“I know that men are won over less by the written than by the spoken word, that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to orators and not to great writers.” — Adolf Hitler, “Author’s Preface,” Mein Kampf (James Murphy trans., 1939)
Houston Peterson, compiler of A Treasury of the World’s Great Speeches (1965), believed that “eloquent speech” (oratory) originated deep in the prehistoric past among men “who cast spells over their fellows with the magic of words. At first it was not words so much as the rhythm, the sounds, the incantation that was a part of ritual. Chiefs, priests, medicine men, millenniums before the heroes of Homer, must have risen to power through skill in speech as well as skill in arms.”
Adolf Hitler believed the magic of the spoken word was the primary propaganda weapon. Historian David Irving called Hitler’s power of elemental oratory “his greatest gift.”
In the Beginning Was the Word
In 1941, Raoul de Roussy Sales, the compiler of a book of extracts of Hitler’s speeches, wrote, “He is essentially a speechmaker, and although today it is his deeds and his conquests that most impress the world, it should not be forgotten that he started as a soap-box orator and spoke his way to power.”
Post-WWI Germany suffered from disintegrative social and political tendencies.
Jews briefly succeeded in establishing embryonic Communist dictatorships, nearly pitching the entire country into a totalitarian bloodbath of Russian-style proportions. Historian John Toland described the German capital as without electricity, its trolley cars and subways stopped, garbage rotting in the streets, and shops and offices closed.
Only Berlin’s night life went on unimpeded, in darkness or candlelight. It was corruption out of an overdone movie with heavily rouged girl prostitutes of eleven competing with whip-toting Amazons in high lacquered boots. There were cafes for every taste and perversion—homosexuals, lesbians, exhibitionists, sadists, masochists. Nudity had become boring and art itself was plumbing the nadir of obscenity, disillusionment and cynicism. (Adolf Hitler, 1976, p. 100)
If I didn’t live in the United States of America I might think he was exaggerating.
Upon joining the miniscule German Workers’ Party (DAP; Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) in 1919, Hitler quickly became its dominant figure and main speaker.
The first “large” meeting he addressed was held in the smoky basement of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich on October 16, 1919. There he spoke from behind a crude lectern atop a table for half an hour to an audience of seventy.
According to biographer John Toland, “Abandoning all restraint, he let emotion take over and by the time he sat down to loud applause sweat covered his face. He was exhausted but elated ‘and what before I had simply felt deep down in my heart, without being able to put it to the test, proved to be true; I could speak!'” (quoting Mein Kampf).
Toland characterized this event as “a turning point” in Hitler’s career and in the historical trajectory of the German Workers’ Party, soon to be renamed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).
Hitler later wrote in the party newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter, “When I closed the meeting, I was not alone in thinking that now a wolf had been born, destined to burst in upon the herd of seducers of the people.”
The name Adolf, derived from Old High German, literally meant “noble wolf.” From that day forward “wolf” had a special meaning for him, as a nickname among close friends, his pseudonym, and the name for most of his military headquarters.
A month later Hitler spoke to 130 students, shopkeepers, and army officers in another Munich beer hall, the Eberlbräu.
Inasmuch as the speech was only the unknown Hitler’s second public address for the tiny party, two points are worth noting.
First, a government spy was present. Incorrectly identifying Hitler as a merchant, he reported that the orator “held forth in an outstanding manner” and was destined to become “a professional propaganda speaker.”
Second, Jews, Leftists, and Communists were well-organized in advance to use violence to suppress a speech targeting only 130 people, the content of which would not be circulated to a larger audience via newspapers or magazines (the mass media of the day). Their intention was to stop the meeting and intimidate the participants so that even a tiny audience could not hear Hitler’s message, knowing few would risk doing so ever again.
This pattern persists today.
Currently, for example, World War II historian David Irving is in the midst of a speaking tour of the US, one of the few remaining European countries where free speech has not (yet) been formally outlawed as “hate,” “terrorism,” “Holocaust denial,” or “defaming the memory of the dead .”
A few days ago he spoke to a handful of people at a hotel in Oklahoma City. Irving and his listeners are forced to meet furtively in private, indeed, under conditions of utmost secrecy, otherwise armed, Leftist “antifa” thugs who stalk the writer across the United States will criminally break up the meetings.
Even so, elsewhere in the hotel that evening “thirty men dressed in black with bandanas and masks,” wielding illegal weapons, stormed in, “found a birthday party for a Dr. Kunz’s family, and mistakenly smashed into that.” The crime, Irving says, was planned and led by the owner of a Tulsa wholesale computer firm.
But these masked stalkers and domestic terrorists will receive little more than a slap on the wrist from the System, if that. In essence, police, prosecutors, and courts smirk about it, as they have done for more than half a century now.
There is no great mystery about why our race is in the peril it’s in. It is not a mysterious puzzle. It is a lie to say that “we did it to ourselves.” The real reason is plain: violence, hatred, force, power, and government-approved criminality designed to suppress civil liberties.
