Democratic politicians really should steer clear of speaking in praise of dictators. Even if the praise is qualified, and restricted to one aspect of the dictator’s achievement, it always gets them in trouble.
Both Alex Salmond and Nigel Farage have recently done themselves no favours, and have offended many, by expressing their admiration for some of what Vladimir Putin has done – even though neither was speaking in approval of the Russian’s aggressive foreign policy.
Now, Bill Etheridge, a Ukip Member of the European Parliament and candidate for a Midlands constituency in next year’s general election, has put his foot in it by advising delegates to the party’s Young Independence Conference to pick up a few tips from Hitler.
No matter how you couch your remarks, any praise of Hitler is rotten PR. It gets you on the front pages, of course, but not as you might like to appear. Mr Etheridge may have thought he had done enough by calling him “a hateful figure”, but this resonates less loudly than his suggestion that Ukip’s young hopefuls had much to learn from Adolf. Given that Ukip have been working very hard to try to persuade people that they are not a racist party, this is not very bright. Hitler equals racism equals the Holocaust: full stop.
Mr Etheridge was giving a class on the art of public speaking, and this is what he said: “Look back to the most magnetic and forceful public speaker, possibly in history. When Hitler gave speeches, and many of the most famous ones were at rallies, at the start he walks back and forth, looked at people. There was a silence, he waited minutes, just looking out at people, fixing them with his gaze. They were looking back and he would do it for a while. And then they were so desperate for him to start, that when he started speaking, they were hanging on his every word.”
Nothing very offensive in this. You might even say call it good advice, though if you were to follow suit at a meeting for perhaps a couple of hundred people, rather than at a Nuremberg rally where the speaker had been preceded by marching stormtroopers, torchlight procession etc, you might find your audience shuffling feet rather than holding their breath in heightened anticipation.
Still, even this is enough to have had a Labour MP, Mike Gapes, saying it’s proof that Farage hasn’t cleaned up his party. “One of his MEPs training candidates to speak like Hitler. Simply unbelievable.”
Actually, I find it quite believable, but also very bad advice. This is not only because Hitler was, as Mr Etheridge admits, “a hateful figure”, but because his style of oratory belonged to the age of the mass meeting, the party rally, the speech lasting for hours. Hitler often began quietly, but worked himself up, unleashing a torrent of words, hitting the high notes like an operatic tenor. It was the tune, not the words, to which people responded. This worked then, in the circumstances of the time.
Mussolini had the same effect on his audiences, but, as Luigi Barzini wrote in The Italians half a century ago, “we laugh now when we see him in old newsreels”. It was the same with Sir Oswald Mosley. In the Thirties, he was thought a great orator, a magnetic speaker. The same manner, 20 years later, seemed ridiculous.
In truth, even in Hitler’s day, the scripted speech might be equally effective. Churchill may have written what Evelyn Waugh called “sham-Augustan prose”, and was rarely spontaneous, but his words were memorable and made an impression. When, addressing the Canadian parliament, he recalled that a French general had said that Hitler would “wring England’s neck like a chicken”, he paused: “Some chicken.” Longer pause. “Some neck.” But Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were the last leaders who could effectively address their people in the Grand Manner, though both eschewed frenzied emotionalism as practised by the dictators.
In the US, President Roosevelt addressed the American people on the radio in what he called “fireside chats”. That’s just what they sounded like, friendly and confiding. The contrast with the screaming moral defective in Nuremberg and Berlin couldn’t have been more marked.
Today, in the television age, when it sometimes seems that only soundbites are memorable, in order to be effective, politicians will usually follow Roosevelt’s example. They talk to people rather than at them. Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair were both masters of the conversational style. Some critics mocked – others deplored – Blair’s sentences without verbs, but few could deny that in his prime he was a master of persuasive communication.
For this is the purpose of public speaking: to carry your audience with you, to lead it on a journey. All public speaking is rhetoric, but the style of rhetoric has changed. It has become more intimate because it is aimed not at a mass audience gathered together in a public place, but, essentially, at individual citizens in their own homes. Queen Victoria complained that Mr Gladstone spoke to her as though she was a public meeting; we are all like her now, individuals not members of a mass audience.
Any of Ukip’s young hopefuls who followed Mr Etheridge’s advice and imitated the Führer would be likely soon to find their words echoing in an empty room. Hitler is not only bad news. He is a bad model, even for practitioners of the rhetorical craft of which he was a master.