Hearts of Darkness

As the foreign visitors stepped out of Les Invalides into the Parisian sunlight on June 23, 1940, a photographer captured the extraordinary scene. The man in the center was draped almost entirely in a long white coat, everyone else in black. According to architecture critic Deyan Sudjic, he was “a magic figure radiating light, like the Sun King hemmed in by lesser mortals lost in darkness” (The Edifice Complex, 2005). For this, his victory visit to Paris, Adolf Hitler had chosen to be accompanied not by Nazi military leaders but by two architects and a sculptor: Albert Speer, Hermann Giesler and Arno Breker.

The Führer had aspired first to become an artist, then an architect, but had failed the entry requirements for either course of study as a young man in Vienna. Now, after gazing down on the Tomb of Napoleon (the shrine of the would-be messiah of the previous century), he told his personal sculptor to design something much more impressive for him when his time came around—something people would literally have to look up to. Napoleon had tried to conquer the world and failed; Hitler was determined to succeed.

Hitler wanted ancient Rome, and Speer did his best to provide it.” 

Deyan Sudjic, The Edifice Complex

With the Nazi defeat of France avenging Germany’s crushing World War I humiliation, the Third Reich now stretched from the Atlantic to the border of Russia. On this day the resplendent and egomaniacal Führer could signal his readiness, as Sudjic notes, “to redesign the world.” As humanity’s greatest architect, “Hitler wanted ancient Rome and Speer did his best to provide it.”

It’s a familiar desire among politicos of overweening ambition—this remaking of the map after the ancient Roman tradition. A few years earlier, another pretend-Apollo had claimed similar turf. The fascist Benito Mussolini—Il Duce—came to power as Italy’s prime minister a decade prior to Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s National Socialist chancellor. In April 1922, seven months before King Victor Emmanuel III asked him to form a government, the Duce gave a defining speech. He said in part: “Rome is our starting point and our point of reference; it is our symbol or, if you prefer, our myth. We dream of Roman Italy—wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of the immortal spirit of ancient Rome is reborn in Fascism!”

According to Vatican scholar Peter Godman, by the time of this speech Mussolini’s rhetoric “had already acquired a mystical and messianic tone. . . . [He] wished to be regarded as a new Augustus, a second Caesar. . . . The task demanded a superman. Against the paradise that Mussolini aimed to establish on earth, were pitted the demonic foes of liberals, democrats, socialists, communists and (later) Jews. Yet he would triumph against these foes of mankind, for he was not only Caesar Augustus, but also the Savior.”

As they viewed it, the Führer and the Duce faced similar foes. They also shared similar delusions and publics with similar needs. In his widely acclaimed biography of Hitler, historian Sir Ian Kershaw writes that by 1936, Hitler’s “narcissistic self-glorification had swollen immeasurably under the impact of the near-deification projected upon him by his followers. By this time he thought himself infallible. . . . The German people had shaped this personal hubris of the leader. They were about to enter into its full expression: the greatest gamble in the nation’s history—to acquire complete dominance of the European continent.” On the four-year road to Paris, Hitler occupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, and invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Just before the fall of France, Mussolini contributed troops to Hitler’s efforts in accordance with the pact that he and the Führer had signed.

Mussolini and Hitler were intent on recreating the world in response to what they saw as the challenges and opportunities of their times: the Bolshevik revolution, the aftermath of world war, economic and social instability, nationalistic fervor, and public demand for charismatic, problem-solving leadership. That their own psychological needs played a vital role in their attempts is undisputed, yet they would never have risen to the heights of power if significant proportions of their publics had not provided the necessary support.

It is horrific enough that Mussolini brought about the deaths of a million people, but the suffering Hitler wrought was unimaginable. And it is not simply the number of deaths he caused—of Jews alone approximately 6 million—but the pathological nature of his hatred and cruelty and the fact that he cared nothing for the individual, whether German or any other nationality. Humanity was his victim. In sum, the magnitude of the evil these two dictators perpetrated and the abject failure of their grandiose plans proved them false messiahs of the first order, leaving the survivors reeling at the edge of the abyss.

