It is claimed “You only need to be a good writer if you don’t have truth and justice on your side.” As Socrates determines early in his debate with Gorgias, the truth is weak; in order for rhetoric to be persuasive, it is imperative that the argument is painted in the best light possible. Consistently throughout history, we have seen biased speeches portraying opinions in a perspective entirely different from our own. Oftentimes, these speeches rely on personal, and therefore relatable, experiences, making the account seem much more reliable. Now, whether or not these speeches are examples of “good writing” is ambiguous; sometimes, these speeches work, while other times, they fall short. Additionally, it is often the case that these speechmakers must have “good” speeches, because their reasons are unjust or ignoble. One of the most infamous combinations of an unjust, yet skillful rhetorician is Hitler; though Hitler’s cause was barbaric, he managed to win the support of the German nation. What made thousands of people blindly follow him, emulating him as the savior of Germany? It is evident that he had neither truth nor justice on his side, yet he was able to inspire millions of people and persuade them to support his cause. We must ask ourselves why people were so inspired by him; what did they see in him that would justify such a ruthless cause as the Holocaust? In addition to this, we must consider whether Hitler’s speeches were cases of “good writing;” was Hitler truly a “good” rhetorician, or were the German people simply ignorant and desperate for a leader? As a whole, what makes people “good” writers? When exploring the themes common to people deemed “good writers,” or “good orators,” these people tend to rely on similar strategies; hyperbole, personalization, eloquence, and charisma. When considering the prominence of exaggeration in writing, one must speculate whether any writing holds the truth, or whether good writing is reliant upon exaggeration and deceit. The best way to delve into these questions is to make a case study out of Hitler and figure out why he was able to inspire such a large mass of people in his attempt to kill off an entire race.
The answer lies with his charisma and his adeptness at persuasion; Hitler, just like many great politicians, disguised deceit and hyperbole within eloquent and moving speeches, both relating to and inspiring his citizens in the process. His speeches were compelling enough to justify decimating an entire race of people, while opposing the greatest powers in the world and threatening the destruction of the German nation. His passion and charisma were convincing enough to justify his extreme views.
In his “Fuhrer to the German People,” on June 22, 1941, he presents himself as the hero who attempted to maintain peace, despite the unwillingness of the enemies to compromise. Though Hitler’s cause was unjust, the strategies he employed in his speeches were compelling and eloquent, thus enabling him to convince millions of people to follow him. The accuracy of his speech did not matter nearly as much as did the delivery and the reassuring nature of it. Hitler begins his speech by bringing up Britain’s past aggressions, making it seem like they are the nation that is unwilling to compromise, painting Germany into a tranquil and stable state that Britain wishes to destroy: “…the British attempted once again to frustrate any attempt to begin a consolidation, and thus a strengthening, of Europe by fighting the then strongest power on the continent.”(Bytwerk, Randall). Portraying Britain as a menacing force that is seeking to weaken the continent of Europe as a whole is a brilliant strategy for creating a common enemy among the German people, as they rely on Hitler to offer solace and options to fight off this threat to the survival of their continent and country. Not only does Hitler depict Britain as the ultimate threat to the European continent, but he expands this idea by claiming that Britain was the catalyst for the start of World War I: “In summer 1939, England thought that the time had come to renew its attempts to destroy Germany by a policy of encirclement. Their method was to begin a campaign of lies. They declared that Germany threatened other peoples. They then provided an English guarantee of support and assistance, next, as in the World War, let them march against Germany” (Bytwerk, Randall). Hitler evades mentioning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at the hands of a Serbian nationalist, choosing instead to focus on portraying England as the main point of contention in the World War. Instilling fear within the people would encourage them to look for a powerful and reassuring figure to save them from a common enemy. And sure enough, Hitler is right there delivering a speech that offers a way to save Germany. Throughout his speech, Hitler relies upon certain untruths and deceptions to win the trust and confidence of his citizens, proving that the truth does not matter in cases of threat, since people only seek reassurance and promises of security. Hitler further depends on this strategy when he claims the Jews and Democrats are united in a conspiracy against the strengthening of the German government; “…we faced the plot we all know about between Jews and democrats…to prevent the establishment of a new people’s state, to plunge the Reich again into impotence and misery.” (Bytwerk, Randall). Here, Hitler characterizes democrats and Jews as the enemy, thus justifying his desire to annihilate them, as a mechanism of self-defense. When the threat of one’s own country is taken into consideration, people have a tendency to act impulsively as a means of self-preservation.
