At noon, on Monday 30th January 1933, President Hindenburg reluctantly appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. Within 18 months, by terror, threats and semi – legal measures, Hitler became Fuhrer, a position in which he held hypothetically limitless power that ultimately led to Germany initiating a World War and the annihilation of six million Jews.
However since the 1960’s revisionist historians, categorised into two schools, Structuralists and Intentionalists have begun to debate the emphasis on the personal role of Hitler in the Third Reich and the degree to which he was an absolute dictator.
Intentionalist Historians such as Bracher and Jackel stress the centrality of Hitler’s person and ideology in Nazi Germany. The logic of this interpretation lies in the fact that Nazism rose and fell with Hitler. As Bracher summarised ‘ Nazism was in fact Hitlerism’.
However, Structuralist historians such as Brozat and Mommsen do not deny the importance of Hitler’s role but stress the influence of political factors and structures within the state.
Mommsen coined the phrase ‘ weak dictator’.
They emphasise the chaotic structure of the Third Reich under Hitler. There appeared to have been many separate organisations or empires who were actually not controlled directly by Hitler but rather by other members of the Nazi party who would fight among themselves for the highest positions of power, however this strong competition led to chaos rather than a strong system of ordered government. Mommsen believes that Hitler did not have a balancing role, but acted on impulse and delayed important decisions.
This served to ‘…disrupt the conduct of affairs…’.
Mommsen’s view is corroborated by Edward Peterson who suggested’
‘…fearing people trying to please ‘the great one’ or escape his wrath…. The result was the division of denominations into thousands of little empires of ambitious men…’ 1
A good example of these denominations is visible in the education system. Who was really in charge of education policy, which was of such crucial significance to the Nazi regime? Was it Bernhard Rust, the education minister or Baldur Von Schirach the leader of the Hitler Youth, these men and more could claim to have an interest in this system.
Nevertheless Bracher believes in the ‘divide and rule’ theory he says that Hitler adopted a chaotic system on purpose. He quite consciously set up his officials and organisations against each other in order to preserve his own authority as the only person able to resolve problems within the system.
‘ In the twelve years of his rule in Germany Hitler produced the biggest confusion in government that has ever existed in a civilised state…it was intentional…until it became a despotic tyranny’.2
Intentionalists say that Hitler’s personal power came from the fact that he was the final authority in the fighting between his subordinates, as well as the fact that gaining access to him was critical to any leader who wanted to thrive this was known as ‘working towards the Fuhrer’. It has also been suggested that Hitler’s encouragement of conflict revealed his social Darwinist belief that through divergence the best and most efficient individuals would come out on top and the weakest would be exposed. Hitler therefore formed a type of institutional struggle for the survival of the fittest.
However, Martin Brozat opposes Bracher’s view that the disorganized state of the government was Hitler’s skilful deployment of ‘divide and rule’ and believes it was the unavoidable result of Hitler’s reluctance and incapability to control the relationship between party and state.
Another aspect of Hitler’s rule that has come under scrutiny is his life-style. Even the OCR revision notes suggest Hitler had an ‘extraordinary bohemian, lazy life style’. This supports the argument that Hitler was actually not omnipotent and omniscient, an image that Josef Goebbels had worked very hard to create.
‘ When, I would ask myself, did he really work…he rose late in the morning, conducted one or two official conferences; but from the subsequent dinner on he more or less wasted his time…his rare appointments were imperilled by his passion for looking at building plans. In the eyes of the people Hitler was the leader who watched over the nation day and night. This was hardly so.’
This primary account of Hitler’s lifestyle was written by Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, Hitler became strongly attached to his assistant and awarded him the Golden badge of honour. Speer had admired Hitler for years and so this criticism is even more compelling, Speer had said of Hitler in 1931 ‘ Here it seemed to me was hope. Here were new ideals…Dangers of communism could be stopped, Hitler persuaded us, and instead of hopeless unemployment, Germany could move towards economic recovery’.
