During his lifetime, but also in studies afterwards, Hitler has been revered for his ability to enchant crowds with his voice. The dictator realised, more than anyone at the time, the power of a well-staged speech, both to excite and intimidate.
Because over 500 speeches, of which audio- and video footage has been preserved, we really only know the way of speaking of Hitler in its most dramatic form. It may come as a surprise because it’s not something you’d generally think of when talking about the rise of Hitler or the Second World War in general, but we only have recordings of Hitler giving speeches to massive crowds. And, sure, he managed to captivate and enchant those crowds with his signature raspy voice and dramatic way of speaking. I mean, he basically perfected demagoguery, and from photographs and documentation, we know he prepared his speeches into their minute detail. He didn’t just rehearse the content of his speeches, but actually practised and prepared the intonation of every word he uttered.
Photographs were commissioned, in fact, to examine certain poses and body language, and to see if they were imposing enough to present to crowds. He even took acting lessons. Everything, to perfect his charisma and rhetoric. Hitler himself was aware of his rhetorical skill as, stating that he was “conscious that he had no equal in the art of swaying the masses.”
And Hitler’s rise to power was made possible, in part, by an unprecedented propaganda campaign. Although admittedly there has been some academic debate that disputes the effects of Hitler’s speeches on the electoral success of the Nazi party. At any rate, the speeches made by Hitler were a sight to behold and engrained in the minds of anyone that witnessed it, even today.
But what’s so odd is that not one recording of Hitler’s natural voice has been preserved. We don’t know what Hitler sounded like when speaking with another person, with his fellow party members, with his generals or even with Eva Braun. This secrecy isn’t too odd though if you imagine his desire to control everything, and fear for having candid statements leaked. Hitler never allowed to be photographed if it wasn’t in an official setting, let alone be recorded off-guard. And as such, no official recording of Hitler’s private voice exists, and we will never know what he sounded like. Well, we wouldn’t know, if it wasn’t for the 75th birthday of Finnish commander-in-chief, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim and a somewhat nosy, snooping Finnish sound engineer.
Because in June 1942 Hitler visited Mannerheim, a surprise visit for his birthday. In order to prevent Hitler’s visit from seeming like an official state visit the meeting was held in a train, at Imatra, in Southern Finland.
During Hitler’s visit, Thor Damen the radio engineer of the Finnish Yleisradio, or YLE, the national broadcast station of Finland, was supposed to record the official proceedings of the birthday speeches by Hitler and Mannerheim’s response in the train wagon.
Hitler and Mannerheim Recording
But after the official speeches were over, Hitler, Mannerheim and their entourage went to the adjacent wagon to have lunch. Unbeknownst to everyone present, Damen kept the recording running. It led to a unique historical record. According to the head of the Yleisradio archives, Lasse Vihonen, Damen “placed the microphone on the hat rack.” The cords dwindled from the window, and the recorder was in the other wagon. This so-called Mannerheim recording contains five minutes of the official speech, followed by 11 minutes of a, more or less monologue by Hitler, in a private, candid, unguarded conversation with Mannerheim.
The conversation was mainly about the Axis war effort.
[“Had I finished off France in ’39, then world history would have taken another course,” Hitler says in German, alternating between rapid and slow speech and pausing frequently. “But then I had to wait until 1940. Then a two-front war, that was bad luck. After that, even we were broken,”]
For several minutes he spoke of the enormous amount of tanks and military planes of the Soviet Union, that Germany desperately tried to destroy. After all, the tide of Operation Barbarossa was by this point slowly turning against Germany. Hitler tried to persuade the Finns to launch more military offensives against the Soviet Union. He explained that German Panzers and the Wehrmacht weren’t prepared to fight during the harsh Russian winter.
[“Unsere ganzen Waffen sind natürlich auf den Westen zugeschnitten. Und wir alle waren der Überzeugung, das war bisher, das war unsere Meinung eben, seit der ältesten Zeit. Im Winter kann man nicht Krieg führen. Und wir haben auch die deutschen Panzer, die sind nicht erprobt worden, um sie etwa für einen Winterkrieg herzurichten. Sondern man hat Probefahrten gemacht, um zu beweisen, dass man im Winter nicht Krieg führen kann.”]
Other topics included the defeats Axis-ally Italy suffered in Africa, Yugoslavia and Albania. But people that studied the tape have also noted that Hitler uses, for lack of a better word, working-class language, revealing his lack of academic or formal background. Also, he mispronounces the capital of Finland, Helsinki, as Helsinski.
According to legend, Mannerheim lit a cigar during the conversation to test the waters. Now a broad disclaimer with this claim is that virtually every prominent statesmen supposedly has done it when testing the waters. Another famous anecdote is about Bismarck lighting a cigar near the Austrian ambassador. So this may not be true. Hitler was known to hate smoking and didn’t allow anyone to do so in his presence, yet when Mannerheim lit the cigar he didn’t say anything. Supposedly, this confirmed to Mannerheim the Germans were in a terrible place. This wasn’t too wrong, just half a year after this conversation was recorded General Paulus surrendered at Stalingrad; an incredible loss for the Germans.
Hitler’s voice is low-pitched, a little bit hoarse. But if I’d have to judge the tape completely unbiased, I’d say it’s actually pretty nice to listen to. His voice, in an odd way, is pretty calming. It is certainly quite the contrast to his dramatic, intense public speeches, where both Hitler and his public seem to fall into a trance.
It wasn’t until 11 minutes of a private conversation that SS bodyguards realised he was being recorded. They signalled Damen to end the recording, which explains the abrupt ending, in the middle of a sentence where Hitler describes why it’s so difficult for Germany to help Finland with their front against the Soviet Union.
[“We didn’t know ourselves just how monstrous this powerful beast was,” Hitler says. “Had I known, I would have been more reluctant, but I had already made the decision then, and there would be no other possibility,”]
The SS guards ordered YLE to destroy the tape, which they promised they would do. Apparently, Damen was threatened to be killed by the guards, because many sources state the guards made a cutthroat-gesture when they realised he was recording. But that’s probably the most internationally recognised gesture to get someone to quit, so I personally feel this is a bit out of context. It’s highly unlikely SS guards would instantly threaten someone’s life.
Anyway, YLE promised to destroy the reel. Yet in 1957 a reel resurfaced. The head of Finland’s censors’ office, Kustaa Vilkuna, owned it according to Vihonen. He returned the reel to YLE, which subsequently released to it the public. Unbeknownst to many, a second copy existed, in the possession of Damen. It wasn’t found until 1992, by his son Henrik, in his father’s garage. One tape currently resides in the Yleisradio archive and the other in the Radio and TV Museum in Lahti, somewhere I’d absolutely love to visit.
It is an extraordinary tape, and although the contents of what was said are interesting, it is interesting because it is the only known recording of Adolf Hitler speaking without raising his voice, in a private conversation. As for the visit itself, in total, Hitler’s visit to Finland that day lasted no more than six hours.
After its rediscovery, the tape caught the interest not just of historians. Actors used the tape to rehearse for their roles. Tobias Moretti, an Austrian actor, used it to portray Hitler in a film about his friendship with Albert Speer. And nearly everyone knows of Bruno Ganz’s performance in Der Untergang. It is a legendary performance and Ganz mentioned he used the tape to mimic Hitler’s ‘speaking and diction’ in a completely relaxed manner. The entire recording is available online and I’ll link it in the description if you want to listen to the whole thing!