On Oct. 16, 1919, Adolf Hitler became a propagandist. It would be his chief occupation for the rest of his life. Without propaganda, he could never have become a public figure, let alone risen to power. It was as a propagandist that he made a second world war possible, and defined Jews as Germany’s foe. The form of his propaganda was inextricable from its content: the fictionalization of a globalized world into simple slogans, to be repeated until an enemy thus defined was exterminated.
Before 1919, Hitler was a slacker and a soldier. He was a subject of the Hapsburg Empire, born in 1889 just on the Austrian side of the border with imperial Germany. An indifferent student adored by his mother, he spent his youth dreaming of fame and keeping his distance from other women. Without having finished school he moved to Vienna in 1907, hoping to enter the art academy. He failed its entrance exam, and then his mother died. He spent the next six years in Vienna collecting his orphan’s pension. He sold some paintings and told stories about his plans to become an architect.
In 1913, no longer eligible for his orphan’s pension from Austria, he moved to Munich, the capital of Bavaria, in southern Germany. He re-established his Vienna routine: reading in bed, sleeping late, painting a bit, recounting fantasies to fellow boarders. His first meaningful choice as an adult was to volunteer for the Bavarian Army at the outbreak of the First World War.
The war became for him the cause of causes, the source of sense in life. Hitler served with courage as a messenger, and was decorated. He was gassed by the British on Oct. 14, 1918, near the French-Belgian border. When the war came to an end in November, he was in a hospital in Germany, recovering from temporary blindness.
After four years of fighting, Germany lost for simple reasons. Although victorious in the east, where the Russian Empire had collapsed into revolution, Berlin could not transform its colonies there into the breadbaskets needed to feed Central Europe and resist three world powers — Britain, France and the United States — amassed to its west. In summer and autumn 1918, as Germany tried to win a decisive battle on the Western Front, it was as if each dead German soldier was replaced by a living American one. Yet Germans had not been prepared by their government for defeat, and Hitler found it particularly shocking. His work in 1919 would be to find the way to blame others.
World War I released constraints on politics, summoning fantasies across the cusp into reality.
He did so in peculiarly revolutionary conditions. The war released constraints on politics, summoning fantasies across the cusp into reality. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought a civil war to Russia — a form of conflict that was repeated on a smaller scale across Europe. The German and Austrian empires ceased to exist, replaced by republics.
Germany’s new socialist government was challenged from the right by those unsatisfied with the peace, and from the far left by those who wanted to push forward to revolution. As in much of Europe, attempts at left-wing revolution were met with harsher right-wing reaction. In Munich in April, a group of radical leftists tried to establish a Communist regime. The central government in Berlin, although itself socialist, had the rebellion crushed by soldiers and freebooting right-wing paramilitaries; at least 600 people were killed. The experience taught army commanders in Bavaria that they would have to plan an active part in politics.
Hitler kept a low profile during these events until their outcome was clear, and then took an aggressive stand that would define his later career.
When he had returned from the hospital to Munich on Nov. 21, 1918, he found the barracks, a place he had always found comfortable, governed by left-wing soldiers’ councils. It was important to Hitler to stay in uniform, since his army pay was his only source of income. Elected as a representative by his comrades, he worked with these councils.
When the revolution of April 1919 divided them, Hitler seems to have stayed clear of the action. Only when the right-wing reaction prevailed did he pick a side, denouncing left-wing soldiers to officers. He showed the qualities desired by an army that was now determined to get ahead of political developments and shape them.
On May 11, 1919, a new command was formed in Munich from elements of the army that had crushed the revolution. It included an information department, meant to penetrate and influence civil society and political parties. Soldiers would be trained as political activists, acting covertly as agents of the armed forces to mold public opinion. This was Hitler’s postwar assignment.
In June he attended special courses at Munich University designed to provide future agents with the necessary ideological background. Hitler was particularly taken with the economics lecture of Gottfried Feder, who taught him to distinguish between productive (national) and unproductive (Jewish) capital.
In August Hitler was assigned to re-educate German soldiers who had been held in prisoner-of-war camps. That month he took part in a discussion on responsibility for the war’s outbreak, displaying, as an officer reported, a “spirited and accessible” style of speaking. His own talks on subjects such as the emigration of Germans and the terms of the postwar peace were well received. On Aug. 28, his subject was capitalism, which he associated with Jews.
The next month his commander ordered him to infiltrate a tiny right-wing group known as the German Workers Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP). It had been founded that January and had about a hundred members at the time. Hitler attended one of its meetings at a beer hall on Sept. 12, and by chance spoke up himself at the end. The leader of the DAP was impressed by Hitler’s oratorical flourishes and urged him to join the party.
This was also, apparently, the wish of Hitler’s superior officers. In his written application, he said that he wanted to be a propagandist: “People tell me that I have a talent for it.” He joined, but remained on the army payroll.