It would seem that what Speer had admired was in fact the ‘new ideals’ and when working with the man who was meant to deliver these became disillusioned.
Considering the attachment Hitler had to Speer and the amount of time the pair spent together I would conclude that this comment is a very reliable account of Hitler’s lifestyle.
There was no organised forum for the discussion of government policies. After 1934 the importance of the Reich Cabinet diminished and it did not meet at all after 1937. How then were government policies made and by whom? It is said that many organisations would send representatives to see Hitler to try and influence him in decision making. As many ministers in charge of departments might not have the opportunity to speak to Hitler for months or years on end.
‘Ministerial skill consisted in making the most of a favourable hour or minute when Hitler made a decision, this often taking the form of a remark thrown out casually, which then went on its way as an “Order of the Fuhrer”.’3
Fritz Weidemann, one of Hitler’s adjutants reinforces this perspective;
‘ It became more and more difficult… to get him to make decisions which he alone could make as head of state… he disliked the study of documents. I have sometimes secured decisions from him, even ones about important matters, without his ever asking to see the relevant files. He took the view that many things sorted themselves out on their own if one did not interfere.’
An example of these decisions that Hitler alone could make was on D-Day when Hitler was sleeping and had a do not disturb sign on his door, the generals wanted permission to change their plans to deal with new circumstances, but could not get permission from Hitler and consequently could not drive back troops. This highlights a weakness in the system created by Hitler in which only he could make decisions but sometimes he wasn’t interested in making them which is of course a major flaw as it meant that on occasions such as this people could not go use their own initiative which results in less success for Germany.
Weidemann’s post-war comment can be interpreted as reliable as after the war most of Hitler’s adjutants said that Hitler was in complete control of all policies and manipulated them into complying (i.e. the holocaust). However Weidemann’s comment does not strengthen this common excuse, and in describing Hitler’s lifestyle in this way he is on some levels accepting responsibility for any actions he participated in.
All this examined evidence suggests weakness in Hitler’s control.
However Intentionalists say that Hitler had to be detached from the day to day running of the Third Reich so that he was able to protect his personal prestige, Similar to a Medieval Monarch’s way or ruling. When Germans had complaints they tended to blame particular organisations or Nazi henchman, but not Hitler himself, precisely because he was such an aloof figure in Nazi Germany. Another argument in support of the intentionalist view is that at no point did Hitler try to rationalise the chaotic structure of the Third Reich, but the opposite, continually made the chaos worse by authorising the formation of new power centres. For example in 1936 when he began the economic preparations for war he did not turn to a previously existing organisation but decided to create a new one (4 year plan under Goering) whose powers overlapped those of the other economic ministries.
In some occasions people’s different interpretations of what Hitler wanted would clash and therefore is a weakness as Hitler’s will was not always carried out and would also result in the men who are meant to be running the country spending their time arguing. It would have been far more effective to have core groups or individuals dedicated to running each department, although the confusion and chaos caused by the rivalling did keep him in power.
A close examination of Hitler’s role in the Third Reich as carried out by Ian Kershaw in his mastery two-volume biography of Hitler, explores the ‘Hitler Myth’. ‘…the Hitler myth was consciously devised as an integrating force by the Nazi regime who were well aware of the need to manufacture consensus’.
The man credited with the creation of the Hitler myth was Joseph Goebbels, who was appointed Reich minister for propaganda and enlightenment in March 1933. The fundamental nature of the Hitler myth was that Hitler was both a man of the people and one who stood above the people. A main part of the myth is that Hitler was all powerful and omniscient. Although the Hitler Myth is generally considered to be completely successful it did have a negative aspect, it meant that Hitler would have been unable to take a hands on approach in order to retain the myth that he was above the people, again like a medieval monarch
All this was closely related to Hitler’s own views on the ‘psychology of the masses’, which he spoke of in Mein Kampf. He was aware of how important his ‘omnipotent image’ was to his leadership position and to the strength of his regime.
