Wednesday 16 December 2009

Hitler-Power and Beyond

As the truly absurd contention that Hitler was 'democratically' elected tends to appear from time to time the point really needs to be clarified.

At its electoral peak the NSDAP obtained 37.4% of the popular vote in Germany. By November 1932, the last free election to the Reichstag, this had declined to 33.1%. So, even at their most popular the Nazis failed to impress 62.6% of the electorate, and they never achieved an overall majority in the Reichstag. Hitler was only appointed Chancellor by some shady political manoeuvring amongst the cabal surrounding President Hindenburg. More than that, he was appointed precisely because the NSDAP was showing signs of serious electoral decline. The fear shared by Franz von Papen and his reactionary clique, the real power brokers in January 1933, was that former Nazi voters would move en mass to the Communists, a fear given some support in the November elections, which saw the KPD gaining ground, just as the Nazis lost.

The early Hitler ministry, like every other since 1930, had no majority in the Reichstag, and was thus dependant on the continuing use of Artlcle 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which allowed the President to overrule parliament. So, please, please, no more 'Hitler was elected' rubbish. This is the sort of garbage one only ever hears from ignorant old dilettantes. :-))

Now to a broader question: was Hitler a weak dictator? This has been the subject of detailed scholarly debate, and is by no means easy to answer. Hitler's style of dictatorship was so different from, say, that of Stalin or Mussolini in a way that makes comparison all but impossible. For one thing he was personally lazy, a vice for which he had been criticised in the early days of the Nazi movement by Gottfried Feder. Other than the exercise of power for its own sake, the Nazi Party, moreover, had little in the way of an organised programme, more a series of vague goals.

It was also Hitler's practice to appoint people to office with overlapping areas of authority, which turned the Nazi State into a jungle of competing interest groups and personalities. Hitler intervened rarely to sort out the ensuing mess. All of this contributed to Hans Mommsen's contention that Hitler was "in many ways a weak dictator." From the opposite political perspective David Irving even suggests that Hitler was "probably the weakest leader Germany has known this century" (Hitler's War, 1977, introduction). This view conflicts with others, from Alan Bullock to Klaus Hildebrand, who says that Hitler had both a programme and the power to carry it out.

So, what did the people who knew him best think of the Führer and his working habits? You can have this from the Memoirs of Albert Speer, the man who, perhaps, knew him best of all;

I would often ask myself did he really work? Little was left of the day; he rose late in the morning and conducted one or two official conferences; but from the subsequent dinner on he more or less wasted his time until the early hours of the evening. His rare appointments in the late afternoon were imperilled by his passion for looking at building plans. The adjutants often asked me 'please don't show any plans today'.

This lack of a systematic approach to work was made even worse in February 1938, after which cabinet meetings were no longer held. Germany, in a very real sense, ceased to have an effective government machine, with decisions being taken in a manner that allowed civil servants to act. Quite often Hitler was incommunicado in his remote mountain chalet near Berchtesgaden, so that "Ministers in charge of departments might for months on end, and even for years, have no opportunity of speaking to Hitler...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 its way as an order of the Führer." (J. Noakes and G. Pridham (eds.), Nazism, 1919-1945, vol. 2, State Economy and Society, 1933-1939, 1984, p. 200)

The only argument here against the notion of a weak dictatorship is that this lack of system and structure somehow magnified Hitler's personal power; but it still reduced the effectiveness of the whole Nazi system. Charisma is a card that should never be overplayed. Decisions could and were made, sometimes quickly; but these tended to be in areas of immediate concern to the dictator, particularly over matters of foreign policy. However, on the Jewish question, a matter seemingly central to the whole Nazi programme, the policy was marked by muddle and confusion, until very late in the day. The very best that can be said of Hitler is that, if not weak, he was, as Ian Kershaw has argued, not "master of the Reich" in the sense of being all omnipotent.


  1. Your writing about Hitler's government is very shocking considering that he almost conquered Europe for a while. I thought that he and his party won the election with absolute majority.

  2. Blair (previous UK PM) was voted in with around 30% of the vote :) I wonder how many other "democratically" elected "leaders" get huge majority votes (without ballot rigging).

    The fact that this style of government had such a devastating affect on Europe, and that ultimately the British lost their Empire as a consequence does not bode well for the governance of opposing states.

    From my own experience, this style of leadership is indeed followed by most corporations these days. Overlapping interests and few concrete directives... it's all part of the political nightmare you find in corporations and yet again they survive time and time again to cause untold damage on the general populace.

  3. Some really interesting observations; thanks, James.

  4. I see you're researching the Stuarts. Charles I had a similar style to Hitler as I recall, i.e. do nothing and let chaos reign supreme ;)

    One of our most decadent, if not the most decadent monarch.

  5. My question is how did you get so interested in this material? Pretty intense.

    I hardly know where to start with Hitler. It's obvious he was charismatic to some degree. Unfortunately that goes a long way in this world.

    I can think back 5 yrs or so to another leader elected on charisma alone. So what does that mean? That's more a commentary on the people who are voting, rather than the leaders themselves. And yes, vote rigging is part of every election. That's the conspiracy theorist in me talking.

    On a more upbeat note: Happy Holidays!

  6. Oh, James, I could tell you a thing or two about Charles. :-) But to be fair he was a clever man and a skilled political operator, far superior to Hitler on a simple human level.

    TGP, I love history, all aspects of history, and I've been reading fairly intensely for years, well beyond what has become my area of particular expertise.

    Happy holidays to you too. :-)

  7. In answer to the question "where to start with Hitler?"... I'd suggest Ian Kershaw's Hubris (1998) and Nemesis (2000).

    Of course if you want to dabble with getting jiggy with Hitler, try David Irving's books. Even though Irving has been accused of over selling Adolf, he does have more extensive knowledge and personal experience with Hitler's people than any Historian, and for that reason he cannot be overlooked, despite all the Holocaust Denial problems.

    Blair is a right-wing crook, pure and simple.

    Ana, hit me with the Stuart stuff, I'm interested. I know very little. Email maybe?!?

    Parliamentary democracy is a load of pigs swill... can't believe we can call ourselves intelligent and still have such a ridiculous attitude to something so important and the control over our lives.

    Anyway, have a good Xmas everyone and happy New Year. I might be off to Turkey for some yoga and walking along the beach :)


  8. James, what exactly is it that you would like to know? Jenny Uglow's recently published A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration is a good introduction to the early part of his reign. My own research is specifically concerned with the later period, with the events surrounding Popish Plot and the rise of the Whigs. You can certainly drop your email here if you wish, I won't publish that.

    Have a great time in Turkey. I'm off to Val D'Isère just after Christmas for a spot of skiing.

  9. James, I accidentally removed your message without taking note of your email. I thought the original would still be in my inbox, but I can't find it. Repost if you wish. I was being impish, really. What I had in mind was the anonymous pamphlets that make reference to his sex life, including one that suggested that after the Dutch set fire to the English fleet at Chatham he could have put out the fire with his seed. :-))