Cult of personality
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"The cult of Adolf Hitler was evidenced in Nazi propaganda films by Leni Riefenstahl, such as the 1935 Triumph of the Will, which Hitler ordered to be made. The film showed the 1934 Nuremberg Rally, which was attended by over 700,000 supporters, and is one of the first examples of the Hitler myth filmed and put into full effect during Nazi Germany. The mysticism was evident from the start when Hitler began to descend from the clouds in an airplane, and when the rally finished with a climax uniting Hitler, the Nazi Party and the German people when Rudolf Hess said, "The Party is Hitler. But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler. Hitler! Sieg Heil!" Those Germans who watched the film were exposed to the full force of the Führer myth."--Sholem Stein
A cult of personality, or cult of the leader, arises when a country's regime uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. A cult of personality is similar to apotheosis, except that it is established by modern social engineering techniques, usually by the state or the party in one-party states and dominant-party states. It is often seen in totalitarian or authoritarian countries.
The term came to prominence in 1956, in Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences, given on the final day of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In the speech, Khrushchev, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party – in effect, the leader of the country – criticized the lionization and idealization of Joseph Stalin, and by implication, his communist contemporary Mao Zedong, as being contrary to Marxist doctrine. The speech was later made public and was part of the "de-Stalinization" process in the Soviet Union.
The Imperial cult of ancient Rome identified emperors and some members of their families with the divinely sanctioned authority (auctoritas) of the Roman State. Throughout history, monarchs and other heads of state were often held in enormous reverence and imputed super-human qualities. Through the principle of the divine right of kings, in medieval Europe for example, rulers were said to hold office by the will of God. Ancient Egypt, Imperial Japan, the Inca, the Aztecs, Tibet, Siam (now Thailand), and the Roman Empire are especially noted for redefining monarchs as "god-kings."
The spread of democratic and secular ideas in Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries made it increasingly difficult for monarchs to preserve this aura. However, the subsequent development of mass media, such as radio, enabled political leaders to project a positive image of themselves onto the masses as never before. It was from these circumstances in the 20th century that the most notorious personality cults arose. Often these cults are a form of political religion, and they may share some traits with other kinds of cult, especially while they are still forming.
The term "cult of personality" probably appeared in English around 1800–1850, along with the French and German use. At first it had no political connotations but was instead closely related to the Romantic "cult of genius." The political use of the phrase came first in a letter from Karl Marx to German political worker, Wilhelm Blos, 10 November 1877:
- Neither of us cares a straw of popularity. Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult [orig. Personenkultus] that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves [...] to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity [...]
Starting in the 1920s, during the early years of the Nazi Party, Nazi propaganda began to depict the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a demagogue figure who was the almighty defender and saviour of Germany. After the end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the German people were left in turmoil under the Weimar Republic and according to Nazi propaganda, only Hitler could save them and restore Germany's greatness which in turn gave rise to the "Führer-cult". During the five election campaigns in 1932, the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter portrayed Hitler as a man who had a mass movement united behind him, a man with one mission to solely save Germany as the 'Leader of the coming Germany'. The Night of the Long Knives in 1934 – after which Hitler referred to himself as being single-handedly "responsible for the fate of the German people" – also helped to reinforce the myth that Hitler was the sole protector of the Volksgemeinschaft, the ethnic community of the German people.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels cultivated an image of Hitler as a "heroic genius". The myth also gave rise to the saying and concept, "If only the Führer knew". Germans thought that problems which they ascribed to the Nazi hierarchy would not have occurred if Hitler had been aware of the situation; thus Nazi bigwigs were blamed, and Hitler escaped criticism.
British historian Ian Kershaw published his book The "Hitler Myth": Image and Reality in the Third Reich in 1987 and wrote:
- Hitler stood for at least some things they [German people] admired, and for many had become the symbol and embodiment of the national revival which the Third Reich had in many respects been perceived to accomplish.
During the early 1930s, the myth was given credence due to Hitler's perceived ability to revive the German economy during the Great Depression. However, Albert Speer wrote that by 1939, the myth was under threat and the Nazis had to organise cheering crowds to turn up to events. Speer wrote:
- The shift in the mood of the population, the drooping morale which began to be felt throughout Germany in 1939, was evident in the necessity to organize cheering crowds where two years earlier Hitler had been able to count on spontaneity. What is more, he himself had meanwhile moved away from the admiring masses. He tended to be angry and impatient more often than in the past when, as still occasionally happened, a crowd on Wilhelmsplatz began clamoring for him to appear. Two years before he had often stepped out on the "historic balcony." Now he sometimes snapped at his adjutants when they came to him with the request that he show himself: "Stop bothering me with that!"
The myth helped to unite the German people during World War II, especially against the Soviet Union and the Western Allies. During Hitler's early victories against Poland and Western Europe the myth was at its peak, but when it became obvious to most Germans that the war was lost then the myth was exposed and Hitler's popularity declined.
- "When the leader of the Wehrmacht unit at the end of his speech called for a Sieg Heil for the Führer, it was returned neither by the Wehrmacht present, nor by the Volkssturm, nor by the spectators of the civilian population who had turned up. This silence of the masses ... probably reflects better than anything else, the attitudes of the population."
- Authoritarian personality
- Big Brother (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
- Bread and circuses
- Celebrity worship syndrome
- Charismatic authority
- God complex
- Great man theory
- Halo effect
- Horn effect
- List of cults of personality
- Narcissistic leadership
- Supreme leader
- Imperial Presidency
- Toxic leader