Let me start off by saying this isn’t supposed to be controversial. It’s not one of those troll-esque articles making Steve Jobs out to be the Antichrist, using ‘Hitler’ as an embodiment of evil. I’m actually writing this having just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, and as someone who used be deeply fascinated by the Nazis and interwar European history, I couldn’t help but notice a startling number of similarities between the two figures – most of them neither positive nor negative as such, but just little similarities that are pretty rare and unusual.
I guess the most immediately obvious one relates to Hitler’s and Jobs’ famed ability to achieve the seemingly impossible, bending reality to accommodate their grand ideals. Hitler called it “triumph of the will”; in Steve’s world it was referred to as the “reality distortion field” – basically where the sheer force of one’s conviction, induced upon others through brilliant oratory and fuelled by selective and cleverly presented truths, allows one to manifest one’s vision no matter how immense the scope or tight the deadline. Powered by intense and forceful personalities, both Jobs and Hitler were able to whip people up into a frenzy at events that were painstakingly staged to perfection. Their delivery was markedly different – Steve spoke slowly and softly; Hitler tended to work himself up into a rapid-fire onslaught of shriekery – but whether we’re talking the annual MacWorld or annual Nuremberg rallies, where the faithful gathered to hear their leader reflect on the year gone by and prophesize the one ahead, the staging would be planned down to the smallest minutiae, the lighting and backdrop and the theatre of it all just right, with the sole intent of transfixing the audience to see the future through the orator’s eyes. Both events were characterized by empowering rhetoric of “We will change the world” – simultaneously rebellious yet New World Orderish, embodying a key paradox in both Jobs and Hitler as underdogs obsessed with control.
In this respect, Apple and the Nazis were undeniably alike. Both started off as ‘rebels’ against an established order – IBM in the former’s case, the Weimar Republic in the latter. These two entities became obsessive focal points, representing everything that was wrong with the world of high technology / national governance. Apple portrayed Big Blue as Big Brother in its brilliant ‘1984’ TV commercial; the Nazis condemned Germany’s democratic government as a similarly oppressive dead weight on their country imposed by their World War I enemies. Both saw themselves – quite justifiably – as a young, dynamic force that would overthrow the status quo and implement radical change; fresh and virile faces charging a stagnant, stifling, overgrown edifice to forge a new way forward. Both started off very humbly – in a garage and pub respectively – but grew to fulfil these lofty ambitions, led by the unshakeable, reality-distorting passion of their leaders.
Of course, you could apply this argument to a plethora of successful people and their organizations. Grandiose vision, burning ambition, dynamism, a desire to beat the system – these qualities are hardly unique to Apple and Nazism, and perhaps it’s a bit silly even comparing the two on these grounds, valid as the case may be. It’s really the similarities in the personal lives and characters of Jobs and Hitler that drove me to sit down and write this, and that’s what I want to focus on for the rest of this entry.
Both Jobs and Hitler started off similarly in life. Steve was abandoned by his biological parents; Hitler lost his father as a child and his mother as a teenager. Both spent their early adulthood as listless vagabonds: Hitler wandering between guesthouses for unemployed men in Vienna, Steve wandering through India and an array of hippy communes on the American west coast. Even in this meandering early phase of their lives, the two displayed a very clear artistic streak with a penchant for perfectionism, manifesting itself in architectural design with Hitler and technology design with Jobs. Both spent this period looking for big-picture answers for why the world is the way it is: Jobs found them in Buddhism and the Beat culture of the 60s and 70s; Hitler in the racialism and nationalism of early 20th-century Europe. Both were avid readers of a publication that epitomized their corresponding ideology: the Whole Earth Catalog in Jobs’ case, the anti-Semitic magazine Ostara in Hitler’s.
Both were already vegetarian by this point, placing little priority on eating, and smoked/drank minimally if at all. Both were heavily into opera. Both held formal education in contempt and did not complete university, while dedicating much of their abundant spare time absorbing seemingly frivolous knowledge that would later prove useful. And as they left this period behind, discovered their love in life and dedicated themselves to it, both became convinced that they would die too early; a fear that drove them to achieve as much as they could in their life span – which, sure enough in both cases, was not as long as average. Both died aged 56.
After a remarkable and rapid rise to fame, both figures also suffered a major, almost career-killing setback after staging an unsuccessful coup. In Hitler’s case this was the Beer Hall Putsch, which saw him go to jail for several years; in Jobs’ it was his expulsion from Apple after trying to oust then-CEO John Sculley. Both used their period of exile to undertake important projects – the dictation of Mein Kampf and the foundation of NeXT and Pixar – which allowed them to solidify and broaden their radical ideas, rethink their behaviour and recharge for a Second Coming that completely eclipsed the first. In neither case, however, was their prodigal return a glamorous phoenix-like affair – Jobs returned to Apple merely as an advisor, before becoming interim CEO and finally accepting the position as permanent. Hitler, too, did not storm the Reichstag and seize the reins of power like some wild-eyed revolutionary, but played the democratic system lawfully, diligently and patiently campaigning across Germany until the NSDAP were finally voted in with a balance of power, at which point he negotiated a Chancellorship and only later, finally, invoked emergency powers to secure himself as Germany’s permanent Fuhrer.