But at the Eberlbräu in 1919, Hitler had alerted his military contingent in advance, and within minutes after hecklers began interrupting, the Leftists “flew down the stairs with gashed heads.” (Mein Kampf )
After a few more meetings speaking to similar-sized crowds, Hitler insisted that the German Workers’ Party transform itself from a small ideological discussion and writing group into a true political party.
During the final days of December 1919 he and party founder Anton Drexler drafted a 25-point program that Hitler presented to the “public” for ratification.
This important meeting took place on February 24, 1920 in the Festsaal, or Festival Room, of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, a great hall on the third floor jammed with hundreds of people.
Hitler was “particularly pleased” that more than half the crowd consisted of Communists or Independent Socialist Party members. He was convinced he could win over the “true idealists” among them while making short work of the hard core disruptors.
Unaccustomed to speaking to such a large audience, his voice was loud one moment and weak the next. But he spoke so simply and clearly that even those at the farthest tables could hear him.
Hitler began quietly, outlining the history of the previous ten years. But as his narrative reached the post-WWI Communist revolutions, his eyes flashed, passion crept into his voice, and he began to gesture.
Soon, angry shouts erupted from all corners of the great hall as thugs hurled heavy beer mugs at Hitler. Immediately his army supporters, forerunners of the SA, armed with whips and rubber truncheons, sprang into action, hustling the troublemakers outside.
Throughout 1920, at weekly or two-week intervals, Hitler continued to deliver speeches in Munich beer halls. Summaries of many of these speeches survive in lengthy secret police reports which contain accurate head counts. The audiences ranged in size from 1,200 to 3,500 people.
According to hostile German biographer Joachim Fest, by 1922 “he began holding series of eight, ten, or twelve rallies on a single evening, at each of which he would appear as the principal speaker.” (Hitler, 1973, p. 158) Though these numbers seem difficult to credit, they are what Fest reports.
On August 16, 1922 Hitler addressed his largest audience to date, a crowd of 40,000 in Munich’s great central square.
By Hitler’s own account, it took him two full years of hectic speaking to perfect his craft and become master of the art of oratory.
He could speak with spellbinding force both extemporaneously and from personally drafted scripts that he revised two, three, four, or even five times late into the night, occupying three secretaries taking dictation directly onto typewriters.
He also experimented with his own image, asking his personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann to take photographs for him to review. Then he’d examine them, deciding, “No, that looks silly” or “I’m never going to do that again.”
A handful of these photos exist showing Hitler practicing gestures to one of his speeches. He never intended for them to be published.
A psychic and emotional synthesis occurs between orators and their listeners. The orator’s stream of speech fuses individual members of the audience into Gustave Le Bon’s crowd. It is this crowd that the orator actually interacts with.
“Hitler was an actor of prodigious talents who could raise the temperature of the audience to flash-point, and at this point they were no longer separate individuals; they were all fused into the mass.” (Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, 1973, p. 156) The bigger the audience, the easier it was to manipulate it in such a manner.
Hitler paid close attention to his audiences.
At the time, Communism, socialism, and the class struggle were fundamental to political discourse everywhere.
So, in his early days, Hitler’s primary appeal was to the working and lower middle classes. He actively discouraged attendance or participation by the middle class (the bourgeoisie).
“The political attitude of that class is marked by the sign of cowardice. It exclusively concerns itself with order and tranquility. [He might better have said “conformity” and “blind obedience to authority.”] I aimed, instead, to awaken the enthusiasm of the working-class world to my ideas.” (Table Talk, April 8, 1942.)
Contempt for the middle class was a recurring theme in Hitler’s writing, thinking, and private remarks.
The trappings of his meetings were carefully calculated to exert certain effects upon the audience.
Hitler personally tested the acoustics of the important Munich meeting halls, determining the best places to stand, how loudly or softly he could speak and still be heard, the atmosphere, ventilation, and tactical layout of the rooms.
Detailed party guidelines were drawn up pertaining to such matters, specifying among other things that a hall should always be too small, and that a third of the audience should consist of party followers.
The atmosphere in the halls—impressively adorned with dramatic red, white and black swastika banners—was made genial with free beer, sausages, pretzels, folk singing, and music.
Such measures created receptive listeners.
At the appropriate psychological moment, Hitler would make a dramatic entrance—sometimes late, to intensify anticipation. He would silently survey the audience for a full minute or more before beginning to speak, further heightening tension.
After he’d carefully gauged the mood of the crowd he started talking slowly and quietly, feeling out the audience the way an actor would, adapting his manner and speech to its needs, building emotion slowly. People sat motionless, eyes riveted upon him.
He possessed an actor’s ability to suddenly throw on the extra generators and become absolutely charged with energy. Before the end of his talk he had roused the people to a pitch of almost uncontrollable excitement.
Organized anti-white opposition, including loud heckling, hurling of heavy beer mugs stockpiled under tables as weapons, and the use of table and chair legs as clubs to beat pro-German speakers and attendees, was frequent.
Hitler handled this life-and-death problem for the movement by forming a protective service and, whenever possible, roughly chucking disruptors unceremoniously from the hall.
