Adolf Hitler - 'Master of the Third Reich' or 'weak dictator'?
(Brendan Toohey)

The key authors in this question are Bullock, Bracher, Broszat, Fest, Mommsen and Kershaw.
Much of the historiographical commentary is centred around the “intentionalists” versus the “structuralists”, yet having read both sides, I agree only to an extent.
The classic intentionalist theory is that the Third Reich revolved around Hitler and that he had complete control over all aspects of government, setting up a social Darwinist bureaucracy which was driven to implement his world view.[1]
The structuralists paint Hitler as a lazy, reluctant decision maker.[2]
A better distinction is between Hitler’s interest and involvement in domestic policy and foreign policy: all of the following texts write of Hitler as not interested in daily governance but passionate about his key policy areas, first espoused in the NSDAP’s Twenty Five Points: the elimination of the Jews, lebensraum (living space), and the establishment of a Greater Germany. In public perception, through the propaganda of Goebbels and his cultivation of a “Hitler/Führer myth”, in the dynamics of his personal relationships with Ministers, and in the realm of foreign policy, from the implementation of lebensraum strategies from 1936 into the years of war, Hitler was anything but a “weak dictator” but certainly “Master of the Third Reich”.

Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, (2nd ed.)Fontana, Hammersmith UK, 1998

Most texts on Hitler refer to Alan Bullock’s 1952 book Hitler: Study in Tyranny as one of the early classics. I also referred to his later Hitler and Stalin as it combines much of his early work along with the benefits of an extra forty years of scholarship. I note from Bullock’s Epilogue of Study in Tyranny that he states Hitler’s career ‘is what nationalism, militarism, authoritarianism, the worship of success and force, the exaltation of the State, and Realpolitik lead to, if they are projected to their logical conclusion.’[3] Hitler was a “European … phenomenon” who revolted against the ‘liberal bourgeois’ European system, whose foundation was the French Revolution, and whose ending was 1939 with the start of “Hitler’s War”.[4]
In “The Führer State”[5], Bullock outlines firstly the establishment of a Nazi bureaucracy to duplicate most government departments and how then Hitler’s uninterest in the daily governing of domestic policy allowed the Ministers to build their own empires of power. True power for the Ministers, lay in their access to the Führer, and “by keeping subordinates fighting for their positions, he protected his own … all [were] dependent on him.”[6] Hitler’s decision making was “personal” but “arbitrary and unpredictable”[7] and even if the Greater Germanic Reich had been won, Bullock believed it unlikely that it would be any better governed except by “improvisation backed by Force.”[8]

Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership, I.B. Tauris, London, 1970 (2011 paperback edition)

Much of Face of the Third Reich examines Hitler’s subordinates, yet the seventy pages he accords Hitler makes similar points to Bullock. Hitler showed no interest in governing until something of interest appeared, which he would pursue with “disproportionate zeal”.[9] As he began to believe Goebbel’s Hitler Myth, he dealt increasingly in public speeches and private monologues, trying to achieve a “statesmanlike monumentality”.[10] Fest suggested Hitler’s fear of an early death drove his compulsion to achieve his primary goal, lebensraum, and that the early successes in foreign policy brought his timetable of war forward from 1943. Yet the preparations[11] and the fighting[12] were chaotic and avoided reality.
In the Foreword to the paperback edition[13], Richard Evans calls Face of the Third Reich the “first general history of the Third Reich to be put before the German public” [14], written by a journalist for a broader general audience than traditional academic texts. By having lived through the Third Reich, Fest knew (some personally) all the major actors and came at a time where a Cold War Germany (especially West) were trying to forget the Nazi past.

Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship: The origins, structure and consequences of National Socialism, (trans. Jean Steinberg), Penguin, Harmondsworth UK, 1970.

