What a Biography of Hitler Tells Us About the Supporters of Authoritarian Leaders

The leader cannot order everything from above; so those below have the duty to “work towards” what their leader has signalled he wants.

The image of a gunman brandishing his pistol in full view of Delhi Police and shooting a student protestor at Jamia is profoundly unsettling. The picture of cops looking on idly while the young man went about his threats and shooting is an arresting image that signals the emergence of a new idea of the state in India.

The monopoly of violence evidently no longer rests exclusively with the state; it is now shared with right-wing vigilantes and mobs which enjoy the patronage of the ruling establishment – and that is a terrifying prospect for India. There are reports that the shooter is a member of the Bajrang Dal.

Also read: Editorial: Jamia, Hindutva Radicalisation and the Currency of Bigotry

The reasons for police inaction are not hard to discern. The BJP leadership, starting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, continually indulge in anti-Muslim rhetoric. Modi brazenly dog-whistled recently by saying that anti-CAA protestors could be recognised by their clothes, Shah calls Bangladeshi immigrants “termites”, a BJP’s twitter handle puts out pictures of Arvind Kejriwal with a skull cap alongside images of burning buses, Muslim activists and doctors are harassed and arrested – no one, police included, is in any doubt about who the BJP government will target and protect.

Hitler: A Biography
Ian Kershaw

Given the frenzied nature of daily news, it is likely that the shooter will be explained away as a misguided young man but his act is a manifestation of how individuals absorb extremist messages by political leaders and head on the road to violence.

An account of this dynamic is provided in historian Ian Kershaw’s magisterial biography of Hitler – which explains how loyalists and ordinary citizens respond to authoritarian leaders, how they take cues from their rhetoric and act out their aggression in unanticipated ways.

This is arguably relevant to understand online trolling, vigilante violence, the attacks on journalists and civil society activists, and proactive policies by bureaucrats and ministerial minions.

Kershaw introduces the notion of “working towards the Fuhrer”, which is about officials and ordinary people carrying out the wishes of the leader in their own way.  The historian refers to a 1934 speech by Werner Willikens, an official in the Prussian Agriculture Ministry:

“Everyone with opportunity to observe it knows that the Fuhrer can only with great difficulty order from above everything that he intends to carry out sooner or later. On the contrary, until now everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuhrer.” 

Willikens continued:

Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals…have waited for commands and orders. Unfortunately, that will probably also be in future. Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuhrer, to work towards him…

Kershaw says that this tendency held the key to how the Third Reich operated during 1934-38, the years of “cumulative radicalisation” when the “Fuhrer state” took shape. 

According to him, “Hitler’s personalised form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals.”

“This promoted ferocious competition at all levels of the regime, among competing agencies, and among individuals within those agencies.”

“In the Darwinist jungle of the Third Reich, the way to power and advancement was through anticipating the ‘Fuhrer will’, and, without waiting for directives, taking initiatives to promote what were presumed to be Hitler’s aims and wishes.” 

Nazi party functionaries understood what “working towards the Fuhrer” was in policy terms and ordinary citizens also aided the radicalisation of society through denouncing neighbours to the Gestapo, casting political slurs, exploiting anti-Jewish laws to turf out business competitors and via “daily forms of minor cooperation with the regime at the cost of others”.  Kershaw writes that the Nazi system “could function without Hitler having to shout out streams of diktats. People second-guessed or anticipated what he wanted.” 

Something similar is playing out in India. The Modi government has made clear what its objectives are, which is to indulge in Muslim and secular bashing in order to constitute India as a Hindu majority state – and to exercise a measure of political and discursive control in pursuit of that objective. Within that frame every supporter has a role: a teenager with a gun, trolls on Twitter driven to exhaust and silence liberals, news anchors polarising opinion on a daily basis, Union ministers joining in slogans to shoot protestors, a civil aviation minister zealously urging airlines to ban a comedian from flying. All these amount to “working towards” the wishes of the leader.

Also read: With Jamia Shooter’s Illegal Pistol, Psychological Warfare on Protesters Reaches New Height

The fact that Modi follows bigoted trolls on Twitter adds a strong performative logic and a competitive dimension within the right-wing as Kershaw indicates. If the PM is watching everyone, then everyone is motivated to create spectacles.

There are at least three parallel processes undercutting democracy and the rule of law in this country. First, is that there is an organised dimension to hate speech and violence. The BJP IT cell don’t act as they do, in peddling fake news, without an express mandate; ABVP activists don’t just end up in Jawaharlal Nehru University with lathis without orders from above. Besides this, there is a radical weakening of state institutions, as evinced by Delhi Police acquiescence with the gunman’s action. And following on from that, there’s a third dimension – the nurturing of violent young men through constant indoctrination and propaganda via social media.

This will not end well. This sanctioned vigilantism is bound to find more and varied targets, given the hate freely expressed on social media. And there is no indication that the Modi government wants to stop this process.

Sushil Aaron is a political commentator. Twitter: @SushilAaron.