity. The danger above all lies in the fact that such natures do not fit into the movement as links but keep shooting off their mouths about leading circles in which alone, on the strength of their age-old activity, they can see a suitable place for further activity. But woe betide if a young movement is surrendered to the mercies of such people. No more than a business man who in forty years of activity has steadily run a big business to the ground is fitted to be founder of a new one, is a folkish Methuselah, who in exactly the same time has gummed up and petrified a great idea, fit for leadership of a new, young movement! 
The tone of this rant is absolutist and unforgiving, enlivened only minimally with the parodic figure of the “folkish Methuselah” gumming up “a great idea.” At a superficial level, the charge against the Volkisch leaders appears to be that they haven’t made any serious efforts to advance the nationalist cause, preferring to remain socially cloistered in small sects. There is even a latent charge that they’ve aided the enemies of nationalism, if only through the weakness and mismanagements of their efforts. Argumentatively, the evidence Hitler offers for these charges is empirical – forty years of Volkisch efforts have not led to victory; indeed, anti-nationalist forces are in the ascendency. The conclusion is unstated but quite clear: the Volkisch leaders should stand aside, and allow those more able to fight to do so.
But beneath this argument, we hear the expression of a rage of youth against an older generation. The asserted forty year period of Volkisch activity is actually a rough approximation (its roots reach back considerably farther). Yet Hitler fastens on it obsessively, repeating it like the toll of a bell: “Forty years… forty years… forty years of activity….” And all for nothing, apparently. It is well to remember that Hitler was thirty-five when he wrote these lines, a mere half-decade from that magic year.
‘Activity’ is a key term here. Had the Volkisch leaders simply sat around writing nationalist tracts and muttering incantations in pseudo-Teutonic rituals, Hitler may not have bothered with them. But they actually did engage in political activity, even forming the Deutschnationale Volkspartei; for a while a major rival of the NSDAP for Rightist sympathies.
Hitler is expressing a very Modern frustration. Ought not activity produce results? Of course, there are other ways of conceiving the purpose of human life. But a conviction that human value lies in the productivity of our actions, is widespread among Moderns, to this day. Science and technology are often the first reference for this conviction. Indeed, so productive has modern science proven, that we can no longer think of productivity without also thinking of technology, which is the concrete manifestation of it. But productivity only really became the telos to Modern life when technology’s productivity could be monetized. The development of an industrial economy effectively determined a human teleology that is difficult to resist. After all, even to survive in Modern culture means surviving as an economic agent. And economic agents produce.
So Hitler’s charge, that the activity of the Volkisch leadership has not produced results cuts deep. The analogy of the failed businessman is all to the point. No effort ought to be more productive than that of a commercial enterprise, the sole purpose of which is to produce wealth. What then to do with a failed businessman, too old to be productive? In Hitler’s harsh universe of final and absolute ‘either/or’ decisions, only death would be a logically coherent alternative. 
That’s not pandering, it’s audience identification; not with the rude masses, but with the restless young.
Hitler is demanding results, and in this, he is one with his audience. Who pays attention to political saviors who offer no change? Only this time, nothing less than complete success will do. That is Hitler’s promise. Beneath it lies a web of unspoken fears concerning potential failure; activity without result might in this case produce the direst consequences. Without such fears, Hitler cannot make the promise seem challenging enough to be attractive – cannot make it risky enough to be worth the gamble. More to the point, he otherwise cannot make his activity seem active enough. The more at stake, the greater the effort. As long as the stakes are high enough, his audience will rise to the challenge. Hitler’s own anxiety about possible failure, revealed in the urgency of his language, forms the binding contract of his promise.
But let’s return to a previous point for emphasis. The frustration Hitler is voicing in this passage is not only frustration with the failed activity of the Volkisch leaders, born of fears of his own possible failure. It is also the frustration of a young man horrified by the increasing complacency of his elders. As a boy, Hitler had read cowboy novels, adventure stories filled with life-or-death struggles, as well as popular histories about bold, world-shaping movements led by men of genius and courage. Yet he found himself enmeshed in a political movement dominated by older men who preferred talk of revolution to participation in one (hence the lack of their support for the ’23 Putsch, the failure of which led to Hitler’s imprisonment). So they “shoot their mouths off” to maintain their leadership, but don’t make the effort necessary to further their cause. Hitler, still a young man (but not getting any younger), has joined the movement to effect real change, to shape the course of history, to engage in a life or death struggle for what he perceives to be a great cause. Of course he’s going to feel frustrated with the Volkisch leaders. They seem to him nothing more than obstacles, who first must be overcome to further the revolution.
