The Dark Matter of Charisma: Lessons from the Nuremburg Rallies


by John Gaffney

Last month saw the broadcast of Laurence Rees’ acclaimed The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler on BBC2, of which there is also an accompanying book. The stunning spectacle of mass hero-worship in the Third Reich is compelling, in particular, the sight of unbridled joy at these mass rallies. This is even more so given that we – unlike those smiling faces – know what happened next, the nightmare of World War II and the deaths of countless millions.

The Twentieth Century has been obsessed – since the publication of Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd in 1895 – with the psychology of crowds; this has also been the century of charismatic leaders, Adolf Hitler being perhaps the most savage of them all. Rees’ footage of meetings, greetings, encounters, patting children’s cheeks, speeches, walkabouts and rallies draws our attention not just to Hitler, but to the thousands of faces – enraptured and smiling – under his spell.

Much of the footage is Nazi propaganda, but the rapture of the crowds is clearly genuine, and because of the focus on charisma, the three-part series bristles with images of Hitler’s rhetorical flights and the crowd’s adoration. The idea of dark charisma is chilling, partly because everyone looks so illuminated. Charisma means ‘Grace’ (literally, by the grace of God); perhaps dark charisma is conferred by Satan. At the end of the series, we are left wondering what this strange phenomenon of charisma is, is it light or dark? Rather like dark matter, we know something must be there, but we can’t find it.

Rees searches, again and again if Hitler really did have charisma, given that many people were opposed to him, many were indifferent to him, and many thought – far from being charismatic – he was a complete clown. Perhaps the charisma was it not in him but in the people’s own desires, or deep in their psyche. Did they see what they wanted to see? Or was it in the tricks the Nazi propaganda machine played?

But if Hitler wasn’t charismatic, what on earth was going on for him to attract such worship? After pondering the happy faces of what appears to be a whole nation (of course, it wasn’t), we still don’t know at the end of the series the ‘what’ of charisma, the ‘how’ of persuasion and the ‘why’ of acquiescence and allegiance.

There is an irony, as Rees argues, that there was perhaps a kind of contractual allegiance to Hitler, one dependent upon his ‘delivering the goods’, of prosperity and conquest. But can a leader be charismatic while he delivers, and then – through the people’s painful transition through cognitive dissonance to a feeling of deception or betrayal – lose it? Can charisma go into reverse? What exactly is it that he loses?

To claim that from 1942 to 1943, and especially after Stalingrad, that Germans began to wonder if he really was charismatic, does not solve our enigma at all. Accusing Hitler of deceptive alchemy doesn’t tell us what gold is. And he certainly had something.

At the beginning, he had a small band of followers; all prospective charismatic leaders need them, if only to help them appear as if they stand alone. He also had a real sense of what the alchemy involved; Hitler was exemplary in his understanding of all the media. And, criss-crossing the country in planes, when all his adversaries stayed in Berlin, as a political campaigner, he left them standing. Then, having taken power, he realised very quickly the talent and propaganda value of a Leni Riefenstahl, and so on. But what is the ‘something’ that he had? As observers and analysts (and citizens!), we really do need to know: what it was between, say, 1933-1943, that captured the hearts of enough Germans to change the course of human history.

What is charisma? How do we explain how he, so full of publicly expressed hate, filled so many Germans with such publicly expressed love? How was Hitler’s intolerance seen as courage? How was his obstinacy seen as vision? So, as we search for an understanding of charisma, we cannot be satisfied with just the idea that he expressed collective desire and anxiety. We need to know how it was that this man, created in those people the desire to listen to him and, having listened, felt that something magical had happened.

There was a context: a devastating economic collapse and political instability throughout the 1920s, essentially, but these do not explain allegiance to such messianic folly, nor complicity in such collateral cruelty. In the spectacular rallies Rees depicts how emotive and emotional Hitler’s narratives of hate and anger were, his thunderous crescendos, the high emotion, and his brilliant use within all this of his ‘self’ and his body language; the pauses, the long anticipatory silences, the as-if-righteous expressing of the audience’s indignation, the staring, the pounding fists; all these creating, by the end of the rally, near delirium. But we still need to know how and why these contexts and events trigger the charismatic bond. We need to know, not just what they thought he brought to them, but who they thought he was; who was the ‘imagined persona’ and what was the vibrant relationship he elaborated with the audience?

The scope afforded to an audience and to a speaker in such circumstances, how they ‘imagine’ both themselves and one another, will not be limitless but will range well beyond their real ‘selves’. The capacity for a sense of emotional (and rational) interaction will also be extensive, making the possibilities of emotional experience also extensive, well beyond any ‘real’ relationship – and, of course, ultimately, the potential for feelings of deep deception and betrayal, from stern to bow.

