Was Adolf Hitler one of the greatest public speakers of all time? Controversial statement? Hold on before you stop reading. The claim here is not that he was a good man (far from it), the claim is that he was a great public speaker. The man responsible for World War II, the man who conquered half of Europe and the man who killed 21 million people, could not have been a good man. Also, he could not have achieved such huge achievements without a skill he was good at. What was that skill? Ask any historian or eye witness and they will tell you it was, without a doubt, his oratory skills. So, can we learn anything from Adolf Hitler the Public Speaker?
What makes a great public speaker?
Let us take a step back and look at what makes a great public speaker. All speeches, whether it is to a teacher in a classroom, colleagues at work, clients or a nation, share a common goal and that is to convince and persuade the audience of something. Convincing the teacher that your presentation is worthy of the highest grade, convincing the client that your product is better than your competitors or convincing a nation to believe in your philosophy. Now let me ask you something… what is harder, convincing a group of people to do something positive or convincing a group of people to do something negative? It will depend on different times, societies and nations, but generally speaking it will be more difficult to persuade a group of people to do evil than good. Hitler convinced and he convinced to do evil to a devastating effect. So, this is why I believe he was one of the best orators of all time.
Consider the following quotes:
- “I am conscious that I have no equal in the art of swaying the masses” Adolf Hitler
- “Certainly I think Hitler to be by far the most effective orator I have heard” Sisley Huddleston (28 May 1883 – 14 July 1952) was a British journalist and writer.
- “In this field he is, so far as I know, unequalled” Edgar Ansel Mowrer (March 8, 1892 – March 2, 1977) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist. (Lambertson, 1942).
- McDonald (2016) reports that Daniel Binchy – future Irish ambassador to Germany, stated his first impression of Hitler was ‘A harmless lunatic with the gift of oratory.’ To which his friend said: ‘No lunatic with the gift of oratory is harmless.’
Hitler’s public speaking 101
Let us take a deeper look at Hitler the public speaker.
He knew the importance and power of speeches, so much so that he did not allow anyone to write them for him. He used to prepare and write his own speeches, then edit them up to five times, wrote Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, in his diary (Macias, 2015). You will rarely find this amongst leaders of past and present.
According to British historian Ian Kershaw, Hitler would “work deep into the night, several evenings running, occupying three secretaries taking dictation straight into the typewriters before carefully correcting the drafts” (Macias, 2015).
Practice makes perfect, and he understood this. “He learned how to become a charismatic speaker” stated Professor Bruce Loebs, who has taught a class called the Rhetoric of Hitler and Churchill for the past 46 years at Idaho State University (Macias, 2015). “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.” (Hamilton, 2012)
Initially, he would observe his rivals and how they spoke in public. He concluded that they spoke “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.” (Manheim, 1994) He, took the complete opposite approach. A more informal, intentionally rash, charismatic and one that can connect with the common folk approach. This was strategical for sure.
His preparation would go beyond writing the speech and practising. He took into consideration external factors such as the venue and audience. Hamilton (2012) states that he would check the venue beforehand personally. To ensure the sound, ventilation and atmosphere were all suitable for his audience and his message. Also, he would place party members in the crowd with orders to interrupt with spontaneous public approval. Having the audience on your side is an amazing feeling for the public speaker.
French-American novelist George Steiner describes his voice as overwhelmingly powerful, mesmeric and “spellbinding.” He stated he could feel Hitler’s movement and gestures through his voice as he heard him on radio.
American psychologist Henry Murray describes his presence as “hypnotic” (Macias, 2015). Simkin (1997) mentions the words of Kurt Ludecke when he first heard Hitler speak “Presently my critical faculty was swept away… he was holding the masses, and me with them, under a hypnotic spell by the sheer force of his conviction.”
While preparing, he would practise his delivery, body language, facial expressions and hand gestures. He understood the importance of this in order to communicate his ideas.
Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer, captured 2 million images. As he rehearsed in front of the mirror he had pictures taken of him so he could see how his facial expressions and hand gestures look (Macias, 2015). He would study these images. Study.
Boris Johnson (2015) discusses the oratory skills of Hitler in his book about Churchill and he highlights some crucial and unique public speaking skills he used. Hitler would build up a sense of anticipation and intensify tension by always arriving late. Then, he would not begin his speech until there was complete silence. He would just stand there for a minute or so, further building the tension. Then, he would start soft and slow, but would quickly move into his groove. Eventually, he would become highly animated, louder and louder as the speech went on. He had notes with him, but would never use them. He would be as engaged in his speech as his audience was. His passion and enthusiasm can be seen by onlookers and heard by listeners. His speeches were fuelled by hatred and anger. To add further anticipation for future speeches, he would leave right away after finishing, avoiding everyone, to create this mysterious aura surrounding him.
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)
Connecting with the audience
Bullock (1990) mentions how his immense passion, hatred and fury were what made him the great speaker that he was. He had the ability to connect with the emotions of the audience. While praising Hitler’s public speaking ability, Bullock (1990) did mention some faults for example that his speech was very repetitive. However, this seems to be intentional as Hitler, himself, claimed that a great speech is the one with a few little slogans and they should be repeated over and over.
Hitler, himself, claimed some secrets to his oratory skills including repeating few key points over and over so the audience remember, reaching out to the emotions of the audience and the usage of crude and brutal language to give off a violent, courageous and an exciting vibe.
Controversy divides people, gets people talking and motivates people to act. Combine controversy with excellent oratory skills and one can unite more than divide. This is what Hitler did. 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.” (Maser et al. 1974)
What can we learn from Hitler the public speaker?
- Prepare – write your speech out and edit it till you are happy
- Practise – use your written speech to practise until you are confident with your speech
- Take notes with you, but do not rely on them
- Watch other speakers speak – good and bad – you can learn from them
- Build up anticipation
- Scout out the venue beforehand
- Connect with the audience – know and understand them
- Focus on a few key points as opposed to overburdening them with too much information
- Pay attention to your body language
- Energy and enthusiasm
- Vary the tone of your voice
I do hope it is clear that this post is not endorsing or approving what Hitler did, it is merely analysing what allowed him to achieve the devastating things he achieved. And how can we use these skills to achieve good. We will finish with this powerful quote from Hitler himself on the power of a great public speaker: “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 (Manheim, 1994).
Bullock, A. (1990). Hitler : a study in tyranny. London: Penguin Books.
Hamilton, A. (2012). Hitler as Orator. [Online]. Counter-Currents Publishing. Available from: https://www.counter-currents.com/2012/06/hitler-as-orator/ [Accessed 14 October 2019].
Hitler, A. (1988). Hitler’s table talk 1941-44. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, B. (2015). The Churchill factor: how one man made history. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Lambertson, F. W. (1942) ‘Hitler, the orator.’ Quarterly Journal of Speech, 28(2), pp.123–131.
Macias, A. (2015). Why Hitler was such a successful orator. [Online]. Business Insider. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/why-hitler-was-such-a-successful-orator-2015-5 [Accessed 14 October 2019].
Manheim, R. (1994). Mein Kampf. London: Pimlico.
Maser, W., Ross, P. and Ross, B. (1974). Hitler. London (49 Poland St., W1a 2Lg): Futura Publications Ltd.
McDonald, H. (2016). ‘A born natural orator’: Irish student’s account of Hitler in 1921 emerges. [Online]. The Guardian. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/06/irish-student-hitler-1921-daniel-binchy [Accessed 14 October 2019].
Simkin, J. (1997). Adolf Hitler the Orator (Classroom Activity). [Online]. Spartacus Education. Available from: https://spartacus-educational.com/ExamRHU21.htm [Accessed 14 October 2019].