Hannah Arendt Dissects the “Charisma” of Hitler

I’m reading a collection of short works by Hannah Arendt (Essays in Understanding, 1930–1954: Formation, Exile, and Totalitarianism), and thought that her assessment of Hitler’s “charisma” was insightful and relevant to our time and situation:

The problem of Hitler’s charisma is relatively easy to solve. It was to a great extent identical with… the “fanatical faith the man had in himself,” and it rested on the well-known experiential fact that Hitler must have realized early in his life, namely, that modern society in its desperate inability to form judgments will take every individual for what he considers himself and professes himself to be and will judge him on that basis. Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence therefore inspire confidence in others; pretensions of genius waken the conviction in others that they are indeed dealing with a genius. This is merely the perversion of an old and justified rule of all good society according to which everyone has to be capable of showing what he is and of presenting himself in the proper light. The perversion occurs when the social role becomes, as it were, arbitrary, when it is completely separated from the actual human substance, indeed, when a role consistently played is unquestioningly accepted as the substance itself. In such an atmosphere any kind of fraud becomes possible because there appears to be no one at all left for whom the difference between fraud and authenticity matters in the least. People therefore fall prey to judgments apodictically expressed because the apodictic tone frees them from the chaos of an infinite number of totally arbitrary judgments. The crucial point is that not only is the apodictic quality of tone more convincing than the content of the judgment but also the content of the judgment, the object judged, becomes irrelevant. Hitler’s tirades about the evils of smoking seem to have had a no less fascinating effect on his listeners than his speeches about Napoleon Ⅰ or his views on world history. To assess correctly this phenomenon of charisma in Hitler’s case we have to remind ourselves that in present-day society it is not really all that difficult to create an aura about oneself that will fool everyone — or just about everyone — who comes under its influence. In this respect Hitler behaved no differently than have many less talented charlatans. It goes without saying that under these conditions the rule of a good upbringing that says one must not blow one’s own horn has to be ruthlessly put aside. The more that the vulgar practice of unbridled self-praise spreads in a society which for the most part still adheres to the rules of good upbringing, the more powerful its effect will be and the more easily that society can be convinced that only a truly “great man” who cannot be judged by normal standards could summon the courage to break rules as sacrosanct as those of good breeding. In other words, Hitler held a far greater fascination for generals and other members of good society than he did for the “old fighters” who, like him, came from the mob strata of society.

In the prevailing chaos that inability to form judgments created, however, Hitler’s superiority went considerably beyond the fascination, the mere “charisma,” that any charlatan can emanate. The awareness of the social possibilities that the modern inability to judge offered, and the ability to exploit them, were supported by the vastly more telling insight that in the modern world’s chaos of opinion the normal mortal is yanked about from one opinion to another without the slightest understanding of what distinguishes the one from the other. Hitler knew from his own most personal experience what the maelstrom was like into which modern man is drawn and in which he changes his political or other “philosophy” from day to day on the basis of whatever options are offered him as he whirls helplessly about. He is himself that newspaper reader of whom he says that “in a city [in which] twelve newspapers each report the same event differently… he will finally come to the conclusion that it is all nonsense.” What distinguished Hitler from this newspaper reader and his desperation was simply that he had discovered one fine day that if you really hang onto any one of the current opinions and develop it with (as he was fond of saying) “ice-cold” consistency, then everything would somehow fall back into place again. Hitler’s real superiority consisted in the fact that under any and all circumstances he had an opinion and that his opinion always fit perfectly into his over-all “philosophy.” In this social context (and only in this context) superiority is indeed increased by fanaticism because obvious and demonstrable errors can no longer undermine it. What immediately reasserts itself after any demonstrated error is the fact that one not only has an opinion but also embraces that opinion and is therefore capable of judgment. And in politics, where one constantly has to act and therefore constantly has to make judgments, it is indeed altogether correct in a practical sense and more advantageous to reach any judgment and to pursue any course of action than not to judge and not to act at all.

Not to judge and not to act at all is a condition devoutly desired by many in the modern world.…

From “At Table with Hitler”, a review of Hitler’s Tischgespräche published in , originally in German, translated by Robert and Rita Kimber.