Presently, the word ‘charisma’ has been somewhat degraded and diluted, almost a synonym of glamour or magnetism. Advertisements of salad dressings (saying, ‘add charisma to the crunch’) to names of feminine perfumes, use this word as if it were something that can be attained when truly it is an innate quality. Charismatic people can disrupt order and break norms of tradition, trampling over rules but in many cases remaining untouchable. After the Second World War, the word ‘charisma’ was intertwined amongst popular usage as during the 1930s and 40s Europe had spiralled into a pit of unfathomable chaos.
A person as deluded, impulsive and inconceivably shallow as Hitler, managed to gain a vigorously loyal crowd that raised their arms at the sound of his hoarse and grating shouts. Essentially, Hitler was what sustained the birth of the Nazi. Later on, it was the use of terror that kept it in control but at the beginning the attraction was the appealing strength and vitality the Nazi party radiated. Hitler’s image of toughness and boldness was what gained the votes of desperate Germans who were dissatisfied with the situation at the time. Germany had lost the war and many longed for a return to the Empire. In 1930, the global economic crisis hit. Germany’s economy was weak, war debts had to be payed according to the Treaty of Versailles and millions of Germans had lost their jobs. The citizens were drawn to this impersonated reflection of their nation’s supposed solution.
After the 1923 failed coup d’état, Hitler released the book ‘Mein Kampf’ which went into depth of his plans for Germany. It laid out the program established for the Holocaust identifying Jews and Bolsheviks as racially inferior. Of course, this was exactly what many frustrated Germans wanted to hear. They wanted someone to blame. In the 1928 elections, the NSDAP (Nazi Party) gained 0.8 million votes. In 1930 the number had increased to 6.4 million. Obeying these sort of leaders so eagerly is almost something unimaginable now but unfortunately politicians like Vladimir Putin still manage to have their place in this world.
So why do we have this inner urging to obey? This is a result of authority which exists in many forms, the main ones being; traditional authority, bureaucratic authority and charismatic authority. We obey a figure of traditional authority, such as a monarch, because it is an inherited position and an engrained custom, originated in pre-industrial societies. It provides a sense of stability as there is a solid and secure way of executing things. Bureaucratic authority revolves around rules and laws that have been structured around society therefore also evoking a sense of anchoring and safety from chaos. On the other hand, a person with charismatic authority is somebody we believe has extraordinary powers because of their individual personality and the revolutionary spirit they hold, making them inevitably stand out.
It is important to know that these types of authorities can be combined to create a superior influence. For example, Desmond Tutu was a traditional authority in the Anglican Church from South Africa. He was an advocate of anti-aparthide and human rights activist. Yet, he had an engaging charismatic authority. People could be gathered in sorrow for the funeral of a black person who had been murdered but Desmond Tutu’s arrival would have everybody dancing and singing by the end of the day, preaching the love they had for all and sundry.
‘Charismatic authority’ was a concept developed by Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist, to explain why people obey some as their legitimate rulers with lively enthusiasm while to others they resentfully heed. These leaders are often seen as exceptional and can stay in power for as long as the people are enthralled by their greatness and the things these leaders promise simultaneously occur. It is a timeless phenomena where figures, like Elizabeth I or Peter the Great, are elevated above humanity as a symbol of glory. Charismatic authority moulds to its historical period. The introduction of newspapers was the first time you could follow a political leader resulting in proliferation of supporters. Portraits of leaders allowed people to see this almighty leader they had imagined in their minds. Up to the 1400s, a coin would be the only place people could see the face of their King. Thanks to the development of biographies and novels, suddenly we identify with an experience or a trait of this figure subconsciously creating an emotional and reciprocal bond between leader and supporter. Just imagine the abundance of it today through the internet.
Charismatic authority is an unstable form of authority that unites people who do not identify with the traditional or bureaucratic forms of authority. The problem with it is that it is volatile and unstable because if the person decides to stop exerting these extraordinary qualities and actions or lacks visions and ideas, their support evaporates into thin air.
This is seen in religion as well as politics, for example the development of Christianity revolved around this idea of charisma. Jesus himself was known to be a healer and miracle worker as well as a person you could relate to and most definitely the embodiment of charisma. Although these types of leaders are described as mad and dangerous, they also have a divine quality to them, as did Jesus in the New Testament.
Another example of this was in the nineteenth century when the ‘Millirites’ blossomed in America. This was fruit of William Miller who claimed the return of the Messiah by 1843. 1843 approached and suddenly he changed his prediction to 1844. Then 1844 came along and the Millirite movement collapsed once the truth had prevailed. Often politicians draw off these religious ideas or their followers tribute that to them. For example, Napoleon famously said he was a ‘keystone’ of the state but that this depended on his victories. Effectively, after a time of defeat, his authority disappeared. He developed a genius strategy where he recreated this charismatic authority when he staged the return of the troops after the ‘100 days’, marching into Paris and reigniting his leadership. After the defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled again. This time he recreated himself as a victim, chained to stone in the Pacific with British ‘vultures’ circling above. This stimulated the French’s vision of him as a sort of Jesus who sacrificed himself for his country.
Charismatic leaders are forces of change in history, their supporters mostly ignore any criticisms as it is a figure that they need, especially those who suffer of poverty, those who are oppressed and locked out as minorities. We trust entirely in the power of this person and this is what sustains the rule of reviled leaders like Stalin and Hitler and those of democracy’s like Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is why Communist regimes in Russia and Mao’s China, purged intellectuals as they were slightly immune to this charismatic authority, their knowledge making them power and dangerous for these leaders. Lenin’s cult of personality that was engraved in Soviet customs was used by his successors to gain support when threatened.
Traditional and bureaucratic authoritarian leaders can be held accountable in the system as there is proof and familiarity with its basics (laws and traditions for example). The danger of charismatic authority, is that it is a loose cannon, especially when leaders like Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple abuse this power for abominable aims. These leaders can stamp on laws and their supporters will still follow them till the end. Weber believed that the tragedy of living in the modern world was that the spirit of rationalisation floods our lives. This means that we have become bounded by this ‘iron cage’ of tradition and rules that ensures safety and control but limits us as human beings. This cage is enforced on us with means of coercion. Charismatic authority inexplicably breaks that cage as it doesn’t need these constraining forces. Personally and profoundly, it inspires us.