Lessons from Hitler

W.J. Astore

Purely by chance this morning, I came across old notes I took from historian John Lukacs’ study of Adolf Hitler.  Lukacs said that Hitler’s genius “lay in his understanding of human weaknesses,” for which he had the nose of a vulture.  Lukacs further identified him as a populist who used propaganda pragmatically.  He knew what people wanted to hear, and not only the common people at his rallies, but prominent leaders whose illusions he recognized and exploited.

For example, Hitler wasn’t religious, but he presented himself as pro-Christian as a contrast to the atheism of his German communist opponents.  He claimed to support families and moral order, what we today term “family values.”  Hitler knew people were frustrated with the Weimar Republic, an experiment in parliamentary democracy in Germany after World War I; Lukacs uses the words “schismatic” and “chaotic” and “weak” to describe Hitler’s critique of democracy.

Hitler’s response was to appeal to nationalism (I’m a nationalist, he might have said) and a revival of Germany as a “spiritual community” in which class differences wouldn’t matter.  Persecution among the right sort of Germans was to be avoided; instead, “good” (read: Aryan) Germans were to come together against racial and political enemies.  Hitler’s goal, Lukacs said, was to achieve a tyranny not simply through violence but through a political majority, and he was incredibly successful at it.


Interestingly, Lukacs points out that Hitler convinced the Nazis in 1926 (when the Nazis were still very much a fringe party ostensibly for the working classes) to vote in favor of the restitution of property to German princes.  In short, Hitler appeased powerful conservative elements within German society, Weimar Germany’s version of today’s 1%.  He gained power legally as Chancellor early in 1933 by persuading Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, that “The Bolshevization of the masses proceeds rapidly.”  To an avowed monarchist like Hindenburg, it was worth the risk of appointing Hitler and empowering the Nazis so that the communist “mobs” could be put in their place.

Virtually everyone underestimated Hitler and the ruthlessness of his drive to power.  He was often dismissed as crude, vulgar, harsh.  As lacking class.  Yet he knew his audience and he knew how to get his way in a deeply divided Germany.

Food for thought as Americans prepare to go to the polls.

Update (11/6/18): I’ve been re-reading Lukacs; two points I came across yesterday after writing this article:

  1. Hitler said hate was a real strength of the Nazi party.  We have learned to hate our political rivals, Hitler said, and that hatred makes us strong.  In reading this, I thought of Trump and his efforts to demonize Democrats as a “mob” that wants to allow “invaders” (rapists, murderers) from Central America into the country.  Also, of course, Trump’s denunciation of the media as “the enemy of the people.”
  2. Even as Hitler was throwing communists and other rivals into concentration camps by the tens of thousands in 1933-34, he was lying about the growing threat to Germany coming from the left.  Hitler knew the power of lies, the bigger the better, and used them to eliminate his rivals in the name of keeping Germany safe (“homeland security,” we might say).

14 thoughts on “Lessons from Hitler

  1. There”s this interesting assumption in the Western narrative of history, that Hitler and Nazi Germany were unique, that what happened in Weimar (and after) was so inherently bound up with currents in Germany’s particular history that you can’t directly compare the German experience to the American.

    I suspect that’s all hogwash, and that what happened to Weimar was a symptom of systemic flaws in Western ‘civilization’, that reoccur almost every time it goes through another cycle of collapse and reconstruction. The flavor of the event changes to suit the local environment, but the basic elements remain largely the same: economic anxiety causes large numbers of people to demand a new solution. Political entrepreneurs experiment with narratives to serve this demand, and movements form.

    In Germany, the vicious anti-semitism common in Christian European culture was a useful tool for Hitler’s pursuit of power, a convenient “explanation” for the economic insecurity experienced by most Germans, along with the narrative of Germany being held down by foreign powers. Same thing is happening in America, right now. But the unwillingness to recognize National Socialism – or the American versions, from the Know-Nothings and Klan straight through to contemporary white supremacist groups and Trumpism – as a recurring realization of systemic problems embedded in our political, economic, and social systems.

