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.

  1. 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. [1]

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 [2].

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. [3]) 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.[4] 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. [5]  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. [6] 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.

  1. 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. [7]  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! [8]

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. [9]

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. [10]

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.


[1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (hereafter MK), 1925; Trans. James Murphy; Hurst and Blackett (London), 1939; page 254.

[2] I could reproduce swaths of racist cant for comparison; but the style should be familiar enough, still in use in our own day.

[3] The discussion goes on a while in MK Volume One, Chapter 10, “Why the Second Reich Collapsed.”

[4]  See Hitler’s discussions in MK, Volume One, Chapter 11, “Nation and Race,” and Volume Two, Chapter 1, “Philosophy and Party.”

[5] See MK Volume Two, Chapter 2, “The State.”

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] MK, Trans. Ralph Manheim, Houghton Mifflin, 1943; page 360.

[9] 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.

[10] 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


  1. Yes, fascinating stuff. You talk about the culpability of the audience, and their pre-existing anti-Semitism.

    Gottlob Frege (who died in 1925) was a fan of both Hitler and Erich Ludendorff apparently. Surprising that his subtle and disciplined mind was vulnerable to these sorts of ideas.

    (I suspect his affinity with Ludendorff was much greater than his affinity with Hitler, however.)

  2. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and postive action.” – Martin Luther King Jr. This quote was specifically referenced by candidate Obama when asked to justify his run with so little in his resume.

    One could wonder whether some of the contemporary political rhetoric is any more informed than that of Germany in the 1930’s.

  3. First, thanks all for the kind words.


    Hitler had hopes that Ludendorff could be used as head of the nationalist movement in the period leading up to the failed Putsch. His anger at the elder Volkisch movement probably partly involved disappointment in Ludendorff.

    Liam Uber,

    Well, part of my point is that this rhetorical identification with youthful urges to make a mark on the world has become an endemic phenomenon in Modern discourse. There’s nothing like it in classical rhetoric; it doesn’t really appear until the Reformation. It therefore tells us something about the social psychology of Modernity and what makes it Modern as an identifiable epoch.

  4. EJ,
    The Nazi phenomenon was a unique response at a unique point in time. The genius of Hitler was to recognise that hinge moment, to understand how to capitalise on it and to harness his singular abilities to seize that hinge moment with great energy before it passed. Could such a unique combination arise again? This is the pressing question we must address today. I believe that Angela Merkel has recognised this great danger, that Muslim migrants are the new Jews and inspiring similar, if unfounded, fears. She fears that Europe, and especially Germany, will become fertile ground for the new Nazism, based this time on Islamophobia. And so she is trying instead to create a welcoming culture of sympathy for the unfortunate. Will she succeed? If she does she will finally lay to rest the ghost of Nazi Germany. Germany will have, in some small way, atoned for its past and this desire is driving her.

    In Angela Merkel we have the anti-Hitler. But can she succeed? She lacks the oratorical power of Hitler, his drive and his keen sense of timing. Michel Houellebecq, in his recent novel, Submission, details a plausible scenario for the way in which a Muslim coalition could take power in France. It does not matter if you think that scenario is really plausible, all that matters is that there are powerful fears that this could happen. Those fears will create a fertile ground for a new Hitler. If we are lucky there is not another charismatic, but resentful corporal in the Austrian army with the same keen sense of timing. I recommend that you read Submission. Houellebecq is a great writer.

  5. I take the observations of the psychoanalysts with a large grain of salt, but I was struck by one of Jung’s comments that German speakers from Switzerland (at least) listened to Hitler’s speeches and couldn’t work out why so many Germans were so enthralled by him qua public speaker. His spin was that Hitler spoke from the unconscious (that complaint frequently made of Trump-ian dream logic), and that mob psychopathology (including dissociation) was just an extension of individual psychopathology, which arose among other things from resentment of having missed out as a Great Power (“Sleeping Hans”, too late to create a proper empire like the British, etc), not just the post WW1 history. [BTW, I take the charitable view of Jung’s involvement in the International General Medical Society for Psychotherapy etc, but that is irrelevant to the point].

