The Perversion of Aristotelian Rhetoric in the Holocaust

Modified: 18th May 2020
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“The stronger this faculty is, the more necessary it is for it to be combined with integrity and supreme wisdom, and if we bestow fluency of speech on persons devoid of those virtues, we shall not have made orators of them, but shall have put weapons into the hands of madmen” (Cicero, 55)

Language serves as an important aspect in the development of a sophisticated and intellectual society. Beyond encompassing the means by which humanity is able to inherently alter reality, linguistic discourse permits the discovery of truths through the use of rhetoric, a concept with has been examined rigorously throughout the course of history. Socrates defined rhetoric as a means of deceitful persuasion for arguments lacking honesty; classifying sophists as fabricators that utilize it to support false statements with a goal of triumph at all costs (Rapp 2). Subsequently, Platonism arose to describe rhetoric as a superficial art of pseudo-knowledge that aids the creation of persuasive illusions; none other than one of Plato’s students, Aristotle, would provide the most valuable form of its definition, attempting to settle the dispute of ethical discounts in rhetoric (Rapp 3).

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Aristotle was one of the first to successfully decipher and describe this complex artistry and is considered the father of rhetoric in the modern day. While encompassing the interface of Platonic epistemological theory and sophistry, he interpreted rhetoric as a “counterpart of Dialectic” and a means of proving any and all things that lack total certitude (Aristotle 179). In Rhetoric, the great philosopher pioneered deliberative, epidictic and forensic rhetoric so that they fall under the umbrella of universal systematic discovery to establish an eloquence for the achievement of an end (Aristotle 185). In order to determine the greatest potential to promote an anticipated outcome, Aristotle urged orators to put forward a strong character of credibility producing a compelling argument through ethos this while focussing on the feelings associated with their argument and audience characterized by pathos and finally applying a logical stance in logos. Aristotelian Rhetoric, however, does not relate successful oratory to ethics or morality and does not assert its methodology only be used for the establishment of a good or righteous end (Aristotle 183). In actuality, the deliberative rhetoric outlined in Aristotle’s Rhetoric endorses an epistemology that poses ethical danger in terms of how an argument will be embodied in human behaviour. Aristotle fails to address such a danger in his writing and thus prioritizes expediency in his methods. Nazi propaganda presented Aristotelian rhetorical methodology by means of utilizing it to sanction the mass destruction of many in the Holocaust.

Hitler, the master orator and organizer of the Nazi regime, was very familiar with the eloquence of persuasion and outlined his deliberations in rhetoric and propaganda in the piece Mein Kampf. In this publication, it is made clear that the genocide in twentieth century Germany was accomplished through the mastering and exploitation of deliberative rhetoric through timely and persistent propaganda. Although the holocaust frames rhetoric in a platonic manner, it has far more Aristotelian undertones; viewing it from a Platonic stance would take away from the sophistication in its methods, categorizing the event as merely a wrong doing through the use of illusionary fiction. Under the influence of Aristotle’s rhetoric, Hitler circumvented ethical tribulations in order to induce the adoption of the Nazi doctrine. Aristotle does not, however, excuse acts of moral misconduct in his interpretation of rhetoric in which does take a more avid stance on morality than that present in Nazi propaganda. Nevertheless, the present juxtaposition of Aristotle and Hitler in the utilization of rhetorical means illuminates the possible dangers of applying deliberative rhetoric in its most sinister form; this essay will attempt to examine the ways in which Nazi propaganda utilized warped Aristotelian methods to orchestrate one of the greatest tragedies in history.

Aristotle characterized the relation in rhetoric to dialectic by establishing the “enthymeme,” a basis of logic, truth and proof that is fundamental to rhetoric and of persuasion. By utilizing convincing proof, Aristotle states an orator is far more successful in persuasion than if they were to utilize emotional manipulations since, “people are most strongly convinced when they suppose that something has been proven” (Aristotle 180); thus criticizing the manuals of rhetoric to merely rouse emotions in the way of the sophists.  Parallel to such rationale, Hitler took advantage of the existing state of affairs including anti-Semitism while imitating existing propaganda from the communist revolution. To elaborate on said shared rationale, Hitler claimed that in order to be a master rhetorician, a spiritual foundation is required to use as a basis for a logical stance and in order to appeal to the masses. He believed it was important to have the rationality of a legitimating idea to validate the brutality and violence and to use in the place of the doctrine being exterminated (Hitler 169). Although nepotism may be the real driving factor of an orator’s conviction, the Hitlerite model claimed that violence requires an underlying discourse and that without this, “it lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Hitler 170). In the Holocaust, Hitler utilized religion, the appeals of upper handed majority rule and political intelligence for a spiritual idea using enthymemes to drive his followers. Conforming to Aristotle’s proposition that an orator be knowledgeable in politics and social discourse, Hitler made use of his knowledge and the establishment of this foundation at the opportune moment to create a successful campaign.