Early Lives

Mussolini was born in 1883 in Dovia, close to Italy’s northeastern Adriatic coast, the son of Alessandro, a blacksmith, and Rosa, a school teacher. His father was a political activist, a supporter of socialist causes and fond of drinking bouts; his mother was traditionally religious, educating her son in Roman Catholic doctrine.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Benito was at first a socialist, rising to lead the left wing of the party. As editor of the socialist newspaper Avanti, he opposed Italy’s war with Libya (1911–12). But when he suddenly became interventionist at the outbreak of World War I and supported his country’s involvement, the party expelled him. Nationalism now took the place of socialism in his life. He started his own newspaper, Popolo d’Italia, and soon joined the army. Returning from the war as a corporal, he organized fellow veterans into a new right-wing militaristic organization, the Fasci di combattimento, dedicated to political terrorism and violent restoration of order. In 1921 he was elected to parliament as a member of the newly recognized National Fascist Party.

Six years after Mussolini’s birth, Adolf Hitler was born in Braunau, on the Austrian border with Germany, the fourth child of a devoted, pious mother and a harsh, overbearing father. A compromised upbringing at the hands of Alois, a bad-tempered disciplinarian who enjoyed social drinking, and the overanxious, very attentive Klara played a significant role in the development of Hitler’s adult psychological profile (though a definitive link with his later cold, incessant hatred of humanity remains elusive). His teenage years were unhappy and filled with failure as the family relocated often and he repeated one examination after another, eventually dropping out of high school. His father’s death in 1903 over his morning glass at the local weinhaus didn’t move him, but the premature death of his mother from breast cancer four years later left him grief-stricken.

Filled with delusions of grandeur, the young Adolf found it difficult to accept loss, correction or failure. Laziness, depression, anger and rage were his common responses to lack of success. Thus, when the declaration of World War I came, he saw it as an opportunity for personal achievement. Though he had avoided military service in Austria a year earlier, fleeing across the border to Munich, he now joined the Bavarian army. His bravery as a messenger with the rank of corporal at the western front was twice rewarded with the Iron Cross. Temporarily blinded by mustard gas in 1918, he recovered in a military hospital before returning to Munich to await demobilization.

Unable to find work, Hitler, along with other veterans, plunged into right-wing political life in the German Workers’ Party. The war had increased his nationalist extremism, and now he blamed Germany’s failure entirely on Jews and Marxists. His rhetorical abilities were soon recognized, and he began a meteoric climb to fame. By 1921 he was chairman of the newly named National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP or Nazi party).

At this point in their journeys neither Mussolini nor Hitler gave any indication of the immense impact they would shortly have on the entire world. Absent the particular postwar milieus of Italy and Germany, neither would have seen high office. It was the combination of certain public needs and the two men’s individual aspirations in an extraordinarily unstable social order that allowed their totalitarian advents.

The Duce’s Bluff

Mussolini became prime minister following his much celebrated “March on Rome” in October 1922. But it was much less of an event than the Duce’s propaganda made out. On his orders, four fascist leaders and their troops set out for Rome, while he stayed home in Milan ready to escape to Switzerland if plans went awry. King Victor Emmanuel later said that up to 100,000 of Mussolini’s Blackshirts had converged from four directions on the city. Various fascist sources reported 50–70,000. The reality is that government forces halted about 20,000 ill-equipped, hungry, wet and bedraggled fascist soldiers, of whom about 9,000 later reached the city gates. According to German historian Martin Broszat, “in ancient and modern history, there was hardly any attempt on Rome that failed so miserably at its beginning.”

It was a huge gamble, but despite the feebleness of the march, the Duce had won. Arriving in Rome by train on October 30, he accepted the timid king’s invitation to become prime minister. So much for the vaunted “seizure of power.” The myth was perpetuated, however, so that when Mussolini initiated his fascist calendar in 1927, October 28 (the anniversary of the March on Rome) was named New Year’s Day and celebrated as a national holiday. March 23 became a holy day celebrating the beginning of fascism, and April 21 marked the birth of Rome.

