In his book The Hitler Myth, British historian Ian Kershaw writes that a majority of Germans were aware of the racist atrocities committed by Adolph Hitler’s fascist regime, but they chose to rationalise them as “necessary” acts committed against “subhumans” that were threatening the existence of ‘pure’ Germanic races.
According to Kershaw, Hitler was intellectually lazy. In 1925, he authored a verbose book Mein Kampf, in which he regurgitated the many racist theories that already existed in Germany. In the book he blamed “non-Aryan” races for Germany’s defeat in World War I.
After several attempts to come to power, Hitler finally succeeded in capturing the imagination of desperate Germans who gave his Nazi party the majority of seats in 1932/1933 elections. But, according to Kershaw, Hitler’s ultimate success in this regard was the handwork of his closest colleagues who created a “Hitler myth.” This process would continue to be deepened across Hitler’s totalitarian regime.
According to Kershaw, Hitler spent most of his time watching films and loathed paperwork. He was impulsive and incapable of producing new ideas, relying instead on acolytes in his inner circle. Much of what occurred in Germany between 1933 and 1939, was because of his ministers doing what they “thought” Hitler wanted them to do. Hitler was impetuous and vague, and left it to his subordinates to interpret his demands. Kershaw writes, that the most “radical” interpretations impressed him the most.
The opposition’s efforts in trying to oust PM Imran Khan not only come as a rude shock for him, but also for the willing victims of the Khan Myth
These included the making of the autobahn, an ambitious federal motorway, impressive new buildings, propaganda films and the expansion of Germany’s armed forces, as well as the brutal extermination of Jews, gypsies, communists, and the mentally ill and/or “deformed” people.
Certain schemes formulated by his ministers did see the country’s economy bounce back. To Kershaw, this aided the regime’s so-called Ministry of Propaganda, to further embed the Hitler myth in peoples’ minds.
So what was this myth?
Kershaw writes, before Hitler came to power, the cult around him had found an echo among a few thousand followers. But with the Nazi Party’s breakthrough in the 1932 elections, the cult ceased to be merely the property of a fanatical fringe party. More and more Germans began to see in Hitler “the only hope for a way out of the crisis.”
Kershaw then adds that, those now surging to join the Nazi Party were already willing victims of the Hitler Myth. Even for the German people who did not share such sentiments, there was the growing feeling — encouraged by Hitler’s profile in the media — that Hitler was not just another politician. He was an extraordinary leader, a man towards whom one could not remain neutral.
The myth was, of course, much larger than the man who (at best) was a good orator, but a terrible administrator and quite a mediocre thinker. This became a lot more apparent in 1940, when he plunged Germany into an unprecedented international conflict that left Germany in ruins.
He had begun to believe in the myth that someone else had created around him.
Various leaders come to mind who took a similar route (and consequential fall). Let’s take Imran Khan’s case. In 1996, he formed a tiny political party that saw every other party as ‘corrupt’ and responsible for the country’s woes.
The party could not win a single seat during the 1997 elections and just one in the 2002 elections. A former cricketing star and a ‘good looking’ man, Khan was a regular on TV talk shows.
Suddenly, in 2011, he managed to hold a massive rally in Lahore. Many observers believe that, some prominent members in the country’s intelligence agencies began to use their influence over certain TV anchors, prodding them to hold continuous one-on-one interviews with Khan.
The Khan Myth had started to take shape. He was presented as an ‘incorruptible’ leader; a true ‘visionary.’
In 2011 came his book Pakistan: A Personal History, in which he described how he had spent most of his life playing cricket and socialising in England, but had felt lost. Then, after retiring from cricket, he began to understand Pakistan more. There are no great insights in the book that led him to ‘understand’ his country better. His understanding in this regard is a hotchpotch of clichés that one comes across in standard Pakistani text books, and in tomes authored by intellectually lazy authors (both local and otherwise).
It was from such clichés — that see Pakistanis as a homogenous blob of conservatives being led stray by corrupt, pro-West elites — that Khan formulated his ‘vision’.
But as can be gauged from his party’s campaign speeches and TV commercials for the 2013 and 2018 elections, the ‘vision’ was what the urban middle classes often long for in their drawing rooms: A strong man who would unite the nation with a curious mixture of lifestyle liberalism and archetypal Islamism. A leader who could represent the country abroad in kameez shalwar, but through extempore English speeches!
This class is also not above holding prejudices against those who continue to vote for ‘corrupt’ parties. The ‘masses’ are understood as being either jaahil [uneducated] or under the thumb of the corrupt elite. This class began to exhibit frustration, wondering why could the jaahil not realise that Khan was clearly the best (and only) choice?
The Khan myth was firmly engrained in this class. When Khan’s helpers in the establishment aided him in winning the 2018 elections, it became apparent that he hated paperwork and was only interested in those ministers who were good in solidifying his myth.
Khan rewarded sycophancy. A time came when the Khan Myth, shaped by his erstwhile supporters in the establishment, sycophants, and the mainstream and social media, became a reality. To him. In his own mind. And in his core middle-class constituency.
The results were disastrous.
Hitler, at least, had sharp economists during the first five years of his regime that revived German economy and helped the superfluous myth of an otherwise intellectually mediocre tyrant to flourish. The Khan Myth could not be fattened by any meaningful economic achievement. So it never proliferated beyond the middle classes.
Khan got a rude shock when the opposition gathered enough support in trying to oust him. He retaliated, claiming he was doing so to “save the country from corruption” and “evil foreign powers.”
The truth, however, is that he was saving the Khan Myth. After all, how can an incorruptible, pious, handsome visionary be ousted?
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 20th, 2022