Bracher is interesting, as he spends a quarter of The German Dictatorship examining the preconditions and origins of national socialism in Germany back to the nineteenth century[15]. Evans called the text “[t]he first real attempt at a synthesis [of Nazi Germany].”[16]
From the early days of the NSDAP, Hitler sought to make himself indispensible to the party, creating himself as a “strong man” and “working without let-up”[17]. The “leader principle”[18] of “unconditional loyalty … [met] a craving for … authority and hero worship unfulfilled since the fall of the monarchy.”[19] This Führerprinzip was evident in the “surrogate monarchy” of Hindenburg but taken to the extreme by Hitler. Bracher calls the office of Führer “a violent fiction”. (p424) “The Führer acts … as the people”[20] and his will “changes hitherto valid laws”[21]. In party and government bureaucracy, “the personal decision of the Führer was what counted”[22] but led to jurisdictional duplication and conflict. The solution was often to create more leaders: from 282,000 in 1935 to over two million during the war[23], yet all, of course, obedient to the Führer.

Martin Broszat, The Hitler State: The foundation and development of the internal structure of the Third Reich, (trans. John W. Hiden) Longman, London, 1981.

The Hitler State is another book to come out in the late 1960s, which Broszat credits to the availability of Nazi documents, but also a progression in interest from the “what” to the “how” of the Nazi regime. Broszat’s aim was to correct the view of the Third Reich as a “monolithic system and … a well-oiled super state” to a progression from a “conflict-ridden”[24] power sharing between bureaucracy and NSDAP in the early years to the full control of Army and state by 1936/7, helped by foreign policy successes.
Broszat argues that the Führer cult was more than just the strength of Hitler’s personality, but the Third Reich’s lack of any organisational structure meant that despotism was the only way governing and authority could be effected within Germany at all levels. For many, however, this Führerprinzip was associated with the old monarchical rule.
Broszat argues that in 1937, Hitler had a choice between continuing as a radical National Socialist state, or stabilising the bureaucracy, which would have threatened the position of the NSDAP and of the charismatic Führer[25]. The legacy of the Third Reich, Broszat concludes, was the weakening of traditional structures with nothing to replace it after the fall of the Führer, seen in “damaged national and political self-confidence.”[26]

Hans Mommsen, “Changing Historical Perspectives on the Nazi Dictatorship”, European Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2009, pp. 73-80.

Hans Mommsen has been a key writer in the “weak dictator versus Master of the Reich” debate, being the first to use the phrase “weak dictator”[27]. Mommsen uses this article to answer some of the critics of his structuralist approach, through the examples of the Holocaust, Volkgemeinschaft and the charismatic leadership of Hitler.
In his defence of structuralism, particularly against Nicholas Berg, who Mommsen suggests accuses Broszat and himself of excusing the Nazis of any personal immorality because of immutable political structures and processes.[28] Mommsen argues that someone like Adolf Eichmann could not have implemented such wide-scale genocide without the political, ideological and institutional support afforded him by the Nazi system.
Mommsen argues against a national solidarity within the Volksgemeinshaft, in part claiming that Allied bombings created greater social cohesion that Nazi references to Volksgemeinschaft.[29]
Mommsen states that while factionalism worked prior to 1933, within government it “contributed greatly to the accelerating accumulation of terror, violence and crime, and the destruction of the legislative process”[30] and that it is “erroneous” that Hitler had a “precise recipe”[31] for the progression of the Third Reich.

Ian Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’ – Image and Reality in the Third Reich, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985.

Ian Kershaw has spent more than thirty years researching and writing on the Third Reich. In his 1985 The ‘Hitler Myth’ – Image and Reality in the Third Reich, Kershaw argues that Hitler recognised the importance of his image, so that at his ascension to Führer, he became the “function of Führer”[32] until, in 1936, he became deluded of a “mystical unity between himself and the German people”[33], which Kershaw suggests “marked the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.”[34]
Yet the myth continued to build. Hitler’s fascination with foreign policy meant that domestic policy was increasingly left to the “overlapping” chaotic bureaucracy[35]. Foreign policy successes saw the restoration of German pride after the devastation of Versailles without war. The early successes of World War II built upon the myth, with Hitler as “the greatest military commander of all time.”[36] The debacle at Stalingrad and Allied bombing of German cities starkly brought to the German populace the discord between propaganda and reality[37].
In later works, Kershaw used the term “working towards the Führer”[38], appropriated from a 1934 speech to describe the interpretation of Hitler’s “presumed intentions” when direct orders were lacking and to try to get away from the intentionalist versus structuralist debate.

