Charismatic Case Study: The Lessons of History

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I have quipped before that when testing out ideas to do with charisma, a basic acid test is to check if they work for both Hitler and Jesus. This sounds like a frivolous way of doing things, but it actually works quite well, because it takes two major figures whose stories are well known (and therefore easily accessible for thought experiments), but operating with very different moral frameworks.

A recent article in the BBC online News Magazine (written as a trailer for a BBC2 documentary series) gives a good framework for demonstrating this. It’s an account by historian Laurence Rees of the factors that led to Hitler’s popularity as a leader, intended as a cautionary tale for countries going through economic turmoil today. Its basic premise is that Hitler was unlikely leader - seen in his younger days as something of an oddball - but that a combination of circumstance and strategy propelled him into an astonishingly powerful position.

Rees does not correlate his tale with the sorts of sociological theories of charisma I have been exploring since I started researching the phenomenon, but he gives lots of examples that do chime with these ideas. So, my purpose today is to provide those missing links from his historical narrative to the post-Weber tradition of the sociology of charisma.

Cause

Rees describes Hitler in the following terms:

He was not a "normal" politician - someone who promises policies like lower taxes and better health care - but a quasi-religious leader who offered almost spiritual goals of redemption and salvation.

This is the classic strategy of a charismatic leader: framing a vision to galvanise the group not in terms of ordinary, concrete goals, but in abstract, moral terms. The good that is promised to followers is not material, but appeals to their sense of meaning, of identity.

The charismatic cause is there as an over-arching principle for people to invest in emotionally, for them to believe in. It gives a framework for people to identify with each other, to become emotionally aligned, and therefore to bond together in that group structure that generates euphoria and the submerging of the individual into the group.

Crisis

Rees charts three phases of Hitler’s public persona, which correlate directly with external circumstances in Germany. ‘Before WWI,’ says Rees, ‘he was a nobody’. It was after Germany’s defeat and the country started to struggle under the punitive reparations that he started to find an audience: ‘suddenly his weaknesses were perceived as his strengths.’ But still the Nazi party only polled 2.6% of the vote in 1928.

It was only after the financial crises of 1929, when Germany experienced collapsing banks and mass unemployment, that Hitler came to be seen as a viable political leader.

It takes a crisis to turn a crank into a saviour. Happy, comfortable people don’t need to turn to a quasi-religious ideology to find meaning and hope. People in desperate need are much more ready to embrace a cause. The cause provides the means to bond, while the crisis provides the need to.

Mythology

One of the prerequisites for charismatic authority to flourish is the existence of beliefs in wider culture that allow followers to attribute special powers to a leader. The leaders themselves will often actively participate in fostering this mythology (as Rees says of Hitler: ‘He was driven forward by a sense of personal destiny he called "providence"’), but this strategy itself relies on sets of shared cultural beliefs and assumptions.

We can see this mythology in action in the way that Rees describes Hitler’s transition from status as ‘crank’ to that of ‘national saviour’. The very same characteristics that were seen as making him an outsider, unfit for public office in the early days get recast as the things that set him aside from ordinary mortals as he rises to power:

His inability to debate was taken as strength of character and his refusal to make small talk was considered the mark of a "great man" who lived apart from the crowd.

Binary response

Not everyone felt this charismatic connection, you had to be predisposed to believe what Hitler was saying to experience it. Many people who heard Hitler speak at this time thought he was an idiot.

Charisma is a very binary experience. This is often articulated as being a quality of the leader - they either ‘have it’ or they don’t. But it is probably more useful to think of this quality in terms of the follower’s experience. One person’s inspiration is another’s smarmy git.

What you don’t tend to get very much is neutral or moderate responses - people either buy in to the cause whole-heartedly, or they mistrust the whole shebang as cultish and dangerous.

Us-and-them

Part of this binary response is the classic distinction in charismatic movements between the elect and the damned, combined with the strongly expansionist impulse to ‘spread the word’. And of course, this was key to Hitler’s appeal to those he cast into the in-group:

Hitler told millions of Germans that they were Aryans and therefore "special" and racially "better" people than everyone else.

Of course, he wasn’t so popular with the Jews and gypsies and communists and homosexuals whose persecution he instigated. But then one of the things that made Nazism such a dangerous charismatic movement was that it was framed in terms of expansion by conquest rather than by conversion.


One of the things I find interesting about Rees’s article is the way he continues to write about Hitler’s charisma as if it were an attribute of the man himself, rather than a quality that emerges through the combination of historical circumstance, cultural belief and specific rhetorical strategies. At the same time, Rees is discussing all these elements of social relationship and situation that generate charisma, and even warning against what could happen in contemporary Greece as its own extremist politics develops out of economic crisis.

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