. . . He is plausible and cunning. — Arthur Conan Doyle
If there ever were another Hitler, would we see him coming? Or would he sneak into our lives and hearts and wreak destruction before we realized what was happening?
Growing up, my impression of Hitler was formed by the consensus view that he was dangerously insane, a raving monster. For years it bothered me that the German people had followed Hitler into war. How could they favor an obvious maniac? It was as if they had all gone crazy.
Finally I watched documentary footage of Hitler in action. At a social function he was suave and considerate and friendly. A recording of him chatting with his general staff showed him relaxed and jocular. In short, he seemed charming and otherwise completely normal. Huh? It didn’t make sense.
Then I watched the Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, that chronicled the 1934 Nazi Nuremburg rally. I tried to work my way into the mind of a German citizen of the time. How would they have reacted to the Hitler they saw onscreen?
Germany had been devastated by World War I and the humiliating and arguably unfair punishments forced on it by the victors, and then it had tumbled into the chasm of the worldwide Great Depression. The Germans were a people laid low. From that perspective, this mustachioed man at the podium, with his crisp uniform and theatrical salutes and riveting oratory and promise of German greatness, could seem highly appealing. Even alluring.
Yikes! It was creepy. I felt guilty even considering the possibility.
But at last I understood how an ordinary person in that situation might have been swayed to support Hitler and his promise of a rebirth of German national pride. With the onset of World War II, the Führer was bidding to be the Napoleon of Germany. For a German citizen at the time, it was, “What problem?” Especially at first, when they were winning.
Still, something bothered me. Why the hell did Hitler persecute the Jews? The entire thrust of his campaign was to raise Germany back up to great heights on the world stage, even if that meant a re-run of some of the bloody battles of the first World War. What did the Jews have to do with any of that?
Such a pogrom would be costly and a distraction, to say nothing of the devastation it would visit upon a significant group of Germans — people who might otherwise have contributed, as loyal citizens, to the war effort. German Jews were prominent in science: what if, say, Einstein had remained in Germany and helped them develop the atom bomb?
The young Adolph, blinded by war gas in 1918, learned of the armistice from his hospital bed and took it badly. Worse, he somehow got it into his head that a high-level Jewish cabal had betrayed the Fatherland by forcing it to capitulate. This idea infected him with a mania that thereafter tainted his efforts. It’s almost as if there were, on the one hand, Hitler’s campaign to revive German prominence and, on the other, his private vendetta against the Jews.
Historians might argue that Hitler needed a straw man who threatened from within, so that he could usurp the power to control interior affairs. Anti-Semitism has smoldered in Europe for centuries, making it easy to inflame. But it all seemed much more deeply personal than that.
Recently I brought this up in conversation, wondering aloud why Hitler had obsessed about the Jews. An acquaintance promptly replied, “Well, Hitler was a psychopath. And that’s why he failed so badly at military strategy.”
I thought, Psychopaths are predatory, not crazy-stupid. Hitler proved highly capable as a strategist — at least, at first. (His decision to attack Russia was, in retrospect, rather foolish.) Besides, he may truly have believed in his warped cause. But my acquaintance’s comment reminded me that most of us still view Hitler, in one form or another, as thoroughly crazy. And who cares which form it takes, with so evil a man? People tend to view him as raving bonkers and violent and slavering — in other words, as a caricature.
Which brings me back to my initial question about how a lunatic fiend could have gained enough popularity to become any sort of public figure, much less ruler of a major nation. (Short pause for tasteless jokes about past leaders of your own country.) The memory of Hitler’s deeds is so painful that many of us imagine him as a freakish demonic brute so that we can push him away, our picture of him contorted until he is walled off, distant, separate.
And then we think we’ll recognize with ease the next Hitler. We assume he would show up as a garishly horrific beast. But will it be that easy?
What if Hitler wasn’t a loony, wasn’t even a psychopath? What if he were simply consumed by a mania for power and revenge? And what if he were smart enough to polish off the rough edges of his ambition — to make of himself an appealing, authoritative presence that the German people found irresistible? And what if the next Hitler were similarly polished? Would we recognize the danger?
Years ago I spoke to someone who had received a private audience with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, a leader widely believed to have orchestrated the murders of his political opponents and the genocide in Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars. The private meeting concerned a domestic dispute — a father had absconded with his child and sought refuge deep inside Serbia, and the mother sought the child’s return. But what struck me was how impressed she was with Milosevic. “He made you feel like you were the only person in the world. He listened carefully to my situation, and he promised to get to the bottom of things.” Indeed, Milosevic was pivotal in bringing the issue to a resolution.
Like Hitler, Milosevic was charming, well turned out, intelligent, persuasive. He looked nothing like the ghoul we might expect from the horrific news reports about him. His deeds, evil though they may have been, were belied by his demeanor.
Somewhere in the world there is another would-be Hitler. He bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike. He lies in wait inside a dictatorship or a democracy — to him it doesn’t matter which. Like Hitler, he nurses intense hatreds and violent proclivities, and schemes to do terrible things. And, like the Führer, he will be charming and attractive and persuasive and intelligent.
If we persist in imagining that the next Hitler would be a cartoon monster, we will never see him coming … until it’s too late.