Adolph Hitler's rise to power over the course of the 1920s and 30s was due to a confluence of political and personal factors which served to make Hitler the ideal person to take control of Germany's failing fortunes. In many ways one may view Hitler's frightening success as a case of being the right person, in the right place, at the right time, because his peculiar personality was an almost perfect match for the disillusioned Germans suffering from the ignominy and economic disaster which followed their defeat in the first World War. Numerous researchers have attempted to diagnose Hitler's personality in psychological or psychiatric terms, and while these studies some useful insights, this study will focus more on Hitler's personality as it relates to his audience, because regardless of the specific neuroses Hitler exhibited, the image he cultivated in the minds of Germans and some in the international community was dependent on a perceived logic, humility, and charm, even as his actions and speeches, from the perspective of the historian, appear illogical, fanatical, and megalomanic. Combining recent historical work with contemporary accounts of Hitler given by those who engaged with him during his rise will help to demonstrate how Hitler exploited a fairly inaccurate view of personality, psychology, and their relationship to power in order to couch his bigoted ideology in the language of science, reason, and national pride, thus ensnaring a population already primed to receive this ideology due to their fear and ignorance regarding the actual causes of Germany's misery.
Before addressing Hitler's successful manipulation of widespread assumptions regarding personality and its relation to power, it will be helpful to provide some background information on the state of Germany following World War I and the initial emergence of the National Socialist party. As is now widely realized, Hitler's rise would likely have been impossible without the devastating ramifications World War I had on the German economy and national identity and the unexpected consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. Following the war and the punitive reparation measures included in the treaty of Versailles, "the economy was in seeming freefall, and social divisiveness was so great that many Germans thought a Soviet-style revolution was likely," and indeed, there was a brief uprising in Munich which partially served to justify the paramilitary groups that would provide the backbone for Hitler's National Socialist party (Redles 24).
These paramilitary organizations were almost following the end of World War I, as the Treaty of Versailles "mandated reduction of Germany's armed forces and prohibition of military weapons at target ranges," thus excluding numerous returning veterans from the social and political organization which had previously structured their life (Imhoof 464). The result was the emergence of what were essentially highly nationalist, politically-minded gangs. Thus, the Versailles treaty did not actually keep Germany from training up militants, but rather forced the training of these militants and the groups themselves outside of official channels, which ultimately only made them more susceptible to assimilation by the emerging National Socialist party.
In particular, the sharpshooting clubs which rose to prominence following World War I, being the only legal means by which men could train, provided the an ideal local community organization from which the National Socialist party could organize support. The emergence of sharpshooting as a popular pastime and the new found importance granted to sharpshooting clubs in the 1920s "provided the institutional and ideological basis for its integration into the Third Reich" (Imhoof 463). Thus, far from precluding the dangerous buildup of military power in Germany, the restrictions included in the Treaty of Versailles only served to create the conditions for a different form of military power, one that could be co-opted far more easily than a standard military.
At the same time that sharpshooting clubs and paramilitary groups were rising to prominence in Germany, the state of the economy was rapidly deteriorating without any sign of a reversal. Thus, coupled with the fundamentally new ways of war making introduced during World War I and the previously unheard of scale of the conflict, the economic and social divisions on Germany presented such seemingly insurmountable problems that "many Germans interpreted Wiemar Germany as a culture of apocalypse" (Redles 25). Old political organizations were rapidly deteriorating while "the new parliamentary democracy, so long sought after by many liberals, was rejected by just as many other Germans as being more a cause of political chaos rather than its solution," leaving Germany, including the leadership of the Wiemar government, in an almost infantile state of helplessness (Redles 24). The only forms of social organization that were seemingly not dissolving before the eyes of the public were nationalist paramilitary groups and other ideological organizations that sought to reject the perceived failures of both imperial and parliamentary government. Far from proposing new, productive ides regarding the future of the country, however, these ideologies were marked an infantile reliance on comfortable assumptions and preexisting stereotypes.
As in any time of marked globalization and rapid political and social upheaval, the population of Germany was being forced to confront problems born out of a global system they had no way of wholly conceiving due to the fact that the shared consciousness of the public is almost always behind when it comes to understanding the actual structures of power, as new theoretical knowledge and critical tools take time to disseminate and ingratiate themselves into public consciousness. When faced with such overwhelming, bewildering developments, people tend to retreat towards the oversimplified answers provided by religiosity and other forms of restrictive thinking, such as bigotry and nationalism, and this phenomena helps to explain the formation and rise of the National Socialist party at the beginning of the 1920s as well as the appeal of a domineering personality such as Hitler's.
The National Socialist party was founded in 1920, with the renaming of the German Worker's Party. Though Hitler was supposedly the seventh man to join the party, he soon became "the man' in the group" as a result of his speaking skills (Scheffer 382). Hitler's speaking and emotive abilities were remarked upon by many of those who saw him firsthand, and these responses undoubtedly served to craft the strictly manicured public image that Hitler sought for himself. However, this carefully crafted image was not one of a naturally gifted speaker, but rather sought to portray Hitler's success as born out of the undeniable "truth" of his ideas, which entranced listeners almost in spite of his own dull presence. Thus, in 1923 a German reporter remarked that Hitler's "voice is certainly not unpleasant, but neither is it exactly fascinating" even as he claims that "in spite of the speaker's moderate tone, a very hurricane of elemental passion seems to be sweeping down upon the audience" ("Hitler New Power In Germany," New York Times 1923).
This perceived contrast between Hitler's own natural persona and the force of his speech was perfectly suited to engage a populace in the throws of an almost religious response to economic and political problems, because it allowed Hitler to appear almost disinterested in his own success (as well as allowing for comparisons to Moses, another political leader whose personality and speaking abilities were considered sub-par). This served to simultaneously give Hitler the veneer of humility and service while implicitly making the argument that "only this man can save us and no one else" (Redles 25). As his early audiences oftentimes consisted of "the 'de-classed' middle class: creatures visibly down at the heel, spiritually crushed in the struggle with everyday reality," Hitler's persona in the 1920s served first and foremost to appeal to the emotional and uncritical receptivity of his audience (Scheffer 384).
One of the most common psychological diagnoses of Hitler's personality helps to explain his ability to simultaneously appear singularly worthy of power while at the same time humble, because Hitler is most commonly described as suffering from borderline personality disorder with an attendant narcissism (Schmitt 475). Borderline disorder is partially characterized by an ability to rapidly vacillate between emotional extremes such that one is able to deploy power over others not through explicit command or coercion but by positioning oneself in an apparent position of powerlessness. Thus, Hitler managed to appear singularly capable of saving Germany precisely because of his ability to make it seem like he did not want to, or was otherwise unqualified. In essence, Hitler secured immense personal power by repeatedly claiming that that power was not actually his, but rather in the hands of those exhibiting "a little of the old Germanism" ("Hitler New Power In Germany," New York Times 1923).
However, the attraction of a messianic figure in the apocalyptic atmosphere of Germany in the 1920s is not enough to explain Hitler's rise, because governance requires a simultaneous (imagined) appeal to reason, due to the fact than any politically minded person likes to believe that he or she arrived at his or her political beliefs through a logical process, regardless of how fantastical those beliefs…