  6. labnut, davidlduffy,

    Thank you for your comments, and the points you both raise are worth considering.

    I would caution against seeing Hitler as a social phenomenon as being tied to his time and place. Hitler certainly knew how to play a game in that time and place; but a ‘Hitler-like’ phenomena, with quite a number of possible variations (some we haven’t seen yet, some we may be seeing now) has been and will be a recurrent potential in Modern politics. Various social, economic, cultural and political forces at work in developed Modern societies tend to engender a high degree of uncertainty and insecurity, displacement and discontinuity, loss of binding traditions while surrounded by innovative sometimes threatening behaviors. The inevitable anxieties produced in response will take many forms, but an insightful, ambitious politicians will always be able to find these forms and play on them – especially if he shares many of them.


    I did want to get back to your larger question concerning intelligence and poor political choices. It is readily demonstrable that intelligence and commitment to reason have never proven safe-guards against stupid politics (or sometimes stupid religious choices, or stupid investments for that matter – not to mention stupid sexual behaviors, which everybody finds so fascinating, of course).

    We have in Modern history thinkers like Descartes and Hume and Kant, who lived quiet, almost monastic lives, and this can mislead us that reasoning might direct us to lives of purity and intellection alone. But scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers or researchers are but human after all. Who was it that wrote “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” More to the point, expecting consistency of even great minds is simply setting one’s self up for disappointment.

  7. Emerson in “Self-Reliance: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

  8. Ejw

    I take your point and agree that intelligence and learning are no guarantee against stupid ideas or actions.

    That said, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that there is a correlation between intelligence and less stupid thinking about politics or anything else.

    A couple more points. First, can we always say which political ideas are good and which are bad or stupid? Yes, Hitler’s were demonstrably false (e.g. the racial theories). But can we objectively adjudicate between, for example, left, liberal and conservative points of view?

    Secondly, I think we need to distinguish between thoughts and behaviour.

    Take Frege. Like Descartes, he was not (I think) politically active: he did not promote or speak out about his (reactionary) ideas. So, to this extent, he was not culpable.

    I know I raised the issue of Frege’s political views myself, but I sometimes wonder if too much is made about private thoughts (which might be expressed in a diary or to intimates). I think we should all be given a lot of leeway here. (To some extent, you can see thoughts and fantasies as a kind of safety valve: our brains retain their lower mammalian and reptilian instincts after all. And consistency at this level is arguably impossible.)

    In Frege’s case his private nationalistic anti-Semitism did not prevent him from being loyal to his Jewish friends (and loved in return). And this is what really counts, no?

  9. Thomas Jones,

    Thanks for Emerson! (I note in passing that Hitler, both early and late, was one of the most consistent thinkers I’ve ever encountered. That’s one of the frightening things about him – everything he wrote or said or did linked into everything else he wrote, etc.There was not a single exception to be made, not a single quirk responding to context or sensitivity. In my essay I note: “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.” I’m sure even oppositional readers of the time (who unfortunately did not take the text seriously) wanted to believe Hitler was exaggerating; he wasn’t.


    I mostly agree with you.

    There is evidence in his personal writings that Frege intended to come out of the closet with a mathematically sound logistics of removing the Jews from Germany. But that doesn’t really change the point. He waffled; many anti-Semite intellectuals of the time waffled (anti-Semitism comes in many flavors). That doesn’t absolve any of them of guilt, yet neither does it necessarily condemn them (except to say that anti-Semitism was always wrong, and always irrational, and contributed to the worst moral catastrophe in Western history). We have to deal with them on a case to case basis; which of course is very difficult to do.

  10. Ah, Waldo Emerson. I am always suspicious when that quote is waved around. It is good rhetoric, bad logic and often an excuse. Of course ‘foolish consistency’ is wrong, by definition. Foolish eating is wrong and so is foolish smiling. So what are we really trying to say when we wave that quotation around, other than express disapproval for someone else’s consistency, or perhaps to excuse our own inconsistency? Should we not plainly say what we mean rather than using a rhetorical gesture?