With a goal of unifying and strengthening post – war Germany, Nazi propaganda filled an apparent void pertaining to the pride of the masses. With fallen spirits the country longed for a purpose for their fall and hope for regrowth and future domination; Hitler utilized Kairos or timeliness to propose the theory of inborn superiority to minority races as a compensatory measure (Burke 174). Thus inferior races served as a scapegoat for the country to attribute their misfortunes; the temptation of this attribution serves as the medicinal solution that explains Hitler’s success in achieving his end. Furthermore, the Nazi propaganda proved capable of creating an imaginary worldview in order to oppose adversary claims on scapegoat innocence allowing the amalgamation of social quandaries and complaints to be traced back to race, compensating for an overarching lack of community; such an effect characterizes Hitler as an effective leader by his words as he succeeds in “preventing the division of a people, and always in concentrating it on a single enemy.”  To illustrate one manner by which Hitler fabricated circumstances for the benefit of his argument one can regard the improper context he presented to explain then recent misfortunes in stock exchange. Hitler drew connections between Jews and negative stock exchange occurrences while discounting the fact that these same associations could be made to the Aryans; he instead made it seem as though the Aryans were victims “seduced” by the Jew (Burk 167). Propaganda, by acing through technological ethos, created this dangerous reputation for Jews and made it relevant to suggest only the extinction of the race could ensure the Aryan race remain pure and safe (Burke 172). In Mein Kampf,  Hitler endorses the  importance of Kairos, this is evident when he explicitly states that in order to be a successful rhetorician a person must be able to replace present moods and sentiments with others to produce the required ends; “the same lecture the same speaker, the same theme, have an entirely different effect at ten o’clock in the morning, at three o’clock in the afternoon or at night” (Hitler 473). Hitler’s unfortunate success may also be attributed to his understanding of pathos at this opportune moment (Hitler 703).

Beyond waiting for the circumstances to favour the desired ends, Hitler utilized many of the modes of persuasion that are of Aristotle’s refinement.  He was especially successful in applying his knowledge of actio and elocutio in his mission to drive the masses into a state of blind conformity. Delivering speeches, Hilter lacked any reservation as he spoke proving his notion that he was “meant to be a speaker” (Hitler 175). His exaggerated hand gestures and strong vocalizations of absolute conviction and excessive verbose are indeed famous to this day (Hitler 703). However, Hitler did not utilize these techniques to compensate for inadequate logos in his arguments as one may assume based of the outrageous nature of the action he was proposing. Hitler understood the value of speech and the influence he could accomplish by composing an argument that would appeal to the masses. Although littered with grammatical errors and lacking in organizational structure, Mein Kampf presents the kind of rigor or agitation that Hitler believed was the only way to stir up any action of passion. These means of persuasion were absolutely necessary in Nazi propaganda and thus Hitler believed that only spoken rhetoric was able to drive the masses as he craved, this is because “the written word in its limited effect will in general serve more to retain, to reinforce, to deepen, a point of view or opinion that is already present. Really impactful historical changes are not induced by the written word, but at most accompanied by it” (Hitler 475).