So let us ask ourselves again: what is charisma, and was Hitler charismatic? These are the only important questions. And I am not sure there has ever been a proper answer to either of them. Where does this intriguing idea of charisma come from? The social philosopher, Max Weber, invented the term, and defined charisma thus:

A certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

From Weber’s definition, it is difficult to pin down what charisma is, in part because it is difficult to pin down where it is. And this brings us back to Hitler and the Germans, and to Laurence Rees’ questioning of the relational aspects of charisma. Is the charisma in the ascribed qualities or in their ascription? And ‘where’ is each of these? The focus has come to be placed on the ascribing, that is, in the eye/s of the beholder/s, rather than in the qualities held. The most extreme form of this view, and extremely influential, is the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno and his development of the idea of the ‘authoritarian personality’. In a sentence, he identified Hitler’s persuasive power as lying in the psychic dependence of a particular type of audience, and its need for authority and domination, Adorno’s implication being that it does not really exist. This, however, takes us off in the wrong direction, away from the persona we are trying to analyse.

Of course charisma must be relational, but at the Adorno end of the spectrum there is nothing for the audience to truly relate to because, for Adorno, the audience is psychotic. And besides, what is the ‘certain quality’ that ‘ordinary men’ ascribe? What are the ‘exceptional powers and qualities’? Besides the definitional confusion, what is dramatically missing from Weber’s analysis is precisely the drama of the charismatic relationship, its emotional character.

For Weber, charisma is little more than Simon Cowell’s ‘X factor’ or ‘Star quality’; but if charisma has a certain je ne sais quoi, we need to get a handle on the quoi of je ne sais, the ‘what’ of ‘I don’t know what’. Let me suggest a minimal definition: charisma is an event. And in all cases, it is an emotional event; in intense form it is a dramatic event; and in perfect form, an epiphany. Charismatic leadership is an act, an action, a performance. We need, therefore, to understand the enactment and voicing of ‘charismatic’ leadership, that is, leadership as an act performed, an act enacted, but with specific qualities and skill in its enactment, namely, an effective rhetoric and distinct image that are culturally appropriate and institutionally recognisable. There has long been a puzzle in the study of leadership, as there is in daily conversation: that the speaker/leader is ‘like us’ and yet different. They have to be like us, for us to identify; unlike us, for us to ‘see’ charisma.

It is, in my view, the envisioning that speakers do that creates this powerful duality. As well as showing that he/she is ‘like’ (can empathise with) the audience, leaders also use ‘vision’, not to ‘create’ charisma, but to point towards its secret location. The vision is only partly seen; and even to see the part, the speaker is needed. It is the speaker’s vision, not the audience’s. And our acquiescence in their vision is a prerequisite to the fulfilling of our desire. So, to a certain but fundamental degree, the speaker, contrary to a lot of received opinion, must maintain what he/she knows as somehow unknown. Emotion is based upon part-ineffable vision. What we ‘see’ and become dependent upon is the envisioning of the visionary. Charisma is an event in which a visionary (half) reveals secret, mythical, magical places. And Hitler, charismatic warrior-philosopher, was a breath-taking and a stunning act in that context. It was not his charisma that was dark, but his vision; indeed, so dark it led Germany and half the world to ruin. For inner circle Nazis, the vision was predicated on World War, but for the smiling millions, partial vision can take you where you did not expect to end up – into the abyss.

The charismatic temptation – for it is that – is a part of social and political reality. Mercifully so, for without it there would have been no Martin Luther King, no Malcolm X, no Emmeline Pankhurst, no Patrick Pearse, no FDR, no Gandhi, no JFK, no Fidel, no Obama, no Aung San Suu Kyi. Charisma is like water or fire: it is in turns inviting, dangerous, beautiful, comforting, liberating. Those who believe in justice, or in the well-being of all, or in collective security and individual rights and freedoms, need to know what it is made of, what it can do, and how to use it.


Adorno, T. (1950) The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper and Rowe.

Le Bon, G. (2005) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895). Minnesota: Filiquarian Publishing.

Riefenstahl, L. (1935) ‘Triumph of the Will’ (Film): Berlin.

Weber, M. (1964) The Theory of Economy and Social Organisation. New York: Free Press.

About the Author:

John Gaffney is an expert on political leadership. He is Professor of Politics and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His latest book Political Leadership in France is published by Palgrave Publishers.