Sunday, 5 August 2012

The indolence of Hitler. And some other politicians too

Do you know Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler? I can’t sing its praises loudly enough.

Gripping, insightful and
full of lessons for our own times too.
It is full of insight on the more obvious aspects of the dictator’s personality: the active cruelty, its underlying bigotry, principally but not exclusively against the Jews, and the fanaticism with which it was driven through; but also the passive cruelty of indifference, that allowed him to send millions of soldiers to their deaths without a word of grief for them or of compassion for their families.

However, these aren’t the aspects that interest me here.

Kershaw also paints a startling picture of Hitler’s idleness, right up to the first years of the war. The dictator would rise from bed late in the morning and go for his bath. He would emerge around noon and hold meetings until about 2:00 when he would have a much delayed lunch, to the despair of the kitchen staff.

In the afternoon he would hold another couple of meetings around tea. Exhausted by these exertions, he would then take a rest. Dinner was at 8:00 followed by films, music or conversation, mostly in the form of endlessly repeated monologues on whatever subject he cared to choose. He would get to bed at about 2:00 a.m.

This dilatory schedule didn’t stop his regime achieving some of its most striking successes: the annexation of Austria and later of Czechoslovakia; then, once war proper had started, victories in Poland and in the Balkans.

However, he was laying the seeds of the disaster to come. Paradoxically, though he kept adding to his personal power, he lacked the energy to provide much direction. Instead, his most senior leaders set policy through their turf wars, with each vying for personal advancement by attempting to do the things Hitler wished for, but hadn’t stated.

Kershaw calls this thinking ‘working towards the Führer’ and it was an appallingly inefficient way to run a government. By contrast, at the height of the war, Churchill could leave Britain for relatively long periods abroad, safe in the knowledge that the government he left behind would continue to operate along legal lines and implement agreed policy.

Churchill could have that confidence even though he left the government in the hands of the leader of the main opposition party, Labour
’s Clement Attlee, the man who would oust him from office at the first post-war election. If any tribute were needed to the superior effectiveness of democracy over dictatorship, this must surely be it.

Meanwhile, back in Germany, things started to change when Hitler went to war with the Soviet Union. Initial spectacular success soon fell apart as it became obvious to all but the most convinced Hitlerites that Germany was now in a battle with a massively more redoubtable power than it had ever previously faced. And as the war started to turn tough, so his behaviour started to change.

His old idleness began to disappear. He became an insomniac. During the day, he would pore over maps and orders and hold frequent long discussions with his generals. As he lost faith in them, he took increasing control himself. To deliver victory, he preferred to draw on his experience as a corporal in the First World War and his belief in the capacity of his will to achieve anything to which he set his mind, rather than the experience and training of his senior officers.

From being a layabout, he became a workaholic.

And how effective was it? A useful indication is given by the reaction in Britain to the proposal by Special Operations Executive, a young and violent wartime addition to the secret services, to assassinate Hitler.

‘On no account,’ replied the others, ‘there’s no possible replacement for him at the head of the German armed forces who we’d be happier to see in the position.’

The time of Hitler’s indolence sowed the seeds of his regime’s destruction. The time of his workaholism ensured and accelerated its collapse.

Interesting, isn’t it? Idleness in lousy politicians is bad news. But that’s as nothing to when they really 
get going.

In my view this is as true in a democracy as it is in a dictatorship.

George W. Bush may have been the laziest man to become President of the United States: briefing papers had to be summarised and even then they had to be read aloud to him; he would take extraordinary amounts of leave – up to twelve weeks a year – and rarely worked as much as six hours a day. Even then he managed to drag not just his own nation but several others into long, bloody and so far fruitless wars.

Can you imagine how disastrous things might have been if he’d stayed around long enough to become a workaholic?

In Britain today we have a Prime Minister whose reputation is for a relaxed approach much like Dubya’s. Rather than think a policy through, David Cameron prefers to come up with some half-baked proposal which he withdraws when it’s pointed out how unlikely it is to work.

It’s hard to feel much respect for him. Again, though, let’s be careful what we wish for. Imagine if he started actually working: how much more damage could he do? 

Probably safer, as with Dubya, to make sure he’s gone well before he emerges from the indolent stage.


Tim E said...

The German General Staff, the story goes, used to divide army officers into four categories: the clever and lazy, the clever and hard-working, the stupid and lazy, and the stupid and hard- working. The best Generals, the Germans found, came from the clever and lazy; the best staff officers emerged from the clever and hard-working; the stupid and lazy could be made useful as regimental officers; but the stupid and hard-working were a menace, to be disposed of as soon as possible.
"I divide officers into four classes -- the clever, the lazy, the stupid and the industrious. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest commands. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately." - Attributed, circa 1933; General Baron Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (1878-1943); German Chief of Army Command (1930-33)

David Beeson said...

Brilliant. Sums it up.

It applies in business too. A clever executive is a good executive if he stands back and does what he's best at, thinking about strategy and vision, rather than trying to do the work himself.

Nothing's worse than the stupid hardworking who can take everyone a long way in completely the wrong direction, digging into an ever deeper hole.

The only exception on the clever-lazy model is people like the present UK government: their idleness is leading to their pressing half-baked and damaging policies from which we later have to retreat, at high cost financially and socially.

But perhaps they're actually stupid and lazy and ought to be redeployed doing something else, a long way from command. Certainly, that would be my choice, for their good and even more for ours.