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

Updated: Dec 21, 2022


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