Hitler rehearsing a speech, 1925: What the camera tells us

Was Hitler an Expressionist?

3 minute read
At age 36: Quasi-military duds, but never his corporal's uniform.
At age 36: Quasi-military duds, but never his corporal's uniform.
Last week the Huffington Post released— actually re-released, as they were first seen in a book published in 1955— a set of photos of Adolf Hitler taken in 1925. (Click here.) There are plenty of photos of Hitler floating around, so you might ask what made these particular pictures so noteworthy.

Well, for one thing, Hitler himself never wanted you to see them. In fact, he ordered them destroyed. But the photographer couldn't bear to carry out his command.

You might assume that these were especially unflattering pictures— perhaps they showed Hitler kicking a dog. But that's far from being the case. Hitler himself commissioned these photographs, and even made use of them.

So what was the problem? They showed him rehearsing a speech. You see, anyone who has ever watched film footage of Hitler on the podium would believe that every word spoken, however vile, came "straight from the heart."

Rumpled black suit

That's why I've always considered Hitler a true product of German Expressionism, no mater how much he may have denounced that movement as "degenerate art." Expressionists like George Grosz and Edvard Munch typically presented the world solely from a subjective perspective, "distorting it radically" (as Wikipedia puts it) "for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas." Can you think of a better definition of a Hitler performance?

But it turns out that every word, every gesture was meticulously calculated to score maximum points with his audience. He was about as genuine as Joel Grey's M.C. in Cabaret.

Eight photographs were reprinted by Huffington Post, but more may have been taken at that session. At this stage in his career, Hitler is still performing in an ordinary, slightly rumpled black suit, rather than in his more familiar quasi-military duds. (I doubt that the man ever appeared in the uniform of a corporal in the Imperial German Army— the only uniform he was rightly entitled to wear.)

Evangelical preacher

Two things struck me about Hitler performing in mufti. One was how much these images resembled the photographs that Lotte Jacobi was taking at the time of stage actors like Peter Lorre. The other was how much he resembled an evangelical preacher firing up his congregation—and why not? He was preaching the pure Gospel of Hate.

Looking at these images, you would never imagine that this clownish man could command nations and cause millions of deaths. How did it happen? I suspect that, like any successful performer, Hitler knew his audience well and gave it what it wanted.

Legacy of Versailles

It also helped that his horrors were founded upon a legitimate grievance— the Treaty of Versailles. In truth Clemenceau and Lloyd George gave birth to Hitler as much as Ludendorff and von Hindenburg did. Because all Germans felt that they had been unfairly treated, some them were ripe for the Gospel of Hate: It was exactly what they wanted to hear and believe. As for the other Germans, once a certain momentum was reached, it was hard to oppose Hitler's narrative, easier to go along with it or flee.

You would think that Versailles would have taught everyone a lesson, but in 1945 the U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. advanced a serious plan to turn Germany into a permanent agrarian state. (Click here.) Fortunately, around cooler heads prevailed and Germany found its place in the sun as a great economic (rather than military) power.

One other thing I take away from these images: They stand as a glaring warning about the dangers of mixing emotions (and emotionalism) into politics. I suspect that at present we Americans ourselves are suffering from a surfeit of "Expressionist Politicians."♦

To read a response, click here.

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