Hitler Fatigue (Apr. 14, 2022)

Hitler speaking at a rally. (National Archives and Records Administration)

(image: Hitler speaking at a rally, from National Archives and Records Administration)

Last year, I submitted a grant application seeking support for the book I’m writing about Hitler’s rhetoric. The grant was rejected (it was a competitive Federal grant, so I wasn’t too surprised). This morning, I received comments on my proposal from three anonymous reviewers.

I want to state up front, unequivocally, I have no complaints about the feedback. The comments were predominantly positive — even glowing — and I’m ineffably grateful for the reviewers’ care and attention, for which they receive no compensation.

Nevertheless, one of the reviewers’ comments gave me pause — not because it was unintelligent or unthoughtful, but (1) because I’ve heard it before, and (2) because I think it’s wrong. Well, sort of.

The reviewer wrote:

“The argument that Hitler’s rhetoric has not been studied extensively is not compelling.… Rhetoric within [the reviewer’s field] seems rife with studies of Hitler’s rhetoric, from undergraduate papers to dissertations to published manuscripts…. I remember reading more writing about Hitler’s rhetoric in graduate school than I wished to.”

I’ll explain below what I think is wrong about this comment, but first I want to note quickly what’s not wrong. First, whatever else I think about the point being made, I accept without question that my proposal was not compelling. That’s really helpful feedback, and I need to figure out how to make a better case for my project.

Second, I think this comment is an honest accounting of the reviewer’s experience. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be. More on that point below.

But what is particularly striking to me about this comment is that it’s a version of something I’ve heard now from multiple people about multiple, different Hitler-related projects.

As a publishing consultant put it to me, “I’m afraid you’re going to run into ‘Hitler fatigue’ when you submit this to publishers.” Translation: people are tired of hearing about that filthy old Führer. She wasn’t wrong.

There’s more than a hint of fatigue in the reviewer’s comment above — they’ve already read more than they ever wanted to about Hitler. And to be fair, same.

The publishing consultant and the grant reviewer are not alone.

A (presumably) different person reviewed and rejected an article I wrote last year that incorporated Hitler as an example of fascist rhetoric. That reviewer offered a similar insight about Hitler fatigue, albeit more bluntly: “Hitler is boring. I hate to say it, but every time I see Hitler quotes I stop paying attention.”

Three different people, three different submissions, three different areas of expertise — all just tired of reading about Hitler. And they’re not the only people who have conveyed similar sentiments to me at various points. To borrow a quote from postmodern philosopher, Method Man, they’ve been there and been done that before and don’t need it no more.

And again, they’re not wrong! I know I’m wasting a lot of words defending anonymous reviewers who I (will eventually) disagree with, but I think it’s important to note how completely reasonable all these pieces of feedback were. I don’t doubt for a second that all these people — all acting in good-faith as far as I can tell — legitimately feel Hitler fatigue.

Hitler and the Nazis are an ever-present presence. They’re in our politics, our public discourse, and our pop culture. For that matter, even the totalitarian autocrat currently invading a sovereign country is ironically complaining about Nazis. They’re everywhere!

And given the general omnipresence of Nazis in the culture more generally, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel like studies of Hitler’s rhetoric are likewise ubiquitous.

Here’s the thing, though. They’re not.

I’ve spent more than 5 years doing the research for the book I’m writing about Hitler’s rhetoric. Two of the grant reviewers commented that my “profile and preparation are outstanding” and that my “impressive record of scholarship leaves little doubt he will accomplish his goals.” I’m pretty good at this kind of research, if I do say so myself.

And it’s true, there are MILLIONS of books, articles, podcasts, movies, board games, you name it, about Hitler. Several of them even mention Hitler’s rhetoric, some even intelligently. But there actually aren’t very many studies of Hitler’s rhetoric at all, no matter how it seems.

By my accounting there are five (5) book-length studies of Hitler’s rhetoric written in English. That’s not a typo. There are five — one published book, two dissertations, and two Master’s theses.[1] Three of the five were written before 1961.

If we expand our view to include German texts, we can add some more professionally published examples: Detlev Grieswelle’s Propaganda der Friedlosigkeit-Eine Studie zu Hitler’s Rhetorik 1920–1933 (1972), Cornelius Schnauber’s Wie Hitler Sprach und Schrieb: Zur Psychologie und Prosodik der Faschistischen Rhetorik (1972), and Josef Kopperschmidt’s Hitler der Redner (2003).

I haven’t searched the German literature as extensively as the English, so there are probably some I’m missing, especially among dissertations and MA theses. But they don’t jump out in the many, many search processes I’ve undertaken.

