Hitler’s Guide to Propaganda – The Psychology of Coercionby Sajid Surve, DO | November 4, 2008
Adolf Hitler was a monster. The revolution he spawned changed the world landscape forever. But have you ever wondered how he did it? How did Hitler convince 70 million rational people to engage in horrible atrocities and wage war against the world? Although his agenda was decidedly negative, Hitler was a master of the science of coercion. Through the use of his speeches and propaganda, he was able to bend the will of ordinary people into submission and create an obedient army ready to carry out his orders, no matter how absurd they might be. Hitler’s formula for coercion of a group of people was very simple. He discussed it at length in his book Mein Kampf:
1. Keep the dogma simple. Make only 1 or 2 points.
2. Be forthright and powerfully direct. Speak only in the telling or ordering mode.
3. As much as possible, reduce concepts down into stereotypes which are black and white.
4. Speak to people’s emotions and stir them constantly.
5. Use lots of repetition; repeat your points over and over again.
6. Forget literary beauty, scientific reasoning, balance, or novelty.
7. Focus solely on convincing people and creating zealots.
8. Find slogans which can be used to drive the movement forward.
Most of Hitler’s inspiration came from a social psychologist by the name of Gustave Le Bon, who published several works and was considered an authority on the psychology of crowds. Le Bon posited that once individuals came together to form a group, the individual’s will was surrendered to what was perceived to be the will of the group. Their faculties of reasoning were impaired or destroyed, and they entered into a more suggestible state. The larger the group, the easier it was to coerce.
Aside from the general pointers above regarding how to engage in coercion, Hitler also had a very specific structure which he used for all of his speeches in order to capitalize on the susceptibility of the crowd. The first thing he would do is point out the commonality of the people gathered in the crowd so that he could instantly unify the group. The next step would be to identify a threat to that commonality to put the group on edge, and stir up the emotions of fear and anger. The third and most important step was to invoke a higher power, and appoint himself as an agent of that higher power. If the crowd was able to believe this, then the last two steps were easy: give the higher power’s “solution” to that threat to the commonality, and proclaim that carrying out the solution would be a victory for both the commonality and the higher power.
This speech structure was obviously successful to disastrous consequences. Since Hitler’s time, others have utilized the same structure to accomplish coercion for different ends. One of the most notable examples would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His I Have a Dream speech follows this pattern almost perfectly, but to serve a very different purpose. So where can we benefit from this knowledge?
The first application is to identify when others are attempting to engage in coercion. A political campaign is essentially a huge, protracted exercise in coercion, as is advertising and marketing. Being aware of the tools utilized can be helpful to rise above the influence and encourage others to do the same.
Secondly, as in the case of Dr. King, sometimes coercion can serve a positive purpose. Wielding these tools can help to improve abilities in public speaking and persuasive argument. Simple ideas like unifying a group before proceeding are excellent ways to communicate more effectively.
In short, Adolf Hitler was a monstrous figure. By deconstructing his tools we can learn not to fall prey to them again, and apply the useful aspects of his craft towards the greater good.
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