Was Adolf Hitler the total master of the Third Reich, or was he a ‘weak dictator’?


Since the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, debates have raged between historians who emphasise the supremacy of Adolf Hitler – encapsulated in Norman Rich's expression ‘master in the Third Reich’ – and those who highlight the various structural influences that detracted from his power – taken to its extreme by Hans Mommsen in the phrase ‘weak dictator’.[1]

This paper seeks to resolve this longstanding dispute by clarifying whether Hitler can be accurately considered all-powerful or weak. It will strive to achieve this goal by examining Hitler’s role in the National Socialist (Nazi) regime and several important spheres of activity.

Firstly, it addresses the question of free will and human responsibility and briefly outlines the historiographical context in which this work is situated (i.e. in terms of the functionalist/intentionalist debate).

Secondly, it provides a short overview of the nature of the Third Reich and Hitler’s place in it as well as the implications for Nazi domestic policy of his distant style of leadership. Then, the paper considers the foreign and expansionist policies of Hitler’s Germany and (1) whether Hitler had a consistent plan for either global or European domination and (2) whether he was able to actively mould the foreign outlook of Nazi Germany.

Lastly, the essay addresses Hitler’s participation in the development of the so-called Final Solution, and his anti-Semitic views.

Ultimately, it concludes that there is no basis for calling Hitler a ‘weak dictator’, but neither would it be correct to call him a total master of the Third Reich; he was, instead, the central figure of the regime, although still just as dependent on structural factors as anyone else.

The Philosophical Issues: Free Will & Moral Responsibility

In a discussion of this type, one must inevitably provide a philosophical grounding for ideas like human free will and ethical responsibility.

The brevity of this essay, however, does not permit a full exploration of these premises. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the conclusions of this essay necessarily assume the reality of moral responsibility and freedom of the will.

In doing so, it does not deny the inevitable tension between human choice and circumstantial and structural influences. However, in a discussion of this sensitive kind, the extreme interpretations on either side can ultimately detract from the ethical responsibility of those involved.

On one hand, if one takes functionalist premises to their extreme, one can minimise the moral responsibility of all humans by over-emphasising structural factors and circumstantial determinism. On the other hand, extreme intentionalist interpretations can overshadow the role of other human players in their excessive emphasis on Hitler.

Both extremes have serious implications. While human autonomy cannot be absolute, this essay will assume that, to address the question sensitively and adequately, one must accept the reality of human freedom and moral responsibility.

The Debate: Structuralists/Functionalists vs Intentionalists

It is important to place this paper into the wider context of historical interpretations and academic literature.

On the topic of Hitler’s place in the Third Reich, historians have generally adopted one of three views: intentionalist, functionalist or a more nuanced, compatibilist approach. The terms ‘functionalist’ and ‘intentionalist’ were used in this context by Tim Mason in the 1980s.[2]

Intentionalists emphasise Hitler’s personality and ideology, and the dominant influence he had on the operation and development of the Third Reich. This position was taken to its extreme in the famous statement in which historian Norman Rich claimed that ‘Hitler was master in the Third Reich’.[3] Another intentionalist scholar, Klaus Hildebrand, described the National Socialist ideology as essentially ‘Hitlerism’.[4]

Moderate intentionalist interpretations are more common, however. Prominent scholars like Karl Dietrich Bracher and Hugh Trevor-Roper also place a great deal of focus on Hitler’s intent, will and ideology in shaping the Third Reich without necessarily arguing that he was politically omnipotent.[5]

Conversely, the extreme functionalist interpretation of the role of Hitler is summarised by Hans Mommsen, who sees Hitler as, ‘in some respects a weak dictator’.[6] Even Mommsen, however, recognises that the Third Reich ‘stood or fell’ with Hitler.[7] Another, although more moderate, example of the functionalist approach is that of Martin Broszat, who sees Hitler as ‘a decisive driving force’ rather than the central strategist behind the Third Reich.[8]

Many functionalists merely attempt to add an examination of the broader social and structural context to the historical discussion. Others, such as David Irving, have degraded Hitler’s role – and the role of other players – to an extreme level.[9]

More recently, historians such as Christopher Browning and Ian Kershaw have attempted to resolve this discussion by appealing to the middle ground and, on one hand, acknowledge both Hitler’s centrality and indispensability to the regime, and the role of others and the inevitable structural factors that limited Hitler’s power.[10]

This essay follows the path of Browning and Kershaw in attempting to find common ground between the functionalist and intentionalist approaches.

Early Development: Hitler and Due Process

Through both its early and later development, the Third Reich was characterised by Hitler’s increasing tendency to subvert the bureaucratic or ministerial processes, leaving himself with almost total control (at least in theory). Historians can broadly recognise two phases of National Socialist governmental development between 1933 and the end of the war.

