Okay so I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while and since I’ve been mentioned by name in at least two posts, I guess I should get on it.
I will concede that Hitler knew exactly what he was doing. He said all the right things that would make the German people feel justified in exterminating those not of the “chosen race”. Kenneth Burke, who wrote about Hitler’s Mein Kampf (trans. My Battle), named the specific strategies Hitler employed in persuading the masses. A good summary can be found here. I know it’s from Wikipedia and I know you’re probably not going to take the time to read it, but it’s worth it and it will give you a better idea of why Hitler was so successful.
On the other hand, I refuse to agree that Hitler was a genius, rhetorical or otherwise. Anyone who was smart enough to figure out how the audience (the Germans) was feeling could have done exactly what Hitler did. The fact that no one else did makes it seem like Hitler was awesome at rhetoric. I’m not saying anything about his character because that is a completely separate thing from his rhetoric. What I want people to realize is that Hitler was shameless. His goal from the beginning was world domination and he was going to stop at nothing to achieve it. He just didn’t let everyone know all at once. He wanted to keep the crazy in until he had Germany under his thumb. That’s why Mein Kampf was such a huge deal—it revealed his hunger for power. Unfortunately no one except Churchill actually read it, so no one except Churchill knew what Hitler was actually after.
Prof. Roberts-Miller said in my class that a lot of people see rhetoric as having an idea and getting that idea into others’ heads. It’s one speaker with lots of listeners and all the listeners eventually agree with the speaker. (This type of rhetoric is called asymmetric/instrumentalist discourse. The goal is to gain the audience’s compliance.) Hitler was fantastic at this type of rhetoric. However, he was horrible at deliberation, which is discourse where the better argument is supposed to win. Deliberation is far more effective than instrumentalist discourse because your audience is not always going to agree with what you think and someone might have a better idea. If we would engage in deliberation, which requires an open mind, we could make more beneficial decisions and constantly be discovering better ways to do things. The reason why Hitler was so terrible at deliberation is because he never believed he was wrong and he was never willing to admit he made a mistake.
Hitler believed in the triumph of the will, even against concrete materials and resources and information. He believed that because he wanted world domination so badly, it would just happen, even though his armies were running out of food, clothing, and warm weather, and even though his generals kept telling him that his tactics were failing. I think Hitler knew how to get people to agree with him, but once people tried to suggest better ideas, he shut them down because he didn’t believe in deliberation. That he wouldn’t deliberate became his downfall. Hitler knew how to use rhetoric to a point, I will grant you that. Yet I can’t help but think that if he were so great at rhetoric, why did he fail so miserably?
Rhetoric requires an open mind and the ability to change our minds. The world is constantly changing around us and if we don’t keep up, we are bound to fail like Hitler did. I know not everyone in this class would consider themselves a writer, but with the capacity to have an open mind and the power to change it, you are well on your way to becoming a better writer and a more informed member of society.
I realize the way I reacted in class was pretty intense. I’m like that, especially when I can’t say what I mean. That’s why I like writing so much. I can edit and edit and edit and get super precise with my words and meanings. The point is I felt like I couldn’t say what I meant and everyone else was convinced of Hitler’s genius (or so it seemed to me), so I just shut up. Not the greatest plan, but that’s how I usually react. Anyway, this video I posted is a comedian, Eddie Izzard, doing a bit about Hitler. Izzard’s language is a little harsh, but it’s enjoyable. You really only need to watch the first three minutes or so, but this guy is hilarious. Also, he’s a cross dresser.