In 1930, in an interview with Otto Strasser, a leading opponent within the Nazi party, Hitler summed up the thinking behind the use of Nazi propaganda;
‘ The mass of the working classes want nothing but bread and games. They will never understand the meaning of an ideal, and we cannot hope to win them over to one. What we have to do is select from new master-class men who will not allow themselves to be guided, like you by the morality of pity. Those who rule must know they have the right to rule because they belong to a superior race’,
This comment from Hitler and his clear understanding of the effects of propaganda and psychology is a definite area that highlights the belief that Hitler was a master dictator, this talent or ability almost certainly allowed him to progress to the extent that he did, However this could also be viewed as arrogance and demonstrates the cynical view that Hitler was interested in building a ‘great Germany’, not great people.
Both schools of thought could argue the position on Hitler’s popularity. From a structuralist’s perspective it would seem that the people did not actually freely admire Hitler but were either terrorised into supporting him or manipulated into liking him so that what they thought were their own opinions were actually being fed to them via the media through Goebbels propaganda. However an intentionalist could argue this point in saying that having the ability to manipulate millions of citizens shows what a strong leader Hitler actually was, another avenue they could explore is that it wouldn’t have been possible to impose on the people if they hadn’t help create this image. Propaganda was above all only effective if it is building on a belief that is already subconsciously present.
‘… it must also be recognised that the dictator was only the extreme exponent of a chain of anti humanitarian impulses set free by the lapse of all institutions, legal and moral barriers…’4
There is also a dispute among structuralists and intentionalists about the relationship between Hitler and the Nazi economy. Structuralists often argue that Hitler was on some levels a captive of economic forces that were beyond his control. They do not believe that Hitler was in a position to act against the powerful interests of big business. For this reason industry in Nazi Germany was not controlled directly by the state but allowed a large amount of self-sufficiency.
Hjalmar Schacht, a fervent nationalist became a supporter (never member) of the Nazi party. He helped Hitler secure financial support from the rich Rhineland industrialists from 1930 onwards. Hitler rewarded him in March 1933 by making him President of the Reichbank and later Reich minister of economics. By a law of 3 July 1934 Schacht was given dictatorial powers over the economy and contributed as much as Hitler to the construction of the Third Reich.
‘ As long as I remained in Office, whether at the Reichsbank or the ministry of economics, Hitler never interfered with my work. He never attempted to give me any instructions, but let me carry out my own ideas in my own way and without criticism … However, when he realised that the moderation of my financial policy was a stumbling block in his reckless plans (foreign policy) he began… to go behind my back and counter my arrangements’.
This account from Schacht shows a lack of interaction from Hitler, this does however illustrate strength in Hitler, he was content in letting Schacht do what he wished until it went against his own foreign policy of going to war, and then he efficiently got rid of him. Dismissing Schacht does also contradict the viewpoint that Hitler was a captive of economic forces.
Hitler’s main aim concerning economics was autarky (self-sufficiency) in order to provide for Germany during wartime and to prevent food blockades similar to those of WW1, this may sound like a good idea, however it made absolutely no economic sense during peacetime as instead of importing high quality products at cheap prices Hitler made sure that products were produced in Germany, not only were these products of a lower quality but they also cost ore to produce.
Another dispute that is sometimes argued by structuralists is that Hitler wanted to prepare Germany for war and in order to do this had to persuade the German people that there was a need to go to war, he had seen and learnt from crucial mistakes made in world war one, Hitler was determined to go to war with the united people behind the Fuhrer. He did not want to impose any burdens on his people (e.g. getting them to fund the preparations through taxes etc), as he believed that Germany had lost world war one due to a lack of morale at home.
However because Hitler was reluctant to make his people pay for the war it meant that the process of rearmament did not take place on a stable economic basis, this resulted in Germany not being able to re-arm adequately enough, this and the amount being spent of the military lead to a damaging economic situation.
