Was Hitler a Weak Dictator?

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WAS HITLER A WEAK DICTATOR?

Introduction

The question of whether Hitler was master in the Third Reich or a ‘weak dictator' is one of the central debates amongst historians of Nazi Germany. It is not necessary to spend too much time here outlining the debate, as this information can easily be found elsewhere (see, for example, the excellent chapter on this subject in Ian Kershaw's The Nazi Dictatorship). Broadly speaking, historians who have participated in this debate can be located on a scale ranging from the ‘intentionalists' at one extreme to the ‘functionalists' on the other.

The ‘intentionalists' include historians such as Norman Rich, Joachim Fest and Karl Dietrich Bracher. What these historians have in common is their stress on the centrality of Hitler's person and ideology in Nazi Germany. According to Rich, for example: ‘The point cannot be emphasised too strongly. Hitler was master in the Third Reich.'

The ‘structuralist' school of thought (sometimes called the ‘functionalist' school) includes historians such as Tim Mason, Hans Mommsen and Martin Broszat. Though structuralists do not deny the importance of Hitler's role, they tend to stress the fact that he exercised his power within certain structures that shaped, and in some ways placed limits upon, his policies. Some structuralists also argue that Hitler was indecisive, influenced by his cronies, and divorced from the day-to-day running of the Third Reich. Hans Mommsen even goes so far as to argue that Hitler was in some ways a ‘weak dictator'.

In order to try and establish which school of thought comes closer to the truth, we shall look at two key issues on which structuralists and intentionalists have clashed, namely the ‘polycratic state' and the Nazi economy.

The polycratic state

Structuralist historians often stress the chaotic structure of the Third Reich. They argue that Nazi Germany was in no sense a monolithic state. On the contrary, it was a chaotic collection of individuals and organisations, all of which competed for power and influence. Within this multi-dimensional structure, Hitler's personal power was just one element, albeit a very important one. Though many of these organisations were creations of the Nazi Party (e.g. the SA, the SS, the Labour Front, the Hitler Youth etc.), some of the important power centres were inherited from the Weimar Republic (e.g. the civil service, big business, and, above all, the army). These organisations and structures did not always have the same agenda as Hitler and in some ways limited his power. In June 1934, for example, the army forced Hitler to turn against the SA and his own comrade-in-arms, Ernst Röhm.

Intentionalist historians do not deny the administrative chaos of the Third Reich but explain it very differently. Far from curtailing Hitler's power, they argue, the polycratic structure of Nazi Germany was a result of it. Hitler's personal power came from the fact that he stood above and outside the day-to-day struggles of his henchmen. Success in the struggle depended on gaining access to the Führer and pleasing him. Hitler's power thus rested on the fact that he was the final arbiter in the factional in-fighting between his subordinates. Intentionalist historians also argue that an important element of Hitler's power came from his popularity with the German population. By standing aloof from the day-to-day running of the Third Reich, Hitler was able to insulate his personal prestige. If Germans had grievances (which they often did) they tended to blame this or that organisation or Nazi henchman, but not Hitler himself, precisely because he was such an aloof figure in Nazi Germany.

The debate between structuralists and historians about the polycratic state is a difficult one to evaluate, for there is very persuasive evidence on both sides. In favour of the intentionalist point of view is the fact that no subordinate of Hitler ever imposed his will, against the wishes of the...
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