At a November 4, 1921 speech at the Hofbräuhaus, there were about 700 Communists in a crowd of 2,200. At a prearranged signal they attacked with fists, a hail of flying beer mugs, and chair legs. After a fierce hand-to-hand battle, Hitler’s 42 security men expelled all 700 of them from the hall, which looked as if it had been hit by a bomb.
The meeting organizer then leaped onto a table, shouting, “The meeting continues! The speaker has the floor!”
The result of this process seems to have been a sort of culling or winnowing. Hitler was not simply speaking to the choir. In contrast to the tens of thousands who came to the mass meetings, at the beginning of 1922 there were still only 6,000 registered party members.
Many Communists and socialists unsympathetic to the movement remained. But the organized hardcore were physically ejected as soon as they began disrupting proceedings.
The remaining Leftists were often hostile and continued heckling. But Hitler drew energy from such public hostility—the very social rejection that causes most whites to shrink in fear. His powerful oratory ultimately won many Leftists to his side.
Hitler also sent his own people to enroll in courses in public speaking at schools organized by opposition groups. “Thanks to this,” he said, “we obtained a good insight into the arguments which would be used by those sent to heckle at our meetings, and we were thus in a position to silence them the moment they opened their mouths.” (Table Talk, April 8, 1942)
He scattered party members throughout his audiences with orders to interrupt his speeches along prearranged lines to suggest spontaneous public (group) approval, “and these interruptions greatly strengthened the force of my own arguments.” (Table Talk, April 8, 1942)
By way of analogy, consider laugh tracks on TV, or the carefully-rehearsed tone of voice and facial expressions used by newscasters to elicit specific instinctive reactions of approval or disapproval from the passive viewing audience.
Early on, Hitler attended the meetings of his main rivals to study their techniques. His critical judgment was that the speakers delivered their speeches “in the style of a witty newspaper article or of a scientific treatise, avoided all strong words, and here and there threw in some feeble professional joke.” (Mein Kampf)
Hitler, in contrast, spoke with a primitive force and unabashed emotion that set him apart from intellectuals who appealed to reason. Underlying his rhetorical theory was the Ciceronian maxim that man is moved more by passion than by reason.
Hitler was a daring and original speaker, according to biographer Joachim Fest. “His courage in voicing ‘forbidden’ opinions was extraordinary. Precisely that gave him the aura of manliness, of fierceness, and sovereign contempt, which befitted the image of the Great Leader.” (Hitler, 1973, p. 159)
“They say we’re a bunch of anti-Semitic rowdies,” Hitler proclaimed in one speech. “So we are, we want to stir up a storm! We don’t want people to sleep, but to know a thunderstorm is brewing!”
Oratory is characterized by a gravitational force extending beyond the ideas expressed or the specific words used to articulate them.
Of Hitler it has been said, “It wasn’t as though he were using words, it was as though the emotions came direct without words. There was a rawness about it, a power.” (The Fatal Attraction of Hitler, BBC TV, 1989) Such speeches are, in a sense, a form of magical art.
Perhaps that is why one reader of translations of portions of Hitler’s speeches said that it was “like reading lyrics from songs without the music.”
Fest described religious-style “awakenings” and “conversions” experienced by his listeners.
Kurt Luedecke, a 32-year-old businessman who later became a leading member of Hitler’s entourage, described the spell cast by Hitler’s oratory: “The intense will of the man, the passion of his sincerity seemed to flow from him into me. I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.” (Fest, p. 162)
On Hitler’s part, the “violent physical effort” required for speaking engendered “profuse perspiration” and even weight loss.
His half-German, half-American WASP foreign press secretary Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl recalled his first meeting with Hitler after one such speech. Hitler’s exhaustion resembled that of “a great artist at the end of a grueling concert”; his face and hair were soaked and his starched collar wilted.
Hitler himself said,
Whenever I have to make a speech of great importance I am always soaking wet at the end, and I find I have lost four or six pounds in weight. And in Bavaria [southern Germany, including Munich, his initial political base during the early years discussed here], where, in addition to my usual mineral water, local custom insists that I drink two or three bottles of beer, I lose as much as eight pounds. (Table Talk, July 8, 1942)
As Scottish philosopher David Hume noted in his essay “Of Eloquence” (1742), great oratory entails unleashing restraints and taking great risks—letting go—in front of an audience. The speaker taps into something deep and true within, and lets it explode.
Hitler did this. As Egon Hanfstaengl, son of Ernst, who had known Hitler intimately when he was a little boy in Germany in the early 1920s, explained in 1989,
He had that ability which is needed to make people stop thinking critically and just emote. The ability derived from his readiness to throw himself totally open, to appear as it were bare and naked before his audience, to tear open his heart and display it. (Interview in The Fatal Attraction of Hitler)
The Fatal Attraction of Hitler, BBC TV documentary, 1989.
Joachim C. Fest, Hitler, trans. from German by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).
Robert Payne, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler (New York: Praeger, 1973; pbk., Popular Library, 1973). References to the paperback edition.
Table Talk. References to the paperback edition of Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 1941–1944 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953; pbk., New York: Signet Books, 1961).
John Toland, Adolf Hitler (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1976).