Case Study in Eventrics : Adolf Hitler

                “There is a tide in the affairs of men
                Which, taken in the flood, leads on to fortune”

                                                Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

In a previous post I suggested that the three most successful non-hereditary ‘power figures’ in Western history were Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler. Since none of the three had advantages that came by birth, as, for example, Alexander the Great or Louis XIV did, the meteoric rise of these three persons suggests either very unusual abilities or very remarkable ‘luck’.
From the viewpoint of Eventrics, success depends on how well a particular person fits the situation and there is no inherent conflict between ‘luck’ and ability. Quite the reverse, the most important ‘ability’ that a successful politician, military commander or businessman can have is precisely the capacity to handle events, especially unforeseen ones. In other words success to a considerable extent depends on how well a person handles his or her ‘good luck’ if and when it occurs, or how well a person can transform ‘bad luck’ into ‘good luck’. Whether everyone gets brilliant opportunities that they fail to seize one doubts but, certainly, most of us are blind to the opportunities that do arise and, when not blind, lack the self-confidence to seize such an offered ‘chance’ and turn it to one’s advantage.
The above is hardly controversial though it does rule out the view that everything is determined in advance, or, alternatively, the exact opposite, that ‘more or less anything can happen at any time anywhere’. I take the commonsense view that there are certain tendencies that really exist in a given situation. It is, however, up to the individual to reinforce or make use of such ‘event-currents’ or, alternatively, to ignore them and, as it were, pass by on the other side like the Levite in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The driving forces of history are not people but events and ‘event dynamics’; however, this does not reduce individuals to the status of puppets, far from it. Either through instinct or correct analysis (or a judicious mixture of the two) the successful person identifies a ‘rising’ event current, gets with it if it suits him or her, and abandons it abruptly when it ceases to be advantageous. This is easy enough to state, but supremely difficult to put into practice. Everyone who speculates on the Stock Exchange knows that the secret of success is no secret at all : it consists in buying  when the price of stock is low but just about to rise and selling when the price is high but just about to fall. For one Soros, there are a hundred thousand or maybe a hundred million ‘ordinary investors’ who either fail entirely or make very modest gains.
But why, one might ask, is it advantageous to identify and go with an ‘event trend’ rather than simply decide what you want to do and pursue your objective off your own bat? Because the trend will do a good deal of the work for you : the momentum of a rising trend is colossal, indeed for a while, seems to be unstoppable. Pit yourself against a rising trend and it will overwhelm you, identify yourself with it and it will take you along with a force equivalent to that of a million individuals. If you can spot coming trends accurately and go with them, you can succeed with only moderate intelligence, knowledge, looks, connections, what have you.

Is charisma essential for success?

It is certainly possible to succeed spectacularly without charisma since Cardinal Richelieu, the most powerful man in the France and Europe of his day, had none whereas Joan of Arc who had plenty had a pitifully short career. Colbert, finance minister of Louis XIV is another example; indeed, in the case of ministers it is probably better not to stick out too much from the mass, even to the extent of appearing a mediocrity.
Nonetheless, Richelieu and Colbert lived during an era when it was only necessary to obtain the support of one or two big players such as kings or popes, whereas, in a democratic era, it is necessary to inspire and fascinate millions of ‘ordinary people’. No successful modern dictator lacked charisma : Stalin, Mao-tse-tong, Hitler all had plenty and this made up for much else. Charisma, however, is not enough, or not enough if one wishes to remain in power : to do this, an intuitive or pragmatic grasp of the behaviour of event patterns is a sine qua non and this is something quite different from charisma.

