CONTROVERSY:How Effectively did the Nazi state operate?

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Structuralist Historians:   Historians who place a greater emphasis on structures in explaining what happened in the past (e.g. structure of the Nazi state) 

Intentionalist Historians:   Historians who stress the importance of the intentions of individuals ( e.g. Hitler) 

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The Case for a POLYCRATIC state

STRUCTURALIST HISTORIANS :  1970's / 1980's historians challenged the 'intentionalist' view of the Nazi state as being too simplistic. 

These historians argued that the key to explaining domestic and foreign policy developments in Nazi Germany from 1933 - was the context in which Hitler and other decision makers operated. 

agencies / individuals competing in a chaotic structure. 

The Nazi state was chaotic because:

  • Hitler was unwilling to regulate or create an ordered system of government 
  • there was a lack of clear planning and direction from Hitler

It is only through understanding the chaotic competition of these agencies that the radicalisation of policy up to 1945 can be explained. - This theory does not dismiss the role of Hitler but places his significance into a wider context of how other government structures developed and operated. 

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The Struggle between Party and State

Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen ( structuralist historians)- stress the power of structures within the Nazi state which evolved party because of the poorly defined roles of both agencies and individuals within the Nazi state. Most important Agency was the NSDAP (Reichsleitung - Reich leaders with specific responsibilities ) 

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Why was it chaotic?

  • Hitler was unwilling to regulate or create an ordered system of government 
  • there was a lack of direction and clear planning from Hitler

Hitler believed in Social Darwinism and applied this to the functioning of his state: He believed that the Gauleiter, Nazis should fight amongst themselves and the 'fittest', the best would always win. 

  • Poorly defined roles of both agencies and individuals within the Nazi state. 
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struggle between party and State.

1930's - The Gauleiter and Kreisleiter increased their power at a local level. 

  • The Kreisleiter - district party leader - had political influence at a local level - e.g right to choose local mayors. 
  • 1935 - Hess and Bormann - succedded in asserting the dominance of the party over the state civil service. 

Bormann set up his own party organisation that rivalled that of the Reich Chancellery 

  • 1930's saw a rise of Party power at the expense of the traditional state. 
  • However, Hitler was not concerned to protect the interests of either state or party - he used them as long as it provided the legitimacy the regime needed through the support of institutions of state (civil service, judiciary) that continued to operate.
  • Although - He was prepared to allow other institutions - The ** - to emerge and develop power to the point in which they acted as a rival to the state / party ..... STATE WITHIN A STATE
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Struggle between Party and State.

  • One could see these groups (Gauleiter) as mini-states within the state 
  • their influence declining depending on access to the Fuhrer and their ability to interpret his will. 

Hitler was prepared to allow agencies to fight between themselves until the strongest prevailed, However - he was also prepared to intervene and side with those who were in his mind working most effectively towards his world view. 

E.G. 1936 - Hitler ended the battle for control of the policy by appointing ** leader Heinrich Himmler as chief of the German police.

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Hitler's Lifestyle

Part of a structralist historians argument is based on an analysis of Hitler''s Lifestyle. 

  • Hitler lived a bohemian lifestyle (a lifestyle that does not conform to normal patterns) 
  • disliked day-to-day politics and disliked Berlin
  • He spent most of his time in the Berghof in Bavaria 

Hitler's daily routine: involved: waking up around noon, lunching, going on lenthy walks, occassionally he would deal with matters brought to his attention, in the evening he would watch films. 

Some Historians believe Hitler's lifestyle is important. 

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Richard Evans : Source I : Hitler's Lifestyle.

  • Hitler's bohemian lifestyle did not mean he was lazy or inactive - or that he withdrew from domestic politics after 1933
  • When needed - Hitler could intervene powerfully and decisively 
  • In areas which he took interest - He took a direct lead on matters of detail

E.g. Art and Culture.

- Hitler laid down policy to be followed - personally inspected the pictures selected for exhibition or suppression.

- His prejudices against the composed Paul Hindemith - shows his decisiveness. 