There were even more similarities beyond these, not all of which I can remember right now. Another one that comes to mind is how both men were fascinated with the exotic spirituality of the East – while this is reasonably well-known and not particularly surprising with Jobs, it’s less well-known that the Nazis sent multiple expeditions to Tibet and India in search of artifacts relating to early Aryan spirituality, in a chapter of history that comes bizarrely close to an Indiana Jones script. It could even be argued that both men’s downfall stemmed from their belief in their invincibility and ability to ply reality as desired – that they were special and the rules of normal men did not apply to them. As he did throughout his life when faced with a problem, Jobs ignored his cancer diagnosis, dismissing advice from traditional experts (doctors) and believing he could overcome it his way, with fasting and diets. Hitler, too, ignored the grim prognosis that was reaching Berlin from his encircled armies at Stalingrad; then, as the outlook grew ever bleaker, believed a combination of steel resolve and new-fangled ‘wonder weapons’ would turn the course of the war back in his favour – again, against the advice of traditional experts (his military generals) who proposed strategic retreats and selective peace treaties.
There are differences between the two men, of course. Hitler would’ve been the better boss to work for, assuming you’d prefer humouring long-winded rants over tea to being outright abused (by all accounts, Jobs liked to yell at individuals in private as much as Hitler liked to yell to crowds in public). Hitler also had a very deep sense of loyalty and sentimentality that Jobs lacked; whereas Hitler cherished and surrounded himself with early “comrades” of the NSDAP even if they had no talent – Himmler was a failed chicken farmer – Jobs did the exact opposite, discarding the old in favour of the more talented new whenever convenient, friendships be damned. On the other hand, whereas Jobs had a string of relationships and was obviously more than capable of falling in love, Hitler’s life contained strangely little in the way of sex or romance, and he only got married to his long-time mistress, Eva Braun, mere hours before they committed suicide. While both were artists at heart, spending hours poring over models made by their special staff favourite (Albert Speer / Jony Ive), Hitler abhorred the functional cubic aesthetic of the Bauhaus school, whereas Jobs loved and was deeply influenced by it. (That said, buildings aside, Nazi design did have a bent towards modern minimalism and bold, simple iconography much like Apple.) Finally, whereas Hitler was, like Jobs, very interested in technology (he actually designed the original Volkswagen Beetle, and could rattle off detailed tank and airplane specs from memory), Jobs was not even remotely interested in issues of nationality or ethnicity, and never took any notice of Middle Eastern affairs despite his half-Syrian heritage.
I guess the two most significant differences are that Jobs did not leave a destructive and divisive legacy like Hitler’s, and his organisation has outlived him and continues to prosper. While Nazism perished in the rubble of Berlin, having decimated much of Europe and torn apart countless families, Apple lives on in its empire of white stores and arsenal of white iThings, bringing pleasure and ease of use to tech consumers around the globe. And while Nazism was very much about the masses, unifying the many and harnessing the base instincts of the mob, Apple is all about the individual user experience – creative expression over regimentation, individuality over assimilation – homogeneous as it is compared to the world of Windows PCs (read on, let’s not go there…)
I guess that pretty much sums up this entry. To finish – and to appease any Apple fanboys who might still be finding my comparison a tad hard to swallow – I did find Isaacson’s biography genuinely inspiring; more an uplifting lesson in life than a tome of juicy never-before-revealed nastiness. Being a long-time armchair student of IT history, I’m no stranger to the fact that Steve Jobs could be a real c*** so those parts of the book came as no surprise – what I did draw from it is simply that it’s important – indeed critical – to assert yourself in life. Which isn’t to say (as numerous articles following the book’s release have implored us to note) that being an arsehole is an acceptable managerial style, or that being mean and arrogant was an active ingredient in Steve’s recipe for success. But like Hitler, I guess, Steve Jobs didn’t waste time doubting himself, being non-commital in what to believe and pursue in life, and realizing his ambitions only when he could do so in a safe, socially acceptable way. Unlike so many of us, he refused to be just a passive observer of life, a mere yay/nay/do-as-you-sayer. Steve spoke his mind, developed a keen intuition and acted on it fearlessly, and these are things we – certainly I – do all too rarely these days with time that, as his death late last year reminds us, is all too short and precious. So for me, more than anything, reading about Jobs’ life has been a wake-up call to, as he himself put it,
“[Not] let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”