Hitler as failure and mediocrity

 Many historians, especially British, are not just shocked but puzzled by Hitler ─ though less now than they were fifty years ago. For how could such an unprepossessing individual, with neither looks, polish, connections or higher education succeed so spectacularly? One British newspaper writer described Hitler, on the occasion of his first big meeting with Mussolini, as looking like “someone who wanted to seduce the cook”.
Although he had participated in World War I and shown himself to be a dedicated and brave ‘common soldier’, Hitler never had any experience as a commander on the battlefield even at the level of a platoon ─ he was a despatch runner who was told what to do (deliver messages) and did it. Yet this was the man who eventually got control of the greatest military machine in history and blithely disregarded the opinions of seasoned military experts, initially with complete success. Hitler also proved to be a vastly successful public speaker, but he never took elocution lessons and, when he started, even lacked the experience of handling an audience that an amateur  actor or stand-up comedian possesses.
Actually, Hitler’s apparent disadvantages proved to be more of a help than a hindrance once he had  begun to make his mark, since it gave his adversaries and rivals the erroneous impression  that he would be easy to manipulate and outwit. Hitler learned about human psychology, not by reading learned tomes written by Freud and Adler, but by eking out a precarious living in Vienna as a seller of picture postcards and sleeping in workingmen’s hostels. This was learning the hard way which, as long as you last the course (which the majority don’t), is generally the best way.
It is often said that Hitler was successful because he was ruthless. But ruthlessness is, unfortunately, not a particularly rare human trait, at any rate in the lower levels of a not very rich society. Places like Southern Italy or Colombia by all accounts have produced and continue to produce thousands or tens of thousands of exceedingly ruthless individuals, but how many ever get anywhere? At the other end of the spectrum, one could argue that it is impossible to be a successful politician without a certain degree of ruthlessness ─ though admittedly Hitler took it to virtually unheard of extremes. Even ‘good’ successful political figures such as Churchill were ruthless enough to happily envisage dragging neutral Norway into the war (before the Germans invaded), to authorise the deliberate bombing of civilian centres and even to approve in theory the use of chemical weapons. Nor did de Gaulle bother unduly about the bloody repercussions for the rural population that the activities of partisans would inevitably bring  about. Arguably, if people like Churchill and de Gaulle had not had a substantial dose of ‘ruthlessness’ (aka ‘commitment’), we would have lost the war long before the Americans ever got involved  ─ which is not, of course, to put such persons on a level with Hitler and Stalin.
To return to Hitler. Prior to the outbreak of WWI, Hitler, though by all accounts  already quite as ruthless and opinionated as he subsequently proved himself to be on a larger arena, was a complete failure. He had a certain, rather conventional, talent for pencil drawing and some vague architectural notions but that is about it. Whether Hitler would or could have made a successful architect, we shall never know since he was refused entry twice by the Viennese School of Architecture. He certainly retained a deep interest in the subject and did succeed in spotting and subsequently promoting an architect of talent, Speer. But there is no reason to think we would have heard of Hitler if he had been accepted as an architectural student and subsequently articled to a Viennese firm of Surveyors and Architects.
As for public speaking, Hitler didn’t do any in his Vienna pre-war days, only discovering his flair in Munich in the early twenties. And although Hitler enlisted voluntarily for service at the outbreak of  WWI, he was for many years actually a draft-dodger wanted for national service by Austria, his country of birth. Hardly a promising start for a future grand military strategist.

Hitler’s Decisive Moment : the Beer Hall Putsch

 Hitler did, according to the few accounts we have by people who knew him at the time, have boyhood dreams of one day becoming a ‘famous artist’ — but what adolescent has not? Certainly, Hitler did not, in  his youth and early manhood, see himself as a future famous political or military figure, far from it. Even when Hitler started his fiery speeches about Germany’s revival and the need for strong government, he did not at first cast himself in the role of ‘Leader’. On the contrary, it would seem that awareness of his own mission as saviour of the German nation came to him gradually and spasmodically. Indeed, one could argue that it was only after the abortive Munich Beer-Hall putsch that Hitler decisively took on this role : it was in a sense thrust on him.
The total failure of this rather amateurish plot to take over the government of Bavaria by holding a gun to the governor’s face and suchlike antics turned out to be the turning-point of his thinking, and of his life. In Quattrocento Italy it was possible to seize power in such a way ─ though only the Medici with big finance behind them really succeeded on a grand scale  ─ and similar coups have succeeded in modern Latin American countries. But in an advanced industrial country like Germany where everyone had the vote, such methods were clearly anachronistic. Even if Hitler and his supporters had temporarily got control of Munich, they would easily have been put down by central authority : they would have been seven day wonders and no more. It was this fiasco that decided Hitler to obtain power via the despised ballot box rather than the more glamorous but outmoded methods of an Italian condottieri.
The failed Beer-hall putsch landed Hitler in court and, subsequently in prison; and most people at the time thought this would be the end of him. However, Hitler, like Napoleon before him in Egypt after the destruction of his fleet, was a strong enough character not to be brought  down by the disaster but, on the contrary, to view it as a golden opportunity. This is an example of the ‘law’ of Eventrics that “a disadvantage, once turned into an advantage, is a greater advantage than a straightforward advantage”.
What were the advantages of the situation? Three at least. Firstly, Hitler now had a regional and soon a national audience for his views and he lost no time in making the court-room a speaker’s platform with striking success. His ability as a speaker was approaching its zenith : he had the natural flair and already some years of experience. Hitler was given an incredibly  lenient sentence and was even at one point thanked by the judge for his informative replies concerning Germany’s recent history! Secondly, while in prison, Hitler had the time to write Mein Kampf which, given his lax, bohemian life-style, he would probably have never got round to doing  otherwise. And his court-room temporary celebrity meant the book was sure to sell if written and published rapidly.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, the various nascent extreme Right groups made little or no headway with the ‘leader’ in prison which confirmed them in the view that  Hitler was indispensable. Once out of prison, he found himself without serious competitors on the Right and his position stronger than ever.
But the most important outcome was simply the realization that the forces of the State were far too strong to be overthrown by strong-arm tactics. The eventual break with Röhm and the SA was an inevitable consequence of Hitler’s fateful decision to gain power within the system rather than by openly opposing it.