    EJ used the quote in the right way. He made a valid point(consistency is very difficult, given the complexities of human culture) and then backed up his point with a rhetorical flourish to drive home the point(cleverly leaving off the ‘foolish’ part), the hallmark of good writing. Of course, to say, as Emerson did, that great souls have nothing to do with consistency, is the real foolishness, so that part of the quote is almost always omitted.

    But the subject of consistency is interesting in itself. We generally value consistency. I expect my friends to still be friends tomorrow. I expect they will still be kind and honest tomorrow. I expect that they consistently honour their promises. But I do not expect that they consistently drive the same route, no matter what the traffic conditions. We value flexibility in practical matters but not in matters of principle. I would be despised if I changed my story to suit every different audience.

    There is a continuum from rigidity to consistency to flexibility and finally to expediency. The thread that holds them together is principled behaviour and the strength of that thread is determined by character. The judgement of what is appropriate is determined by wisdom. Wisdom is the capacity to reflectively examine the balance between principled matters, practical matters and matters of self interest. Dan-K would say that we must weigh up the balance of prudential ethics and moral ethics.

    Then we must ask, consistent with what? Consist with character, consistent with principles, consistent with policy, consistent with habit, consistent with rules, consistent with expectations, etc?

    And finally we need to understand that consistency is the foundation of life. At the very least I expect the sun to consistently rise every morning. This is the consistency of the laws of nature and without this consistency nothing would be possible.

  11. except to say that anti-Semitism was always wrong, and always irrational, and contributed to the worst moral catastrophe in Western history

    I would not say that it contributed. It was the direct cause of the worst moral collapse in Western history. Well, you might say, that was history. Except that it is not history, it is a dreadful cancer that permeates society today. Anti-semitism has increased by 21% in the US in the last year(http://bit.ly/1Rp3zah). 1.09 billion people in the world harbour anti-Semitic attitudes(http://global100.adl.org/). 24% of the population in Western Europe harbour anti-Semitic feelings(79 million people) and 19% in the US(21 million people).

    Read this list of selected anti-Semitic incidents around the world(http://bit.ly/1RRd2rt). It is real, it is violent, it is cruel and it is a present day moral tragedy. It is inexcusable and yet the so-called Western liberal community complacently sit on their hands, their lips sealed.


  12. EJ wrote:

    I would caution against seeing Hitler as a social phenomenon as being tied to his time and place. Hitler certainly knew how to play a game in that time and place; but a ‘Hitler-like’ phenomena, with quite a number of possible variations (some we haven’t seen yet, some we may be seeing now) has been and will be a recurrent potential in Modern politics.


    You’ve shifted from Hitler to “Hitler like.” Hitler is absolutely a social phenomenon, tied to his time and place: he is contingent upon the specific anti-Semitic culture of Christendom, certain distinctive qualities of postwar Germany, and of Western modernity.

    “Hitler like” is a vaguery that I would not care to speculate about. We can talk about the conditions under which modern totalitarianism become possible — Hannah Arendt being the best example — but this goes far beyond Hitlerism.

  13. Mark,

    “I can’t stand all those damned n****s. Welfare queens and drug dealers, the lot of them!

    But hey! I have a lot of Black friends! And I really like them.”


    This is a standard and well-worn trope. The most obvious, lamest cover for the hater.

    You couldn’t possibly buy something like this, could you?

    Mark English wrote:

    “In Frege’s case his private nationalistic anti-Semitism did not prevent him from being loyal to his Jewish friends (and loved in return). And this is what really counts, no?”

    Apparently, you could. Incredible, but there it is.

    You really ought to rethink this. Really.

  14. Dan,

    “Hitler is absolutely a social phenomenon, tied to his time and place: he is contingent upon the specific anti-Semitic culture of Christendom, certain distinctive qualities of postwar Germany, and of Western modernity.”

    I completely agree. I made the shift from Hitler to “Hitler-like” because my study suggests to me that Hitler’s appearance was not exceptional, nor an aberration of history, which is often charged of him. Conditions as existed in Germany at the time are hopefully not to be seen again; but there are trends in Modern societies that helped generate those conditions, and continue to generate conditions similar, although not precisely the same.

