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How the Hitler myth took hold in Germany. Manipulating masses

By Gail Russell / March 4, 1988

The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, by Ian Kershaw. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press. 297 pp. $49.95. THIS book takes on a classic political problem: the emperor with no clothes. And, like the child's parable, it focuses attention not on the emperor, but on the audience.

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Hitler projected an image of himself as sacred hero, omnipotent warrior, the embodiment of national unity and purpose. Nazi propagandists drew on new technologies to dress the image: film, phonograph records, radio, the aeroplane. After all, Hitler was the first to take political campaigns to the air, literally descending from the heavens with a message of hope (and hate) for long waiting audiences on the ground.

Ian Kershaw is not the first to note that Hitler made exaggerated claims for himself. The strength of Kershaw's study is that he moves beyond a description of the construction of the ``Hitler myth'' to analysis of its strength and resiliency. He is interested in how Germans responded to this image, in different social and economic classes, different regions, over time. The picture that emerges of the audience is far more differentiated than that image of fawning masses hawked in Nazi propaganda films.

The sources of Hitler's immense popularity, Kershaw argues, have to be sought in ``those who adored him,'' rather than in the leader himself: their readiness to trust political ``salvation'' to a ``strong man,'' their failure to develop (or willingness to suspend) ``educated cynicism and critical awareness,'' their ``retreat into the private sphere'' in the face of mounting evidence of Nazi horrors.

The search for genuine public response to the Hitler myth takes Kershaw into vast quantities of data. His material comes from two sources: ``morale'' and ``situation'' reports from official state and party agencies, and reports on shifts in public opinion documented by the socialist opposition. Both sources have built-in biases, but in opposite directions.

Kershaw also draws heavily on content analysis of sources as various as Hitler's public speeches, newspaper reports, letters from the front, and death announcements of the period. (The latter often contained expressions of gratitude to the F"uhrer.) He makes available to an English-speaking audience much recent German scholarship on the Nazi period.

Perhaps the first achievement of Kershaw's book is that he doesn't get lost in his data. He frames analysis around key periods and raises questions worth answering. In the process, he challenges popular views of German fascism, contending that:

Most Germans did not warm to the notion of a new war, even to find a ``place in the sun.'' They were concerned with getting out of a world depression and were ``overwhelmingly frightened by the prospects of another war.''

Most Germans were not confirmed anti-Semites, and the drawing power of Hitler's vision of racial ``purity'' as the determining element in winning support for the Nazi Party has been exaggerated.