E.g. Racial Policy

- Hitler took a leading role pushing on or slowing down the implementation of anti-Semetic measured as he thought circumstances dictated. 

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Was Hitler a Weak Dictator?

STRUCTURALIST : Hitler was not an all-powerful dictator.  

Source J : Tim Mason

  • Hitler carefully sought out men who were loyal, dependent upon him to be Gauleiter - to rule over new organs of state which carried out specific projects. 
  • he chose the 'right man for the job'
  • Hitler's pwersonal popularity was a source of power 
  • Hitler was not very good at reaching decisions, making policy, selecting goals. 
  • Hitler dis-associated himself with unpopular measures.
  • Hitler was depended on his popularity - cult of the Fuhrer. 

Source K: Hans Mommsen

  • Hitler was unwilling to take decisions, frequently uncertain, exclusively concerned with upholding his prestige and personal authority 
  • influence by his current entourage 
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Hitler and The Gauleiter

1932 memorandum - Hitler said  'the basis of of the political organisation is loyalty'

Hitler was prepared to back the demands of his Gauleiter against his Minister of Interior Frick (as shown in 1934) The Gauleiter were Hitler's most trusted and loyal lieutenants - they exercised considerable power in their localities in the name of the Fuhrer. - They relied on Hitler;s personal patronage for their power. 

The Power of the Gauleiter was enhanced by the lack of any collective leadership during the Third Reich -

  • the party was essentially a 'Fuhrer party' and the Gauleiter were unquestioning in their allegiance to the Fuhrer. 
  • the Gauleiter were virtually omnipotent in their regions. 

Ian Kershaw describes the Gauleiter as being 'the backbon of his [Hitler's] power'

This analysis of the relationship between G and H is more convincing by Rauschning. 

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Hermann Rauschning - Hitler's Acquaintance

EVIDENCE : Hermann Rauschning - was one of Hitler's acquaintances in the years up to 1934 - he became disillusioned with Hitler and in 1938 published an account of conversations with the Fuhrer. 

Numerous Historians have looked into comments made by Rauschning about the nature of Hitler's dictatorship. 

To Rauschning: 

  • 'Hitler was no dictator' but dependent on those about him.
  • He described Hitler as simply 'approving the views of the powerful. 
  • Hitler never ran counter to the opinion of his Gauleiter - each one of these men was in his power, but together they held him in theirs 
  • When differences arose - Hitler steered his course as to carry the overwhelming majority of them with him. 

It is clear However, that Rauschning lacks hindsight (writing in 1938) and perspective in his analysis - his falling out of sympathy with the regime - clouded his views 

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Hitler the Decision maker

The structuralist argument or Hans Mommsen that Hitler was 'unwilling to make decisions' shows a misunderstanding of Hitler's role and significance in the state. 

  • Hitler showed little interest in day-to day decisions of government and distanced himself from them. (so he was not blamed when things went wrong - distanced from daily politics - more God-like appearence) 
  • 1933 - Cabinet government met  72 times
  • 1938 - Cabinet government did not meet at all - 0 

Hitler's power as head of state, party and military was unassailable. 

Through Propaganda ( e.g. Leni Riefenstahl 'The Triumph of the Wil') Hitler was portrayed as a semi-God, worshipped by the German people. - Distanced from the mundane detail of government because he was so powerful. 

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Hitler the Decision Maker

The Crucial decisions during peacetime were made by Hitler:

  • decision to destroy the leadership of the SA and the 'second revolution' (Night of Long Knives - 1934)

Although he had the support of Goering and Himmler - the decision to act with such ruthlessness was Hitler's. 

  • Foreign Policy 
  • WAR
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Lack of Formal Mechanisms.

Hitler's authority was unchallenged. 

The Lack of formal mechanisms through which authority was given by the Fuhrer has caused problems for Historians trying to explain how the Nazi state operated. 

  • Hitler rarely read important documents before making decisions and disliked signing official papers.
  • Instead, officials sought a verbal agreement for an initiative even a nod of the Fuhrer's head. 
  • This type of approval was known as the 'Fuhrer's orders' 
  • On occassions Hitler would issue contradictory orders which led to confusion. 
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E.G. of contradictory orders given by Hitler

1. - 1935 - At a meeting to discuss Jewish emigration.