    I agree that it is mistaken to throw around charges of ‘oh, he’s another Hitler’ as we see in the media, if that’s the kind of speculation you refer to. And it would require another article to flesh out and support my suggestion; but I do want readers left with the question, what about the kind of rhetoric Hitler deploys continues to resonate with certain population groups? Where does such resonance originate, and how it can best be addressed when we find anything like it again?

  15. EJ: I think I did mean to make a somewhat strong point. I don’t think that Totalitarianism is simply a generalization of Hitlerism. And so, I don’t know that “Hitler like” means very much. Hitlerism is absolutely distinctive and unprecedented, despite the fact that one element of it — totalitarianism — is not.

  16. Did I just see what I think I saw, anti-Semitism being excused in Electric Agora’s comments section on the grounds that one has Jewish friends?

    Unbelievable. Please, someone tell me I’m missing something.

  17. EJ,
    Where does such resonance originate, and how it can best be addressed when we find anything like it again?

    You have asked an important question. When we look through history we find more ‘great’ leaders who have transformed their country or society. The power of the leader’s influence is always surprising and much greater than we would expect. It is commonly attributed to the special qualities of the leader but I think you are correct when you suggest it is the result of a special resonance between the unique qualities of the leader and the special conditions of society.

    There are many examples of this. I have prepared a short list of some leaders whose leadership was multiplied by their resonance with the special circumstances in society of that time.

    Genghis Khan
    Alexander the Great
    Adolf Hitler
    Sir Winston Churchill
    Mahatma Gandhi
    Nelson Mandela
    (there are of course more examples to be found)

    Notice how very different the outcomes were, but in all cases their effect was far greater than could be expected. Resonant leaders matched to a unique combination of circumstances produce outsize effects. Resonant leaders are quite rare but there have been enough of them for us to understand that the pathological evil of Hitler is not the normal, expected or likely outcome. In all of history there has been only one outcome like his, though some might argue that Genghis Khan comes a close second.

    What produces this resonance with its outsize multiplier effect? That would take another carefully researched essay to explore the issue. I think the answer is much more than Hitler’s rant-rhetoric, though it was undoubtedly important.

  18. I read Mein Kampf when I was very young, 19 or so.
    It learned me something.
    Rethoric is like science.
    It’s neutral.
    It’s equally effective for bad as for good causes.
    It’s equally effective for lies as for truths.

    It’s strange to say that Mein Kampf is effective because it appeals to audiences etc.
    Every rethoric move is effective because it appeals to audiences.

    Personally I doubt the rethorical strategy of Mein Kampf is so special.
    I doubt that there’s a single rethorical trick in it that would have surprised an intelligent student who had finished his trivium at a mediëval university.

    For a sober judgement one should make a comparison with similar documents in, say, France or Belgium or the Netherlands.
    I haven’t made that analysis – I don’t have the stomach for it – but I suspect that Hitler added little to the rethoric inventory, and not that much to the anti-semitic rethoric inventory of that time in Western Europe (although his position may have been more violent).

    The big difference between Hitler and comparable anti-semitic demagogues in Europe is the fact that he became chancellor in 1933 (appointed by von Hindenburg – not because the NSDAP won the elections decisively). In France, Belgium etc. the authoritarian and anti-semitic movements were strong in the 1930s, but they never delivered a head of state.

    I suppose it’s difficult to judge the rethorical quality of Mein Kampf. We tend to see it through the lens of what happened in Germany after 1933. I think that’s incorrect.

  19. Dan

    You suggest I rethink this one. Fair enough. I realize I left myself vulnerable to the attack you make: but all I was trying to do was make a distinction between thoughts and actions (never absolute, I know) and to say that in terms of actions Frege was innocent.

    A couple of background points. The paradigm case I had in the back if my mind was actually not anti-Semitism but sexual fantasies. (I used the word ‘fantasies’.) Say you fantasize about unacceptable behaviour but your actual behaviour is impeccable. Are you guilty? Christians typically say yes (committing adultery in the heart, etc.) . I say no.

    I admit that the parallel here with anti-Semitism is far from perfect, but I am just saying that I did have this example in mind as I wrote.

