During Hitler’s up-and-coming years with the NSDAP, from 1925 to 1933, the general public certainly had mixed opinions on him. It is very true that some Germans who met him were almost instantaneously struck by his charisma. Of course, these persons were already predisposed to the core NSDAP beliefs. Others, both Germans and foreign journalists thought of him as a laughing stock and a clown.
The Weimar Republic was trying at being a modern, industrialized, liberal European nation; whereas Hitler on any given day might be seen in either military dress (not totally unusual for Great War veterans) or lederhosen (a little unusual outside of folk events; akin to an American unironically wearing something like a Revolutionary War uniform and expecting to be taken seriously).
Even Americans did find him more than compelling, both before and after the war. As late as February 1939 National Socialism was popular in America. Many Americans were German immigrants or their direct descendants; the Madison Square Garden rally was organized by the German American Bund, which promoted National Socialism as patriotic and pro-American. The same rhetoric that appealed to struggling German nationals (international Jewish finance conspiracy, fear of the growing communist movement, and restoration of hardcore national pride) appealed to Americans.
Some 20,000 people attended this event and by all accounts, it was little different than the mass rallies at Nuremberg, only with more American flags. National Socialism only became unpopular in the United States in 1941 when the US went to war.
We also have the post-war example of George Lincoln Rockwell. His American Nazi Party organization drew less of a crowd and had at its height only a few hundred members, but his own public presence and organizing wielded a disproportionate influence.
Now as for the man Hitler himself and how and why he learned to speak that way: any public speaker is not judged on his content or manner, but in how they appeal to their audience. Hitler was without a doubt groomed for the task of appealing to popular German sentiment. He did possess some natural talent in speaking, which led to his prominence in the NSDAP in the first place.
That being said, he did not become Fuehrer overnight; Ernst Rohm was a leading contender for party leadership (which is why of course he was purged in 1934.) and Hitler was overshadowed by original DAP founding party members like Anton Drexler, Dietrich Eckart, Gottfried Feder, Karl Harrer. Rudolf Hess also overshadowed Hitler for some time, but would later become a leading Nazi during the Reich under Hitler.
Hitler’s first real moment of glory came on 16 October 1919, speaking to a crowd of just over 100 people as a representative of what was then simply called ‘Deutsche Arbeiter Partei’ (DAP). Hitler himself credits this moment as when he realized he could fire up a crowd; it would not be long before Drexler began grooming Hitler, teaching him all he could, and mentoring him in politics.
Why did Drexler and the other Party leadership choose him? Was it just because he could speak? Certainly a driving reason, but not the only one. Until Hitler, the Party had largely been composed of intellectuals and bourgeois elements (despite the fact it called itself the German Workers Party). Hitler was certainly not an intellectual and was arguably not bourgeois. Before politics, Hitler had no real career or success to speak of. But what Hitler did understand was populism and the heart of what the greater German people at the time desired.
In 1920, Hitler was put in charge of the Party’s propaganda machine, and it was here that he really developed his public persona. Virtually none of the rhetoric belonged to Hitler originally; Drexler drew up the twenty-five point plan of the Party, and he and other German intellectuals were the primary driving sources behind the propaganda.
Hitler spoke over 30 times in this year alone and despite the relatively complex official Party platform, Hitler’s speaking points were rather simple. He always attacked the ‘Jewish Question’; this was already in vogue in Europe, and while Hitler certainly believed his own rhetoric, he also knew that inflaming this rhetoric to the masses would earn many willing ears willing to listen to whatever else the Party had to say. His other primary talking point was the Treaty of Versailles, also wildly unpopular among the German people.
As for his mannerisms and method of speaking, it really comes down to overcompensation. Germany was humiliated after the loss of the Great War and Hitler felt this humiliation personally. His fiery manner and driving will instill national pride and character into his audience was the opposite of what the masses felt in a post-Great-War, economically-failing Germany.
That’s really what it all comes down to, in the end. Just populism.
2. Langer, W. C., Langer, W. L., Waite, R. G. L., & United States. (1972). The Mind of Adolf Hitler: The Secret Wartime Report.
3. Heiden, K., Manheim, R., Guterman, N., & Heiden, K. (1944). Der Fuehrer: Hitler’s rise to power.