    Unfortunately for all of us, Democrats are so locked into the ‘Their Is No Alternative” mentality, so bound to the fatal embrace of neoliberal capitalism pushed by Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK, that there is virtually zero chance they’ll take the necessary steps towards real, meaningful reform. And so the tragedy winds on towards whatever 2020 ultimately brings.

    Me, I see the likely Democrat victory in the House (Speaker Nancy Pelosi again, yippee) as a strange kind of win for Trump. As we settle in for two years of complete paralysis in DC (well, except for funding the Pentagon and the endless wars which are a big part of why things are the way they are) the political rhetoric seems set to soar. The next two years will look a lot like the last two, except that Trump now starts his 2020 campaign able to claim that the reason he hasn’t ‘won bigly’ on every issue he yammers about is down to obstruction by Democrats.

    Who, according to the narrative he’s committed to, are only elected by millions of ‘illegal’ voters. I’d bet on a ramp-up of alleging foreign interference as a tactical means of outflanking the Dems, and even more crazy anti-immigrant nonsense. Possibly overt and systematic violence, depending.

    Ironically, none of it would be possible without the Electoral College. Even if the Dems claw back Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2020, unless they knock off another state like Florida or Arizona, so long as Wisconsin stays red Trump still has 270 in the EC. The governor races will probably tell us more about the 2020 landscape than the House and Senate, since governors have so much power over the actual voting infrastructure in their states.

    The only way America survives the next decade is, as I say too often, by finding a non-partisan means of reforming the architecture despite the two major parties. But with the parties so entrenched, and with Citizens United making federal politics entirely about $, I’m not hopeful. I anticipate a national divorce, in practice if not official. The likely next governor of California, Gavin Newsom, already says he sees California as a ‘nation-state’ in its own right. Texas, Illinois, and New York might start thinking along similar lines, once the economy goes into the next recession.


    1. Sound analysis. Of course, Trump is not Hitler. But the conditions you cite, together with human nature, repeat themselves throughout history, generating strong-men who pledge to make Germany or Italy or Hungary or America “great again,” while attacking some “other” as the reason why we’re not yet “great.” That Other is typically political/ideological rivals and the vulnerable, e.g. communists, socialists, Jews, immigrants, and so forth.

      It’s curious how some of the weakest people in the world (in terms of power) are vilified as all-powerful parasites on society. But it makes a twisted sort of sense. Vilify the weak as powerful, then show how “strong” you are by neutralizing them. Hence Trump’s campaign against the caravan.

      I fear a war in 2019-20, most likely with Iran. The Republicans (and many Dems as well) have been spoiling for a settling of accounts since the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. We even aided Iraq in its war with Iran in the 1980s, before turning on Saddam after he invaded Kuwait. Geez, I wonder why he thought we’d support him? Maybe because, up to that point, we had?


      1. Regarding the war with Iran that the neoconservatives have been planning for since the 1990s, how do you feel about these 2 issues.

        1. The US is becoming more disliked (or hated) by the day, by our supposed allies (subservient puppets really, and unhappy ones at that.) There is no longer any moral ground to stand on. Do you think the US will invade with only Saudi Arabia and Israel actively with us, and no valid reason our “allies” will buy?

        2. Do you think Russia, and perhaps even China, will allow that to happen. Iran itself, and its oil, is very important to them, as well as their desire to gain inroads into Europe and Africa commercially. Any big war would seriously affect that, and Iran is no Iraq. The real world is being fought for economically, and not militarily. (As opposed to Syria etc. war with Iran appears to be against their best interests.)



        1. Paul: I don’t envision an invasion. More of a punitive or limited strike, justified in the name of destroying the alleged Iranian program to develop nuclear weapons. Risky, for sure. But Trump’s decision to strike at Syria twice was applauded in the mainstream media, with his followers joining in, seeing it as proof that Trump is “tough” and “has balls.”

