Fighting Words: What We Can Learn from Hitler's Hyperbole

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The question of why human beings fight wars continues to stalk modern thought. This article treats Hitler's national socialist discourse as an extreme example of the social construction of a social problem, a cultural paradigm of how to talk people into fighting revolutions and wars. Drawing upon recent work in rhetorical studies by Gusfield and others, I show how political agents concoct a rhetoric of motives which they use to incite their followers to fight their enemies. The formal and poetic features of this system of discourse are identified and explicated. We can learn many things from Hitler. By identifying his technique, we can recognize when political agents are using the same technique and counter its seductive effects. We learn that the main effect of war rhetoric is social integration through the constitution of common enemies. And finally, we realize that wars are made to happen through the calculated use of symbolic practices. War is not, as many have argued, a fall into a latent animality, but an expression of our symbol-mindedness–our capacity to make and use hyperboles.