Drawing on the most disturbing consortium between Aristotle and Hitler is that the morality associated with the use of rhetoric is not addressed in their notions. Aristotle valued the effect of rhetoric to provide political expediency to secure and support intellectual development; the ethic of expediency thus excused any means by which a society could obtain a “good life”, including killing off deformed children and population control through mandatory abortion (Katz 264). Aristotle excuses the use of rhetoric for less than moral ends and the influence he imposed in the production of Nazi propaganda is highlighted in the following passage from Rhetoric where he states, “all other points, such as whether the proposal is just or unjust, honorable or dishonorable, are subsidiary and relative and have little place in deliberative discourse” (Aristotle 186). Aristotle merely concerned himself with the importance and advantage of learning to utilize rhetoric with the required training. He especially focussed on its role in political enlightenment where this disregard is in fact is valid and relevant today. In modern law, all parties are entitled to the representation of a lawyer who is skillful and experienced in the art of rhetoric, this is true for the guilty and the innocent during a trial. Aristotle concentrated on the importance of the dissoi-logoi when seeking enlightenment, he noted the importance of examining things from multiple perspectives in order to come to a commendable decision. The application of proof and the assertion of “innocent until proven guilty” are both based on Aristotelian rhetoric as do many other present-day law practises. Furthermore, Aristotle argued that all goods could be misused for immoral acts, excluding virtue (Rapp 15). He argued the risk of misuse is also reduced since it is easier to be convinced of a good and moral argument than an evil one (Rapp 15). A rousing difference in the Aristotle and Hitler was their goal in using rhetoric. Although both valued expediency, Hitler was obsessed with manipulating social constructs and achieving his end. He implies that if this goal is not met that the journey to achieve it and the application of rhetorical eloquence is not relevant; this is evident in the passage from Mein Kampf when he says “For I must not measure the speech of a statesman to his people by the impression which it leaves in a university professor, but the effect it exerts on people” (Hitler 477). This impression is also evident when Hitler outwardly articulates the Nazi regime through its use of propaganda; “the first task of propaganda is to win people for subsequent organization; the first task of organization is to win men for the continuation of propaganda. The second task of propaganda is the disruption of the existing state of affairs and the permeation of this state of affairs with the new doctrine” (Hitler 49).  Nazi propaganda was not used for enlightenment but only to impact its viewer and have them partake in actions of passion and defense.

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Aristotle, however, was not as concerned with reaching an end, just with discovering the best possible means to do so and to utilize language and persuasion to its greatest value in order to uncover the truth even if these means can be utilized to support untruthful statements. Aristotle believed that having good and bad framed with the same presentative state would remove the ideals of sophistry; since everything is under that same standards of representation these standards can only pose as support in the enlightenment of truth rather than place conclusions of certitude before the playing field is leveled and all is presented as well as possible (Rapp 17). Aristotle did not, however address how this methodology would in fact aid sophistry if the situation is utterly lacking any strong opposition to the claims of the orator. Without a trial, when the opposition is without expertise and under the strain of a minority claim in an organization, Aristotle’s methods carry grave danger to present social constructs. Furthermore, it can be argued that in a society where the scales are more often than not imbalanced in proficiency and resources, rhetorical advances can pose as an immoral and unjust advantage under most strenuous circumstance. Thus Aristotle’s outline for the use of rhetoric as a tool transforms into a guide on how to weaponize language and achieve inexcusable means with ease, this is of course corresponds to the creation of Nazi propaganda and other propaganda of its kind (Katz 271).    

Consequently, we must understand the magnitude of deception that may be conjured through the exploitation of such powerful tactics. Society must take a protective stance against deception through the modes of persuasion so that they cannot be used for the distortion of truth and advancement of evil. In accordance to Burk, Hitler “put his cards face up on the table, that we may examine his hands,” and inhibit the falsifications in the media that could lead to such social, political and ethical misfortunes (Burk 165). To read and study the Holocaust without developing an awareness of the perversion that could to such mass destruction would be to glorify Hitler and his foul acts. The parallels between Nazi propaganda and political campaigns suggest we still have to remain alert  and mindful.

Henceforth, language and rhetorical eloquence bears its ugly head in history and as we continue to learn about the fragility of humanity under its influence, but as long as people read, decipher and discover, language in even the most eloquent form will have no power beyond the moral character of its beholder.

Works Cited

  • Aristotle, “Rhetoric.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Bedford Books, 2001. 179-187.
  • Burke, Kenneth. “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.’” The Philosophy of Literary Form, 1957, doi:10.2307/40120403.
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “De Oratore.” Oxford Classical Texts: M. Tulli Ciceronis: Rhetorica, Vol. 1: Libros de Oratore Tres Continens, 2016, doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00148440.
  • Hitler, Adolf. ”Mein Kampf”. Internet Archive. 166-186, 702-716, 846-857.
  • Katz, Steven B. “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust.” Vol. 54, 1992,
  • Rapp, Christoff. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward (ed.) Zalta, Stanford University; Center for the Study of Language and Information, 2002,


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