Combination of opposite abilities

 As a practitioner of Eventrics or ‘handler of events’, Hitler held two trump cards that are rarely dealt to the same individual. Firstly, even though his sense of calling seems to have come relatively late, by the early nineteen-thirties he was entirely convinced that he was a man of destiny. He is credited with the remarkable statement, very similar to one made by Cromwell, “I follow the path set by Providence with the precision and assurance of a sleepwalker”. It was this messianic side that appealed to the masses of ordinary people, and it was something that he retained right up to the end. Even when the Russian armies were at the gates of Berlin, Hitler could still inspire people who visited him in the Bunker. And Speer recounts how, even  at Germany’s lowest ebb, he overheard (without being recognized) German working people in a factory repeating like a mantra that “only Hitler can save us now”.
However, individuals who see themselves as chosen by the gods, usually fail because they do not pay sufficient attention to ordinary, mundane technicalities. Richelieu said that someone who aims at high power should not be ashamed to concern himself with trivial details  ─ an excellent remark. Napoleon has been called a ‘map-reader of genius’ and to prepare for the Battles of Ulm and Austerlitz, he instructed Berthier “to prepare a card-index showing every unit of the Austrian army, with its latest identified location, so that the Emperor could check the Austrian order of battle from day to day” (Note 1). Hitler had a similar capacity for attention to detail, supported by a remarkable memory for facts and figures — there are many records of him reeling off correct data about the range of guns and the populations of certain regions to his amazed generals.
This ‘combination of contraries’ also applies to Hitler as a statesman. Opponents and many subsequent historians could never quite decide whether Hitler, from the beginning, aimed for world domination, or whether he simply drifted along, waiting to see where events would take him. In reality, as Bullock rightly points out, these contradictions are only apparent : “Hitler was at once fanatical and cynical, unyielding in his assertion of will power and cunning in calculation” (Bullock, Hitler and the Origins on the Second World War). This highly unusual combination of two opposing tendencies is the key to Hitler’s success. As Bullock again states, “Hitler’s foreign policy… combined consistency of aim with complete opportunism in method and tactics. (…) Hitler frequently improvised, kept his options open to the last possible moment and was never sure until he got there which of several courses of action he would choose. But this does not alter the fact that his moves followed a logical (though not a predetermined) course ─ in contrast to Mussolini, an opportunist who snatched eagerly at any chance that was going, but never succeeded in combining even his successes into a coherent policy” (Bullock, p. 139).
Certainly, sureness of ultimate aim combined with flexibility in day to day management is a near infallible recipe for conspicuous success. Someone who merely drifts along may occasionally obtain a surprise victory but will be unable to build on it; someone who is completely rigid in aim and means will not  be able to adapt to, and take advantage of, what is unforeseen and unforeseeable. Clarity of goal and unshakeable conviction is the strategic part of Practical Eventrics while the capacity to respond rapidly to the unforeseen belongs to the tactical side.

Why did Hitler ultimately fail?