          Actually, if Trump were really smart, he’d combine a military strike with a decision to end the Afghan War, which was lost back in 2002, or even earlier if you consider it’s a war the U.S. could and can never win.


          1. Trump’s ‘intelligence’ seems to be just enough to think that talking to Kim Jong Un is equivalent to Nixon going to China, or Reagan meeting Gorbachev in Iceland. As suits his brand – hollow imitations of old GOP legends.

            Here’s my bet – the US hits Iran in early 2020 (the weather is best for that kind of thing in Spring, right?) with waves of cruise missiles and airstrikes. Official goal = regime change, functional goal = cripple the Republican Guard and destroy suspected nuclear sites, ballistic missile production, storage, and launch facilities/systems, and anything Iran can use to threaten closing Hormuz.

            Ground troops in small numbers would be deployed to spot targets and try to rev up discontent/rebellion among Iran’s minority groups, and I’d be the campaign will look and feel a lot like the one the Saudis are waging in Yemen – at first. Waves of strikes, then follow-ups, the usual claims of wiping out some massive fraction of Iran’s defenses… but the missile launches won’t stop, tankers will get harassed and possibly attacked in Hormuz, because Iran is a large, rugged country, and you can hide effectively military stuff better than the Pentagon likes to admit to the press.

            I doubt the attacks will be effective, but maybe a short campaign ends in both sides declaring ‘victory’ and going home. Maybe. I think the anti-Iran sentiment among the Neocons is so strong, and their assumption of their own inherent superiority so great, that they’ll miscalculate, badly.

            The question in my mind is whether Russia directly intervenes, and whether Iran can effectively use its terrain and air defenses to set up ambushes that inflict casualties on American (and Saudi?) pilots. Were I Putin, I would do two things at the start of any American campaign: deploy aircraft and SAM systems to Tehran, turning it into the modern equivalent of downtown Hanoi for US pilots. I’d also make it clear that any use of nuclear weapons (shouldn’t happen, but with neocons in charge… who knows) will be taken as a threat against Russia.

            Iran is too important a power to both Russia and China to ignore an American attack, and knocking over yet another Middle East country would represent a geopolitical step too far, giving credence to what Putin and Jinping believe: that the US seeks hegemony over the Middle East and its oil at the detriment of their interests.

            Here’s hoping domestic and international pressure comes together to make the costs of such an operation clear. I’d rather see an America cut off from and sanctioned by the rest of the world rather than see it stumble into what could be the start of another Great War.


  2. Thanks for this column!
    The comparison of Donny and Hitler has been dismissed as not valid or over the top and not comparable to today’s world. That dismissal is wrong for the reason you point out. The battle is psychological, and very few people understand psychology and how propaganda works. Especially the vast “left” here, not to mention the corrupted DINOcrats. Instead of reading Bernay’s works, they rail at how stupid, clumsy and ideology free Donny is. They rail about his tweets and his lies. And while they rail, the magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat, to their amazement. (Witness the destruction of every competitor in the rethug primary, and then then beating Hillary in 2016 & more recently getting The Kav.)

    Donny comes from pro wrestling (read Chris Hedges on that subject in his book Empire of Illusions) and “The Apprentice.” He is an evil man indeed, but one who, like Hitler, knows exactly what he is doing. He understands his audience and how to please the people, whether they are the fascist christian right (75-80% approval from them,) the neo nazi alt right, or the 1%ers who love what he is doing in every area.

    Unless, and until, we understand what Donny is doing and stop him, rabbits will keep appearing magically. We need to give up the magical thinking of children, and see the psychological world for what it is, and how we are marching toward corporatist fascism. We are like the proverbial frog in the heating up water. Being cooked in our own fantasy and ignorance.