Rudolf Hess's interpretation of the Fuhrer's wishes - that he wanted to see all of Germany's Jews emigrate as quickly as possible. 

This contradicted - an official from the Ministry of the Interior who insisted that Hitler wished the Jews remain in Germany for the time being so that they could be used as hostages. 

Hitler had given two different impressions to different people = chaos. 

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E.G. of contradictory orders given by Hitler

Occassionally, Hitler gave orders prematurely - without consultation = protest from within the party and state hierarchy. 

1934 - Robert Ley - head of the Labour Front - gained the Fuhrer's approval for a measure aimed at strenthening the power of the Labour Front at the expense of employers and state. 

This move was opposed by a number of leading figures inclduing Rudolf Hess, Hjalmar Schacht - the Minister of Economics and leading buisnessmen. 

In the face of pressure - the Fuhrer allowed the measure to be shelved. 

This example does not prove that the dictatorship was weak - but on occassions Hitler needed to use his power pragmatically. 

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Case Study : Foreign Policy.

Hitler was a key decision maker in the area of foreign policy. 


  • Hitler's Weltanschauung revolved around a policy of unlimited territorial expansionism towards the east (Russia) -  to achieve Lebensraum for the German people. 
  • Destruction of the Treaty of Versailles 
  • Creation of a greater Germany - where all ethnic Germans would dominate Europe. 
  • He envisaged destroying the Soviet Union (Lebensraum) and enslaving the peoples of eastern Europe. 
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DIPLOMACY 1933 - 35

Initially - 1933 - Germany was weak - Hitler knew he had to work cautiously. German army was limited to 100,000 and the economy was in a depression, Germany had no allies, and he was surrounded by hostile regimes. 

Thus, Hitler's first priority / goals were: 

  • secure alliances, undermine his rivals, give an appearance of moderation, re-build German economy. 

Hitler signed a Four Power Pact that sought to revise the Treaty of Versailles by diplomacy 

1934 - Hitler signed a non-agression pact with Poland to last 10 years. 

These moves were partly intended to distract reaction from Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations 1933. 

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DIPLOMACY 1933 - 35

1935 - Hitler ordered conscription and the beginning of rearmament. 

1935 - Austrian chancellor was assassinated - Germany threatened to intervene - Italy moved troops to the frontier to prevent German invasion of Austria. 

Hitler was not strong enough to call Italy's Bluff .

1935 - Britain, France and Italy signed the Stresa Front - condemning German rearmament, reaffirmed the Franco-German boarder fixed at Versailles and defended Austrian independence. 

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Rearmament and conscription.

Hitler had greatly strengthened Germany's position dplomatically by 1935. 

1. REARMAMENT AND CONSCRIPTION- sucessfully introduced 

2. THE SAARLAND - placed under League of Nations since 1918 - The Saarland voted for re-incorporation into Germany - the area although small was rich in coal and a symbolic important triumph for Hitler. 

3. ANGLO-GERMAN NAVAL AGREEMENT - 1935 - which permitted Germany to build a fleet of 35 % of the strength of the British Navy. (undermining the Versailles treaty) 

Unexpected boost to German fortunes = Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia 1935 - This adventure weakened the League of Nations.

It destroyed the Anti-Nazi alliance - both Britian and France condemnded Mussolini's aggression while Germany offered support. 

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The reoccupation of the Rhineland 1936

Hitler chose to manipulate the crisis caused by Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia by the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. 

(Treaty of Versailles - banned German troops from the Rhineland) 

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The Anschluss with Austria, 1938.

  • by 1937: Hitler had rebuilt Germany's military and diplomatic strength
  • German economy had recovered
  • the army had been increased to half a million. 
  • some key alliances had been formed

The Spanish Civil War from July 1936 - gave Hitler's army valuable training

  • Berlin-Rome Axis confirmed Germany's understanding with Facist Italy 
  • The Alliance was bound with the Anti-Comintern Pact that Germany signed with Japan

1938 - Hitler was confident enough to announce at the Hossbach conference that his aim was not merely to reverse the Versailles Treaty but to seize Lebensraum in the east.

