Hitler Fatigue (Apr. 14, 2022)

(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

Washington Post: History Tells Us Forged Pro-Trump ‘Election Documents’ Should Sound Alarm Bells (Jan. 18, 2022)

On Jan. 10, Politico reporter Nicholas Wu broke the news that Trump supporters in Michigan and Arizona filed forged election documents that incorrectly certified the Trump-Pence ticket as the winner of those states….While this unfolding forgery scandal is shocking, it’s not a new phenomenon. Read the rest at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/01/18/history-tells-us-gops-forged-2020-election-documents-should-sound-alarm-bells/

Salon: Trump Praised Hitler’s “Economic Miracle” — And That’s Even Worse than It Sounds (Aug. 7, 2021)

In his newly-released book about the 2020 election, Wall Street Journal White House reporter Michael C. Bender reveals that former President Trump allegedly praised Adolf Hitler’s role in Germany’s economic recovery in the 1930s as evidence that the Führer “did a lot of good things.” Read the rest at: https://www.salon.com/2021/08/07/trump-praised-hitlers-economic-miracle–and-thats-even-worse-than-it-sounds/

Republished at RawStory, 7 Aug. 2021. https://www.rawstory.com/trump-hitler-economic-record/

History of Yesterday: A Sweaty Hitler Is a Sincere Hitler, and Sincerity Is Profoundly Persuasive (Aug. 6, 2021)

In 1937, Irmgard Keun published a short novel, After Midnight, which tells the story of two young women in 1930s Frankfurt who find themselves caught up in a parade and rally starring Adolf Hitler. The rally touches off a series of events in which the characters struggle to make sense of their lives, beliefs, and experiences in the darkening shadow of the Nazis’ cultural juggernaut. Read the rest at: https://historyofyesterday.com/a-sweaty-hitler-is-a-sincere-hitler-and-sincerity-is-profoundly-persuasive-8472c937b229

Are You Really Going to Make Me Defend Hitler? Style, Grammar, and Usage Edition

In 1958, Dr. Franz Jetzinger published Hitler’s Youth, a scathing repudiation of the Führer’s adulatory backstory as advanced in Mein Kampf and August Kubizek’s The Young Hitler I Knew.

Jetzinger had been a bitter opponent of the Nazis since before Hitler became Chancellor and annexed Austria. During Hitler’s reign, Jetzinger lost multiple jobs because of his anti-Nazi allegiances, he was arrested multiple times, and he was interrogated by the Gestapo, who were looking for Hitler’s military file from Austria in 1914 (which Jetzinger had, in fact, stolen and hidden in his attic). He hated the Nazis and with good reason.

By the time he wrote Hitler’s Youth, Jetzinger was the Librarian of the Provincial Archives in Linz, Austria, where he had the resources and connections to collect extensive evidence about Hitler’s young life. Jetzinger was also raised in Braunau am Inn, the town where Hitler was born, and he drew extensively on his close connections in the region to study Hitler’s youth. As well, he had exclusive access to Hitler’s military file.

Given Jetzinger’s unique access, Hitler’s Youth was a revolutionary book when it came out, and it remains an invaluable resource for scholars of Nazism.

And, yet…

One of Jetzinger’s conceits is that, because he (justifiably) hated Hitler and the Nazis, he has a penchant for loaded language, pedantic examples, and self-righteousness. As Alan Bullock notes in the Foreword to the book, “At times [Jetzinger] appears to be preoccupied with…tedious and embittered quarrels” and “He rarely resists the opportunity to scold Hitler” (8).

Hitler ruined Jetzinger’s life—I’m not mad at him for being mad. But one place where this unfortunate tendency toward moralizing appears is in Jetzinger’s assessment of Hitler’s writing style, grammar, and usage, and it’s surprising relevant more than 60 years later.

There are several instances where Jetzinger tsk tsks about Adolf’s error ridden letters and postcards (125n1); his appalling spelling (128); and his “unsatisfactory” style, spelling, and punctuation (155). He makes such observations in the context of explaining, for example, that Hitler was in trouble with the authorities for dodging his military draft registration.

What is worth noting in these asides is not that Jetzinger was wrong about Hitler’s prose, but that what he’s done is load Hitler’s (mis)uses of language with moral condemnation. Jetzinger equates “bad language use” with “bad moral character.”

There’s one example, in particular, that really sheds light on Jetzinger’s close equation of bad language with bad character.

About halfway through the book, Jetzinger considers four postcards that Hitler wrote to his friend, August Kubizek, in 1908. Mind you, Hitler was nineteen, an orphan, living away from home for the first time, and jotting off hasty notes to a childhood friend. The situation hardly called for formality. Still, Jetzinger’s assessment is withering.

“For a youth of his age who had passed through four forms at secondary school, the spelling in the postcards is extremely bad” (92).

Jetzinger proceeds to enumerate the spelling and punctuation mistakes for several sentences. He then concludes the paragraph by comparing Adolf’s postcards to a document written by Adolf’s father, which was “far more complicated, but there is not a single mistake.” This despite the fact that Alois “had only attended elementary school, and a primitive one at that” (93).

The comparison really drives home Jetzinger’s loathing for Adolf, and again, I don’t want to take that away from him. But in making these observations, he implies, not very subtly at all, that Hitler’s bad language use should have been an early warning sign that he was fundamentally corrupted—lazy, self-centered, ignorant, and so on. Why else would he be less correct than his primitive father?

Jetzinger’s not the only person who uses Hitler’s language use as a gauge of his fundamental deficiency, either.

In his landmark Hitler’s Letters and Notes, Werner Maser notes Hitler’s uneven spelling, punctuation, and handwriting depending on who he was addressing. “That he could write correctly…is shown by the fact that whenever he was trying to make a good impression he made no mistakes,” but otherwise Hitler seemed unconcerned about correctness.