  3. All a fascinating – and frightful – part of 20th Century technological advancement, and decadence. I’m no prude, but don’t think Nazi Party didn’t exploit Marlene Dietrich’s fleshy leg up in the “Blue Angel”. Worse yet, Joseph Von Sternberg – obviously Jewish – brings her to Hollywood, puts her on a diet, and presto! A super star! But residents of the corrupt Weimar Republic also knew she was acceptable of Berlin’s pediophile group – afraid for their children the streets! – anything goes for money & fame. This disgusted normal Germans after being starved by Churchill’s food blockade.
    I think that’s the roots of Hitlers rise to power. He capitalised on Berlin being the gay/pediophile/SM etc. capital of the world.
    This aside, getting old, I getting more suspicious How Nazi & Bolshevik parties were so well financed. I have my thoughts….
    This is the Real Question now: Who is financing them?


  4. PS By what I mean of “Who is financing them?” is BOTH parties seem to have enormous amounts of money. Who ARE these “people”? They are not doing out of their heart – but out of their pocket. That’s what we’re dealing with today.


  5. We know the average person is ignorant of history. How different it would be if everyone made a lifelong study of it. It is a wise counsel always ready to educate, but ignored. Henry Ford, an epic figure in the industrialization of America, of the rise of gadgets that we love, famously said history is bunk.

    Here’s a gem from Bertrand Russell’s book, Power published in 1938:

    “In excited times, a politician needs no power of reasoning, no apprehension of impersonal facts and no shred of wisdom. What he must have is the capacity of persuading the multitude that what they passionately desire is attainable and that he, through his ruthless determination, is the man to attain it.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tayari Jones has written:
    There’s Nothing Virtuous About Finding Common Ground, for many Americans it is painful to understand that there are citizens of our community who are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic.

    The cult followers of President Agent Orange and Pastor can now proudly put on display, their Neo-Confederate Evangelistic Reactionary beliefs. The GOP has hitched their wagon up to President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence.

    There is no compromise or middle ground with these people and none should be attempted. The Corporate Democratic Party is making a huge mistake in thinking you can “Reach across the Aisle”, because past experience has demonstrated when they do so their hand is hacked off.


    1. Truth in Disclosure: I didn’t vote today. In France, after my quitting Democrats Abroad, actually viewing their corruption, when I voted for Sanders, came upon a different view: DEMS & REPS are ONE body! I worked hard for Obama, twice, so they like me – but I hate & distrust them. Never want to see them again!
      “Handshakes across the Aisle” in past times, doesn’t prove to me their caring for the American people, but only mutual corruption & profit for themselves. I obviously don’t care who “wins” – and neither do they. They’ll back deal & split the money/power.
      That’s what the “Trump” revolution, which it isn’t, is proving.
      We’re getting into French Revolutionary Times. To save the Aristocracy, they had a 3 part Parliament. Aristocracy, Church, “people”. A&C always voted together, leaving the “people” the losers. We know what happened after a few years of these fraud.
      Put DEMS & REPS together, vs the “people” – you’ll get the same results….


      1. I urge you to reconsider. There are, sometimes, worthy candidates in one of the major parties, and sometimes Green or Libertarian or Independent alternatives. Also, there may be ballot initiatives worth voting for, such as Florida’s effort to restore voting rights to more than a million people.

        Thanks, as always, for commenting here. But contrarians like us need to vote too!


        1. You’re so right WJAstore. ANOTHER! “Truth in Disclosure”, I was registered as ‘Independent’ for years. Living in Connecticut we had a race for Governor years ago: 1 I liked. But I couldn’t vote for him in a primary because I wasn’t a Democrat. I went to Town Hall & became one.
          So it goes. You’re still right, but living overseas so many years, no longer owning property in Connecticut, I don’t think I can vote locally anymore. Fair enough; I’m off the tax base.
          Regardless, I think the outcome was “fair” – whatever that means anymore. The Senators are fed so much money it’s hard to lose; Corrupt House? I prefer Mexican border whorehouses: at least they deliver what they promised!
          Where’s my Universal Health Care? Retirement Funds stolen by the likes of Mitt Romney?
          GREAT! Dems run the House! Now what are they gonna’ do?


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