The Propagander ™ FAQ

Was Adolf Hitler an Insecure Dictator?

This question is not to be confused with the more controversial "weak VS strong dictator" debate; however, there is some necessary overlap. The motivations behind Hitler's unwillingness, on occasion, to do exactly as he wished--and not whether he did or did not have the actual power to do so--is the pertinent question as concerns the basic insecurities behind Hitler's rule. There is a school of thought that conjectures that Hitler, though possessing dictatorial powers, nonetheless used them with undue caution and tolerated many things that were detrimental to his authority; things that were technically in his power to deal with. The considerations concerning such realities--the opposing power structures Hitler erected, the Mommsen-Nolte debate, etc.--are not germane to this particular question.

While "Was Hitler an Insecure Dictator" may seem a silly question at first glance, the first point to consider is that Public Opinion mattered to Hitler. While he was usually able to discern ahead of time how far he could go before PO would turn against whatever measure he was pushing, he miscalculated a number of times and had to retreat from certain endeavors, something he absolutely hated to do. Changing ones mind is something that a fellow such as Hitler, whose public persona was so wrapped up in his delusions of infallibility, could simply not indulge in. Reversing course on any issue struck Hitler as a sign of weakness, and he felt a personal humiliation on such occasions.

Perhaps the most instructive example of this phenomenon was Hitler's public abandonment of his so-called 'Euthanasia' program after some high-profile clergy made the action the subject of Sunday morning sermons. This taught Hitler the lesson that his Germans were not quite ready to be as "practical and ruthless" as he would have liked. This is assumed to be one of the reasons--if not the main reason--that the Holocaust was wrapped in such relative secrecy from its inception.

Another example where he over-stepped himself and had to retreat was when his SS arrested the Jewish spouses of full-German women who then dared to take to the streets in protest; one of the very few public protests that were not specifically Party-sponsored in Nazi Germany. His regime had to back off and release the hapless husbands. This was the sort of thing that Hitler considered a humiliation, and he took great pains to pay attention to the public mood and avoid such losses of face.

The two examples above lay waste to the apologist claim that the German people were helpless to protest in the face of Hitler's police state. Public protest, while dangerous, was still possible. What this lack of protest concerning those Jews not wedded to 'Aryans' says about German PO concerning Hitler's persecution of Jews is obvious and odious. To spell it out; had regular German civilians been inclined to stand publicly with the Jews and against the Holocaust, Hitler would have had to back down, as he had done on these aforementioned incidents. Obviously, the German public was unwilling to do so, and thus were complicit in the crime.

Another example of Hitler's insecurity in his rule concerns Hitler's unwillingness to publicly tour the ruins of bombed German cities, with the assumption being that he was fearful of a popular backlash blaming him for the destruction. He avoided such photo opportunities at all costs (Goebels was able to talk him into such a tour a total of one time). In contrast, Goebbels, never one to miss a propaganda opportunity, eagerly sought every opportunity to tour the ruins, expound on the barbarity of the enemies indiscriminate bombing, and sympathize with the civilian victims. There is in existence a series of pictures of Goebbels empathizing with a devastated peasant woman amid the ruins (though I cannot find that exact picture right now); one of the few pictorial spreads that actually portray the calculating propagandist in a humane light.

Those visits (not sure how many, but more than 8 by my always doomed-to-be-incomplete notes) had a marked influence on how people felt about the abrasive minister. They brought up his approval rating, as we'd put it today. Hitler resisted Goebbels' frequent pleas that he himself visit bomb-damaged districts. Why did he not capitalize on Allied excesses personally, as Goebbels encouraged him to do? Is it because Hitler was concerned with his perceived public opinion approval rating? It seems quite likely that this is the case.

Another incident is interesting in this context. Hitler was having dinner one evening on the Amerika (Amerika was the name of Hitler's personal train; go figure), when a troop train bearing emaciated German soldiers returning from the eastern front came alongside at a siding. According to the account of his orderly, Hitler looked up from his plate and noticed the battle weary soldiers staring dumfounded through the window. He hastily ordered his servant to draw the curtain and appeared shaken by the incident. Some of you may have seen this scene portrayed in a certain bad Hollywood production, which portrays Hitler flying into a sputtering rage. It didn't happen quite the way that it was depicted in the film, but according to an eye-witness, he was certainly not happy about the chance incident. What a change from the trench comrade of earlier days!

The frequency of ANY kind of contact with the public plummeted as the war progressed. He made fewer and fewer speeches, and even these few were pre-recorded radio broadcasts. Could he have felt guilty and responsible? Did he fear the public would turn on him in the midst of the devastation? His experiences on leave during WW1, observing the discontent and low moral on the home-front, had made a marked impression on him, and it is obvious that he didn't want to follow in the Kaisers footsteps.

Many scholars have taken all this to mean that Hitler was either an insecure dictator, a paranoid dictator, or some combination of both. I don't buy the paranoid explanation. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, even paranoids have actual enemies, and one cannot deny that Hitler had earned his full quota.

Hitler's ultimate refusal to take the chance of being captured by the Allies, by committing suicide and having his body destroyed, was not a paranoiac response, but a realistic plan based on the situation. It was only a few days after Mussolini's body had been publicly displayed and defiled by a mob of Italians, and Hitler was realistic enough to realize that he would not be immune to this fate. That he acknowledged this fear to his aide as justification for crematorial measures is sufficient evidence that he was aware that public opinion is the ficklest of creatures. He'd always been aware of it.

Did the Fuehrer really fear that his public would turn on him at some point, and did this fear prompt him to modify his behavior on occasion? This seems to be a viable conclusion. Did Hitler fear death? Obviously, no, he did not. What he feared was humiliation.

Conclusion: Was Hitler basically an insecure leader? It seems ludicrous on the face of it, but it does seem to be the case in some limited and modified form on occasion, if not to be construed as an over-all pattern.
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