Two degrees of Adolf Hitler.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
April 18 2008 6:57 PM

Two Degrees of Adolf Hitler

Readers connect the Führer to the three major presidential candidates.

Adolf Hitler. Click image to expand.
Adolf Hitler

Yesterday I challenged readers to do ABC News' George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson one better at the guilt-by-association game. I invited the public to connect, "six degrees"-style, one or more of the remaining three major presidential candidates to der Führer und Reichskanzler himself, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). Stephen Colbert included a joke on the same theme in the April 17 edition of The Colbert Report. (This appears to be coincidence; although it airs at 11:30 p.m. ET, The Colbert Report starts taping around 7 p.m. ET, and I posted my Chatterbox at 7:13 p.m. ET.) Colbert's treatment of the conceit was fanciful. He suggested, with mock indignation, that Barack Obama was linked to Ted Kennedy, who was linked to the pope, who, by virtue of having joined the Hitler Youth at 14 (membership was compulsory in Germany) is linked to Hitler. Here at Slate, we try to do better than that. My inbox was inundated with reader entries linking the candidates to Hitler via actual acquaintanceships, friendly or not, as the contest required. The challenge was to make the connection with a minimal number of links. Only two entries got it down to two degrees of separation; several got it down to three.

This exercise, which began as a gag, quickly became an intriguing illustration of the "six degrees" phenomenon. For politicians, who spend their lives meeting lots of prominent people, it is seldom necessary to forge a six-link chain, even for someone as long-dead as Hitler. In "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," a 1999 essay written about the mother of Slate's editor, Malcolm Gladwell argues that the six-degree phenomenon depends on "connectors," people who know lots of different people from lots of different walks of life. Lois Weisberg, he writes, is a connector. Connectors play a role in the global web of acquaintanceships that can be compared to that of an airline hub through which multileg flights are routed en route to a final destination. Politicians are practically by definition connectors, but to make the leap all the way to a distant figure like Hitler, they must rely on super-duper connectors, people whom one might compare to a fortress hub like Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

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In seeking a fortress hub for "six degrees of Adolf Hitler," it's often wise to look across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom. Queen Elizabeth is a fortress hub because she was born in 1926 and from birth has made acquaintanceships with major players on the international scene. For instance, as a child she knew Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who (fatefully) made peace with Hitler at Munich. Ergo, anyone who has ever met Queen Elizabeth stands three degrees from Hitler. The Mitford sisters, collectively, are a fortress hub because a few of them lived into very old age (one survives still); because they adopted wildly divergent ideologies and sensibilities; because they were aristocrats and therefore had easy access to big shots; and because one of them, Jessica, emigrated to the United States. Pamela Harriman is a fortress hub because she had many famous and powerful husbands and lovers; because she, too, emigrated to the United States; and because, late in life, she became involved in politics, principally as a fundraiser for the Democratic Party.

I don't mean to suggest that England holds a monopoly on fortress hubs. The more cosmopolitan and long-lived ex-Nazis make particularly good fortress hubs, especially Werner von Braun and Leni Riefenstahl. The Kennedys, because of their multigenerational involvement in politics (and because patriarch Joseph Kennedy, as ambassador to the Court of St. James, sought initially to appease Hitler), are a fortress hub. Ludwig Wittgenstein is a fortress hub because, through no fault of his own, he attended school with young Adolf Hitler before later becoming an important philosopher. The fascist Spanish dictator Francisco Franco is a fortress hub because he played footsie with Hitler and later played footsie with U.S. presidents. Aviator Charles Lindburgh is a fortress hub, despite having spent much of his life as a recluse, because of his pro-Nazi sympathies and his acquaintanceship with American politicians. John Kenneth Galbraith is a fortress hub because, in his youth, he participated in a study of Allied strategic bombing during the war and because, later on, he was a U.S. ambassador to India, a Harvard professor, a founder of Americans for Democratic Action, a best-selling author, an adviser to presidential candidates, etc.