Inspiring Hitler

Hitler and the Duce might have met much earlier than they did if Mussolini had been more open to his emulators to the north. While there were low-level contacts between German and Italian fascists—in all probability the Nazis even borrowed their salute from the Blackshirts (who in turn borrowed it from ancient Rome)—one Nazi supporter, playboy Kurt Lüdecke, did succeed in making contact with Mussolini himself just before the March on Rome. It was the first the Duce had heard of Adolf Hitler. For his part, Hitler, more and more impressed by Mussolini’s success, hoped for a meeting or financial support and described him as “incomparable” and a “brilliant statesman.” He was all the more pleased when his own supporters began to refer to him as Germany’s Mussolini or even a new Napoleon.

His appeal to German manhood was like a call to arms, the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another Luther. . . . I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion. . . . I had found myself, my leader, and my cause.”

Kurt Lüdecke quoted by Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris 

In December 1922, the Nazi party organ, the Völkischer Beobachter (National Observer), said for the first time that Hitler was a special leader and the one that Germany awaited. The publicly expressed need was beginning to accord with Hitler’s own ambitions. A few months later the paper’s editor, Dietrich Eckhart, recognizing Hitler’s overwhelming passion for leadership, told a friend that he had “megalomania halfway between a Messiah complex and Neroism.” His comment was based on Hitler’s observation that after a visit to Berlin, during which he was disgusted by its decadence, “I nearly imagined myself to be Jesus Christ when he came to his Father’s Temple and found the money changers.”

Though Hitler did not yet seem to think of himself as more than a John the Baptist to the needed savior, there was an indication of what was to come in late 1923, when he told London’s Daily Mail, “If a German Mussolini is given to Germany . . . people would fall down on their knees and worship him more than Mussolini has ever been worshipped.”

If a German Mussolini is given to Germany . . . people would fall down on their knees and worship him more than Mussolini has ever been worshipped.”

Adolf Hitler, quoted by Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris

Conditions for Cults

While Mussolini did not sink to the same depths of genocidal and bestial depravity as Hitler, there are many commonalities in their histories. Not least are those that arise from public desperation in difficult times. It is then that people give irrational support to radical voices, sometimes making mere men into gods. Mussolini biographer Richard Bosworth writes, “By 1914 many Italians were looking for a ‘leader’ to cut through the compromise, confusion and corruption which they detected all around and, if doubtless still among a restricted group, Mussolini was becoming known as a potential candidate for this role.” But for Italy’s entry into World War I in 1915, Mussolini the prime minister might have emerged earlier. In any case, it was but a few more years before Italians, desperate for a deliverer, were hearing about the leader whose deep commitment was to revitalize the nation, a man who walked heroically alone, or as Bosworth notes, “a man turning into a god.”

As we have seen, in Germany similar yearnings emerged in the wake of the nation’s postwar loss of face, its grief, despair, disillusion, social disruption and political instability, the harsh reparations visited on it by the Allies, and the consequent unemployment and inflation. The nation was ripe for radical appeals. As a generation of men and women honed by the violence of war and its privations brought their brutalities into “peacetime,” Hitler found a voice to echo their innermost frustrations. Further, he found the money to finance his ascent. As a lover of Richard Wagner’s music from his youth, he chanced upon a connection with the wealthy Wagnerian community at Bayreuth, the Bavarian town where the famed composer spent the last years of his life. They proved to be one group of socialites that found Hitler endearing enough to give him financial support and access to more people of power.

Setting the Course

Kershaw observes that it was the Duce’s success in the March on Rome that encouraged Hitler in his attempt to seize power in Bavaria in November 1923, when he led the failed coup d’état known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. Reflecting on Mussolini’s dubious achievement, Hitler had commented, “So will it be with us. We have only to have the courage to act. Without struggle, no victory!” He later reminisced, “Don’t suppose that events in Italy had no influence on us. The brown shirt would probably not have existed without the black shirt. The March on Rome, in 1922, was one of the turning points of history”—eloquent testimony to the power of fascist propaganda.

But when the Munich coup collapsed and Hitler was sentenced to five years for treason, the Duce showed no inclination to develop a relationship with what seemed just another group of unsuccessful rightists seeking his patronage.