[1] Mason, Republic to Reich, p. 140.
[2] Ibid., p. 141
[3] Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, 2nd edition, Smithmark, New York, 1962 (1995 reprint), p. 807.
[4] Ibid., p. 808.
[5] Bullock, Hitler and Stalin, Chapter 11.
[6] Ibid., p. 467.
[7] Ibid., p. 472.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Fest, The Face of the Third Reich, p. 44.
[10] Ibid., pp. 45-6. Hitler’s preoccupation with appearing as a statesman included no photos, or even witnesses, of him playing with his dogs.
[11] Ibid., pp. 52-3. Twenty-five percent of the planned stockpile actually existed at the outbreak of hostilities.
[12] Ibid., pp. 57-60. Realistic assessments of the fighting were “a personal insult” (p. 59).
[13] Richard J. Evans, “Foreword”, in ibid., pp. vii-x.
[14] Ibid., p. x.
[15] Bracher, The German Dictatorship, Chapter 1 “The Preconditions” pp. 15-71 and Chapter 2 “The Origins of the National Socialist Movement” pp. 72-158.
[16] Evans, “Foreword” in Fest, p. vii.
[17] Ibid., p. 122.
[18] Often referred to in the German, Führerprinzip.
[19] Bracher, The German Dictatorship, p. 124.
[20] Gottfried Neesse, Führer gewalt, Tubingen, 1940, p. 54, in Bracher, The German Dictatorship, pp. 424-5.
[21][21] Werner Best, Die deutsche Polizei (2nd ed.) Darmstadt, 1941, in Bracher, The German Dictatorship, p. 425.
[22] Bracher, The German Dictatorship, p. 427.
[23] Ibid., p. 433.
[24] Martin Broszat, ”Foreword to the English edition” in Broszat, The Hitler State, p. x.
[25] Broszat, The Hitler State, p. 359.
[26] Ibid., p. 361.
[27] Hans Mommsen, 'Nationalsozialismus', in Sowjetsystem und demokratische Gesellschaft, ed. Claus D. Kernig, IV (Freiburg i.Br. 1971), in Mason, Republic to Reich, p. 141. Despite help from UNE library, I could not locate the English translation of this.
[28] Mommsen, p. 75.
[29] Ibid., p. 78.
[30] Ibid., p. 79.
[31] Ibid.
[32] T.W. Mason, ‘Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism’, in G. Hirschfeld and L. Kettenacker (eds.), Der ‘Führer staat’. Mythos und Realitat, Stuttgart, 1981, p. 35, in Kershaw, The ‘Hitler Myth’, p. 3.
[33] Kershaw, Hitler Myth, p.82.
[34] Ibid. (Here Kershaw footnotes J.C. Fest, Hitler. Eine Biographie, Frankfurt am Main, 1973, and A. Bullock, Hitler. A Study in Tyranny, Pelican ed., Harmondsworth, 1962, p. 375.
[35] Kershaw, Hitler Myth, p. 122
[36] “The toadying Field Marshal Keitel”, ibid., p. 153, quoted from Fest, p. 862.
[37] Kershaw, Hitler Myth, pp. 200-210. Yet as Home Front support plummeted, front line soldiers held support until mid-1943, with up to a quarter of correspondence from soldiers negative by February 1944.
[38] Originally in Ian Kershaw, Hitler, Pearson, Harlow, England, 1991, I used the second edition, 2001. Kershaw also published a two volume series, Hitler, Vol.1: 1889-1936 Hubris and Hitler, Vol. 2: 1936-1945 Nemesis, WW Norton, New York 1998 & 2000.