In the summer of 1983, on the banks of the Rhine River near Frankfurt, Germany, I met and spoke briefly with an old woman. The moment was frighteningly memorable. My introduction as Herr Hauptmann (Mister Captain) Adolph apparently sparked her memory and a secret heartfelt desire.
At the time I was commanding a military intelligence company in the U.S. Army’s 5th Corps, which was then arrayed along the key fault line of the Cold War: the heavily armed border between East and West Germany. For reasons that I never understood, she pulled me aside and began speaking in a hushed whisper so that nobody nearby could overhear her.
My unfortunate surname — Adolph — had awakened something within her that she felt compelled to share. Her subsequent darkly surreal monologue held me spellbound. Her topic was, “the great man, Adolf Hitler, Der Fuehrer.”
For the better part of 10 minutes, she spoke lovingly and longingly of the sociopathic narcissist, who was responsible for the initiation of World War II; the near extermination of European Jewry; over 16 million dead in the former Soviet Union; the battle related deaths of over 100,000 Americans; the subjugation of Poland, Netherlands, France, Belgium and more; including the utter destruction of the Third Reich by Allied Forces when Hitler refused to admit defeat; and a final tally of over 4 million German citizens killed or missing.
I was stunned to silence. The old woman appeared normal in all other respects: well-educated and eloquent. She did not appear to be mentally impaired in any other aspect of her behavior. She left me shell-shocked.
I spent years mulling over that brief disturbing interlude. I came to understand much later that the old woman was a “True Believer,” which was the title of Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic work on the psychology of mass movements. How did this happen? The fascist dictator empowered her with his manifold speeches on “the greatness of the German people.”
Hitler gifted her a positive self-image with his litany of lies, which were ably amplified by his Jew-hating and conspiracy-theory-propagating minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. Between them, they made those among the German populace who may have felt powerless, now suddenly powerful. Few substances are more addictive than power.
She was not alone. Millions of Germans followed Hitler down the rabbit hole and into the darkest abyss — leading ultimately to their own annihilation. Der Fuehrer’s multiplicity of mortal sins and serial deceptions clearly could not vanquish her life-long and deeply held admiration for one of the most prolific mass murderers in human history. She and her countrymen were essentially conned.
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Hitler’s Nazi Germany was built on mountains of mendacities. His many duplicities ultimately failed to resist American and Allied force-of-arms. Truth can be delayed but seldom denied. However, evasions will be forever more seductive.
Why? Because self-serving demagogues promulgate those lies, telling their acolytes exactly what they want to hear. Unfortunately, inconvenient fact-based truths often possess a bitter after taste, making them unpalatable for many. It can be far more emotionally satisfying to capitulate to hatred and perceived grievance.
The old woman I met on the banks of the Rhine lived within a delusion built by an amoral manipulative bunko artist. She became a true believer, remaining one long after Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.
The old woman abandoned morality, while eschewing both reason and logic. She chose to embrace a belief in her own superiority and that of the German people. She saw her nation obliterated and millions slain to serve an utterly insatiable ego: a deeply flawed man who made her feel whole through his multiple manufactured distortions. She remained completely unmoved by the horrors that he unleashed on an unsuspecting world, perhaps unconsciously fearful of integrating that contorted reality into her psyche.
No matter the horrifying results of Hitler’s machinations, she loved the tyrant unreservedly as “meine Fuehrer.” She fiercely embraced his lies and convoluted conspiracies and could not let-them-go because they made her feel unique, special, and empowered. Internalizing that twisted yet potent narrative clearly served her self-image, but not her self-interest, nor that of her country or the world.
The old woman unintentionally conveys a warning for us all.
Robert Bruce Adolph is the author of “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.” He is a former senior Army Special Forces soldier and United Nations security chief. He has lived and worked in 15 different countries on four continents.