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James E. Groves, MD Headshot

How Hitler Did It

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Nobody has the right to deprive simple people of their childish certainties until they've acquired others that are more reasonable.

-- 14 October 1941, Hitler's Secret Conversations 1941-1944, N Cameron, trans.

How, I keep wondering as the 2008 election looms, how did he do it? I can't sleep for thinking, how did he persuade so many people against logic and conscience? It haunts me deep in the night, because in newsreels Hitler looks ridiculous, arms flailing, screaming, spit spraying from his lips.

How did one person working within the system, using legal means, not breaking the German laws at the time -- how did he come to be master of an empire stretching from the Volga to the Atlantic, from the Arctic Circle to North Africa?

It wasn't the power of his writing, his ideas, they were threadbare, crude, silly. In Mein Kampf (pp 106-7) he dismisses the written word, it's merely useful for giving theoretical foundations. "But the power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history rolling has from time immemorial been the magic power of the spoken word, and that alone. Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech."

I hate to look to another Austrian for the answer, but psychoanalytic group therapists believe and teach that -- for good or for evil -- two phenomena drive the power of groups: Amplification and contagion. (Note to self: Go back and read Totem and Taboo. Freud had at least some good ideas.) Contagion is the way feelings transfer from one member to another, the way emotions spread through the whole group. Amplification is how emotions in a group grow and grow bigger than the sum of their parts -- the emotion of the group-as-a-whole becomes more than that of the members additively.

Hitler sensed their impact on your average Joe: "When from his little workshop or big factory, in which he feels very small, he steps for the first time into a mass meeting and has thousands and thousands of people of the same opinions around him...he is swept away by three or four thousand others into the mighty effect of suggestive intoxication and enthusiasm...." (Ibid. 478-9)

If you look at Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, or more recent American and British documentaries, the way he used contagion shows. Hitler starts slow, speaking to one section of the crowd, one area, and slowly the feelings spread from that nucleus. Emotion, starting small, ripples from that center to the periphery.

Hitler's friend and early Nazi party member Ernst Hanfstängl (Harvard Class of 1909, by the way) describes the structure of the early speeches. They begin very quietly with what psycholinguists call a "nuanced silence." He stands at the podium, the silence growing over a minute or two, or more. (To our consciousness, the pressure of such a silence feels almost unbearable, dead air time.) Then, there is a cough or a rustle or some noise from someone in the crowd. At this point, he speaks directly to that person, and to that person alone. Often it is a woman. Usually it is about what is going on here and now, he makes a remark about food shortages or domestic difficulties. Heads begin to nod. Assent ripples outward through the crowd. Contagion starts its work.

Hanfstängl describes the architecture of those speeches as built up of past, present, future -- and as having the shape of a horizontal figure-of-eight. First, there would be the soft empathic comment about how hard life can be. Then after the whole crowd was nodding, after he had them completely under control, he would shift to the past (this was the upswing of one circle of the figure-eight). Then tempo shifts as he crosses to the other side of the figure eight, and there comes a shift into march time, 4/4 time. This is the beginning of emotional amplification.

His speech rate accelerates as he sweeps down into a bitter criticism of those in power for neglecting the myths of teutonic greatness, for betraying the Volk, the German Race with "the stab in the back." He sets up an adversary, an imaginary person from the opposition to "debate" -- first argument, then counterargument. His diction becomes almost Biblical, and perhaps by now the tempo is 2/4 time.

In the last segment, he looks to a future under the Party. Faster, faster he rhapsodizes. He promises them the world -- literally. In the last ten minutes, plunging and thrusting he is bringing the crowd to an orgasm of words. Finally he screams, "Deutschland über alles!" and, drenched with sweat, he collapses exhausted, the crowd is on its feet, stretching, straining, hot to do whatever he asks.

As 2008 bears down on us, I try to keep in mind how groups work because I know what a sucker for propaganda I am, just like your average Joe. Contagion and amplification worked then and they work now, on everybody. The image I try to hold in mind is the Nuremberg rallies: A multitude swept up in patriotic psychosis, eager like lemmings to throw themselves over a cliff.

Now, excuse me, I have to go read more about Ron Paul. Maybe he'd let me coach him on his speeches. Or not.

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