    Secondly, for what it’s worth, Frege’s opinions changed after World War 1. I quote Wikipedia:

    “After World War I his political opinion became more radical. In the last year of his life, at the age of 76, his diary contains extreme right-wing political opinions, opposing the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany”. Frege confided “that he had once thought of himself as a liberal and was an admirer of Bismarck”, but then sympathized with General Ludendorff and Adolf Hitler… The diary contains a critique of universal suffrage and socialism. Frege had friendly relations with Jews in real life: among his students was Gershom Scholem who much valued his teacher; and he encouraged Ludwig Wittgenstein to leave for England. The 1924 diary was published posthumously in 1944. Frege apparently never spoke in public about his political viewpoints.”

    Anyway, sorry to have caused offense. What I was trying to say was that actions matter more than words scribbled in a private diary.

    But anti-Semitism is a particularly nasty, insidious and dangerous phenomenon. And Frege may well have been more culpable than I was suggesting he was.

    1. Mark, you didn’t cause me any offense at all. It’s just that this is such a common trope that I wondered whether you were entirely cognizant of what you’d put down.

  20. Mike

    “Did I just see what I think I saw, anti-Semitism being excused in Electric Agora’s comments section on the grounds that one has Jewish friends?

    Unbelievable. Please, someone tell me I’m missing something.”

    What you saw was a clumsily-written comment. (See my reply to Dan.)

    Nobody here is condoning anti-Semitism.

  21. Dan,

    We may have a mild disagreement here:

    ” Hitlerism is absolutely distinctive and unprecedented” – definitely distinctive, not necessarily unprecedented. The recognition that eradication of a whole demographic – a class, a race, a religion – is even possible, let alone desirable, has recurred in Modern ideological thought since at least the French revolution (and does usually accompany some form of totalitarianism).


    I don’t know what to say of the pre-Modern historic figure, like Genghis Khan or Alexander the great. (Although I probably owe Khan’s invasion of south eastern Europe my existence, since I’m the result of a lineage going back to interbreeding resulting from that invasion.) However, although the Modern gestalt keeps seeking ‘great leaders,’ on close analysis they are all mostly simply those who voice the aspirations already in play among their audience.


    The function of rhetorical criticism is to discover *how* rhetoric appeals to its audience in a given historical context. Along the way, it reveals something about the audience, and possibly something about the speaker.

    “I suppose it’s difficult to judge the rhetorical quality of Mein Kampf. We tend to see it through the lens of what happened in Germany after 1933.” That’s exactly what rhetorical criticism is intended to cut through, to see the speaker and the speech in their proper time and place.

    Although my rhetorical criticism is largely informed by semiotics, the rhetorical theory supporting it may be extrapolated from two posts on my blog:

    Also, while I’m posting links to myself: The above essay was drawn from a study I undertook around 1994. Another essay I managed to draw out of that can be found at:


    I read your comment charitably; I never suspected you of anti-Semitism (although I agree there was some poor wording there). I think you were expressing the common disappointment that frequently occurs when we have to consider thinkers in various fields as human beings rather than practitioners of pure intellect – as I’ve noted in previous reply.

  22. Reblogged this on no sign of it and commented:
    Also, while I’m posting links, I hope the editors allow me to ‘reblog’ this at my own weblog. (I continue to wince at the word ‘blog’ and have decided to stop using it hence forth.) And I wish to take this moment to thank the editors of the Electric Agora for posting this essay. (Interesting conversation in the comments by the way.)

  23. At first glance the problem of good and evil should be a very straightforward one. Obviously it is not because humanity has apparently not figured out how to promote the good or limit the bad.

