Studies in Charismatic Leadership:
Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler
Charisma is a strange, fascinating, and ultimately puzzling phenomenon. This course will study its expression in the charismatic leadership of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. These two men had radically opposed ideas and values, yet they each epitomized a form of charismatic leadership. Ironically, Churchill’s greatness emerged most fully in response to Hitler as the two faced one another across the English Channel during the fateful, destiny-shaping days of 1940-41. We will explore several theories of charisma, applying them to an analysis of Churchill and Hitler (and a few other leaders) through written, video, and audio materials. We will also visit some of the many sites—the underground Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum, the Battle of Britain Hall at the Royal Air Force Museum, Chartwell, the House of Commons—associated with Churchill’s life and career.
The concept of charisma (literally meaning "gift of grace") was introduced to the social sciences in the writings of the great German scholar Max Weber early in the 1900’s. Since that time the term has gained a widespread but casual currency in our popular vocabulary. Part of the rationale for this course is to move past those misunderstandings to gain a more theoretically grounded and clearer understanding of this concept. Fortunately, recent history has provided us with two powerful exemplars of charismatic leadership in the persons of Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. In 1940 they were locked in what historian John Lukacs has characterized as "the eighty day duel" in which "Churchill was the opponent of Hitler, the incarnation of the reaction to Hitler, the incarnation of the resistance of an old world, of old freedoms, of old standards against a man incarnating a force that was frighteningly efficient, brutal and new."
These two figures commanded the world’s attention during what was arguably the greatest crisis of the twentieth century. The existence of film and radio recordings, together with the huge body of historical analysis that both men have provoked, provide a rich source of primary materials from which to gain an understanding of charisma. Given all their differences, their careers and characteristics as charismatic figures have startling parallels. In some ways, Hitler may have been the more charismatic, but as William Manchester wrote in The Last Lion—a 900 page biography that carries us only to 1932 and the 58th of Winston’s 91 years—"Churchill's prospects were dramatically altered [when] Adolf Hitler entered his life…. By provoking his titanic wrath, the challenge from Europe released enormous stores of long-suppressed vitality within him." The many forms of that vitality make Churchill a compelling study in his own right.
Churchill and Hitler both rose to power in the context of what became World War Two. For many college students today this seems like ancient history, the popularity of recent Hollywood portrayals notwithstanding. Comprehending the leadership of Churchill and Hitler requires knowledge of the events within which their leadership emerged, and so a portion of the course will provide a background in this momentous period of history.