There is fear behind this frustration as well. To put it simply, Hitler is afraid that history is passing him by. If life is activity and activity must produce results, then the failure of activity to produce results constitutes a failure to live. Beneath this rant, then, lies a desperate, propelling urge to live.
To some extent, it’s a story with which we should be familiar. We see it in the aggressiveness and cockiness of young football players; in the anxiety of young poets and musicians; in the earnestness of young political activists, of every persuasion; in the passion of young religious converts. Do we not oft hear from them a similar caustic disregard – for maturity, for the caution that comes with age and experience, for the acceptance of the complexity and difficulty of human reality? Surely, hostility to all of this is what is meant by the old phrase, “the impatience of youth.” What youth is impatient for is a life filled with purposive (productive) activity. Yet it often seems to the young that all the older generations can offer them is – old age.
It should be born in mind that Hitler was a man who never outgrew his adolescence. Here he is, at the age of thirty-five, writing an adolescent’s rant. During the war, he referred to the Russians as “Redskins,” as though still experiencing the cowboy novels of his early years. 
From the perspective of an adolescent, fearful that maturation only brings about old age, the productive moment is always now – the day, the moment, when all things become new. Was not the German Reich born of a single day’s battle at Sedan?
The fury and frustration of youth is born of the fear that “now” will pass with nothing accomplished. A youth might read of, say, Martin Luther, and believe that if Luther hadn’t broken with the Roman church exactly when he did, he could not have initiated the Reformation; or might read of Galileo believing that, had the moment when he rebelled against the older knowledge been lost, the new could never have developed. Those before them, in older traditions, surely only posed obstacles to overcome on the way to making history.
And for those for whom history is always a matter of struggles for dominance – where the stakes are high, there’s not a moment to lose. This is, of course, a glaring misreading of history. But it is common enough among young people, eager to make their mark on the world. So the appeal of many revolutionary movements has been to something young in us: that sense of urgency, of the need to accomplish great things – now.
This has become stock in trade in Modern rhetoric. Think of all the political tracts and economic projects, the manifestos promising great changes in the arts, the sciences, in education; think of the various cultural revolutions of the past two hundred years. Every generation now claims a right to its own voice; no voices of the past will do.
In the passage at hand, Hitler is claiming this right and is implying even more. As the fury of his rant suggests, he himself is the voice of the new generation, the “young movement,” the nationalist revolution in Germany. The old Volkisch leaders merely “‘shoot off their mouths.” Hitler, by contrast, speaks.
 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (hereafter MK), 1925; Trans. James Murphy; Hurst and Blackett (London), 1939; page 254.
 I could reproduce swaths of racist cant for comparison; but the style should be familiar enough, still in use in our own day.
 The discussion goes on a while in MK Volume One, Chapter 10, “Why the Second Reich Collapsed.”
 See Hitler’s discussions in MK, Volume One, Chapter 11, “Nation and Race,” and Volume Two, Chapter 1, “Philosophy and Party.”
 See MK Volume Two, Chapter 2, “The State.”
 Every now and then, Hitler’s contempt for the German people leaks out. Regarding his co-workers at a construction site: “My mind was tormented by the question: Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” MK, Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson et.al., Reynal & Hitchcock, 1941, page 54.
 There’s an excellent discussion of the Volkisch movement in The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, by George L. Mosse, Schocken Books, 1981.
 MK, Trans. Ralph Manheim, Houghton Mifflin, 1943; page 360.
 Hitler’s suggestion to the Volkisch leaders is thus not simply that they should stand aside, but that they should die off – completely consistent with Hitler’s recurrent insistence that ‘Nature’ determines that the weak should die to make way for the strong.
 Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Prager, 1973; page 28.
Note: Both the Murphy and the Johnson translations are available at the Internet Archive. https://archive.org/search.php?query=Mein%20Kampf