How would a German describe Hitler's voice?
September 15, 2011 12:56 AM   Subscribe

Question for German speakers: how would you describe Hitler's voice?

This is something I've often wondered about, simply because the guy is so infamous and omnipresent in our popular imagination. Yet from the perspective of an English-speaker, he's still quite mysterious for the simple reason that we never actually "hear" him speak, only read subtitles off old filmreel recordings of his otherwise incoherent German speeches.

As English-speakers, all we can ever discern from Hitler's speeches is that he spoke angrily and flamboyantly. But I was just wondering how his voice sounds, overall, from a German-speaker's perspective. When German actors or impersonators or comedians mimic his voice and language, what are the distinctive qualities they emulate?
posted by filibuster to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
My sister says he sounds like he's trying to be from a different place than he actually is (like someone with a Cockney accent doing a pretty OK job at a high-class RP accent.)
posted by SMPA at 1:57 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hmmm. Youtube is full of it...1933 sounds more Austrian/South German to me than 1937, so he seems to have been working on his accent after he got elected - you know, reaching out to whole Germany as opposed to predominantly Munich.
His "r"s seem to be rehearsed for carry-me-across-the-fieldishness.
The many gaps in his speech are something I still remember from German politicians from the sixties and seventies, seems to be some kind of "politician-talks-to-very-many-dummies" thing. That's probably one of the characteristics of his speech that strike non-native speakers as weird.
Te other thing, the rehearsed built-up from quiet to theatrical shouting comes out of the box of German Theatre. Some early recordings of - at their time really famous - German actors are incredibly weird to modern ears; a lot of H.'s tools of voice control and build-up seem to be coming from the same school.
My parents, both kids during the infamous "thousand years," tell me that his speeches made an enormous impact, so somehow it clearly struck a note at the time...
Incoherent, well: what strikes me is that he doesn't stammer, hums, ers, or misreads his text at all.
posted by Namlit at 2:06 AM on September 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

That was harder than I thought it would be. I actually just watched one of his speeches on youtube where he sounded so much more calm and normal than what I think of as typical 'Hitler-speak.' What definitely stood out was his rolling of the 'r' sound.

The typical comedian take on this would be that r sound, stretching vowels, over enunciating, sounding kind of constipated and occasionally getting really high-voiced. I don't know how helpful this is, but the people here and here would be recognized as 'Hitler' without the visuals.
posted by pishposh at 2:06 AM on September 15, 2011

His rhetoric style (intonation, use of volume, pitch, pauses, etc) sounds very different from what is used in modern German speeches by politicians or other public speakers, but it is much more similar to that of other German public figures at the time. So I guess there was a style of public speaking that people learned and emulated that has fallen out of fashion (maybe because of the Hitler associations?)

I am not a native German speaker, but have often been mistaken for one, and lived in Germany for five years.
posted by lollusc at 2:11 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

He sounded like a man who believed his own hype, because he did. That was his greatest attribute and gravest flaw.

His ability to command a crowd is what got him to power. A crushed nation full of ex-soldiers was ready to listen. He pathologically identified himself with the German people. Each speech really was a piece of theater, everything rehearsed, gestures, and the inevitable and all important crescendo and frenzy at the end.

Cool question.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:13 AM on September 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I understand he studied with professional elocutionists, and practiced practiced practiced. It may sound odd or old-fashioned to us now, but styles change, and that was the style of the era. The pauses, the volume changes and even his gestures, the effect of everything was carefully considered ahead of time.
posted by easily confused at 3:33 AM on September 15, 2011

Anecdotally chiming in here: my grandmother was a non-Jewish Holocaust survivor who routinely heard his broadcast speeches while interned in Europe, and being half German herself, said that he also sounded "rehearsed". She described him as having a pronounced affect and an inaccurate accent to her ears.

On the other hand, she said that his delivery was so believable that at times she got seduced by his rhetoric, echoing what TheRedArmy said.

Cool question, indeed.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 4:16 AM on September 15, 2011

Related, sort of.... when I hear Winston Churchill, I do not hear a commanding, masculine voice; I hear a measured, clear, vocabulary-intensive professor. I've never found his sound commanding.

As a non-German speaker, when I listen to the vocalizations Hitler made, I do tend to hear power. It's in his emotion, emphasis, modulation and confidence.

Radio was the dominant medium then, so there really was a premium on effective public speaking, and there were many people who studied it intensely. These days, a good public speaker is a marketable commodity. Most folks hate to do it/fear it. Almost no one I know studies it.

One of my personal favorite orators was Martin Luther King. His presentation, elocution, expression, emotion, and power were wonderful. American black speech to me is almost musical and I often say he SANG his speeches. They go right to the soul. I can't put my finger on a similar white American voice, but I did admire Ronald Reagan's theatrical and oratory skills, an obvious and useful outgrowth of his pre-presidential career. My main complaint with those whom I can identify is that they tend to be higher registered voices, and my inherent bias is toward lower registers.

( I can't tell you how it pains me to say anything even remotely positive about Reagan and Hitler. I feel unclean!)
posted by FauxScot at 5:15 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

So, interesting question, yes. There are plenty of audio recordings of Hitler speaking (it was the 1930s, not the 1830s for christ's sake), the problem with these recordings is that Hitler's speech patterns for public addresses was completely different than his normal speech.

And here is the problem: while there are tons of audio recordings of him giving speeches (for propaganda reasons) there are almost no recordings of his normal voice.

But actually, there is at least one! It was made during a meeting of Hitler in Norway in a rail car that was secretly bugged. The recording was later used by a television show where they hired a German that was very good at imitating voices, and they hired another person who could lip-read, and they basically dubbed "Hitler's" voice over the oodles and oodles of silent home movies that had been made by Hitler's main-squeeze, Eva Braun.

The special was called Hitler Speaks and is available in its entirety on Google Video.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:44 AM on September 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

Hitler had an Oberösterreichisch accent which sounds similar to Bavarian German. He rolled his "r"s like they do in Munich. It's a nice enough speaking voice. Hitler was obviously a good speaker. He did the tension, release thing extremely well and he used a sort of sarcasm at times which goes over well in Germany.
posted by three blind mice at 5:58 AM on September 15, 2011

(I'm not looking up videos of AH speaking while I'm at work, sorry)

The many gaps in his speech are something I still remember from German politicians from the sixties and seventies, seems to be some kind of "politician-talks-to-very-many-dummies" thing. That's probably one of the characteristics of his speech that strike non-native speakers as weird.

One thing that can account for this is the PA used. There are pauses as the speaker waits for the echo/crowd reaction to end. It's a weird comparison, but you can hear the same style of delivery from modern PA announcers in sports stadiums. (See also: Lou Gehrig's farewell speech)
posted by anastasiav at 7:34 AM on September 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ah, very interesting responses. That documentary Civil_Disobedient linked to above was quite fascinating as well. For those interested, you can hear Hitler's natural speaking voice at around the 28:00 moment.
posted by filibuster at 9:55 AM on September 15, 2011

three blind mice: was it a genuine accent or adopted? If you listen to Margaret Thatcher before and after the election which made her Prime Minister, it is clear she took elocution lessons, the resulting voice is from some other planet. Is there a "King's Speech" type person in AH's background? (no comparison with AH intended)
posted by epo at 2:55 AM on December 17, 2011

Oh, just noticed the age of the thread, sorry.
posted by epo at 2:56 AM on December 17, 2011

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