Misjudging Adolf Hitler
Alan Singer, Janice Chopyk, and Debra Willett
The 21st century has witnessed a resurgence in authoritarian and potentially fascist movements in many parts of the world including in the United States. As a result of Congressional hearings and judicial action we know that armed militias like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers were active participants in the January 6, 2021 assault on the United States Capitol Building. They wanted to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election and threatened to murder the Vice-President of the United States. Commentators like Madeleine Albright (2018) and Timothy Snyder (2017; 2018) make the point that Fascists pretend to respond to public sentiment and populist movements, but that is really just a strategy to achieve power by stirring popular discontent, resentment and fear to undermine democratic institutions. Snyder believes that in the twenty-first century, the gravest threat to democracy is virulent nationalist populism and sees the potential for the rise of authoritarianism in the United States as a response to a real or perceived danger. He quotes Hannah Arendt, who wrote that after the Reichstag fire in Germany, “I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander” (Snyder, 2017: 110; Arendt, 2003: 6). Arendt’s statement highlights the need for an activist component in civics education as well as a deeper understanding of how fascists came to power in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. During that period in the west many commentators misjudged the threat of fascism to world peace. Snyder and Albright call for promoting active citizenship and resistance against tyranny by educators committed to democracy and liberty, important goals in the National Council for the Social Studies College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards.
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 to a German speaking family in a region that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later became part of Austria. He did not become an actual German citizen until February 1932. In 1913, Hitler moved from Vienna in Austria to Munich in Germany and with the outbreak of World War I he enlisted in the German Army. In the army Hitler rose to the rank of corporal and received the Iron Cross for service on the Western Front. Just before an armistice was signed in November 1918, Hitler was temporarily blinded and hospitalized following a British gas attack on German troops in occupied Belgium.
While still in the army, Hitler became part of the military’s propaganda department, and was assigned to speak to troops promoting nationalism and anti-Socialism. He also joined an anti-communist, anti-Semitic right wing political party. Under Hitler’s direction the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers Party or Nazi Party and in 1921 Hitler became its official leader. In 1923, Hitler participated in the unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch that tried to take over the government of the German state of Bavaria. He was captured, convicted of treason, and spent nine months in prison where he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), a manifesto of Nazi ideology. In a September 1930 election, the Nazi Party increased its representation in the German parliament, the Reichstag, from 14 to 107 seats, making Hitler the leader of the second largest party in Germany. In January 1933, with the Nazis Party holding a third of the seats in parliament, Adolf Hitler became chancellor, or Prime Minister, of a coalition government. Once in office, Hitler quickly moved to ban all opposition and in July 1934 he proclaimed himself “Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor.”
Dorothy Thompson of the United States and Gareth Jones of Wales were two of the earliest western reporters to meet with and speak to Adolf Hitler. In their reports, they misjudged his threat to democracy, world peace, and human rights in their reporting. In 1931, the Nazi Party invited Thompson to interview Hitler for Cosmopolitan magazine and in 1932, Thompson republished the interview as part of a book, I Saw Hitler! (New York: Farrar & Rinehart). Much of the article and book are dismissive of Hitler as a person. Thompson described him as a man of “startling insignificance,” “inconsequent and voluble,” and “the very prototype of the Little Man” (13-14). She characterized the interview with Hitler as “difficult, because one cannot carry on a conversation with Adolf Hitler. He speaks always as though he were addressing a mass meeting . . . a hysterical note creeps into his voice, which rises sometimes almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance” (16).
Hitler, not surprisingly, was offended by his depiction in the Cosmopolitan article and Thompson was forced to leave Germany. In the foreword to the book, Thompson wrote. “My offense was to think that Hitler was just an ordinary man, after all. That is a crime in the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people” (v). To her credit, Thompson later became an anti-Nazi activist in the United States, denouncing fascism in public addresses, her magazine and newspaper columns, and on radio broadcasts.
