How did the Nazi dictatorship work? A review of historiography.
Author: Ron Grant
Introduction: A trawl of Advanced Higher History past papers establishes the importance of awareness of the personality and role of Hitler, his leadership skills – or even lack of them? – and the changing nature of the movement led by him. How did the Nazi party change as it moved from the struggle for power to the “Machtergreifung” of 30 January 1933 and the consolidation of power thereafter? Tim Kirk in Nazi Germany (2007) observes: “It was an approach to government and to leadership that contrasted very starkly with Stalin’s obsessive will to control all aspects of policy.” (P49).
Many years ago, Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Last Days of Hitler (1947) challenged the belief that Nazi Germany was organized as a “totalitarian” state – totally integrated, totally mobilized, centrally controlled. The gullible had swallowed Nazi propaganda whole. Instead, “The structure of German politics and administration, instead of being “pyramidal” and “monolithic”, was in fact a confusion of private empires, private armies, and private intelligence services.” In this feudal anarchy Hitler was no weak dictator. His “personal power was in fact so undisputed that he rode to the end above the chaos he had created.” (p53; p54).
Since this classic of historical scholarship was first published there has followed a huge number of works on the Third Reich, daunting and intimidating to young students. How to make sense of it all? By far the best introduction remains John Hite and Christopher Hinton; “Weimar and Nazi Germany” (2000). With clarity and economy, they explain terms used to describe the Nazi governing machine such as “polycratic”, “feudal” and “chaotic”, proceeding to review “intentionalist” versus “structuralist” interpretations. “How were decisions taken? They ask, before investigating differing notions of Hitler as dictator and the ever-quickening radical momentum which characterised the Third Reich (pp206; 196/7; 190/2).
But it is now a decade since this essential student guide appeared. Since then the second volume of Ian Kershaw’s biography of “Hitler: Nemesis 1936 – 1945” (2000) Michael Burleigh: “The Third Reich: a new history” (2000), Richard J Evans” monumental trilogy depicting Nazism’s rise and fall and Adam Tooze: “The Wages of Destruction: the making and breaking of the Nazi economy” (2006) have been published (for review essays on the Evans trilogy, Tooze and other new works on the Third Reich, “History Teaching Review: Year Book of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History (SATH)”, 2000/2009 (inclusive) and SATH’s twice yearly Resources Review are essential reading. Would that Hite and Hinton find time and energy to produce an updated edition!
Neil Gregor in “How to read Hitler” (2005) deftly encapsulates recent developments in the interpretation of Nazism and how it worked, noting “the move away from a one-sided stress on institutional conflict as the principal motor of National Socialist radicalization in favour of a renewed emphasis on the importance of human agency, and on cooperation and “shared understanding” between actors. “ (P4) In such a view the Orwellian picture of Germany 1933-1945 as a nation of rabbits duped and transfixed by stoats will not do. Propaganda and terror cannot provide sufficient explanation of the “social contract” between Hitler, the NSDAP and millions of Germans.
It is in this context that detailed explanation of the Dantean circles proceeds.
“Who is this Hitler? What does he want?” This was the robust enquiry of the woman who dominated the cartoons created in the 1930s by the American humorist, James Thurber. Eight decades later the search for answers continues. One positive emerging from this is that, in terms of Keynesian multiplier effect, Hitler and Nazism has generated significant economic activity, from scholars,...
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