    Hitler became a German political rockstar that convinced a yearning public that he could be trusted to solve its crisis. At first he made common cause with Stalin who also ended up being a major mass murderer. Both may have been outdone by another star performer of the 20th century, Mao. We rightly obsess about Hitler because he was a clear product of European culture, but was he really that different from a Pol Pot, Leopold II, Hideki Tojo, Ismail Enver? I somehow doubt it, rather these characters seem to be a product of the times. The list seems endless. Most likely these atrocities will soon be forgotten. For a personal take see Piero Scaruffi’s list: (http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/dictat.html)

    Apparently, what happens is that some opportunistic nutcase gets his hands on the levers of power, aided and abetted by partisan fanatics (audience or mob). The extent of the madness that then ensues would seem to depend on the specifics of both the psychopathology of the man at the top and the stresses that the community perceives. Franco and Salazar were also dictators, but relatively ‘benign’. Franco reportedly only permitted the liquidation of a paltry ~30,000 for the sake of ideological discipline.

    The locus of the problem seems to be the excessively dogmatic and deceptive nature of political speech: a strong self-assured voice that says what the audience wants to hear is liable to succeed. A self doubting Hamlet seeking an honest and nuanced solution of an existential threat would have no chance. Decisive action in the face of danger would seem to have distinct survival benefits and so human beings probably have it ingrained in them to bet on “the strong horse’. (To quote Usama Bin Laden.) Religion, tribalism or nationalism all address this biological (?) need of belonging to a strong group in order to increase chances for individual survival.

    Hence the strange group dynamic in which large numbers of individuals will engage in questionable behavior because they apparently suppress the urge to ask questions and analyze the threat. The fierce urgency of now applies when the crowd becomes agitated. In stead it becomes an imperative to repeat and support the dogma of the group. Questioners and doubters have gotten themselves killed on many occasions.

    It would seem wise then to anticipate the socially destructive moods of a dogmatic crowd and deal with them by means of strong pre-existing social structures. As the oldest and most successful democracy, the US has much to teach us. A living and breathing constitution amplified by a bill of individual rights is a good template but it needs to be reinvigorated by each generation. The Donald and Hillary saga is going to be very interesting. The conservative position of respecting the constitution has much to recommend itself.

  24. Hi EJ, I liked the essay but don’t have enough of a knowledge base to contribute. I never had an interest in Mein Kampf, and the insight you’ve given hasn’t changed that feeling. It is interesting to think of Hitler appealing to the youth demographic.

    Hi Dan, I am interested why you consider Hitler to be unique. Distinct I get, but I’m not certain about unique (unprecedented). As a slightly off-topic question regarding the European anti-semitism which provided a significant element for Hitler to exploit, did you read Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery, and if so, what did you think of it?

  25. Dbholmes,

    I don’t know what Dan K. wanted to say, but I agree with him that Hitler was a unique phenomenon.

    But not because of Mein Kampf or his anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was rife in other, comparable countries too (France, Belgium etc.) between 1900 and WW II. Hitler manipulates it, but I don’t think he was an exception in this respect. I suspect you could insert pages from French or Belgian etc. authoritarian and anti-Semitic pamphlets in Mein Kampf, and the reader wouldn’t know that Hitler didn’t write them. His rhetorical techniques are what you would expect from an anti-Semitic demagogue and what you find in other anti-Semitic or racist works: appealing to an audience, telling and repeating lies over and over again, demonizing the Other, demanding and offering a Solution etc.(*)

    The problem with Mein Kampf is that we simply cannot read it “behind a veil of ignorance” of what happened after 1933. What happened after 1933 is the reason why importance is attached to the rhetoric of Mein Kampf.

    Yes, there was virulent anti-Semitism in Germany (and other countries), but we already knew that. Ill-informed and prejudiced people can be influenced by manipulating their prejudices and lack of knowledge, but we already knew that too. If the work tells us something about rhetoric, it is that rhetoric is a tool that can be used at least as effectively for bad as for good causes. Perhaps Mein Kampf can tell something about Hitler’s “philosophy” (a word used by Timothy Snyder) and about the early history of Nazism, but in that respect the work is a historical document among others.

    It’s a number of other elements that make Hitler unique. The fact that political – even dictatorial – power was handed to him is not the only aspect, but certainly a very important one (I repeat: not the only aspect!). What von Hindenburg did in 1933 was an act of criminal stupidity. Hitler was given full control over the legislative and executive branches of government.

    (*) An innocent version of all these rhetorical elements can sometimes be found in a pep-talk in an organization facing heavy competition of another organization.

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