We could cast a wider net — for Nazi rhetoric, Nazi propaganda, Nazi linguistics and lexicons — and thereby expand our catch significantly. Certainly there are very good books about these topics that include Hitler’s rhetoric as one element among many.

Haig A. Bosmajian’s The Rhetoric of the National Socialist Speakers (dissertation, 1960) and Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich (1947) surely top the list for relevant related studies. Both eminently readable, too. But they’re not specifically about Hitler’s rhetoric. They are about the larger Nazi language regimes in which Hitler was a powerful, but neither a unique nor all-powerful, actor.

We might also expand our view to consider articles, which obviously expands our catch massively. At the moment, I’ve got 44 articles and book chapters on my hard drive that are directly about Hitler’s rhetoric. They range from newspaper and magazine articles to personal reflections to honors theses to researched journal articles. The also range all over the map in terms of professional/disciplinary affiliations — rhetoric, communication, history, law, journalism, psychology, sociology, and more — and they’re written in at least four languages, not all of which I speak.

It should be noted, these are all the essays I’ve found specifically about Hitler’s rhetoric in the 5+ years I’ve been looking. Surely, I’m missing some, especially in languages beyond English and German. I’m irrevocably hamstrung by my inability to speak French, Polish, Russian, and 100 other languages.

Still, even accepting that I’m missing important things, I feel pretty confident that I’ve done my due diligence to locate the relevant texts.

Taken together, without regard to quality or length, the total number of texts I’ve located specifically about Hitler’s rhetoric: 52.

Let’s assume I’m actually a terrible researcher and I’m off by a factor of ten and there are more like 500 studies of Hitler’s rhetoric. Heck, by a factor of 100 and there are over 5000! That still seems hardly overwhelming relative to the millions of pieces that exist that try to explain Hitler, especially given that he famously rose to power on his speaking abilities.

Two more quick points and then I’ll wrap up. Among the three people mentioned above who reflected Hitler fatigue in response to materials I submitted, two recommended other studies I might refer to. One was published in 1939, another in 1971. Both really good pieces with really valuable insights. Both more than half a century old.

The reason no one has given me more recent recommendations is because there are so few, whether we’re talking about books or articles. And many of the more recent ones do little more than rehash commonplaces about Hitler: he used emotion instead of reason, he dehumanized his enemies, he promised his followers everything. All true enough, but not really fresh, and in fact, generally oversimplified.

The point, of course, is not that my reviewers are wrong. To the contrary, they’re absolutely right about experiencing Hitler fatigue, I have no doubt. And I’m grateful for them helping me see that because it’s a feeling I’m going to have to figure out how to manage as an author.

But it also raises a pretty major problem, and not just for me as someone trying to publish a book on Hitler’s rhetoric.

If it’s true that intelligent, thoughtful, engaged people are fatigued and don’t want to read any more about Hitler’s rhetoric; and if it’s true that there really still isn’t a very comprehensive or cohesive set of explanations for how Hitler used rhetoric to murder millions of people and nearly conquer the world; then what hope do we have of using the example of the most famous demagogue in modern history to head off other aspirants to tyranny?

In other words, if people feel Hitler fatigue, whether there’s actually enough materials in existence to warrant that feeling, what good does it do to pursue further insights? Maybe people will simply be too tired — or bored — to even consider them.

I don’t have good answers to these questions. Believe me, I wish I did. But they strike me as relevant to one of the signature problems facing the international community in the 21st century. Fascism, authoritarianism, and charismatic speakers continue to rise to power around the world. Are we too fatigued to stop them?

[1]Margaret Hodges Eskew, Syntactic Preferences of Adolf Hitler in his Declaration of War on Poland (dissertation, 1990); Charles Willard Huber, An Examination of Certain Elements of Rhetorical Style in Nine Selected Speeches of Adolf Hitler (MA thesis, 1959); Fred L. Casmir, Hitler: A Study in Persuasion (dissertation, 1961); Ruth Bartlett Lewis, An Analysis of Some Persuasive Methods of Adolf Hitler’s Rhetoric (MA thesis, 1960); Ben Novak, Hitler and Abductive Logic: The Strategy of a Tyrant (Lexington Books, 2014).

Cross-posted at Medium: https://ryan-skinnell.medium.com/hitler-fatigue-or-cant-we-just-forget-about-that-filthy-f%C3%BChrer-38887ba41bc5

Published by Ryan Skinnell

Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing, Department of English & Comparative Literature, San José State University, San Jose, CA

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