Though Hitler was to serve a total of only 13 months, his time in the reasonable comfort of Landsberg Prison allowed him to dictate the first draft of what would become the Nazi bible—his embittered autobiography, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). There he spilled his venom against Jews, Marxists and Slavs, vented his frustrations against those who had punished Germany with their Versailles Treaty, worshiped power, and spelled out his plans for world domination. According to Kershaw, working on the book gave Hitler “absolute conviction in his own near-messianic qualities and mission.” Using phrases from Mein Kampf, the biographer writes that by the time of Hitler’s release from prison at the end of 1924, he had gained “the feeling of certainty that he was destined to become the ‘Great Leader’ the nation awaited, who would expunge the ‘criminal betrayal’ of 1918, restore Germany’s might and power, and create a reborn ‘Germanic State of the German nation.’” His twisted ideas of national redemption through the violent cleansing effects of a perverted religious science were set—and too many people were prepared to suspend their critical reasoning and listen.

Hitler was not the only Nazi writing in 1924. One of his admirers, Georg Schott, published a sycophantic book that spoke of him in terms of prophet, genius, religious person, political leader, man of will, educator, awakener, liberator, and a man of humility and loyalty. Kershaw comments that here Hitler “was turned into nothing short of a demi-god.” Schott wrote further, “There are words which a person does not draw from within himself, which a god gave him to declare. To these words belongs this confession of Adolf Hitler . . . ‘I am the political leader of the young Germany.’” Schott added, “The secret of this personality resides in the fact that in it the deepest of what lies dormant in the soul of the German people has taken shape in full living features. . . . That has appeared in Adolf Hitler: the living incarnation of the nation’s yearning” (Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris).

Though it would be still a few more years before he would attain dictatorial power, Hitler’s course was now clear, and the ground, already fertile for the Führer cult, was about to receive its poisonous plant.

Religious Manipulation

Meanwhile in Italy, with Mussolini in office, the fawning language was getting worse. The degree to which public adulation was expressed in religious terms is evident from the words of an enthusiastic fascist in 1925, as recorded by British academic John Whittam: “A century from now history may tell us that after the war a Messiah arose in Italy who began speaking to fifty people and ended up evangelizing a million; that these first disciples then spread through Italy and with their faith, devotion and sacrifice conquered the hearts of the masses” (“Mussolini and the Cult of the Leader,” New Perspective, March 1998).

Some would soon make similar comments about Hitler. Kershaw mentions that the Nazis “went so far as to claim that the only historical parallel with Hitler, who had begun with seven men and now attracted a huge mass following, was that of Jesus Christ, who had started with twelve companions and created a religious movement of millions” (The “Hitler Myth”).

Clearly the fault lay not with Hitler alone. The people were moving toward him. They needed him and he needed their adulation. A man subject to such worship not only falls victim to it easily but may also begin to manipulate religious fervor in the service of the state.

The Duce was quite willing to moderate his anticlerical sentiments in the pursuit of complete power. Thus, according to Whittam, “Mussolini was prepared to use many of the symbols and rituals of Roman Catholicism—one of his first acts as premier was to restore the crucifix to all schoolrooms.” But the social revolution that Mussolini sought would introduce believers to a new religion designed for the new fascist man and woman.

Once in power Hitler would also demonstrate cynical use of Christianity to further his quest. He aspired to create a new “positive Christianity,” to bring German Catholics and Protestants together. Yet the central figure in his version of the faith was an angry Aryan Christ, certainly not the Jewish-born Messiah. Accordingly, once the Jews were annihilated, the “final task” of national socialism would be to terrorize what Hitler called “the rotten branch” of Christianity.

Thus, for neither leader would the cross be allowed to challenge the fasces or the swastika.

Rome is our starting point and our point of reference; it is our symbol or, if you prefer, our myth. We dream of Roman Italy—wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of the immortal spirit of ancient Rome is reborn in Fascism!”

Benito Mussolini, quoted by Peter Godman, Hitler and the Vatican

The Duce’s political religion also required a new Rome and great public works in the existing city; after all, was he not to be recognized as the modern equivalent of Augustus? He was soon destroying churches and buildings and what he regarded as the accretion of art from centuries past. In their place would be fascist art and architecture. One plan called for a broad avenue leading to a new forum that would bear his name, where, reminiscent of Nero’s construction of a giant image of the sun god with his own face, Mussolini planned an 80-meter-tall (about 260 feet) bronze statue of himself as Hercules. Though neither forum nor statue was completed, many public buildings, railway stations, post offices, universities and factories were built across the country. Included were shrines to fascist martyrs, complete with memorial flames and chapels in all fascist headquarters.

