WW2 Controversies

|   3 May 2010

Why do so many people want to think Hitler was mad?

In Quentin Tarantino’s recent film ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Hitler was portrayed as an absolute weirdo. This Hitler screams at his Generals, bangs his fist on the table and suggests that Brad Pitt’s team of commandos might be ghostly apparitions. If not certifiably mad, the Hitler of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ certainly has more than several screws loose.

Tarantino’s version of an unhinged Hitler is typical of the way Hitler has been shown recently in popular culture. It’s an impression that was massively reinforced by Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 epic, ‘Downfall’. Whilst this was an altogether more serious feature film attempt to show the ‘real’ Hitler – one which focused on the last days in the bunker – Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler, still shakes and screams for all he is worth. So much so that several scenes have become a kind of internet phenomenon, with different people submitting comical subtitles over Ganz’s ranting.

There’s only one problem with all this. Which is that Hitler, in the words of Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, the world expert on the German leader, simply ‘wasn’t clinically mad or clinically insane.’ Yes, Hitler’s personality was showing signs of disintegrating in the last days of his life – and in that respect Ganz’s Hitler may not have been so far from the truth – but by focusing only on the endgame we obscure the real history, which is a much more troubling one than the screaming and sweating Hitler of popular culture allows.

Over the last nearly twenty years I’ve met many people who had close encounters with Adolf Hitler. And there were a variety of different impressions people took from these meetings. Some of them were distinctly unimpressed with what they saw. I remember one German veteran of the First World War, who sat close to Hitler at a café in Munich in the 1920s, saying that what he heard from the future German leader was just ‘so simple’ and his appearance ‘rather comical’. But then I’ve also met many more people who – predisposed by their own political beliefs – found Hitler extremely impressive. The one characteristic that several of them remembered most clearly was Hitler’s extraordinary ability to persuade people to carry on the fight even when they wanted to give up.

But what no one said to me was: ‘That Hitler, he was utterly insane.’ And it’s not surprising that the general view was that he was most certainly not mad, if you pause to think about it. Because Hitler became Chancellor of German 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? Moreover, 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.

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

The truth is that we ourselves secretly, perhaps subconsciously, want Hitler to have been a lunatic. We want Hitler to be mad because it makes the horror of what happened during the Third Reich – particularly during the Second World War – easy to explain. It’s simple, we can tell ourselves comfortably, Hitler was a madman who somehow hypnotized millions of ordinary Germans to do things against their better judgment. Well, he wasn’t mad, and he hypnotized no one.

As Aldous Huxley said: ‘propaganda gives force and direction to the successive movements of popular feeling and desire; but it does not do much to create these movements. The Propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.’ Hitler, to a large extent, ‘canalised’ existing German beliefs and emotions. He built on the very worst feelings, of course – hate, fear, anger – but these feelings existed before he came along. A madman could not have done this.

There was a lot of fuss in the media at the time ‘Downfall’ came out. ‘At last,’ some people said, ‘we can see the Germans coming to terms with the reality of Hitler.’ I thought that was nonsense.

I’ll tell you when we can truly know that Germany has finally accepted the entire legacy of this terrible man. It’s when a German director makes a film about the rise to power of the Nazis, and shows Hitler as a clever politician, and – in the process – demonstrates just how and why so many apparantly ’sensible’ Germans supported him.  It’ll be a film that shows conclusively that Hitler was not mad – but bad. Very, very bad indeed.

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5 Responses to “Why do so many people want to think Hitler was mad?”

  1. Frederick says:

    I agree–totally–and this may be equally true for Hitler’s exterminatory policies. The influence of neo-darwinist theories is too often undervalued–perhaps because it is easier to imagine Hitler was raving mad when in effect he was only applying supposedly “scientific” theories.

  2. dirttrack says:

    What does ‘mad’ mean? He didn’t seem mad to all those Germans who supported him did he? If he hadn’t lost the war who would say he was mad now?

  3. lisset158 says:

    He was narcisstic and quite neurotic individual although not “mad” in the clinical sense he certainly was an example of a personality disorder.

  4. Wilfried says:

    Werner Maser listed some of the idiocies told about Hitler in his “Fälschung, Dichtung und Wahrheit über Hitler und Stalin” (Falsifications, Fiction and Truth about Hitler and Stalin).

    But this is not the issue, as you rightly emphasize. The question instead is, and you asked this also: “Why did so many people support him?”. Prof. Nolte writes about this phenomenon some in his “Der Europäische Bürgerkrieg 1917-1945” (The European Civil War 1917-1945). At the end of your article you assert that Hitler was “Very, very bad indeed”. Would people have supported and stood behind him if he was very, very bad? And stand behind him they did, I witnessed some of it, having lived in Germany at that time (born in 1937). Were the German of that time a nation of fools? Or worse, were they indeed “Hitlers willing Helpers?”.

    But I agree with you, Germans should not look for excuses and face facts instead. Hitler was popular, why was that so?


  5. Julian says:

    I have to take issue with a couple of points you make here Laurence. First off, ‘Inglourious Basterds’ was a travesty of film making, not just the subject matter; But der untergang (Downfall) I thought was probably one of the few realistic depictions of a despotic tyrant.

    Traudl Junge’s interviews on ‘The World at War’ and her subsequent interviews gave us the most candid insight of a man like Hitler on an uncontrolled downward spiral. Her document tells us of a selfish spoilt boy who has accomplished well beyond his means; Having the whole card tower dismantled in front of him. Junge’s was not the only testament of Hitler’s delusional behaviour during the final months of the war, but is delusion the same thing as mad?

    Another ‘docu-drama’ which I think portrayals Hitler and his power over the people was Robert Carlyle’s rendition in ‘Hitler: The Rise of Evil’. Hitler was not mad in the films I mention, more a determined but rather stupid control freak.

    I sometimes think Hitler was one of the most influential men of the 20th century, but thinking about it as I write this, all he really had was oratory skills and the ability to tap into the racialism and bigotry of a nation. He was the ‘Daily Mail’ and bbc’s ‘Have your say’ of his time.

    But there must have been intense charisma in his personality, hard for us to see in hindsight. The German people really did believe in Hitler, women fell in love with him, strong men were subordinate. For a small insight I think we can look at the Blair/Brown government (I am not comparing evil), we see a nation mesmerised by charisma, followed by a rapid downfall and a man apparently having a nervous breakdown when he doesn’t get what he wants. Okay, a little simplistic, but it does I think allow us some insight into how Hitler managed ‘con’ a nation.