In a February 1933 article for The Western Mail & South Wales News, Gareth Jones described his meeting with Adolf Hitler during a shared airplane ride. Jones, like Thompson, was not initially impressed with Hitler, writing “When his car arrived on the airfield about half an hour ago and he stepped out, a slight figure in a shapeless black hat, wearing a light mackintosh, and when he raised his arm flabbily to greet those who had assembled to see him, I was mystified. How had this ordinary-looking man succeeded in becoming deified by fourteen million people?” Later on the flight, Jones discovered what he considered the other Hitler and reevaluated him. “Hitler steps out of the aeroplane. But he is now a man spiritually transformed. His eyes have a certain fixed purpose. Here is a different Hitler. There are two Hitlers – the natural boyish Hitler, and the Hitler who is inspired by tremendous national force, a great Hitler. It is the second Hitler who has stirred Germany to an awakening.” Jones had just completed a tour of the famine-ravished Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, and viewed Hitler and Germany positively in comparison.
The West’s uncertainty about Hitler’s threat to world peace comes across in Time magazine’s selection of him as its 1938 “Man of the Year.” It conveyed a sense that Americans should be impressed by the figure of Adolf Hitler as he strides “over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conqueror.” Hitler, in five years, “lifted the nation from post-War defeatism” and transformed it into “one of the great military powers of the world today.” Time editors considered Nazi rule in Germany “no ordinary dictatorship, but rather one of great energy and magnificent planning.” The article was published in January 1939, eight months before Germany invaded Poland igniting World War II.
In November 1938, during a parliamentary debate, future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations . . . Hitler is Fuehrer because he exemplifies and enshrines the will of Germany.” As closure for lessons on the rise to power of fascists in Europe on the 1920s and 1930s, students should discuss why Churchill, Jones, Time magazine, and Thompson, at least initially, seemed to misunderstand and minimized Hitler’s threat to democracy in Germany and world peace.
Albright, M. 2018. Fascism: A Warning. New York: HarperCollins.
Arendt, H. 2003. The Portable Hannah Arendt. New York: Penguin Books.
Snyder, T. 2017. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin.
Snyder, T. 2018. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Penguin.
Online sources for this article include: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/hitlers-rise-and-fall-timeline
Document 1: “I Saw Hitler!” by Dorothy Thompson (Farrar & Rinehart, 1932) (Excerpts)
Instructions: Dorothy Thompson interviewed Adolf Hitler in 1931 for an article in Cosmopolitan magazine. Read excerpts A, B, C and D and answer questions 1 – 3. (Note: Hitler spelled his first name Adolf. Thompson wrote his name as Adolph in the magazine and book.)
|A. “When finally I walked into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog. He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. The back head is shallow. The face is broad in the cheek-bones. The nose is large, but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial. There is in his face no trace of any inner conflict or self-discipline” (13-14). B. “And yet, he is not without a certain charm. But it is the soft, almost feminine charm of the Austrian! When he talks it is with a broad Austrian dialect. The eyes alone are notable. Dark gray and hyperthyroid—they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics. There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks a cup of tea. His is an actor’s face. Capable of being pushed out or in, expanded or contracted at will, in order to register facile emotions” (14). C. “The interview was difficult, because one cannot carry on a conversation with Adolph Hitler. He speaks always, as though he were addressing a mass meeting. In personal intercourse he is shy, almost embarrassed. In every question he seeks for a theme that will set him off. Then his eyes focus in some far corner of the room; a hysterical note creeps into his voice which rises sometimes almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance. He bangs the table. ‘Not yet is the whole working class with us…we need a new spirit…Marxism has undermined the masses…rebirth in a new ideology…not workers, not employers, not socialists, not Catholics…But Germans!’ This, in answer to the question: What will you do for the working masses when you come to power?” (16-17) D. “It is an important question. Millions of Germans follow Hitler because he has proclaimed war upon the banks, upon the trusts, upon “loan-capital.” He has asserted time and time again that he will abolish the rule of one class by another. What actually do these statements mean, in terms of practical politics? I couldn’t find out, and anyone who can is a better interviewer than I. When I dared to interrupt the stream of eloquence by bluntly repeating my question, he replied (rather coyly) that he didn’t intend to hand his program over to his enemies (the German Chancellor) for them to ‘steal’” (17).|
- What was Thompson’s initial reaction to Adolf Hitler?
- Why does Thompson describe the interview as difficult?
