April 24, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
For the first time since I saw it at around the age of ten, I’ve watched The Great Dictator, made in 1940 and starring Charlie Chaplin who also wrote the film and directed it. It is a ridiculous effort, poorly scripted and badly acted throughout from the leading man and lady (played by Paulette Goddard, his wife at the time) on down. Chaplin was anything but the comic genius he was once thought to have been, as ought to be obvious to anyone who returns to his silly, unfunny, and fatally dated productions today. Adolf Hitler, of course, is not a funny subject; just as he was a wholly unfunny man whose sense of humor was less developed even than his sense of human decency and his instinct for reality. It is only in the last respect that the Hitler of history and Chaplin’s Hitler agree in their basic absurdity, as the comedian demonstrated in the film’s famous ballet in which Hitler dandles the world in his hands and juggles it above his head before the balloon explodes, leaving him with a limp scrap of rubber between his fingers .
By history’s Hitler I have particularly in mind Albert Speer’s Hitler as I have just finished reading Inside the Third Reich, his account of the dozen years he spent first as the Führer’s architect, later as his Minister of Armaments and War Production, and finally as the second most important and powerful figure in the Third Reich. The book, first published in the United States in 1970, had been part of my library since I began graduate school; dusted off occasionally but gradually yellowing and warping slightly while traveling along with me from Manhattan to Wyoming to New Mexico and back to Wyoming again. How I wish I had sat down with it when, as a member of the History Book Club, I acquired it all those decades ago.
Inside the Third Reich is the most compelling, moving, terrible yet tragic, and comprehensive political memoir I have ever read. Following the Reich’s capitulation, the American General F. L. Anderson paid Speer what he later described as “the most curious and flattering compliment of my career: ‘Had I known what this man was achieving, I would have sent out the entire American Eighth Air Force merely to put him underground.’” While a keen and comprehensive appreciation of what “Hitler’s architect” was accomplishing in his gigantic contribution of a totally different kind to the German war effort would indeed have been of inestimable effort to the Allies during their prosecution of war, an awareness that the Great Dictator as his Minister for Propaganda presented him to the world was in reality a creation of his own political theater would have been invaluable as a diplomatic, military, and psychological asset. The real Adolf Hitler was a consummate narcissist; a failed artist whose chiefest interest as Chancellor was in such externals as his own pomp and glory expressed through grandiose works of architecture that would stand for millennia; a hopeless amateur who, though he had never learned a profession, business, or even useful trade was convinced that he knew more than anyone on every subject and appointed himself Commander in Chief of Germany’s armed forces, while surrounding himself with other and equal amateurs (Ribbentrop, his Foreign Secretary, had been a champagne salesman) at the head of government; an idler for weeks and even months; a self-deluded dreamer; an emotionalist and a sentimentalist who frequently made critical decisions in a moment of tantrum and allowed himself to be ruled by illogic in times of crisis; a self-imagined man of Fate assured that his charisma, hypnotic stare, force of character, and sheer will could (and would) prevail over all men, friends and enemies alike, and every situation—and finished by destroying himself after having tried to ensure the irreparable destruction of his country as a guarantee that the victorious enemy would inherit the wind, and the German people would suffer the punishment they fully merited for losing the war for him. Hitler’s entourage was fully aware of the Führer’s basic ignorance, incompetence, and instability but deliberately overlooked it all from their own ambition, corruption, and fear. Unknown to Chaplin in 1940 as to General Anderson throughout the war, the flesh-and-blood Hitler was as ridiculous a creature as his cinematic caricature (though infinitely more evil), and therefore as vulnerable a one. Had the truth been understood at the time, the world would be a different place today.
Hitler’s otherwise comical incompetence raises the inevitable question: How could such a man have risen to become the leader of his country and maintained that position for twelve years? Speer, in his final speech at the Nuremberg trials, explained it this way:
“Hitler’s dictatorship was the first dictatorship of an industrial state in this age of modern technology, a dictatorship which employed to perfection the instruments of technology to dominate its own people….By means of such instruments of technology as the radio and public-address systems, eighty million persons could be made subject to the will of one individual. Telephone, teletype, and radio made it possible to transmit the commands of the highest levels directly to the lowest organs where because of their high authority they were executed uncritically. Thus many offices and squads received their evil commands in this direct manner. The instruments of technology made it possible to maintain a close watch over all citizens and to keep criminal operations shrouded in a high degree of secrecy.”
These are also the ways by which Hitler’s contemporary Josef Stalin and every dictator since that time, including Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Xi Jinping, and their successors seized power and held it for decades. Why did Hitler’s dictatorship collapse after only twelve years? The obvious explanation is Germany’s military defeat in 1945, the direct result of the Führer’s delusional diplomatic and military policies. Yet that explanation is actually the secondary one, leading to the further question: Why did the members of his government at the highest levels allow him to pursue those policies without hindrance, and even dissension? The answer is that the men Hitler chose for his colleagues and closest advisers were as amateurish and fundamentally unserious persons as he was. (He was lucky only with Speer, who as Armaments Minister showed himself to be something of a Renaissance man.) There was nothing at all unserious and amateurish, by contrast, about Lenin and Stalin, Malenkov, Bulganin, Beria, Kirov, Trotsky, Molotov, and the rest of them; nor about Mao, Kim, and Xi and their henchmen, none of whom is a proper subject for a slapstick comedy created by Charlie Chaplin. Moreover, these Communist leaders either started with a powerful ideological party behind them, or else rose to power from one. The Third Reich, on the other hand, had no precedent in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany; the National Socialist Party was only 13 years old when Hitler became Chancellor, and he was able throughout his dictatorship to keep it subordinate to himself and his government, though toward the end the Nazi functionaries, fearing the worst, were beginning to assert themselves against both.
The lesson for our own day is that, while a more comprehensive and realistic view of the Führer by the Allied leaders during the war might have allowed them to exploit more effectively his personal weaknesses and those of his regime, and thus to hasten the end of the man, his Reich, and the war itself, no such possibilities exist for present national governments interested in promoting the collapse of Xi’s or Vladimir Putin’s regime. This is because no comparisons useful to that end exist between Chancellor Hitler and Presidents Xi and Putin. Dictatorship is one of the least stable forms of government, yet where circumstances are favorable to it, it can survive for a long time, even a very long one. Xi, Putin, and—it seems—Maduro will not be descending into their bunkers anytime soon.