 Given the favourable political circumstances and Hitler’s unusual abilities, the wonder is, not that he lasted as long as he did, but that he eventually failed. On a personal level, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, Hitler’s racial theories, while they originally helped him to power, eventually proved much more of a drawback than an advantage. For one thing, since Hitler regarded ‘Slavs’ as inferior, this conviction unnecessarily alienated large populations in Eastern Europe, many of whom were originally favourable to German intervention since they had had enough of Stalin. Moreover, Hitler allowed ideological and personal prejudices to influence his choice of subordinates : rightly suspicious of the older Army generals but jealous of brilliant commanders like von Manstein and Guderian, he ended up with a General Staff of supine mediocrities.
Secondly, Hitler, though he had an excellent intuitive grasp of overall strategy, was a poor tactician. Not only did he have no actual experience of command on the battlefield but, contrary to popular belief, he was easily rattled and unable to keep a clear head in emergencies.
Jomini considered that “the art of war consists of six distinct parts:

  1. Statesmanship in relation to war
  2. Strategy, or the art of properly directing masses upon the theatre of war, either for defence or invasion.
  3. Grand Tactics.
  4. Logistics, or the art of moving armies.
  5. Engineering ─ the attack and defence of frotifications.
  6. Minor tactics.”
    Jomini, The Art of War p. 2

Hitler certainly ticks the first three boxes. But certainly not (4), Logistics. Hitler tended to override his highly efficient Chief of General Staff, Halder, whereas Napoleon always listened carefully to what Halder’s equivalent, Berthier, had to say. According to Liddell Hart, the invasion of Russia failed, despite the high quality of the commanders and fighting men, because of an error in logistics.
Hitler lost his chance of victory because the mobility of his army was based on wheels instead of on tracks. On Russia’s mud-roads its wheeled transport was bogged when the tanks could move on. If the panzer forces had been provided with tracked transport they could have reached Russia’s vital centres by the autumn in spite of the mud” (Liddel-Hart, History of the Second World War )  On such mundane details does the fate of empires and even of the world often depend.
As for (5), the attack on fortifications, it had little importance in World War II though the long-drawn out siege of Leningrad exhausted resources and troops and should probably have been abandoned. Finally, on (6), what Jomini calls ‘minor tactics’, Hitler was so poor as to be virtually incompetent. By ‘minor tactics’, we should understand everything relating to the actual movement of troops on the battlefield (or battle zone) ─ the area in which Napoleon and Alexander the Great were both supreme.  Hitler was frequently indecisive and vacillating as well as nervy, all fatal qualities for a military commander.
On two occasions, Hitler made monumental blunders that cost him the war. The first was the astonishing decision to hold back the victorious tank units just as they were about to sweep into Dunkirk and cut off the British forces. And the second was Hitler’s rejection of  Guderian’s plan for a headlong drive towards Moscow before winter set in; instead, following conventional Clausewitzian principles,  Hitler opted for a policy of encirclement and head-on battle. Given the enormous man-power of the Russians and their scorched earth policy, this was a fatal decision.
Jomini, as opposed to Clausewitz, recognized the importance of statesmanship in the conduct of a war, something that professional army officers and even commanders are prone to ignore. Whereas Lincoln often saw things that his generals could not, and on occasion successfully overrided them  because he had a sounder long-term view, Hitler, a political rather than a military man, introduced far too much statesmanship into the conduct of war.
It has been plausibly argued, especially by Liddel Hart, that the decision to halt the tank units before Dunkirk was a political rather than a military decision. Blumentritt, operational planner for General Rundstedt, said, at a later date, that “the ‘halt’ had been called for more than military reasons, it was part of a political scheme to make peace easier to reach. If the British Expeditionary Force had been captured at Dunkirk, the British might have felt that their honour had suffered a stain which they must wipe out. By letting it escape, Hitler hoped to conciliate them” (Liddel Hart, History of the Second World War I p. 89-90). This did make some kind of sense : a rapid peace settlement with Britain would have wound up the Western campaign and freed Hitler’s hands to advance eastwards which had seemingly always been his intention. However, if this interpretation is correct, Hitler made a serious miscalculation, underestimating Britain’s fighting spirit and inventiveness.