- In your view, why would Adolf Hitler be annoyed or angry at his portrayal by Thompson?
- In your view, based on these excerpts and your knowledge of German history between World War I and World War II, should Thompson have issued a warning about the Adolf Hitler? Explain.
Document 2. “A Welshman Looks At Europe, With Hitler Across Germany” by Gareth Jones (Excerpts), The Western Mail And South Wales News, February 28, 1933
Instructions: Gareth Jones met Adolf Hitler in February 1933 a month after Hitler became German Chancellor. Read excerpts A, B and C and answer questions 1 – 3.
|A. “If this aeroplane should crash then the whole history of Europe would be changed. For a few feet away sits Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany and leader of the most volcanic nationalist awakening which the world has seen. Six thousand feet beneath us, hidden by a sea of rolling white clouds, is the land which he has roused to a frenzy. We are rushing along at a speed of 142 miles per hour from Berlin to Frankfurt-on-Main, where Hitler is to begin his lightning election campaign. The occupants of the aeroplane are, indeed, a mass of human dynamite. I can see Hitler studying the map and then reading a number of blue reports. He does not look impressive. When his car arrived on the airfield about half an hour ago and he stepped out, a slight figure in a shapeless black hat, wearing a light mackintosh, and when he raised his arm flabbily to greet those who had assembled to see him, I was mystified.” B. “How had this ordinary-looking man succeeded in becoming deified by fourteen million people? He was more natural and less of a poseur than I had expected; there was something boyish about him as he saw a new motor-car and immediately displayed a great interest in it. He shook hands with the Nazi chief and with those others of us who were to fly with him in the famous “Richthofen,” the fastest and most powerful three-motored aeroplane in Germany. His handshake was firm, but his large, outstanding eyes seemed emotionless as he greeted me. Standing around in the snow were members of his bodyguard in their black uniform with silver brocade. On their hats there is a silver skull and crossbones, the cavities of the eyes in the skull being bright red.” C. “We are now descending, however. Frankfurt is beneath us. A crowd is gathered below. Thousands of faces look up at us. We make a smooth landing. Nazi leaders, some in brown, some in black and silver, all with a red swastika arm-band, await their chief. Hitler steps out of the aeroplane. But he is now a man spiritually transformed. His eyes have a certain fixed purpose. Here is a different Hitler. There are two Hitlers – the natural boyish Hitler, and the Hitler who is inspired by tremendous national force, a great Hitler. It is the second Hitler who has stirred Germany to an awakening.”|
- What was Jones’ initial reaction to Adolf Hitler?
- Why does Jones decide there are two Hitlers?
- In your view, based on these excerpts and your knowledge of German history between World War I and World War II, should Jones have issued a warning about the second Hitler? Explain.
Document 3. Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (1938), January 2, 1939 (Excerpt)
Instructions: For it’s January, 1939 edition, Time magazine selected Adolf Hitler as its 1938 “Man of the Year. “Read excerpts A and B and answer questions 1 – 3.
|A. Adolf Hitler without doubt became 1938’s Man of the Year . . . [T]he figure of Adolf Hitler strode over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conqueror . . . Hitler became in 1938 the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today . . . Rant as he might against the machinations of international Communism and international Jewry, or rave as he would that he was just a Pan-German trying to get all the Germans back in one nation, Fuehrer Hitler had himself become the world’s No. 1 International Revolutionist. B. That the German people love uniforms, parades, military formations, and submit easily to authority is no secret . . . What Adolph Hitler & Co. did to Germany in less than six years was applauded wildly and ecstatically by most Germans. He lifted the nation from post-War defeatism. Under the swastika Germany was unified. His was no ordinary dictatorship, but rather one of great energy and magnificent planning . . . Germany has become a nation of uniforms, goose-stepping to Hitler’s tune, where boys of ten are taught to throw hand grenades, where women are regarded as breeding machines. In five years under the Man of 1938, regimented Germany had made itself one of the great military powers of the world today.|
- According to this article, what are the key achievements of Adolf Hitler?
- Based on these achievements, do you think Hitler merited selection as “Man of the Year“? Explain.
- Write a Letter-to-the-Editor of Time explaining your point of view.