Some fortress hubs get you there quicker than others, as the contest winners clearly demonstrate:

Winner No. 1:

Hitler to Leni Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl to Hillary Clinton

(Multiple entries)

We don't know for a fact whether Bill and Hillary Clinton exchanged pleasantries with Riefenstahl when all three attended Time magazine's 75th anniversary bash back in 1998. If I had to guess, I'd say that Clinton's White House advisers made damn sure there was no chance the first couple could be photographed anywhere near Hitler's favorite documentary filmmaker. But at the very least, the Clintons and Riefenstahl inhabited simultaneously the same venue—New York's Radio City Music Hall, where the party was held. That's good enough for me. Incidentally, Ralph Nader isn't a major-party candidate, but he was at that Time magazine bash, too.

If one insists on a more rigorous standard, you can position Mick Jagger between Riefenstahl and Hillary Clinton. Riefenstahl once photographed Mick Jagger, and (as viewers of the new concert film Shine a Light can attest) the Clintons shook hands with Jagger and his fellow Rolling Stones when they played New York's Beacon Theatre in 2006. Riefenstahl also photographed Siegfried and Roy, who endorsed Hillary Clinton in the Nevada caucus, though it isn't clear there's a personal acquaintance there.

Winner No. 2:

Hitler to Pamela Harriman
Harriman to Hillary Clinton

(Todd Strickland)

Harriman was introduced to Hitler by her friend Unity Mitford, who was in love with derFührer and,when Britain declared war on Germany, shot herself with a pistol he'd given her. *

Runners up:

Hitler to Werner von Braun
Von Braun to John Glenn
John Glenn to John McCain, fellow senator and Keating-Fiver.

(Multiple entries)

You can substitute Hillary Clinton for McCain because, even though they never served together in the Senate, Glenn was still representing Ohio in the Senate during Hillary's first six years as first lady. Von Braun, of course, built V-2 missiles for Hitler and later became father of the U.S. space program, which is how he knew Glenn. Glenn, incidentally, endorsed Hillary before the Ohio primary. I presume, but don't know for a fact, that Obama has met Glenn, too—hell, even I have met John Glenn—putting him three steps away from Hitler, too.

McCain to Ewald-Heinrich Von Kleist-Schmenzin,
Von Kleist-Schmenzin to Claus von Stauffenberg
Von Stauffenberg to Hitler

(Neil Quarterman)

McCain attended a dinner in Von Kleist-Schmenzin's honor in 2004. As a young man, Von Kleist-Schmenzin participated in the plot to kill Hitler in 1944. Does an attempted assassination constitute acquaintanceship? Close call, but I'm going to say no. Still, Von Kleist-Schmenzin was well-acquainted with the plot's leader, Claus Von Stauffenberg, who knew Hitler.

Hillary Clinton to Jessica Mitford
Mitford to Diana Mosley
Mosley to Hitler

(Multiple entries)

Hillary met Mitford when she clerked during the summer of 1971 for an Oakland, Calif., law firm in which Mitford's husband, Robert Treuhaft, was a partner. Mitford's sister Diana married Sir Oswald Mosley, the famous British fascist, in Berlin. Hitler attended the dinner held after the ceremony. Mitford can also be linked to Hitler via her sister Unity, as noted above. Jessica Mitford, it should be said, had a horror of Unity and Diana's politics and was herself a Communist.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain to Dan Rather
Rather to Riefenstahl
Riefenstahl to Hitler

(Multiple entries)

All three candidates have been interviewed by Rather, and Rather once interviewed Riefenstahl for 60 Minutes.

The Duke of Windsor, lacking a throne after 1936, had a lot of time on his hands and got around.

If Hillary Clinton and John McCain seem easier to place three acquaintanceships away from Hitler than does Barack Obama, it isn't because Obama is purer of spirit. In the six-degrees game, age confers a significant advantage (the longer you live the more people you meet and the further back you can reach). Residence in the White House puts you in touch with many, many famous and/or dubious people who themselves possess wide acquaintanceships (no hermit ever stayed overnight in the Lincoln bedroom), and being a longtime fixture in the Capitol does the same. Give Obama a few more years in the Senate or the White House and he'll be two degrees away from some pretty ghastly people, too.

* Correction, April 21, 2008: An earlier version of this column stated, erroneously, that Mitford had "killed herself" with the pistol. In fact, Mitford survived the suicide attempt, albeit with extensive brain damage, and lived nine years more. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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