Secrets of Leadership: Hitler and Churchill

Secrets of Leadership: Hitler and Churchill

By Andrew Roberts*

Questions about leadership

What is leadership? How can one person lead one hundred people? Why do we even feel the need to be led? In this time of international crisis, issues concerning the nature of leadership are particularly stark, with many Britons not approving of what their own government is doing - so this is a useful time to analyse the concept.

For generations, people have allowed themselves to be led through the use of a remarkably unchanging leadership vernacular and vocabulary. The same kind of emotional appeal that was used by Richard I in the Crusades, for example, or by Queen Elizabeth I at the time of the Armada, was also employed by Pitt the Younger during the Napoleonic Wars and by Churchill in 1940.

It was an uplifting rhetoric of nationalist sentiment, mixed up with quasi-religious overtones, with the emphasis on real peril and the chances of untarnishable glory should victory be won. Tony Blair is using a similar rhetoric today, and appealing to all the same emotions (bar the crude nationalism), as crisis in relation to Iraq looms ever closer. So is national leadership just a trick of the trade, something that can be learnt almost by rote?

The desire to follow a leader seems to be a common human instinct - a less common instinct is the ability to take on the leadership role. But even when pure Anarchism has existed in political societies - in Barcelona, for example, for a short period during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s - natural leaders have nonetheless continued to come to the fore.

When the normal social order breaks down - you see it occasionally in the stories of shipwreck survivors - the people who emerge, for better or worse, are the ones who can persuade others to do their bidding through the force of their personality. It seems that some people simply have 'it' and others do not - although those who are ambitious to be leaders, but lack the natural gift for it, can perhaps learn some techniques to lend them the appearance of being in command of a situation.

If you analyse four key leaders of the last century - Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King - to discover whether they have any traits in common as leaders, a profound difference emerges between those leaders who were charismatic - Hitler and Kennedy - and those who were genuinely inspirational - Churchill and Martin Luther King. A comparison between Churchill and Hitler, and between true inspiration and mere charisma, gives a useful insight into this difference, and may help in the analysis of what leadership entails.

Using or spurning the tricks of the trade

Charisma seems to be something of a harlot's trick, which can be induced by a number of more or less cynical manoeuvres. It's all done with mirrors, yet it rarely fails. Hitler employed searchlights at his rallies, warm-up men before his speeches (principally his minister for culture and popular enlightenment, Joseph Goebbels), and impressively turned-out SS guards - but he wore a deliberately un-dressy uniform himself. He also had a huge office in Berlin that he almost never used, and created photo opportunities that look as naff today as they looked revolutionary then.

Dr Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda

To get people to believe that he had a superhuman aura - the aura described by the Greeks as 'charisma' - Hitler also used childish staring tricks, such as looking at the people he was talking to without blinking, and various other basic tricks. It seems that no one is born charismatic, but there are plenty of ways to acquire an aura if you want to.

Churchill, by contrast, spurned such affectations. He had no spin doctors, no speechwriters, no-one to warm up audiences before he spoke. He had his trademarks, it is true - few politicians have ever sported more. Keeping to the Victorian practice - for Churchill was moulded by the Victorian era, which did not end until he was 26 - he copied methods used by politicians such as Gladstone, or his own father Lord Randolph Churchill.

These were designed to make him recognisable to a public that relied on political cartoons in the newspapers for information about their leaders. It was through such cartoons that Victorian politicians achieved what is now known as name-recognition. Churchill's vast hat collection, his bow ties, cigar, cane, and so on, were the props of this established tradition.

Leadership style

Churchill was the model of the inspirational politician, not the charismatic one. No one was overawed by Churchill's physical presence in the way they were by Hitler's. The British leader worked from a terraced house in Whitehall - the whole working area of which could fit into Hitler's study in the Reich Chancellery. (The Chancellery, designed by Albert Speer in 1938, had enormous halls - with a combined length of 900ft - coming off the Wilhelmstrasse, solely in order to emphasise its grandeur to visiting diplomats.)

Of the two men, Hitler was actually kinder to his immediate staff than Churchill was to his. In terms of man-management, Hitler was - astonishingly enough - the more considerate boss. Churchill's secretaries often became exasperated by his rudeness and lack of indulgence, whereas the Führer was adored by those who worked closest with him. He remembered their names and birthdays, visited them when they were ill, and they repaid him with lifetime devotion, even after his crimes became generally known. Churchill was loved by his staff because he was 'saving civilisation', not because of his off-hand way of treating them (in 1940 things got so bad, his wife had to remonstrate with him about his manner).

Although Hitler might have been a better people-manager in some ways, his tendency to attempt to micro-manage the Third Reich once the war broke out led directly to his downfall. Whereas in the years leading up to the outbreak of war Hitler took a back seat in terms of administration, after 1939 he insisted on taking decisions that ought to have been left to far more junior officers. At one point during the war in the east he wound up ordering small-scale maps and directing Wehrmacht troop movements all the way down to battalion level.

Churchill did the absolute opposite, although as First Lord of the Admiralty he did get too involved in detail - he enquired into the number of duffel-coats issued to individual ships by their commanders, and gave orders that backgammon rather than cards should be played on Royal Navy vessels. But once the war was underway he managed to concentrate on the bigger picture, concerning himself with the broad strategic sweep of the war rather than the minutiae.

In this, Churchill was greatly helped by the fact that he was not a totalitarian dictator. The British chiefs of staff could stand up to Churchill - and under their chairman Field-Marshal Lord Alanbrooke they frequently did - in a way that would have been inconceivable with the Führer. As a result of Churchill's never once overruling the service chiefs, the grand strategy of the war was run in a rational and logical way that was simply impossible in Nazi Germany.

Fundamental similarities and differences

What both Hitler and Churchill did have in common, however, was a terrific tenacity of purpose. This was forged in their 'wilderness' years - Hitler's in the 1920s, Churchill's in the 1930s - when they were out of office and generally derided by the political classes.

By not altering their message to suit their audience, but by carrying on insisting that they were right, they both garnered huge support when events finally seemed to confirm their view of the political situation. Thus, once economic circumstances changed in Germany in the depression years of the 1930s, and after the British view of appeasement changed when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, both men were in a position to capitalise on that most satisfying phrase in politics: 'I told you so.'

Hitler's legacy is today confined to the penumbra of politics - to Holocaust-revisionists, BNP thugs and teenage American gunmen. Churchill's legacy, by contrast, has probably never been stronger than today. After the Al-Qaida attacks of 11 September 2001, Americans turned to the British war leader's words as to those of no other statesman.

George W Bush paraphrased him in his State of the Union Address, the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld quoted him at the Pentagon, Mayor Giuliani hailed him at a ceremony to draft in fresh New York firemen to take the place of their fallen comrades. It is not too much to say that Churchill - a man who died 38 years ago - more than any living person, is providing the west with the language it needs for the 'war against terror'.

The struggle between Hitler and Churchill was a struggle towards completely opposite ends. Today one of these leaders is recognised simply as the archetype of what to avoid at all costs. The other is considered of supreme relevance to the world politically, even nearly four decades after his death. One died by his own hand, in the ruins of his capital, where his corpse was hurriedly doused with petrol and set alight. The other died in his ninth decade, loaded with honours and an object of admiration for the entire globe.

The stakes could not have been higher for Hitler and Churchill, and the destinies of both were intimately and ultimately bound up in their profoundly contrasting leadership techniques.

*Andrew Roberts is author of The Holy Fox, Eminent Churchillians, Salisbury: Victorian Titan and Napoleon and Wellington. He also appears regularly on British television and radio, and writes for The Sunday Telegraph.




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