As Hitler’s master biographer, Ian Kershaw, summarizes, the army “turned Hitler into a propagandist.” Because Hitler was paid by the army and had no other job, he could devote himself full time to this task. The situation was ideal for him. The DAP already existed, so Hitler did not have to found his own group — something he would have found tiresome and unpoetic. But because the DAP was so small, he immediately stood out as its leading public speaker.
He devoted himself to planning and practicing his beer-hall performances, using a mirror to perfect expressions and gestures. He was becoming a performer, an artist. As Hitler himself put it a few years later in “Mein Kampf,” “The correct use of propaganda is a true art.”
In his speeches of late 1919, Hitler was pioneering a style of propaganda that has defined much of the century since.
In September 1919, in response to a letter from one of his soldier students, Hitler defined his attitude toward the Jewish question. Everything that might seem to be a higher goal (“religion, socialism, democracy”) was for Jews a way to make money. Jews were not to be treated as fellow people, but to be understood as an objective problem, like a disease (“racial tuberculosis”) that needed to be resolved.
In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler would take these points a step further. All ideas of universal goodness were simply mental traps set by Jews to catch weak German brains. The only way to restore German faith in German virtue was the physical elimination of the Jews. The same held for ideas of universally accessible truth. As Benjamin Carter Hett put it in an excellent recent study of Hitler’s rise to power, “The key to understanding why many Germans supported him lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world.”
In his speeches of late 1919, Hitler was pioneering a style of propaganda that has defined much of the century since (and which the philosopher Jason Stanley has described in sophisticated fashion). It begins with a total devotion to persuasive technique, passes through the creation of a pure myth, and ends with the speaker leading his country on a chase for fake phantoms that ends over real graves. In “Mein Kampf,” Hitler wrote that propaganda “must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
In his first speech to the DAP as one of its members, at a beer hall in Munich on Oct. 16, he seems to have already grasped this technique. In “strong words,” as a listener recalled, he demanded decisive action against the Jewish “enemy of the people.” He reserved particular fury for newspapers, demanding that they be replaced by propaganda organs that spoke to German emotions. Not long afterward, the army helped Hitler and his party (by then known as the NSDAP, short for the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the “Nazis”) acquire a newspaper to spread their message.
What Hitler offered in 1919 was a response to globalization. In a powerful new biography, Brendan Simms contends that Hitler was impressed on the Western Front by the global might of Britain and the United States. Hitler was right, of course, that the fate of Germany was sealed by the power of capitalist empires, especially once the Americans had entered the war. But rather than draw the conclusion that a war was not in Germany’s interests, Hitler in 1919 preferred an emotional portrait of Germans as innocent victims of global evil.
By Nov. 13, in another beer-hall speech, he was blaming Jews not only for capitalism but also for Communism. There was a global conspiracy against Germans, and so Germans had to unmask its Jewish agents in order to defend themselves. He spoke, as an audience member remembered, “in an exceedingly skillful way,” calling forth “images” of injustice to Germans “that got hearts pounding.”
Biographers of Hitler struggle with the question of just when he became an anti-Semite. Before 1919 he had no difficulty getting along with Jews, including those in his unit in the war — one of whom was the commander who got him decorated. His anti-Semitic ideas emerged in public along with the turn to propaganda as a way of life.
Hitler’s anti-Semitism produced a simple answer to every complicated question. Or, rather, it transformed questions about what might be best for Germans into a séance of mysterious forces that governed the world. A solution no longer meant effectively addressing a specific problem but the elimination of those mysterious forces, personified as Jews. For contemporary thinkers who considered Hitler a propagandist, such as Victor Klemperer and Hannah Arendt, the issue was not when he arrived at certain inner convictions but rather what the expression of Hitlerian propaganda did to public life.
In 1919, Hitler was known only in a few Munich beer halls. In 1923, he gained some national notoriety by his failed attempt to gain power, remembered as the Beer Hall Putsch. It was in prison thereafter that he composed “Mein Kampf.”
Hitler’s form of politics gained mass support when the Great Depression brought to Germany a new series of global shocks. One of the consequences of that economic crisis (as of the one of 2008) was the collapse of independent newspapers, an institution Hitler always denounced as a Jewish “enemy of the people.” As the voices of journalists were weakened, the propagandists delivered the coup de grâce. By then, Hitler and the Nazis had found the simple slogan they repeated again and again to discredit reporters: “Lügenpresse.” Today the extreme right in Germany has revived this term, which in English is “fake news.”
Further reading: Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”; Benjamin Carter Hett, “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic”; Eberhard Jäckel and Axel Kuhn, eds., “Hitler. Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen, 1905-1924”; Ian Kershaw, “Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis”; Victor Klemperer, “The Language of the Third Reich,” trans. Martin Brady; Brendan Simms, “Hitler: A Global Biography”; Jason Stanley, “How Fascism Works.”
Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, is the author of several books on Hitler and contemporary politics, including “Bloodlands, “Black Earth,” “On Tyranny” and “The Road to Unfreedom.”
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: firstname.lastname@example.org.