A 'Weak Dictator'?

Was Hitler a 'Weak Dictator'?


This article by Mary Fulbrook (UCL) was originally posted on the King David's History site.



Much of Nazi propaganda was devoted to portraying the regime as a streamlined state, with a pyramid of power culminating in the figure of the Führer at its peak, Hitler as the strong leader above the political fray. Presented as a positive image at the time, this picture of the regime was simply given a different, negative shading in post-war representations of the Third Reich as totalitarian, with one leader, one party and one ideology dominating the population through a monopoly of the means of propaganda and coercion. This image of Hitler as the almost archetypal 'strong dictator' has perhaps pervaded popular images of Hitler ever since, as well as presenting a continuing thread in the historiography. Yet even contemporary observers recognised that the structures of power in the Third Reich were not quite this simple, and the duality of old state structures and new Party organisations led Ernst Fraenkel, for example, to speak of a 'dual state'. Later historians, such as Edward Peterson, have focussed on what they perceive as the 'limits of Hitler's power' and have characterised Hitler as being a 'weak' dictator.

The evidence for Hitler as 'weak' dictator rests in part on his style of political leadership and the changing institutional structure of politics. When not 'enacting power', as in the party rallies and public ceremonies, Hitler appeared to lack interest in the day-to-day details of policy and legislation. Cabinet government fell into disuse, and on many matters Hitler tended simply to agree with the last person who had succeeded in 'catching his ear', or having a word with him when he was in a good mood. Patterns of political decision-making appear to have become increasingly haphazard, and competing centres of power proliferated, characterised by personal rivalries and animosities. Powerful underlings developed their own empires. All this would suggest that Hitler's role was that of 'weak' dictator.

Such a view contrasts strongly with the interpretation presented by those who emphasise Hitler�s intentions and 'world view' - Weltanscaaung - as being at the centre of the development of policies in the Third Reich. For 'Hitler-centric' historians such as Hillgruber or Hildebrand, the goals of world conquest and racial extermination must and can only be explained primarily in terms of Hitler's intentions. Hitler remained a 'strong' dictator. 

The two views of Hitler's role were rooted in wider differences of interpretation of the power structures of the Third Reich. On the one hand, for all the explicit attacks on the concept, the notion of a totalitarian state in which Hitler effectively exercised absolute power still lay, if only implicitly, behind much writing on the Third Reich. War and genocide could be explained primarily in terms of Hitler's intentions, carried out once the opportunity was ripe; the 'Hitler order' (Führer Befehl) remained the focus of explanation. On the other hand, building on the work of Hans Mommsen and Martin Broszat, historians began to conceive of the Nazi state as 'polycratic': characterised by increasing competition between overlapping centres of power; a state in which politics became ever less a matter of formal peocedures within clearly defined institutional structures and more a matter of personal rivalries among members of the elite.

Taken to an extreme in the so-called 'intentionalist/functionalist debate' over the origins of the Holocaust, the intentionalists seemed to incriminate only Hitler and a relatively small circle of loyal henchmen, while the structuralist emphasis on the 'cumulative radicalisation' of the regime (which seemed to take on a momentum of its own) almost seemed to write Hitler out of the script altogether.

A close examination of Hitler's role in the Third Reich, as carried out by Ian Kershaw in his masterly two-volume biography of Hitler, develops a more complex model which succeeds in reconciling a focus on Hitler's supreme role with an analysis of the far from streamlined power structures of the dictatorship. Ian Kershaw points to ways in which Hitler's own role as charismatic Führer was, almost paradoxically, itself in part a product of the increasingly chaotic structures of power; there was simply no other ultimate source of decision-making, and the 'Hitler order' was the only final authority that could be cited. At the same time, the notion of 'working towards the Fuhrer' (which Kershaw takes from a contemporary source) encapsulates the way in which Hitler's undoubted personal power and extraordinary hold over his close followers stimulated actions 'from below' that did not always require specific orders from above. It is possible in this way to synthesise the notion of the polycratic state, riddled by internal rivalries, with that of Hitler's supreme role at the centre, shaping the parameters and ultimate goals of the regime.

Thus for example, while Hitler remained uninterested in the details of economic policy, he insisted on empowering Goering's 'Four year Plan' office when the traditional economics of Hjalmar Schacht told him he could not prepare for war within four years while keeping domestic consumers happy. When there were squabbles among civil servants about how precisely to interpret the applicability of those to be affected by the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Hitler kept out of the debates until all sides were exhausted and willing to accept his ultimate verdict; at which point, true to his Darwinist principles, he supported the emergent (and in this case more moderate) winning side. The effect was to ratchet up anti-semitic policies one notch further towards exclusion from the 'Aryan' 'national community' or Volksgemeinschaft, and ultimately, in the longer term, from Germany and from life itself. When the areas which were closest to Hitler's heart - expansionist foreign goals and aggressive racial policies - are examined, it is clear that Hitler never compromised on pursuit of his ultimate aims, however much he trimmed the details of the route according to circumstances and constraints. Yet at the same time, the circles of those implicated in the realisation of these policies must be spread far wider than the intentionalist case would suggest. The structure of the regime mattered too.

Was Hitler then a 'weak' dictator? In matters where the details did not concern him, arguably yes; but where the ultimate outcome mattered, rather than the minutiae of the route which was chosen, no. Is he then, conversely, to be characterised as a 'strong' dictator? Not if this means a reversion to the discredited notion of a streamlined 'totalitarian' state, in which all power emanated from above and those below were simply forced to 'obey the Hitler orders'. The realities are more complex than either side of this debate would at first suggest.