Hitler’s abilities and disabilities

 It would take us too far afield from the field of Eventrics proper to go into the details of Hitler’s political, economic and military policies. My overall feeling is that Hitler was a master in the political domain, time and again outwitting his internal and external rivals and enemies, and that he had an extremely good perception of Germany’s economic situation and what needed to be done about it. But he was an erratic and often incapable military commander ─ for we should not forget that, following the resignation of von Brauchitsh, Hitler personally supervised the entire conduct of the war in the East (and everywhere else eventually). This is something like the reverse of the conventional assessment of Hitler so is perhaps worth explaining.
Hitler is credited with the invention of Blitzkrieg, a new way of waging war and, in particular, with one of the most successful campaigns in military history, the invasion of France, when the tank units moved in through the Ardennes, thought to be impassible. The original idea was in reality not Hitler’s but von Manstein’s (who got little credit for it) though Hitler did have the perspicacity to see the merits of this risky and unorthodox plan of attack which the German High Command unanimously rejected. It is also true that Hitler took a special interest in the tank and does seem to have some good ideas regarding tank design.
However, Hitler never seems to have rid himself completely of the conventional Clausewitzian idea that wars are won by large-scale confrontations of armed men, i.e. by modern ‘pitched battles’. Practically all (if not all) the German successes depended on surprise, rapidity of execution and artful manoeuvre ─ that is, by precisely the avoidance of direct confrontation. Thus the invasion of France, the early stages of the invasion of Russia, Rommel in North Africa and so on. When the Germans fought it out on a level playing field, they either lost as at Al Alamein or achieved ‘victories’ that were so costly as to be more damaging than defeats as in the latter part of the Russian campaign.  Hitler was in fact only a halfway-modernist in military strategy. “The school of Fuller and Basil Liddel Hart [likewise Guderian and Rommel] moved away from using manoeuvre to bring the enemy’s army to battle and destroy it. Instead, it [the tank] should be used in such a way as to numb the enemy’s command, control, and communications and bring about victory through disintegration rather than destruction” (Messenger, Introduction to Jomini’s Art of War).
As to the principle of Bitzkrieg (Lightning War) itself, though it doubtless appealed to Hitler’s imagination, it was in point of fact forced on him by economic necessity : Germany just did not have the resources to sustain a long war. It was make or break. And much the same went for Japan.
Hitler’s duplicity and accurate reading of his opponents’ minds in the realm of politics needs no comment. But what is less readily recognized is how well he understood the general economic situation. Hitler had doubtless never read Keynes ─ though his highly capable Economics Minister, Schacht, doubtless had. But with his talent for simplification, Hitler realized early on that Germany laboured under two crippling economic disadvantages : she did not produce enough food for her growing population and, as an industrial power, lacked indispensable natural resources especially oil and quality iron-ore. So where to obtain  these and a lot more essential  items? By moving eastwards, absorbing the cereal-producing areas of the Ukraine and getting hold of the oilfields of the Caucasus. This was the policy exposed to the German High Command in the so-called ‘Hossbach Memorandum’ to justify the invasion of Russia to an unenthusiastic general staff.
The policy of finding Lebensraum in the East was based on a ruthless but shrewd and essentially correct analysis of the economic situation in Europe at the time. But precisely because Germany would need even more resources in a wartime situation, victory had to be rapid, very rapid. The gamble nearly succeeded : as a taster, Hitler’s armies  overwhelmed Greece and Yugoslavia in a mere six weeks and at first looked set to do much the same in Russia in three months. Perhaps if Hitler had followed Guderian’s plan of an immediate all-out tank attack on Moscow, instead of getting bogged down in Southern Russia and failing to take Stalingrad, the gamble would actually have paid off though fortunately for the Russians it did not.

Hitler: Summary from the point of view of Eventrics

The main points to recall from this study of Hitler as a ‘handler of events’ are the following:

  1. The methods chosen must fit the circumstances, (witness Hitler’s switch to a strategy based on the ballot box rather than the revolver after the Beer-Hall putsch).
  2. An apparent defeat can be turned into an opportunity, a disadvantage into an advantage (e.g. Hitler’s trial after the Beer-hall putsch)
  3. Combining inflexibility of ultimate aim with extreme flexibility on a day-to-day basis is a near invincible combination (Hitler’s conduct of foreign affairs during the Thirties);
  4. It is disastrous to allow ideological and personal prejudices to interfere with the conduct of a military campaign, and worse still to become obsessed with a specific objective (e.g. Hitler’s racial views, his obsession with taking Stalingrad).