The diction Hitler uses throughout his speech results in an incredibly powerful outcome of simultaneously flattering Germany and its citizens, while denigrating the Soviet Union and Britain, representing them as ruthless and jealous enemies. Hitler claims England wishes to “destroy” Germany, as the Reich grows more powerful, for they fear the strength of the Germans. Hitler relies upon commending his own efforts and accomplishments in maintaining peace, stabilizing and strengthening Germany, and attempting to compromise with Germany’s enemies, as a strategy throughout his speech. In his speech, Hitler claims “I kept silent about all this, because I had to keep silent…” (Bytwerk, Randall) and “I behaved as the responsible leader of the German Reich, but also as a responsible representative of European culture and civilization” (Bytwerk, Randall). He is certainly not short of being sycophantic in his speech, which is a central method in his orations. Incorporating direct personal pronouns proves to the people that he is the only hero in this situation, the only way Germany can be victorious against the enemy. Hitler is certainly not shy about ensuring that he is given the credit he deserves in his efforts to preserve the German nation and make peace with its enemies. By personalizing his speech, Hitler makes it more relatable and thus more believable; he seems to be saying “we are all in this together;” “Germany is not being threatened, we are being threatened, and here is what I will do to save us.” When Hitler declares, “When the German government gives a guarantee, it will stand by it…we are neither English nor Jewish,” (Bytwerk, Randall) he directly confronts Jews and the English as being deceitful, while maintaining Germany’s noble illusion. Hitler’s genius rhetorical strategies rely on deception, diction, personalization and reassurance to win over his audience. He also has a tendency to organize his speech chronologically as if he is telling a story, thus making the entire speech more pleasurable to listen to. These strategies result in a powerful and convincing speech, despite the inclusion of falsehoods and exaggerations, thus proving that the truth is weak and the deciding factor in oration lies within the delivery of the speech, not the probity of it.
Analyzing Hitler’s speech makes one question whether the inclusion of truth within writing is ever the determinant factor in the convincing capacity of the speech. Furthermore, it is apparent that Hitler relies on personalizing his speech, thus strengthening his argument and making it more relatable. Does all good writing have to be personal? Are there cases of good writing that are entirely objective and impersonal? When taking Hitler’s speech into consideration, it is evident that personalization is essential to good writing, resulting in a more compelling and convincing oration as a whole. Socrates makes the argument in his debate with Gorgias that the truth is weak; this idea has been proven continuously throughout history. It is not the content of the writing that matters; rather, it is the delivery of the speech and the eloquence of the work that hides the inner deception within it.
Sycophancy is incorporated in every German aspect of Hitler’s speech; he flatters himself and Germany excessively, while denigrating England and the Soviet Union. In his dialogue, Socrates views rhetoric as “a subdivision of sycophancy,” (Plato 31), because it “…makes an intuitive guess at what is pleasant, with no interest in what is best” (Socrates 30). As a result, the sycophancy of rhetoric allows this rhetoric to be personalized, flattering the articulator and encouraging his interests. Hitler relies on sycophancy in his speech to make himself appear to be an expert, thus assuring his audience of his reliability as a leader, while also proving that Germany is ultimately the ideal state in regard to truth and justice.
In his dialogue with Gorgias, Socrates determines “that is how rhetoric should be employed-aiming always at the just-as should any other activity” (Plato 113). Despite this claim, rhetoric is often employed for more nefarious purposes, as is the case with Hitler’s speech; he utilizes his skill as a rhetorician for the unjust purpose of convincing ignorant citizens to support him in his quest to decimate an entire race of people. Hitler’s use of rhetoric spurs the question of the character and motivation of the rhetorician. In Socrates’ argument with Gorgias, Gorgias brings up the case of a doctor and a rhetorician in court; “Indeed, I maintain that a rhetoric expert and a doctor can go to a city, anywhere you like, and if they are set against one another, in an assembly of the people or any other gathering, to argue which of them should be chosen as doctor, then the doctor will make no showing, and the one with the ability to speak would be chosen, if that was what he wanted” (Plato 19). In this case, the rhetorician is acting unjustly, since he is convincing the ignorant masses to vote for him, even though he is well aware that he is less qualified than the doctor for the job. Socrates maintains that, since the rhetorician is less knowledgeable on the subject matter, the doctor will ultimately reign victorious over the rhetorician, for he is the true master of medicine:” If you make someone an expert in rhetoric, then he must necessarily know the things which are just and the things which are unjust-either beforehand, or by learning them from you later” (Plato 24). Here, Socrates distinguishes a true rhetorician as someone who is an expert on the subject matter he is discussing. Therefore, the deceptive rhetorician in Gorgias’ example is not a true rhetorician.
Conclusively, it is apparent through Socrates’ dialogue, and through Hitler’s speech, that truth is negligible in comparison to the presentation of the argument; it is not the content of the speech that matters most, but the extravagance of the speech and the sycophancy of the orator. Proven through these examples, writing does not necessarily rely on truth; it relies on verbosity, skillful deception, and exaggeration to successfully convince an audience of the reliability of the rhetorician. After all, a lie that works to improve an individual’s life is always preferred over an unfavorable truth. As Socrates maintains, the truth is weak, and what matters most is the persuasion of the rhetorician, rather than the content of the speech.
Bytwerk, Randall. “Hitler’s Proclamation of 22 June 1941.” Hitler’s Proclamation of 22 June 1941. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
Griffith, Tom, Plato, and Malcolm Schofield. Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.