Did/Do native German speakers have trouble understanding Hitler’s speeches, given his Austrian/Bavarian accent ? Were transcripts of these speeches (which I have never read) based on the original written speeches or transcribed from film footage? I’m particularly interested in those parts of the speeches in which he raised his voice to a yell or scream. How comprehensible are his words?
The speeches don’t sound like they’re in a strong accent at all. He may have spoken differently in private, but I’m sure nobody had much trouble with the speeches.
Hitler spoke exaggerated, but completely comprehensible High German. His characteristic ridiculously overdone rolling R gave away that he came from Austria (though judging by that, he could also have been Bavarian), but every German would’ve understood him clearly.
To me, a native German, Hitler speaking always sounds like a very angry man hysterically shouting at his dog, if that matters.
To me, as a native English speaker with very limited fluency in German and essentially no ability to distinguish regional accents, Hitler speaking also sounds like a very angry man hysterically shouting at his dog. Just…in German. Which would be hilarious if he wasn’t proximally responsible for the deaths of approximately 18 million.
Now what about Castro and those rolling ‘r’s?
Sorry, I didn’t want to downplay any horror or crime he did to the world by being a little funny. It’s just that for me, a German having been born in 1968, he always sounds so fucking ridiculous that I ask myself how anybody could have followed him in the days.
Oh, I didn’t take offense; your characterization was very accurate. He seems like a ridiculous little man that nobody would take very seriously which should be a cautionary tale of how despotism can sneak up on you in the guise of a failed artist, former bank robber, or real estate developer cum clownish television personality.
“How could anyone have taken him seriously?” seems to be a refrain that repeatedly echoes down through the corridors of history. As you point out, tragically, we’re in one of those periods right now that history will judge with just that question.
In terms of delivery (not content) Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s speeches sound rather ridiculous to the modern English speaker. I think a lot of the exaggerated oration was a hold over from the days before microphones and didn’t mostly disappear until well after WWII.
Churchill and FDR ridiculous? Surely, you jest.
“Sir, you are drunk!”
“Yes, Madame, I am, and you are ugly. In the morning, I shall be sober.”
“The bombers came from our secret base in Shang ri la.”
That’s ridiculous. First of all, neither Roosevelt nor Churchill predated microphones. But more to the point, while there is definitely a difference in tone between old mid-century speeches, commentaries, and just about all other forms of speech, you can’t really compare Hitler’s speeches to any of his contemporaries. The man was completely unhinged, and made no effort to hide it.
And yet he got away with it. Which, I might add, is a rather ominous harbinger for the present day.
There was something undeniably charismatic about him to his followers which I can’t fathom. Were his dramatic gestures, (though seemingly effective), still in keeping with the times or dated by then? I’ve always wondered whether there was something deliberately contrarian about the Germans of the day. How much of what Hitler spouted in his speeches was actually accepted ? You see it among Trump followers. They revel in the fact that they are following a vilified figure.
Both FDR and Churchill, and most of their contemporaries, utilized what is often termed “Roman” oratory technique, e.g. referencing past greatness, appeals to future aspirations, speaking out to the electorate as a body, et cetera in bombastic tone in a manner quite suitable to addressing large crowds. Of course, with the advent of radio FDR started his more personal “Fireside Chats”, adopting a folksy persona (which was entirely a put-on). Although the larger oratory tradition continues in rally speaking, American politicians since Reagan have have tended to the more genial, with personal address (Reagan was noted for often speaking directly to the camera rather than an audience behind it and using simple, easily digestible language especially as written by Ben Elliott and Peggy Noonan) which has continued through the current day. (Obama was actually criticized for being “too professorial” in tone and language even though he rarely used complex wording or made philosophically complex statements in speeches.)
Hitler, on the other hand, was almost comedic in manner, spitting out his words and grimacing, a manner that stirred up crowds effectively. It is comedic-looking with the distance of history but frightening that he regularly drew record crowds to relatively unimportant events. I don’t know if he was actually unhinged at that point (although in the later war years his paranoia and lashing out as described by his inner staff was definitely pathological) but he certainly understood how to agitate followers with angst and a sense of vengeful victimhood. As it happens I’ve been watching a lot of Hitler’s public speaking and reading about it as part of reading up on Weimar and post-Weimar Germany and he has a very distinct way of speaking that is very different from most leaders, even loquacious demagogues like Josef Stalin and Juan Perón.
His speaking talent is what made his career in post-WWI fascist circles. He was sent by the first nationalistic party he was in (I don’t remember the name of the party, there were so much of them during the Weimar republic) to a political event in a beer hall in Munich as a lowly snitching spy, and he liked what he saw and later began to work the beer halls himself. It’s incomprehensible now, but speaking was his great talent that lead to his rise.
I feel like a lot of misunderstanding of Hitler’s speaking is being represented in this thread.
The vast, overwhelming majority of modern people have only been exposed to brief portions of Hitler’s speeches, many of which were hours of live oration. It should also be recognized there are different phases of Hitler’s career, his massive public spectacle speeches after he had already seized power are different in purpose and form from his Beer Hall speeches.
