1937, Irmgard Keun published a short novel, After Midnight, which tells the story of two young women in 1930s Frankfurt who find themselves caught up in a parade and rally starring Adolf Hitler. The rally touches off a series of events in which the characters struggle to make sense of their lives, beliefs, and experiences in the darkening shadow of the Nazis’ cultural juggernaut.
Keun, an avowed anti-Nazi whose books were burned and banned in the Reich, is fascinating in her own right, but so is the picture she paints in After Midnight of characters who are committed Nazis but not ideological Nazis. That is, people who fervidly supported Hitler and the Nazis but not because they cared about the nuances of his political vision.
After Midnight is a novel, of course, but as a professor of rhetoric who is writing a book about Hitler, I also found it to be a captivating glimpse into what motivated some real people to support Hitler. Namely, desire — specifically, visceral desire.
One of Keun’s minor characters, Adelheid, the aunt and caretaker of the book’s main character, Sanna, provides just such a glimpse. Aunt Adelheid is neither politically sophisticated nor particularly engaged, but she is absolutely devoted to Hitler. After watching his speech at the rally, Aunt Adelheid gushes over the Führer, which rankles Sanna:
Aunt Adelheid couldn’t tell me a single thing the Führer had said, but she did say, quivering with enthusiasm, “Wasn’t it wonderful? Have you ever known anything like it? Did you notice how he could hardly speak at all, and went white as a sheet and nearly collapsed? That man spares himself nothing. Did you see the way he was bathed in sweat at the end?”
In case it’s not clear, Aunt Adelheid thinks the Führer is sexy.
A Sweaty Hitler is a Sexy Hitler
It is unnerving to think of Hitler as “sexy,” but After Midnight was published a year before the Night of Broken Glass and two years before Germany invaded Poland. It wasn’t a time of innocence by any means, but it predates the most shocking Nazi horrors, so the mere suggestion of Hitler’s sexiness wouldn’t necessarily have been unsettling at the time of publication.
In fact, Hitler’s sexual appeal was an important tool for courting female voters. In The Hitler of History, John Lukacs notes, “The adoration that so many German women had for Hitler did have some sexual characteristics.… That Hitler was unmarried was a factor” (67). Lukacs is one among many historians who have argued that at least part of Hitler’s appeal came from the fact that he was sexy. And for many German women, Hitler was sexy.
I read After Midnight on the recommendation of rhetorician and political philosopher Ira J. Allen, who called my attention to the Adelheid scene as a particularly compelling window into some people’s motivations for supporting the Führer. And indeed, it is.
Given the enormous literature on Hitler’s sexuality — including ongoing speculation about his sexual preferences, his peculiar carnal proclivities, and his testicular fortitude — it wasn’t the first time I’d considered the role of sex and sexuality in Hitler’s appeal. But I was not prepared for Keun’s description of Aunt Adelheid’s undulant desire.
Adelheid didn’t just find Hitler sexy; she experienced quivering, visceral desire because of the Führer’s sweatiness. It doesn’t take any special insight to see that for Aunt Adelheid, Hitler’s sweatiness was a proxy for his erotic appeal.
A Sweaty Hitler is a Sincere Hitler
We might be inclined to dismiss Keun’s description as fictional and therefore farfetched or overblown. Believe me, I’d prefer to. But after reading After Midnight, I began to notice that Hitler’s sweatiness gets connected to desire well beyond the pages of Keun’s novel, and not just for women.
In his 2019 biography, historian Peter Longerich quotes one of Hitler’s close confidants, Max Amman, on the Führer’s oratorical appeal: “The man screamed, he behaved in a way that I’ve never seen before. But everyone said: ‘He really means what he’s saying.’ The sweat ran off him, he was soaking wet, it was incredible and that was what made his reputation” (77).
Hitler severely restricted who could take his photograph and what photographs could be distributed, so there is virtually no photographic evidence of sweaty Hitler. But the image of Hitler bathed in sweat commonly accompanies descriptions of his speeches by supporters and critics, alike. Hitler’s sweatiness symbolizes, on the one hand, his robust virility, and on the other hand, his unrestrainable sincerity.
A Sincere Hitler is a Persuasive Hitler
So, what good comes from pondering Hitler’s perspirant sincerity? The answer has to do with the often-underappreciated persuasiveness of visceral desire — not because people are “too emotional,” but because visceral desire provides clarity and certainty in confusing times.
For people like Aunt Adelheid, Hitler’s sweat symbolized erotic desire, but also a desire to believe in someone who truly believed, and his sweat demonstrated that he truly believed. The same is true for Amman, though (probably) without the eros. Sweaty Hitler was viscerally desirable to both men and women because his performance demonstrated sincerity. As rhetoricians have known for centuries, sincerity is profoundly persuasive.
To be sure, Hitler’s sweaty sexiness wasn’t the only reason people supported Hitler. Many women, for example, believed he represented their values. But Hitler’s ability to perform sincerity was a crucial element of his appeal, especially for people who weren’t necessarily political. What After Midnight ultimately illustrates is how visceral desire made Hitler’s politics easier to rationalize.
Ryan Skinnell is an associate professor of rhetoric at San José State University, the author of “Faking the News: What Can Rhetoric Teach Us about Donald J. Trump” and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. He is currently writing a book about Hitler’s rhetoric.
Ryan Skinnell is a professor of Rhetoric and Writing at San José State University in Silicon Valley. Dr. Skinnell is an expert in political rhetoric, and he has published six books and more than 80 articles, book chapters, and op-eds on topics ranging from Hitler’s rhetoric and fascist rhetoric to contemporary political discourse. He is also an San José State University faculty media expert in political speech, politics, and rhetoric and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.