A charismatic situation

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

The period after World War I in Europe was a charismatic situation, Xavier Marquez explains, when a number of people made charismatic claims more or less successfully:

The most famous of these people was Hitler, in Ian Kershaw’s classic interpretation. If we conceptualize charisma merely as a sort of talent, Hitler was an unlikely candidate for leadership. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a loser. To be sure, he did have some qualities, including “massive overconfidence”, that would help him later in his rise to power, and he was well-served by the fascist genius for ritual spectacle; but none of these qualities, by themselves, explain his later charismatic authority over millions of people. (At best, they would have made him a moderately successful rabble-rouser — what he in fact was in the early 1920s).

What really invested him with charismatic authority among many Germans in the 1930s were his successes, including his unlikely electoral gains, his astonishing diplomatic and military victories after he gained power, and perhaps most of all the taming of German unemployment. It did not matter much whether some of these successes were actually attributable to Hitler, or based on illusory assessments, so long as he was visibly associated with them. And because Hitler wildly exceeded initial expectations (he was, after all, a perfect outsider), too many people adjusted their priors “too much” in the direction of “miracle worker.” But by the same token, when his decisions led to a massive failure that he had to take responsibility for (in particular, the defeat at Stalingrad) his charismatic authority started to ebb. (It had to be a massive failure, by the way: minor failures would not have dented his reputation much, as they would have been easily rationalized).

Similar stories could be told for other classic cases of charismatic leadership in this period. A common thread in these stories seems to be that leaders who are later said to be charismatic are successful bluffers, outsiders who make unlikely gambles and win. Mussolini with his “March on Rome” is another case in point. The march represented no big threat to the Italian state (Prime Minister Luigi Facta was ready to impose martial law to prevent it, and would likely have succeeded), yet king Vitorio Emmanuele III folded and gave Mussolini the prime ministership. This success was one event that helped construct Mussolini’s charismatic authority, complementing the ritual dimensions of fascist rule. Fascist spectacle by itself was insufficient; Mussolini, another paradigmatic outsider, required unlikely, striking successes for large numbers of people to greatly increase their trust in him as a leader. But again, when he failed, his charisma quickly ebbed, and he came to depend more and more on the legal authority of the state rather than on his personal authority as a charismatic leader.


  1. Adar says:

    Hitler not considered to be worthy of being an officer in the German army. Too mentally unstable. So was his evaluation.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    Well, Hitler was at Ypres and the Somme, and he was wounded twice and awarded medals. The Wiki bio states that his service in the Bavarian army was contrary to German policy, because as an Austrian citizen he should have been in the Austrian army. Whatever.

    I have been told by native German speakers that a part of Hitler’s success was his oratory. He could be spell-binding. This is not evident in newsreels of the time, because they always cut to the crescendo.

    Of all the speakers I have heard, going back to Eisenhower, in terms of audience rapport, the best public speaker since the Kennedys is Trump. What is especially interesting about Trump is that he speaks more or less extemporaneously. The Kennedys had superb speech writers.

    Trump-haters don’t get this, but then they refuse to listen. But anyone who watches any of his rallies must be struck by how he relates to and responds to the audience. It is truly extraordinary. If there is a person who could pull off a coup, it is Trump.

  3. lucklucky says:

    Hitler charisma is only build by those millions that adhere to him. And that was only possible by the bluffs -very well pointed in the article – Hitler won because other powers that could have checked him were too feckless.

    The story of Franz Halder is paradigmatic
    when German army wanted to resist Hitler he won some diplomatic battle


  4. Lu An Li says:

    ” What is especially interesting about Trump is that he speaks more or less extemporaneously.”

    Correct, and that is a lot of his appeal to a certain demographic. HE IS NOT a candidate [actor] reading a script that has been approved by someone else.

  5. Mollycoddle says:

    “his service in the Bavarian army was contrary to German policy, because as an Austrian citizen he should have been in the Austrian army.”

    Hitler and his half-brother were rejected from Austro-Hungarian military as both being tubercular. Having the symptoms of tuberculosis but not the illness itself? But months later Hitler accepted into the Bavarian regiment and off to war. Yes, strange.

  6. Kirk says:

    Much of the “Hitler phenomenon” begins to make more sense once you look at it through the lens of his likely syphilitic infection.

    Syphilis is a disease that’s influenced an awful lot of human history since its first association with us. If you follow the sheer number of likely infections which become apparent when you examine things surrounding the lives of key historical characters, an awful lot of “WTF were they thinking…?” starts to come clear; like a mouse infected with Toxoplasmosis Gondii, the humans suffering from syphilis go through a series of neurological changes that result in things that look a hell of a lot like what goes on with meth addicts–Obsessive-compulsive behaviors, mania, and extreme creativity. Hitler shows signs of a syphilis infection early in his Vienna years, and there’s even some evidence that the disease was acquired from a Jewish prostitute!

    You can’t leave syphilis out of the picture, when looking at a lot of this history, and that’s what we’ve done.

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