Firstly, there was a period of attempted administrative reform, largely opposed by Hitler but promoted, primarily, by the Reich Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick.[11] To some extent, during this period, the National Socialist movement functioned within the existing (or, in many cases, modified) constitutional or legal frameworks with institutions like the ministerial Cabinet continuing to exercise some influence within the government.[12]

Increasingly, though, commencing with his appointment of Dr Fritz Todt as the General Inspector for German Roads, Hitler began to establish what he called Higher or Supreme Reich Authorities that effectively bypassed the bureaucratic authority of the traditional cabinet ministries and were responsible to him directly.[13] This unique style of leadership inevitably led to a confused and fragmented governmental process.[14]

Indeed, Hugh Trevor-Roper does not see Hitler’s government as a standard totalitarian regime; rather, he refers to his immediate entourage as a his ‘court’.[15] By 1934, the Fuhrer had, in theory, total power; his authority was unrivalled.[16]

Despite his apparent opposition to reform, however, Hitler’s rule was still characterised by something of an effort to reform the administration according to National Socialist aims and ideals.

In the second period of development, Hitler gradually bypassed the bureaucratic process and became progressively more detached from the ordinary decision-making process. Broszat suggests that the removal of key conservative politicians from their departments in 1938 was the major break with previous practice in the development of the National Socialist regime.[17]

It was from this point that Hitler no longer utilised the conservative, traditional or moderate ‘guise’ he had used before; he now had total, unquestioned control.[18] Jane Caplan, on the other hand, sees the decision in 1935 by Hitler that all questions of constitutional reform were to be ‘left alone’ as a transitional phase between the reform efforts of the early 1930s and the increasingly unbureaucratic form of government enacted by Hitler.[19]

Both of these moments were undoubtedly incredibly significant steps in the progression of the regime from Hitler’s ascent to the end of the war. Certainly, as attested to by one of Hitler’s adjutants, Fritz Weidemann, from at least 1935, Hitler became increasingly absent from the decision-making process.[20]

The bypassing of the bureaucracy, which Martin Bormann called a ‘loosening up’, continued and accelerated during both the early and later years of the regime.[21]

Hitler and His Court: Power in the Third Reich

Interestingly, the consequences of this form of government are two-fold. Firstly, it enabled Hitler to have total power, at least in theory.[22] At the same time, however, the administrative chaos of the Third Reich caused significant overlaps, contradictions and conflicts between departmental spheres of authority.[23]

By its very nature, this chaos would have resulted in limitations upon Hitler’s power, making it impossible for him to completely, comprehensively and reliably control the decisions of the Third Reich.[24]

Nevertheless, it does not necessarily follow that he could not have been an active leader of the Reich had he chosen to. Mostly, Hitler’s choice to withdraw from day-to-day decision-making and his reluctance to be actively involved in decisions which he saw as below him can be explained as a (largely successful) strategic effort to preserve his Fuhrer image at the popular level.[25]

Admittedly, the fact that Hitler needed to preserve his image does amount to a minor structural limitation to his total power. Importantly, though, even in the last days of the regime, Hitler’s will was in almost all cases enacted.[26]

One notable exception was the resistance by Albert Speer, the Reich Armaments Minister, to Hitler’s senseless demolition orders in 1945.[27] However, this is a particularly extreme example and only occurred during the last days of the war.

While there were some other minor instances in which the Führer’s will was not implemented (or was later reversed by him due to external pressure), Kershaw insists that this did not affect any major agenda of the Third Reich.[28] The decision-making chaos and aloof leadership of the Third Reich under Hitler proved to be a natural constraint to his power, although this does not necessarily make him a weak leader.

Domestic Policy

When it came to domestic policy initiatives, Hitler appeared mostly detached from the active decision-making process; however, this does not necessarily imply that he was powerless. As alluded to above, Hitler increasingly bypassed the traditional executive by delegating responsibilities to special Higher or Supreme Reich Authorities which reported to him alone. Indeed, the last cabinet meeting was held in 1938.[29]

Although this style of governing is characteristic of Hitler’s overall leadership, it is particularly evident in the domestic sphere, where he seemingly had less interest.[30] Instead, while acting as a ‘driving force’, Hitler seemed to be largely content to delegate the practical governing and execution of National Socialist policies to others, most evident in the cases of the Four Year Plan and Himmler’s extremely autonomous SS empire.[31]

The beginning of the war led to an extreme level of aloofness from Hitler. Indeed, Broszat argues that he well-nigh ceased, in practice, to be the leader of the Third Reich at this point.[32] Nonetheless, as Kershaw points out, one cannot necessarily conclude that, because he was detached, Hitler was a ‘weak’ dictator.[33]

Rather, even in domestic affairs, there is no major necessary conflict between intentional and structural factors.[34] Therefore, while, based on the evidence at hand, it would be ridiculous to argue that Hitler was the master of the National Socialist domestic policy agenda in all its detail, no major initiatives ran counter to his will and he seemed largely content with the style of government in the Third Reich.[35]

Foreign Policy

Foreign policy, on the other hand, was a sphere in which Hitler demonstrated his potential to exercise significant influence and shape the direction of his nation’s expansionist agenda.

