Hitler, charisma and the social identity approach

As a function of my consulting and teaching I am often educating people about the social identity approach to leadership, described elsewhere as “the new psychology of leadership”.[1] As briefly introduced last fortnight, the crux of this approach is that leadership is best understood as one particular pathway to influence. Specifically, a pathway where people model their beliefs and behaviours on those who typify their psychological ingroups, or ‘social identities’.

“What about Hitler?”

For some reason, at least in my circles, Hitler seems to come up as an apparent insurmountable challenge for the social identity approach. To paraphrase: “Surely the group based influence your describe cannot account for, or match the power of, the charisma in someone like Hitler?”

I do not agree, and I am going to take this opportunity to explain why. This serves two purposes. First, it will become somewhere I can send my critics to and save me from repeating myself over and over again. Second, and more seriously, it will serve to begin what will be a larger conversation on this blog about the relationship between social identity, leadership, and charisma.

To start, Hitler wasn’t consistently charismatic; not over his life, nor for all people. Evidence from Hitler’s early life suggests that there was little charismatic about him. His grades were frequently unsatisfactory at school and during his adolescent life he was regarded as a loner.[2] During his military experience in the First World War there is no evidence that he displayed charismatic qualities, in fact one of his officers described him as a “quiet, rather an unmilitary looking man who appeared to differ in no way from his fellows; he had been rejected for promotion because, we can discover no leadership qualities in him”.[2]

Hitler with fellow soldiers before his rise to power, sitting on the far left.[3]

Hitler with fellow soldiers before his rise to power, sitting on the far left.[3]

Hitler’s appeal only arose from 1920 onward, and even then he was not universally accepted and it was no easy journey. Support across Germany for the Nazi party ebbed and flowed.[4] Across 1932, for example, there was a marked decline in support. In fact, even within the Sturmabteilung there is good evidence that by 1934 many members were only tenuously aligned with Hitler.

Hitler’s charisma was attributed to him by his followers. It was not universally accepted and was not an innate quality of the man. Hitler’s charisma was instead the product of hard work and skilful self-presentation. Moreover, Hitler’s leadership credentials were heavily reliant on social identity management. Hitler situated himself as an answer to group threats and as a champion for group goals. The apocalyptic narrative of his speeches and writing focused on a post-war crisis facing Germans as a collective. He also maintained collective enemies for the German people, notoriously vilifying the Jews. Further, the Jewish people were maintained not just as an enemy for the German people, but as an enemy of the Aryan people; an antithesis to their looks, lifestyle, morals and objectives. As an Austrian born German, the Aryan collective was critical in Hitler positioning himself as central to the ‘ingroup’. In the end Hitler portrayed himself not as a champion of Germany, but as a champion of a racial identity that encompassed both Germany and Austria.

But Hitler’s portrayal of his ingroup qualifications would not be enough for him to establish his leadership; he also needed to demonstrate it. In Hitler we see more than just skilful wordplay and performance. We see the creation of a structured social movement capable of delivering real results for the ingroup, and meeting out punishments to outgroups. Hitler was able to chalk up a series of successes, from the early survival of the Putsch (enduring his trial and imprisonment), to the reoccupation of the Rhineland and the easy defeat of France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.[4] All of this solidified his place as the epitome of “doing it for us”.[1]

All of this maps neatly onto the social identity approach to leadership. Because leadership is an outcome of collective psychology, Hitler’s rhetoric can be understood as a conscious attempt at defining and redefining social identities. We see this in his writing (“the art of leadership … consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and making sure that nothing will split up that attention”) and in his ceremony (in the Nuremburg rallies he emerges from the masses to stand in the centre of the undifferentiated ranks of Party members).[5] Hitler, for all the tragedy of his beliefs, was a master of identity management. Said otherwise, he was an “entrepreneur of identity”.[5][6][7]

This is not to say that social identity approach to leadership wholly explains Hitler’s rise to power. This story of Hitler is as much one of leadership as it is about authority and coercion. It is also about history and circumstance. Hitler emerged as Germany was in a deepening crisis and it was a complex sequence of events that led to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933. Nevertheless, social influence through leadership cannot be overlooked if one is to comprehend the events of Europe in the middle of the 20th century.

To sum up, we have seen that Hitler was not an intrinsically charismatic individual, and we have seen the extensive efforts that he took to manage his social identity environment and his position within that environment. Putting these two together we can see that it was only through that social identity management that Hitler was able to be perceived as a charismatic leader; charisma was a quality bestowed upon Hitler by his followers.

So “what about Hitler?”

Hitler isn’t a problem for the social identity approach to leadership; he is a case study in the social identity approach to leadership. He is a demonstration of the fact that charisma is an outcome of leadership, not a cause.

[1] Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S., & Platow, M. J. (2011). The new psychology of leadership: Psychology Press.

[2] Fest, J. C. (1973). Hitler. Frankfurt aM. M., Berlin, Wien, 432.

[3] Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1974-082-44 / CC-BY-SA

[4] Breuilly, J. (2011). Max Weber, charisma and nationalist leadership1. Nations and nationalism.

[5] Reicher, S., & Hopkins, N. (2001). Self and nation: Categorization, contestation and mobilization: Sage Publications Ltd.

[6] Reicher, S., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16(4), 547-568.

[7] Turner, J. C., Reynolds, K. J., & Subasic, E. (2008). Identity confers power: The new view of leadership in social psychology. Public Leadership, 57.

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