Updated: Jan 24
Adolf Hitler is the caricature of a supervillain.
But just as we are open to having our heroes re-examined (Gandhi bashing is all the vogue now) we should similarly be open to having our supervillains re-examined.
This summer I spent a month in Europe and a large part of it in Germany. I saw the Berlin wall and the Jewish memorial, and also visited the Buchenwald Concentration Camp (not in the same league as Auschwitz, but nonetheless a concentration camp where tens of thousands of people had been murdered).
I marveled at the accomplishments of Germany - the level of organization, civic sense, public infrastructure, nature preservation - it’s simply unbelievable. For someone like me with limited global exposure, Germany seemed like the most perfect country in the world for its citizens.
And to a very great extent, Adolf Hitler was the architect of modern Germany. After World War 1, the German economy was crippled, they had to pay huge damages to victors (the UK, US etc) as a result of the Treaty of Versailles - in fact, it was only in 2010 that Germany finally paid off this amount in full. In addition to that, there were a lot of restrictions on what Germany could and could not do. People were jobless and it was generally a gloomy time.
Think about the disruptive forces that caused Germany to move from that kind of a scenario in the early 30s to controlling an area ten years later that was almost as large as what Britain had controlled through its colonies?
I believe that Adolf Hitler was a hi-on-hustle disruptor - - no different than Mark Zuckerberg or Travis Kalanick.
I believe that Adolf Hitler was a hi-on-hustle disruptor - no different than Mark Zuckerberg or Travis Kalanick. The difference was in outcomes, but as an individual - he was as remarkable as any Silicon Valley disruptor. I have previously written about Outcome Bias - the tendency to judge actions based on their outcomes rather than on their intrinsic worth. Adolf Hitler is one of the biggest victims of Outcome Bias.
For the rest of the article, I will refer to Adolf Hitler by his first name, see if it makes a difference in your opinion about the man if we don’t use the word Hitler to talk about him.
I’m now going to list out why I think he was the prototype Silicon Valley disruptor:
1. Product market fit - For an aspiring political leader, the product market fit is all about finding an ideology and platform that resonates with the maximum number of people. Modi’s product market fit is Hindutva/ Development/ Self-Respect/ Anti-corruption (select the one that appeals to you). Adolf’s product market fit was Anti-Semitism/ German Self-respect. He was not the one who invented anti-Semitism, nor was he a deeply committed anti-semitic in his early years. Rather, his early supporters and backers were committed anti-semantics and he latched on to that ideology due to the traction it got. Just like what any smart silicon valley founder does - latch on to what gets traction.
2. Charisma - The most successful founder are people who are able to make successful pitches to VCs and early employees to get people to back their idea/startup early. Similarly, Adolf was also a charismatic leader, a powerful and passionate speaker - this allowed him to get followers and backers faster than any other political opponents.
3. Ask for permission/forgiveness later - Travis Kalanick famously followed the philosophy of asking for permission later and used the philosophy in launching Uber in cities across the world. Adolf was the same - he started producing tanks and submarines and other military weapons at the time when Germany was forbidden to produce them.
4. Growth Mindset - For decades, Germany’s autobahn system of highways was the envy of the world - this was an early investment that Adolf made and would prove invaluable later on in helping Germany conquer large parts of Europe. He also made other investments like setting up Volkswagen, which in Germany stands for People’s car (volks is loosely translated to people). He had a whole series of Volks projects like Volksradio, Volksbank etc. some of which still survive.
5. Irrational Optimism - As anyone who has successfully built a startup will tell you, you need to have a certain degree of irrational optimism to take the plunge into building a startup. It’s a common saying that building a startup is like taking the plunge and building the plane on your way down. Any rational human being will not attempt it - it’s just too risky. But founders typically tend to be irrationally optimistic and that is what allows them to build a startup. And Adolf was similarly irrationally optimistic. Think about the scope of his vision - he conquered a land area that was at least 3 times the size of his country, he took on the largest country in the world - the USSR and literally brought it to its knees. You can’t help but applaud the audacity of his vision.
6. Moving Fast and Breaking Things - Adolf was the father of this movement, and he called it ‘The Blitzkrieg’. This was a superb military tactic which allowed him to conquer much bigger opponents with a small and effective fighting force that moved so fast that the enemy forces could not respond effectively and got overwhelmed. In fact, blitzkrieg continues to be a Silicon Valley buzz word till date - think about that.
7. Innovations - This is, of course, the single biggest quality of successful silicon valley founders - they disrupt the world with their innovations. Adolf was similarly disruptive in his military tactics. In addition to that, Germany had many military innovations like their Panzer tanks, the enigma machine, the U boat submarines etc - these overwhelmed its opponents who were still stuck in the past and using traditional weapons and strategies.
But in the end, Adolf was defeated and died at his own hands. Why did this happen? Here’s what I think:
1. Unable to delegate - Adolf had many brilliant generals steering the war efforts, but he would often overrule their military decisions due to non-military reasons. He hated to lose face and did not allow the German army to do any type of strategic withdrawal which would have protected their assets and allowed them to fight another day.
2. Irrational Optimism - the same forces that drove his success also drove his failure. Towards the end, Adolf had taken on too many enemies - he was already fighting with the UK on one side and with the Soviets on the other side, when he also declared war on America. It was suicidal to take on so many enemies at one time - or in other words - irrationally optimistic.
3. Morally wrong - Adolf faced an enemy who was morally right, and the strength of being morally right should not be underestimated. Moral strength gives you fortitude and resilience and you are able to overcome great odds due to it, and Adolf was unfortunately on the wrong side of morality which meant that his armies and generals did not have the full strength of conviction behind them.
Now a slightly uncomfortable observation: Why is Hitler made into a super-villain? I think part of it is because it lets the rest of the world off the hook. The world just watched when Hitler started persecuting the Jews in the 1930s. It was only when they were directly affected by Hitler’s armies at their doorstep did the allied countries find their morality. In Germany also - there was obviously popular support for anti-semitism, else Hitler would not have become as powerful as he did. A leader is only as powerful as his followers allow him to become. But it's a lot easier to paint Hitler and key members of the Nazi party as supervillains.
Thank god that VCs are not blind followers of founders and are able to kick out problematic founders and put in place mature leaders who bring stability (think Uber).
I abhor what was done to the Jews of Europe, it is shocking, inhuman, depraved, and people who did this deserve the worst punishment possible.
No matter what his good qualities may have been, the atrocities on the Jews happened on his watch, and that makes him more culpable in this than anyone else.
I have been inspired by the following documentaries in writing this:
- Annihilation: The Destruction of European Jews (Youtube) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPa1BlyUXP0&t=6s
- Hitler’s Circle of Evil (Netflix)
- World War 2 in color (Netflix)