This would be an excessively long post if I tried to go into all of this, but succinctly–Bavaria in the early 20th century was the home of many beer halls (in fact it still is), but they were much greater in number and were a much bigger part of society then than now (today many of them are tourist traps.) The beer hall of that era was somewhat like the English pub of that era, for many people it was a home away from home, a place to socialize in a communal setting. However, while the British pub of that era was almost like a “second home”, often designed for intimacy and more small group conversations, the Bavarian beer hall was more like a secular church, large open rooms and frequent speeches and events. It was very common for the great political issues of the day to be discussed in beer halls, sometimes before raucous crowds.
There’s a number of different types of rhetoric in formal oratory, as has been defined by scholars–the old Aristotelian idea was rhetoric was split into three forms: forensic, deliberative and epideictic. A fourth type of rhetoric is viewed to have emerged in the thousand years or so after the fall of the Western Roman Empire–religious, which was often polemical in nature (often highly so in the cases of middle age polemicists.)
It is unlikely Hitler was directly educated in classical rhetoric, and I’ve never seen any clear evidence that he was. Public speaking was in some ways a bigger part of life in the 19th and early 20th century, and many “guides” and manuals to improve one’s oratory abounded in North America and Europe at the time, I find it not unlikely that Hitler read at least some of these based on how he developed his speaking.
Hitler had an innate charisma at emotional speaking, and an innate understanding that appeals to emotion are far more useful than appeals to intellect or appeals to motive, and that without an effective appeal to emotion you lack an entry point into most men’s hearts. But Hitler was a rough speaker in the early 1920s, the Bavarian beer hall scene let him hone his craft over the first few years of his activity with the Nazi party.
Importantly about Bavarian beer halls, is they are not like public oratory on a grand scale or public oratory over television or radio–the speaker knows when the crowd is agreeing with him, mad at him, bored by him etc. It is interactive, the beer halls were public venues but intimate enough for the speaker to really soak in the feedback. Hitler could fine tune what was working and what wasn’t working. By the time of the infamous Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler had fine-tuned his delivery and style enough that he was regularly talking to crowds of 3,000 or more, to great effect.
Hitler’s speeches like, for example, religious oratory, were innately polemical, and also highly emotional. For them to have an effect on you, you need to have some of the same shared cultural experiences that Hitler did, and also be experiencing at least some of the same emotions. Principally in this case, frustration, sadness, exasperation, and anger that Germany, a once Great Power, had been reduced to a second-rate power in Europe. Its vaunted military, once the envy of Europe, neutered, its industrial heartland, occupied by foreigners, its traditional institutions destroyed. If Germany of 1920-1930 was made up mostly of people from the year 2021, Hitler’s speeches would have had no effect, or even a negative effect on him, and he would not have become a political leader.
It should also be recognized that stylistically, most of Hitler’s speeches before he was in power were long and were not him screaming and foaming at the mouth in hysterics. Instead, they were slow-building polemics, and frequently involved a long rising action to “hook” the audience in by the belly. Only once he knew he had them, and he would know, because Beer Halls again, were intimate, he would know the audience’s mood, then he would reach his crescendo. To modern audiences this looks silly and stupid. However not everything translates well across time and place. There are many styles of “passionate” religious oratory that were very, very popular in North America for example in the 19th century that aren’t that far removed from the stuff Hitler was doing. They would seem silly and mock-worthy today, but they were startlingly effective at the time.
Some of Hitler’s most famous large public speeches, after his ascension to power were more akin to epideictic speaking than his earlier speeches in Bavaria. This was because he was fulfilling a civic and ceremonial role for the German people, not simply trying to persuade as he was in his time in Bavaria.
There used to be many (speeches with English subtitles) in Youtube but most have been removed. You might find more in Dailymotion, Bitchute, and other platforms.
Early to mid-20th century audiences lapped up lengthy hyperbolic political speeches to a degree incomprehensible to current Short Attention Span Theater.
This explains why William Jennings Bryan in his time was viewed as an “electrifying orator”. But even then he couldn’t get elected President.
Yeah, and Bryan’s speeches were very influenced by the big Protestant revivalist preachers and their grandiose sermons of the 19th century. His famous “Cross of Gold” speech is basically a sermon. People back then were regularly exposed to very lengthy and meandering oratory, and it was considered enjoyable/entertaining.
Remember: no TV, no internet.
I see no real difference between Hitler’s speeches and those of the stereotypical “fire and brimstone” preachers.
Overwrought, overblown and over-emotional but ultimately effective if you know your audience.
Thank you for this - it was an interesting read. It jibes with what I’ve read about his speaking style. I was going to post something about it, but you’ve gone into far more detail than I would have been able to. I remember reading (but I Am Not An Expert so this may be completely wrong) that Hitler’s oratorical style fit into what at the time was a well-known style of German oratory used especially on stage and in other public performances. He was effectively using a well-established template of rote beats and rising emotion, which his audience would have been familiar with. As you say, his oratory was a style where an audience would be a willing co-participant in building up to a cathartic, emotional crescendo, using what to them would be familiar forms and beats.
Every time I see a bit of a Hitler speech I have to pinch myself because I see Charlie Chaplin instead.