I first perused Ian Kershaw’s classic study The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich about thirty year ago and decided to reacquaint myself with the volume on a recent trip. It is a remarkably facile read for a sociological study. Of the many insights into party dictatorship – strangely relevant today – one item stands out: the opposition, more apparent than real, between the charismatic leader (Adolf Hitler) and the theoretical ideologue (Alfred Rosenberg).
Rosenberg was a Nazi intellectual and author of a turgid racialist metanarrative called The Myth of the Twentieth Century. As it turns out, few Nazi leaders ever read the work and Hitler distanced himself from its overt anti-Christian theorizing. That said, Rosenberg oversaw Nazi Party education. More importantly, the presence of someone “more radical” than Hitler served as a useful distraction. Germans who might object to heavy-handed Nazi intrusions into church life could juxtapose Hitler’s superficially sympathetic, and purely opportunistic, religious sentiments with Rosenberg’s more virulent diatribes.
The underlying pattern that Kershaw highlights is how ideological radicals are allowed to push the envelope a bit farther than may be practically desirable. More popular leaders are able to establish a subtle but definitive moral shift to the “new normal.” Things considered abhorrent only a few years prior gain permanency and acceptance. The tragic irony was that when compared to Rosenberg or other more transparent fanatics, Hitler could portray himself as the moderate.