“Whether his cavalier attitude was due to carelessness or to rebelliousness against rules that struck him as quite pointless, or again to show some of his correspondents that he lived and wrote as he pleased, is difficult to decide” (22).

In his massive, two-volume biography of Hitler, Pulitzer-Prize winning historian John Toland also considers Hitler’s postcards to Kubizek and explicitly connects Hitler’s “Hitler’s usual self-pity” with “mistakes in grammar and spelling” (40). All just indicators of character, apparently.

Over and over and over again, Hitler scholars make connections between Hitler’s use of language and deficiency in his character. Sometimes the connections are explicit and sometimes little more than insinuation, but it’s an oddly common feature of the literature.

The fact that scholars do this with Adolf Hitler, one of the most reviled leaders of the 20th century, should give us pause. Given the gravity of their subject matter, why do so many commentators feel the need to go on tangents about Adolf Hitler’s comma errors?

As someone who has taught writing for more than 15 years, I don’t find it at all surprising. In fact, it betrays an incredibly common (and insidious) practice of presuming that people who use language well are fundamentally better than people who aren’t proper or correct users of language.

In Hitler’s case, the implication is that his infelicitous use of language should have prevented his rise long before he even had the chance to become Führer. It’s gross elitism, at best.

At worst, it’s racist and xenophobic. As myriad scholars of linguistics, language acquisition, global Englishes, second-language writing, translingualism, composition, and so on have documented for decades, the assumption that “good language = good person” informs all manner of harmful language, education, and cultural policies around the world. And it’s not uncommonly used to reinforce damaging race-, class-, and gender-based hierarchies, even by people who would otherwise reject such hierarchies.

For those of us in education, it’s way past time to abandon the “good language = good people” equation because it’s deeply harmful to people who don’t speak or write perfect “Standard English.”

Elitism about Hitler’s language has another implication apart from education that should deeply concern us. By equating good language with good people and bad language with bad people, we trick ourselves into believing that we (that is, people who use language well) could never fall for someone like Hitler.

At least implicitly, correctness gets treated as a prophylactic against demagoguery and harmful politics, as if smart, well-trained, well-spoken or written people can’t get tricked by some hateful monster who splits his infinitives because split infinitives (or dropped commas or misspelled words) betray the monstrosity.

Yeah, no.

As it happens, (1) most people think they use language more consistently correctly than they do; (2) really smart, well-educated, well-spoken people went head-over-heels for Hitler and will go for the next hatemonger; and (3) language correctness or incorrectness don’t have ANYTHING to do with the content of their character.


But when we convince ourselves otherwise — when we convince ourselves that good usage equals good people — we literally make ourselves more vulnerable to charlatans. And just as importantly, we rob ourselves of the richness and beauty of human difference.

In conclusion, great book, Jetzinger, thanks for writing it. But f*ck off with that language elitism b*llsh*t. There’s enough about Hitler to despise without heading down a parallel path.

Initially posted at: https://ryan-skinnell.medium.com/are-you-really-going-to-make-me-defend-hitler-style-grammar-and-usage-edition-368dcdda69e4

Newsweek: Only the Strong Will Survive? American Echoes of a Dark Past (Mar. 16, 2021)

“The lesson is not that contemporary politicians are modern-day Hitlers, but rather that Hitler’s example shows how easily ‘the strong will overcome the weak’ can metamorphose into ‘the strong must allow the weak to perish’ or even ‘the strong must eradicate the weak.'”

Read the rest at: https://www.newsweek.com/only-strong-will-survive-american-echoes-dark-past-opinion-1576321

Politically Speaking: “The MAGA Mutiny Shows that America Isn’t a Fascist Country…Yet” (Mar. 11, 2021)

“Re-committing to America’s founding ideals, then, is a necessary step forward. This means committing to civic action, to civic education, and to holding ourselves to our own ideals in support of all the people around us, not just the ones we agree with.”

Read the rest at: https://medium.com/politically-speaking/the-maga-mutiny-shows-that-america-isnt-a-fascist-country-yet-8d037b79fc5e

The Globe Post: “Attempted US Capitol Coup a Security and Existential Crisis” (Mar. 3, 2021)

“We have trained ourselves to think of justice as equivalent to authority, power, and obedience. It’s no surprise, then, that people who appear obedient are treated differently than their ‘disobedient’ counterparts. It’s a rhetorical problem that produces a violent reaction.”

Read the rest at: https://theglobepost.com/2021/03/03/capitol-coup-rhetoric/

Public Seminar: Trump Lied His Way In and Is Lying His Way Out: What 20th-Century Fascists Can Teach Us about the Need for Truth in the 21st-Century (Dec. 10, 2020)

“I have spent more than five years studying fascist rhetoric and demagoguery and in particular the relationship between truth and facts in fascist regimes. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, one of the main lessons I’ve learned is that facts and truth have a very uneasy relationship in fascism – but I have also learned that fascist rhetoric relies on an unusual definition of what truth is, and what role it should play in political culture.”

Read the rest at: https://publicseminar.org/essays/trump-lied-his-way-in-and-is-lying-his-way-out/

Arc Digital: “Shitposting for Fun and Profit: Memes, Rhetoric, and Russian Trolls” (Oct. 7, 2020)

“People can understand what’s going on if they know to look. If you think of memes as sophisticated methods of communication, with different messages communicated in different contexts, you probably won’t uncover a Russian plot. But you’ll be more aware of what people are trying to persuade you to believe — what appetites they’re creating in you and what satisfactions they’re encouraging.”

Read the rest at: https://medium.com/arc-digital/shitposting-for-fun-and-profit-f8eca394e213