The Rhetoric of Hitler's "Battle"

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The Rhetoric of Hitler's "Battle" is an influential essay written by Kenneth Burke in 1939 which offered a rhetorical analysis of Adolf Hitler's rise to power in Germany. Much of Burke's analysis focuses on Hitler's Mein Kampf ("my struggle"). Burke (1939; reprinted in 1941 and 1981) identified four tropes as specific to Hitler's rhetoric: inborn dignity, projection device, symbolic rebirth, and commercial use. Several other tropes are discussed in the essay, "Persuasion" (Burke: 1969).


Common enemy[edit]

One trope is the idea of the common enemy. Without an enemy with a mindless determination to destroy everything good and beautiful, any state struggles with the economic and social problems of unemployment and poverty. So, the idea of a common enemy is a symbol of the evil against which people must unite, and it distracts the people from politically inconvenient issues by relating all evils to the common rhetorical enemy. According to Burke, this is creating an antithesis. We are born separate individuals and divided by class or other criteria, so identification is a compensation to division. (Burke, 1969, p. 22). He sees this human need to identify with or belong to a group as providing a rich resource for those interested in joining us or, more importantly, persuading us. To promote social cohesion, antithesis makes a simple balancing statement, "We do this" but "They do that". This symmetry creates an expression of conjoined opposites which stigmatises the latter and encourages the former to cohere by only doing "this". At first, the enemy may be local politicians or other voices that might criticise the protagonist's actions. Then, all opposing voices are seen as antithetical to unity: without a united voice, the outside enemies will gain the upper hand. If the nation goes to war, fascism requires that everybody in society and every aspect of society is involved in the war effort and machine, so the society fights as one organism under the one leader.

Geographical materialization[edit]

All roads lead to Rome. In Ancient Rome, this was literally and metaphorically true. All roads did radiate out from the capital of the Empire and all tribute and authority was owed to the Emperors. This is a form of cognitive mapping which associates inspiring ideology and strong leadership with a particular location. Hence, Hitler promoted Munich as the place where all roads must lead – geography materializing the ideology of fascism.

Unifying voice[edit]

The unification rhetoric demands a unifying voice: the entire nation must speak as one person. This is the essence of the authoritarian ideal and it produces a totalitarian, one party state.

Projection devices[edit]

Projection devices are scapegoating tactics used to personalise the initially vague threats posed by the common enemy. At a social level, the internal problems of unemployment and poor trading performances are directly attributed to the activities of the "identified others". Simplification is a particularly effective rhetorical device when dealing with an uncritical population, permitting rhetoricians to rise to power through their persuasive abilities, frequently outmanoeuvering those with expert knowledge who do not communicate well. In this context, Burke (1941) identified Hitler's use of apodictic argumentation where anecdotal experiences are asserted as proof of his social analysis.

Inborn dignity[edit]

It is usual to define a national ideal or archetype, or class of citizen as a measuring stick by which all other types of people are to be judged. This archetype will be heroic, noble, and dignified to appeal to the vanity in the majority, while the others will be subhuman and easily distinguished by reference to their ethnicity, religion or politics. For this rhetoric to be effective, it must always address existing prejudices. Hitler proposed the Manichean antithesis of superior: inferior through the superiority of das Volk, i.e. the Aryan race, over the inferior races ("in particular Jews and Negroes").

Symbolic rebirth[edit]

Wink and others identify symbolic rebirth rhetoric as allowing a people to aspire towards a new utopian society; when the scapegoat is eliminated, a rebirth will occur. The morally negative action of elimination is justified by a positive goal of symbolic rebirth, where all ideals are realised. It will only occur once in the lifetime.

Commercial use[edit]

Another trope is Commercial use. Commercial use rhetoric offers a non-economic interpretation of economic problems that appeals to the class that will benefit the most if the competition is removed. Thus, Burke (1941) identifies Hitler's attribution of Germany's economic difficulties to "Jewish" moneylenders, suggesting that if they were removed, "Aryan" finance would be in control.

Journal citations of The Rhetoric of Hitler's "Battle"[edit]

The following journal articles reference The Rhetoric of Hitler's "Battle":

  • "Telling it like it is: Jim Pankiw and Politics of Racism", Rhetor. Journal of the Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric, 2007, p1-23, 23p; (AN 27747329)
  • Blain, Michael "The politics of victimage", Critical Discourse Studies, April 2005, Vol. 2 Issue 1, p. 31-50, 20p; doi:10.1080/17405900500052168; (AN 16669758)
  • Engels, Jeremy, "Reading the Riot Act: Rhetoric, Psychology, and Counter-Revolutionary Discourse in Shays's Rebellion, 1786–1787", Quarterly Journal of Speech, February 2005, Vol. 91 Issue 1, p. 63-88, 26p; doi:10.1080/00335630500157532; (AN 17941694)
  • Katz, Steven B., "GUEST EDITORIAL: A RESPONSE TO PATRICK MOORE'S "QUESTIONING THE MOTIVES OF TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION AND RHETORIC: STEVEN KATZ'S 'ETHIC OF EXPEDIENCY'"." Journal of Technical Writing & Communication, 2006, Vol. 36 Issue 1, p. 1-8, 8p; (AN 20338972)
  • Kiewe, Amos, "Theodore Herzl's The Jewish State: Prophetic Rhetoric in the Service of Political Objectives", Journal of Communication & Religion, September 2003, Vol. 26 Issue 2, p. 208-239, 32p; (AN 14350131)
  • Lee, Michael J., "The Populist Chameleon: The People's Party, Huey Long, George Wallace, and the Populist Argumentative Frame", Quarterly Journal of Speech, November 2006, Vol. 92 Issue 4, p..355-378, 24p; doi:10.1080/00335630601080385; (AN 24875979)
  • Maddux, Kristy, "Finding Comedy in Theology: A Hopeful Supplement to Kenneth Burke's Logology", Philosophy & Rhetoric, 2006, Vol. 39 Issue 3, p, 208-232, 25p; (AN 22497430)
  • Moore, Mark P., "To Execute Capital Punishment: The Mortification and Scapegoating of Illinois Governor George Ryan", Western Journal of Communication, October 2006, Vol. 70 Issue 4, p. 311-330, 20p; doi:10.1080/10570310600992129; (AN 23234017)
  • Roberts-Miller, Patricia, "DEMOCRACY, DEMAGOGUERY, AND CRITICAL RHETORIC", Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Fall 2005, Vol. 8 Issue 3, p. 459-476, 18p; (AN 18536135)
  • Spielvogel, Christian, "'YOU KNOW WHERE I STAND': MORAL FRAMING OF THE WAR ON TERRORISM AND THE IRAQ WAR IN THE 2004 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN", Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Winter 2005, Vol. 8 Issue 4, p. 549-569, 21p; (AN 19628709)
  • "In Praise of Kenneth Burke: His "The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle'" Revisited", Josef Schmidt, Rhetor, V.1, 2004 [1]


  • Burke, Kenneth (1939). "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle". The Southern Review 5; 1-21.
  • Burke, Kenneth (1941). "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. New York: Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press. (1974). ISBN 0-520-02483-4
  • Burke, Kenneth (1969). A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-01546-0
  • Burke, Kenneth (1989). "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" in On Symbols and Society. Burke, Kenneth & Gusfield, Joseph R. (eds.). Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. pp. 211-231. ISBN 0-226-08078-1.
  • Girard, Rene (1987). Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Wink, Walter (1992). Engaging the Powers, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.