In this context, the question is not so much whether Hitler was involved (he unquestionably was) but whether the policies that he initiated were unique to him, demonstrating his ability to shape and direct Nazi Germany’s foreign outlook. It is also important to determine the extent to which Hitler planned for expansion and actively instigated his plan.

In terms of the latter question, Hitler certainly had relatively long-term ambitions for German rule of Europe (and, consequently, of world hegemony) and unquestionably worked toward this aim.[36] Further, many prominent historians have argued that Hitler planned for nothing short of global domination.[37]

Much of the evidence that they present, however, supports the view that, as Kershaw puts it, Hitler had a vision for world domination, not a plan.[38] While there is no good reason to doubt that Hitler desired German global domination, it was, naturally, not on his immediate agenda and, certainly, from what historians know, was not planned to any great extent.[39]

As Weinberg, one of the foremost experts on Nazi German foreign policy, points out, Hitler’s interests lay primarily in the continent of Europe.[40]

Consequently, his plan for a European state under German rule (and the active planning and initiation of this goal) is well demonstrated through the policies of remilitarisation, annexation and expansion that he pursued.[41]

The National Socialists' Expansionist Vision

While not all German expansionist policies were unique to Hitler (similar ones may have come about under a different leader), there are many significant cases in which Hitler clearly guided the direction of German foreign policy initiatives according to his own ideology or plan. In the case of relations with Poland, for instance, Hitler pursued for many years an active path of rapprochement – a path favoured by Poland, although opposed by many in the German establishment.[42]

Konstantin von Neurath, one of the traditionalists and the Reich Foreign Minister at the time, objected that resumption of friendly diplomatic relations with Poland was not ‘desirable’ for Germany.[43] Nevertheless, Hitler proceeded to successfully negotiate an end to the trade war between Germany and Poland and, in 1934, signed a non-aggression pact between the countries.[44]

Józef Lipski, the Polish diplomat to Germany at the time, noted that ‘as if by orders from the top, a change of front toward us is taking place all along the line.’[45] ‘In Hitlerite spheres,’ he continued, ‘they talk about the new Polish-German friendship.’[46]

Another example is the case of Nazi Germany’s diplomatic relationship with the Soviet Union. Once again, Hitler stood in opposition to significant factions of the traditional government (particularly the foreign ministry); yet, in one case, he outright rejected a suggestion of rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Germany.[47]

Yet another (and perhaps the best) example of a major foreign policy in large part unique to Hitler is found in Germany’s relations with Great Britain. In particular, Hitler’s clear desire for an alliance with Britain led to the successful bilateral naval treaty between the two countries in 1935.[48]

As Kershaw argues, Hitler was the ‘critical factor’ in initiating this unique policy agenda (although aided, to a large degree, by foreign minister Ribbentrop).[49] The Führer's role in this was particularly significant considering the idea’s unpopularity among the foreign ministry, the Wehrmacht (particularly the Navy) and other groups.[50]

In contrast with these initiatives, actions such as the 1936 remilitarisation of the Rhineland and Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations in 1933 were clearly less moulded by Hitler’s will and may well have come about under alternative German governments of similar ideology.[51]

Therefore, in the realm of foreign policy, it seems justified to reject outright the title of ‘weak dictator’ for Hitler; his influence was indeed significant in many (although not all) foreign initiatives.

The Final Solution and the Anti-Jewish Policy

In terms of the development and initiation of the Final Solution and anti-Jewish policy, Hitler cannot be accurately described as either a weak or all-powerful dictator. One must address two primary questions in this regard.

Firstly, whether Hitler’s views and plans were consistent over time and, secondly, to what extent he was involved in the commencement of the Final Solution. Or, more specifically, whether the extermination of the European Jewry was the original intent of Hitler (suggesting a distinct, long-term aim) and whether he was ultimately the initiator of the mass extermination of the Jews (demonstrating his intention and ability to follow that plan or agenda).

On the first point, it is abundantly clear that the long-term plan of Hitler and the Nazi leadership was the relocation of Jews to construct an entirely racially ‘pure’ Europe.[52]

Indeed, as Burleigh, Wippermann and Browning outline, significant and widespread expulsion efforts were made between 1939 and 1941 (beginning after the invasion of Poland).[53] There was general – although not complete – agreement among the Nazi leadership on the perceived need to remove the Jews from German European territories; however, due to logistical difficulties