Date Tuesday, 30 April 2019, at 3:23 p.m.
Look, I know what you’re thinking. Putting Hitler in a book about the terrible mistakes we’ve made as a species isn’t exactly the boldest move ever. "Oh wow, never heard of him, what a fascinating historical nugget" is something you’re probably not saying right now.
But beyond him being (obviously) a genocidal maniac, there’s an aspect to Hitler’s rule that kind of gets missed in our standard view of him. Even if popular culture has long enjoyed turning him into an object of mockery, we still tend to believe that the Nazi machine was ruthlessly efficient, and that the great dictator spent most of his time…well, dictating things.
So it’s worth remembering that Hitler was actually an incompetent, lazy egomaniac and his government was an absolute clown show.
In fact, this may even have helped his rise to power, as he was consistently underestimated by the German elite. Before he became chancellor, many of his opponents had dismissed him as a joke for his crude speeches and tacky rallies. Even after elections had made the Nazis the largest party in the Reichstag, people still kept thinking that Hitler was an easy mark, a blustering idiot who could easily be controlled by smart people.
Why did the elites of Germany so consistently underestimate Hitler? Possibly because they weren’t actually wrong in their assessment of his competency—they just failed to realise that this wasn’t enough to stand in the way of his ambition. As it would turn out, Hitler was really bad at running a government. As his own press chief Otto Dietrich later wrote in his memoir The Hitler I Knew, "In the twelve years of his rule in Germany Hitler produced the biggest confusion in government that has ever existed in a civilized state."
His government was constantly in chaos, with officials having no idea what he wanted them to do, and nobody was entirely clear who was actually in charge of what. He procrastinated wildly when asked to make difficult decisions, and would often end up relying on gut feeling, leaving even close allies in the dark about his plans. His "unreliability had those who worked with him pulling out their hair," as his confidant Ernst Hanfstaengl later wrote in his memoir Zwischen Weißem und Braunem Haus. This meant that rather than carrying out the duties of state, they spent most of their time in-fighting and back-stabbing each other in an attempt to either win his approval or avoid his attention altogether, depending on what mood he was in that day.
There’s a bit of an argument among historians about whether this was a deliberate ploy on Hitler’s part to get his own way, or whether he was just really, really bad at being in charge of stuff. Dietrich himself came down on the side of it being a cunning tactic to sow division and chaos—and it’s undeniable that he was very effective at that. But when you look at Hitler’s personal habits, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it was just a natural result of putting a workshy narcissist in charge of a country.
Hitler was incredibly lazy. According to his aide Fritz Wiedemann, even when he was in Berlin he wouldn’t get out of bed until after 11 a.m., and wouldn’t do much before lunch other than read what the newspapers had to say about him, the press cuttings being dutifully delivered to him by Dietrich.
He was obsessed with the media and celebrity, and often seems to have viewed himself through that lens. He once described himself as "the greatest actor in Europe," and wrote to a friend, "I believe my life is the greatest novel in world history." In many of his personal habits he came across as strange or even childish—he would have regular naps during the day, he would bite his fingernails at the dinner table, and he had a remarkably sweet tooth that led him to eat "prodigious amounts of cake" and "put so many lumps of sugar in his cup that there was hardly any room for the tea."
He was deeply insecure about his own lack of knowledge, preferring to either ignore information that contradicted his preconceptions, or to lash out at the expertise of others. He hated being laughed at, but enjoyed it when other people were the butt of the joke (he would perform mocking impressions of people he disliked). But he also craved the approval of those he disdained, and his mood would quickly improve if a newspaper wrote something complimentary about him.
Little of this was especially secret or unknown at the time. It’s why so many people failed to take Hitler seriously until it was too late, dismissing him as merely a "half-mad rascal" or a "man with a beery vocal organ." In a sense, they weren’t wrong. In another, much more important sense, they were as wrong as it’s possible to get.
Hitler’s personal failings didn’t stop him having an uncanny instinct for political rhetoric that would gain mass appeal, and it turns out you don’t actually need to have a particularly competent or functional government to do terrible things.
We tend to assume that when something awful happens there must have been some great controlling intelligence behind it. It’s understandable: how could things have gone so wrong, we think, if there wasn’t an evil genius pulling the strings? The downside of this is that we tend to assume that if we can’t immediately spot an evil genius, then we can all chill out a bit because everything will be fine.
But history suggests that’s a mistake, and it’s one that we make over and over again. Many of the worst man-made events that ever occurred were not the product of evil geniuses. Instead they were the product of a parade of idiots and lunatics, incoherently flailing their way through events, helped along the way by overconfident people who thought they could control them.