Tim Mason, a British Marxist historian stated that Hitler was planning a war by 1943. However by 1938 economic preparations for war were in severe trouble. In an attempt to resolve the crisis the Nazis attempted to make the German workers work longer hours for no benefits.
According to Mason unsurprisingly the workers responded to this by absenteeism, unofficial strikes and working poorly. This gave workers a powerful position because by this time there was a serious shortage of labour. As a result of the worker’s resistance, the Nazis were forced to accept defeat and discard their efforts to resolve this economic crisis through exploiting the working class. Mason’s analysis does support the idea of a weak dictator as the people were only prepared to accept Hitler when he did what they wanted.
This left Hitler with only one-way of resolving the crisis. Foreign expansion. Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Poland in 1939, not with the intention to begin a war but because he needed to find a way of solving Germany’s economic problems. Because the German people would not pay Hitler had to make the citizen’s of other countries pay. Mason believes this to be a clear example of Hitler’s freedom being limited by structural economic factors.
The problem was as Tim Mason put it, that ‘the regime was trying to have its cake and eat it’. It wanted to re-arm as fast as possible and at the same time protect the consumer; it wanted to have both butter and guns.
However, Intentionalist Historians persistently reject the idea that Hitler was in any way a prisoner of economic forces that he could not control. In fact, they argue that it was Hitler who imprisoned the economy by subordinating it to his political objectives. This can be reinforced because not all of Hitler’s objectives made good economic sense such as encouraging women to remain at home and supporting small businesses, as women would be needed for work during the war and to boost the economy and big business would have been more valuable to the Nazi cause in producing armaments and weapons etc, Hitler was however forced to accept that some women would have to work and some big businesses allowed to operate, this could be viewed as a weakness as he went against his own policy or it could show as I believe that Hitler was willing to do what ever was necessary in order to have a successful war even if it meant temporarily rejecting his own ideology.
According to Karl Bracher
‘ The very fact that a capitalist economy could be led to war in so non- economic a fashion and mobilised fully only during the war itself proves the absolute primacy of political goals. Here, too Hitler was anything but an instrument of the capitalists…the cooperating experts and economists were instruments … not originators of this policy’.
This intriguing argument has been debated for fifty years and still shows no signs of being resolved, the complex and unique dynamic of the Third Reich makes this impossible which is why the arguments on both sides are so compelling.
The conclusion to this argument depends on what is meant by a weak dictator,if weak means unable to impose his will then Hitler was definetly a strong dictator, however if by weak you mean Hitler was so powerful that he made himself too necessary then he was weak as I have shown he was not always interested in ruling.
Hitler’s way of ruling may in hindsight have lead to a weak country as Germany did not win the war but this did not necessarily make him a weak dictaor as he was able to control …
If by strong meaning an inspirational leader, he did remain a symbolthe fuhrer myth lasted .
Wasn’t effective a governing.
Overall the key issue encompassing the historical debate of master and weak dictator lies in I think how much influence the individual has in shaping history, and no-one can deny that Hitler had a colossal influence in shaping the course of history and was therefore I believe not a weak dictator. His role was far too central and important. In a very real sense Bracher was correct Nazism was in fact Hitlerism, in this respect the Intentionalists are correct, but neither was Hitler a strong dictator in the sense that he enjoyed direct control over the state and society which he led and in this sense Structuralists are right.
Hitler was actually a dictator of a primarily different kind. His power did not dwell in his ability to issue direct commands or in his direct control over the party or state, quite the opposite, his power lay in the willingness of the Germans to ‘work towards the Fuhrer’ and his ability to manipulate millions, not just his own people, even Chamberlain said ‘ I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.’
In some respects his impression was correct as Hitler had a fixed programme from the 1920’s until his last days in the Berlin bunker in 1945, and his actions were steered by an unwavering ideology.
If I were to place myself in one of the schools of thought It would have to be Intentionalist, the main simplified reasoning for this decision is that like the majority of the German nation did, I find Hitler captivating especially his style of dictatorship, I believe that an individual that had the power to manipulate not only one country must have been a strong dictator.