Adolf Hitler mastered the skill of deceiving people by telling the right story to the right person at the right time –– he was a deceiver-in-chief who fooled countless people about his real intention: consolidating as much power as possible. To many, I may be giving Hitler too much credit, for he has long been underestimated as a man of limited political and intellectual talents. Only a few people have viewed him as politically adroit. Charlie Chaplin was one such exception who understood Hitler’s uncanny ability to know precisely which role to play for which person or group. In our present era, historian and journalist Volker Ullrich is another exception. In his recent biography, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, he illustrates in great detail how Hitler deployed a wide variety of narratives to advance his aim of building a dictatorship.
When campaigning for votes throughout the 1920s, Hitler told a simple salvific story of death and rebirth. Darkly depicting Germany as a country on the brink of extermination, he promised to make Germany great again by rooting out the corrupt elites and mendacious Jews who had been destroying its ethno-cultural essence as a nation for decades. “What we’re promising is not an improvement in material conditions for an individual class of people, but rather the multiplication of the strength of the nation since only this will put us on the path to power and to the liberation of the entire people,” Hitler said at a political rally in 1930. With significant help from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler masqueraded as a kind of “democratic” figure who claimed to speak for those who had been neglected by the elites or silenced by the Jews. This appeal to the “people” or Volk disguised Hitler’s real interest in creating a dictatorship that exalted him above all others.
To the law and order authorities of the Weimar Republic, Hitler told a much different story. In a court appearance in 1930, Hitler reprised his frequently made promise not to “use illegal means” to attain political power, despite his attempt in 1923 to come to power through a putsch. That putsch famously failed but Hitler had now suddenly come to respect the Weimar constitution. “In this constitutional way,” he assured the judge, “we will try to achieve decisive majorities in all legislative bodies so that, if we’re successful, we can remold the state in a form that corresponds to our ideas.” If the court missed Hitler’s deceptive appeal to legality, Joseph Goebbels certainly did not. “Clever move,” he said. “What do the authorities think they can do to us now? They were waiting to make their move. But now we’re strictly legal. Legal no matter what.” The appeal to legality worked. Shortly after Hitler’s testimony, Reich Defense Minister Wilhelm Groener and his closest adviser had become more comfortable with the possibility of working with the Nazis after learning about Hitler’s commitment to the rule of law.
Probably the most fateful narrative Hitler spun was directed to Weimar Germany’s leading political figures, above all Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen and Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, both of whom initially remained suspicious of Hitler. Yet, gradually over time, they warmed up to him due largely to Hitler’s appeal to their aristocratic inclinations for “moderation.” The pugnacity of the Nazis bothered Papen and Hindenburg; they wanted calm and prudence, not street violence. With an ability to anticipate what people needed or wanted, Hitler sensed what made them uneasy and knew how to address it. In private, he acted deferentially and spoke calmly to Papen and Hindenburg. He also nourished their hopes of a less radical Hitler in public. In his first statement as chancellor on February 1, 1933, Hitler made himself sound like a conservative, calling for the restoration of Christian values and the reconciliation of class divisions. He even moderated his foreign policy aims, claiming that Germany would advocate “the preservation and solidification of peace, which the world needs now more than ever.” A mere two days later, Hitler outlined his radical plan to build an authoritarian state and destroy democracy in a private meeting with the commanders of the German army and navy.
It is often tempting to view Hitler as an extreme, monstrous example from history. Hitler was monstrous –– monstrously deceptive about his intentions –– but he was not an aberration in the history of authoritarianism. On the contrary, the capacity to deceive by telling different stories has been a common strategy among authoritarians to attain and consolidate power. History offers, unfortunately, many examples to illustrate my point, but let me end with an authoritarian very close to home –– Benjamin Ryan Tillman. While Tillman was of course no Hitler, he was an authoritarian who opposed democracy in America from 1890 to 1918 with a ferocity the country has rarely witnessed in his roles as Governor of South Carolina, United States Senator, and founder of Clemson University. Tillman sought to ensure the dominance of select white males through nearly every means available to him including support for lynching and mob violence. Born into a wealthy slave-holding planter family, Tillman gained political power by barnstorming the state in rallies, where he portrayed himself as an “ordinary farmer” interested in representing white male farmers who had been forgotten by the state’s political elite. Tillman had to invent the image of himself as a man of the people from whole cloth: one of the few photos picturing him with his “farmers” was forged from two separate photos.
Tillman was hardly a democrat simply interested in the farmer’s plight. He portrayed himself as a farmer to gain power and create an authoritarian regime in South Carolina. And this he did through the legal means of passing a new state constitution in 1895 that crowned white male supremacy. To this day, however, Tillman is not remembered for this authoritarian act. Rather, the democratic-populist narrative he spread holds sway. “Loving them, he was the friend and leader of the common people,” so reads a monument erected in 1940 on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia. If anything, perhaps the examples of Tillman and Hitler might prompt us to ask: Why is it so difficult to see through deceivers and the beguiling narratives they create?