Many of Hitler’s architectural fantasies also reflected a politico-religious undertone. He planned for a new world capital in Berlin named Germania. It was to be completed by 1950 in time for a world fair and included a dome accommodating 180,000 people and a nearly 118-meter-high (386 feet) triumphal arch in Roman style—more than twice the height of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe. But why such outsize dimensions? Hitler explained it himself when he wrote, “That a monument’s value resides in its size is a belief basic to mankind.” Perhaps this is the reason, as psychotherapist George Victor notes, that “on coming to power, [Hitler] ordered a new chancellery built for him on so grand a scale that visitors would sense that they were in the presence of ‘the Master of the World’” (Hitler: The Pathology of Evil, 1998).

The Duce and the Pope

The Vatican was not pleased with Mussolini’s removal of churches to make way for secular structures. But in 1929, the Duce’s anticlerical stance seemed to soften slightly, and he signed a concordat with the Vatican. Godman records that in appreciation of the agreement, the pope praised Mussolini as “the man of Providence,” whose conciliatory actions had restored “God to Italy, and Italy to God.” Paradoxically, his apparent support of the dictator seemed only to contribute to the latter’s adulation rather than focus the Italian public’s attention on God.

But had Mussolini really accommodated the pope or the church? Fascist followers continued to capitalize the personal pronoun when referring to Mussolini and, according to Godman, “groveled before their ‘spiritual father’ and ‘sublime redeemer in the Roman heavens,’ while proclaiming their belief in his infallibility.” The Duce “pretended to scorn these tributes, and silently encouraged them.” Further, the 1930 opening of a school of “mystical fascism” in Milan, with the purpose of furthering the leader cult, did nothing to demonstrate that Mussolini had discovered humility. In 1932, pressed for a definition of fascism, he wrote: “Fascism is a religious conception of life . . . which transcends any individual and raises him to the status of an initiated member of a spiritual society.” Clearly it was not the religion the pope was hoping to see encouraged. But this was the 10th anniversary year of the Duce’s appointment, and his glorification was in full swing.

Bosworth gives some examples: An Italian biographer, describing the role of the leader’s parents in his life, said, “Alessandro Mussolini and Rosa Maltoni only played the part of a John [the Baptist] toward Christ. They were the instruments of God and history, given the task of watching over one of the greatest national messiahs. Actually the greatest.” A leading fascist journalist commented that “the new Italy is called Mussolini” and spoke of “its infallible Chief,” claiming that “the Exhibition of the Revolution is Him [sic]: Mussolini.” Another wrote, “The name of Mussolini is known everywhere . . . as a symbol of power and perfection.” Even more amazingly, the Duce was said to be “omnipresent.”

While that word was not yet spoken about Hitler, to the north similar developments were taking place.

The Coming of the Teutonic Messiah

In 1932 Hitler was still a year away from becoming chancellor, though the 1930 elections had made the National Socialist Party the second-largest holder of seats in the parliament. February and March found him campaigning again, this time for the presidency. In a runoff, unconventionally and with great success he took to flying between rallies, the first politician to take to the air in campaigning. Again the National Socialist Party came in second, but with a huge increase in votes. At rallies for the April state elections, Hitler spoke at 25 locations around the country. Kershaw records that after one such event involving 120,000 people in the Hamburg area, a schoolteacher noted, “How many look to him in touching faith as the helper, saviour, the redeemer from overgreat distress.”

The 13 years ahead would show that nothing could be further from the truth.

Like Mussolini, Hitler would come to power by invitation. After much interparty wrangling, Germany’s president, Paul von Hindenburg, would ask him in January 1933 to take the post of chancellor. In July the Führer would agree to his own concordat with the Vatican, and in June 1934 he would meet Mussolini for the first time.

Soon the most horrifying time in modern history would descend on Germany, Italy and the world, as we will see next issue in “Messiahs! Rulers and the Role of Religion,” Part 8.