A key stage in this was the union (Anschluss) with Austria.

Hitler bullied Austria to accept the union (he resisted) Thus, Hitler ordered the Army to march into Austria. = Hitler proclaimed the union of Austria and G.  

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The seizure of Czechoslovakia 1938-39.

The Anschluss with Austria made the state of Czechoslovakia vulnerable to German expansionism. 

  • Hitler hates the Czech state as a creation of the Versailles Treaty. 
  • He demanded the incorporation into Germany of the 3.5 million German speakers who lived on their boarderlines (Sudetenland) 

German intervention to achieve Sudentenland risked European War as the Czechs had alliances with Russia and France - Britain tried to avoid this - They agreed Germany could annex those German-speaking provinces who voted by plebicite to join the Reich. 

They gave Hitler Sudentenland - justifying it by the principle of national self-determination 

Some in Europe even believed that it might be Hitler's last territorial demand. 

Hitler was disappointed because he hoped that the Czech crisis would lead to war. 

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The Conquest of Poland 1939.

1939 - Germany invaded the rest of Czechslovakia without resistance. 

It was clear after the invasion of Czechslovakia that Hitler was not merely embarking on a policy to unite all Germans but one which aimed at unlimited expansion east.

  • Hitler recognised that this attack on Poland would not be tolerated by Britain and France

1939 May - German alliance with Italy

1939 Aug - Nazi-Soviet pact

August 1939 - Hitler invaded Poland - claiming that they land lose to poland by the Treaty of Versailles were areas in which German speakers were being persecuted by Poles.

Britain demanded Germany withdraw - and when this was ignored - Britain declared war by September.  

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German foreign policy

  • German foreign policy between 1933 - 1939 - provides numerous examples that prove the ultimate executive power of the Fuhrer. 
  • Most significantly - the decision to go to war against Poland 1939. - the decision was ultimately Hitlers. 
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Working towards the Fuhrer

  • A recognition of the important of Hitler 
  • Acceptance that the regime had chaotic characteristics
  • A recognition that the Nazi state evolved over time and the dynamic for change came from above and below
  • An acceptance that the coherent element that held Nazi Germany together was an ideological belief that was understood by all and was identified with the Fuhrer. 

Kershaw's impact on the historiography of Nazi Germany has been profound. 

The concept of Working towards the Fuhrer as the central dynamic of how Nazi Germany worked has been accepted by most historians.

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Ian Kershaw -

  • The ideology of National Socialism = An amalgam of prejudices, phobias and utopian social expectations' - Nazi ideology existed before Hitler, however, Hitler was indispensable to the rise and exercise of Nazi power. 
  • Hitler defined the reality of National Socialism - due to his assertion of the Fuhrerprinzip.
  • His power over the Nazi movement was sealed in 1934 - Night of Long Knives - destruction of the power of the leadership of the SA
  • Hitler had asserted his world view as the sole source of Nazi ideology, and power within the state. 
  • Hitlerism - Nazi ideology - policy - was tailored to match the Weltanschauung (world view) or Hitler. 
  • The acquisition of power changed the emphasis of National socialist ideology:

before 1933 - purpose of ideology was to gain power

after 1933 - the purpose was to heighten the power of the Fuhrer. 

Once Hitler had achieved power in 1933 - the new state began to  'work towards the fuhrer' 

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Cumulative radicalisation

The dynamic of the Nazi state revolved around the successful interpretation of Hitler's world view. 

  • At the centre of the power in the state was the authority of Hitler. 
  • Hitler hated bureaucracy, preferring to leave administrative matters to others. 
  • As Fuhrer - he saw himself above day-to-day politics. 
  • However, The Fuhrer was head of government and in failing to set out a structure - he left a vacuum for others to fill.

= power and influence were up for grabs. 

In the Nazi state - Access to Hitler and the ability to interpret the Weltanschauung of the Fuhrer = power 

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Cumulative Radicalisation.

