Adolf Hitler the Orator (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Adolf Hitler the Orator

Q1: Study source 1. Hitler used to try out his speeches in front of the mirror. He also got his friend, Heinrich Hoffmann, to take photographs of him speaking without an audience. Why did he do this?

A1: Adolf Hitler was very interested in finding out what he looked like when he was making speeches. He tried out different gestures in front of the mirror and Hoffmann's camera. Some of these gestures, for example, top left and bottom right in source 1, were rejected and were not used in public. Others, such as the middle photograph at the bottom, was accepted and used when he gave speeches.

Q2: Use quotations from the sources to show what affect Hitler's speeches had on his audience.

A2: Alexander von Muller (source 2) points out that before Hitler spoke at meetings, other members gave short speeches. Muller claims that Hitler's late appearance built up tension in the audience. When he finally appeared he was struck by his appearance: "his gaunt, pale features contorted as if by inward rage, cold flames darting from his protruding eyes, which seemed to be searching out foes to be conquered". Kurt Ludecke (source 5) agreed with Muller that he "had the look of a fanatic". However, once he began talking "my critical faculty was swept away... he was holding the masses, and me with them, under a hypnotic spell by the sheer force of his conviction".

It has been argued (source 12) that Hitler's timing was very important. Hitler always stood in silence before starting his speech: "First the long, excruciating pause before he speaks; and then see how he begins so softly - with his arms folded - and how he uncoils them as his voice starts to rise, and then the awful jabbing fluidity of his gestures, perfectly timed to intensify the crescendos of his speech.... Listen to the way he brings them all to their collective climax: with short verb less phrases – grammatically meaningless, but full of suggestive power."

The historian, Alan Bullock (source 7) watched film of Hitler making speeches and interviewed a large number of people who attended his meetings. He admitted that Hitler had many faults as a speaker (repetitive, verbose, lacked lucidity). However, he was a highly successful communicator because of "the extraordinary impression of force, the immediacy of passion, the intensity of hatred, fury, and menace conveyed by the sound of the voice". George Steiner (source 9) claims that even as a young child listening to Hitler on the radio he was struck by the power of his voice: "It's a hard thing to describe, but the voice itself was mesmeric... The amazing thing is that the body comes through on the radio. I can't put it any other way. You feel you're following the gestures."

Bullock argues that one of his most important factors in his success was "his instinctive sensitivity to the mood of a crowd, a flair for divining the hidden passions, resentments and longings in their minds". Otto Strasser (source 8) was a senior figure in the Nazi Party, later wrote, that in the first few minutes of his speech "Hitler... gropes, feels his way, senses the atmosphere. Suddenly he bursts forth. His words go like an arrow to their target, he touches each private wound on the raw, liberating the mass unconscious, expressing its innermost aspirations, telling it what it most wants to hear.... I have been asked many times what is the secret of Hitler's extraordinary power as a speaker. I can only attribute it to his uncanny intuition, which infallibly diagnoses the ills from which his audience is suffering."

Q3: What strategies did Hitler use to achieve the effects that you have described in your previous answer?

A3: Hitler made full use of gestures when making speeches (see sources 1, 4 and 10). Alan Bullock criticized Hitler for being "repetitive". Hitler admitted (source 11) that this was done on purpose: "The receptivity of the great masses is extremely limited, their intelligence is small, their forgetfulness - enormous. Therefore all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and they should be used like slogans until the very last man in the audience is capable of understanding what is meant by this slogan... the masses... will only ultimately remember only the simplest ideas repeated a thousand times over."

Most people claimed that they had a emotional rather than a rational response to Hitler's speeches. Some talked of his hypnotic power (sources 3 and 5). Hitler admitted: "If I approach the masses with reasoned arguments, they will not understand me. But if I awaken in them the appropriate emotions, then they will follow the simple slogans I give them. In the mass meeting, the reasoning power is paralysed... (what I say) will be like an order given under hypnosis."

Alan Bullock (source 7) writes about "the extraordinary impression of force, the immediacy of passion, the intensity of hatred, fury, and menace conveyed" in Hitler's speeches. Otto Strasser (source 8) comments that in his speeches Hitler talked a great deal about destruction. George Steiner (source 9) claims that as a child he was aware of Hitler's language of "physical violence".

Hitler was very aware of having this impact on the audience: "Haven't you ever seen a crowd collecting to watch a street brawl? Brutality and physical strength is what they respect. The man in the street respects nothing more than strength and ruthlessness - women too for that matter. The masses need something that will give them a thrill of horror."