Hans Mommsen:

  • Social Dawinism ideology - the best man would ultimately prevail
  • In the long run - a lot of time and energy was wasted in personal feuds between agencies and individuals. 
  • This mechanism - structure however, was of the utmost important for the internal development of the regime

The Social- Darwinist struggle led to an escalating ruthlessness in pursuit of the extreme goals of the movement, = process of cumulative radicalisation. 

Individuals wanted to outdo the other - They gained the authorisation of the Fuhrer by appearing like a fanatical fighter - becoming increasingly more radical as they worked towards his Weltanschauung. 

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Push and Pull mechanism

There was a push and pull mechanism at work in the cumulative radicalisation.

PUSH FACTOR = agencies / individuals - coming up with more and more radical policies as they worked towards the fuhrer

PULL FACTOR - Hitler was by instinct the most radical Nazi member

When in power - Hitler tried to portray himself as the personification of reason and respectibility

e.g. 1933 - The Nazis managed Postdam day and the purge of the SA was excused as a means of crushing the revolutionary wing of the movement.

However - this does not disguise the fact that Hitler was the most radical leader particularly on racial policy.

WORKING TOWARDS THE FUHRER = automatically means adopting a radical position.  

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Hitler's authority.

The authority of the Fuhrer was unquestioned. 

The position of the Fuhrer was not restricted by being defined by a constitution. 

Hitler's power was absolute in theory and in practise 

The debate whether Hitler was a weak or strong dictator was effectively over by the wide acceptance among historians of Ian Kershaw's model of the state in which all were 'working towards the fuhrer' 

According to Kershaw, Hitler did have a supreme role because all those below him in the power structure were attempting to interpret his world view. 

The structures of power were chaotic, but the position of the Fuhrer and his world view as the ultimate source of authority remained unchallenged. 

This helps to explain how policies emerged and developed. Throughout the dictatorship - Hitler remained relatively distant from decision making especially on domestic policy. 

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The dynamic of Radicalisation

The dynamic for change within the Nazi movement - can be found in a synthesis of initiatives taken from below and the work of Nazi leaders, officials etc. all developing policy 'working towards the fuhrer' 

The process of 'working towards the fuhrer's weltanschauung took place on 2 levels: 

1. The decision makers within the regime.

The party leadership, the bureaucracy, buisness and the military - became more radical in their efforts to work towards the central themes of Hitler's world view. (namely the removal of the Jews, and the preparation for the conquest of Europe to provide Lenbensraum) 

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The dynamic for radicalisation

2. Social Consensus

Considerable numbers of Germans - conformed to the regime and the Fuhrer

  • by joining Nazi organisations 
  • reporting anti-Nazi behaviour to the Gestapo
  • Preforming the Hitler salute
  • not buying goods from Jewish shops. 
  • supporting the imprisonment of communists in concentration camps 

Not all Germans conformed, many grumbled, a few dissented and even fewer opposed. 

For the majority there was 'loyal reluctance' and for many there was positive enthusiasm. 

This created the dynamic for radicalisation. 

The most significant case study in support of Kershaws model is the development of racial initiatives from 1933 - 1939. 

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Racial policy stood at the heart of Hitler's weltanschauung

  • Notably a deep-seated anti-Semitism 

The pressure for official anti-semitic action came from above ( Hitler and those in the Nazi leadership) who were working towards him, and from below. 

The pressure from below came from radical anti-semites who saw the creation of a Nazi Germany as the opportunity to attack Germany's jews. 


  • boycott 1933 
  • Nuremburg laws 1935
  • Kristallnacht 1938
  • Bouhler and Aktion t4
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  • The idea that the nazi state was monolithic is too simplistic and hides a more complex reality.
  • The Nazi state 1933-45 consisted of a number of mini-states that drew their political identity from one or more strads of National Socialist thought 

e.g. Anti-semitism, racial superiority, class struggle, nationalism, militarism, Volksgemeinschaft - creation of a People's community

The relative power and significance of these mini-states depended on how sucessfully their leaders were able to gain access to and favour from Adolf Hitler. 

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