Where Did Power Lie in the Third Reich

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Last updated: November 15, 2019

It has been said that at the heart of the power system of Nazi Germany there was a confusion of private Empires. This is true to some extent but overall power lay with Hitler. Hitler had ultimate power but how he exercised it is a different issue.

The traditional view that Historians used which is also known as the, ‘Intentionalist’ theory was that Hitler was Master of the Third Reich, which was a totalitarian state. Other historians such like Mommsen and Brozat have said of this view to be too simplistic. They say the Nazi system was feudal, chaotic and polycratic. Mommsen describes Hitler as a ‘weak dictator.

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This school of thought is known as the ‘Structuralist’ theory.They counter attack the argument of the Third Reich being a Totalitarian state because there was no set ideology and no one member had complete power. All Historians agree that Hitler dominated Germany from 1933 – 1945, however the extent of his power and how he used it has been greatly debated. The first issue to discuss is how Hitler came to power and then how he consolidated it. Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 whereby Van Papen claimed that he would be pushed into a corner, “so hard he’ll be squeaking. Hitler straight way called for elections, which were to be held in March.

The campaign to the election was violent to say the least. Goering used his powers as Minister of Interior in Prussia and head of the police to recruit more people in the Gestapo and break up Communist meetings. Various posters were published which appealed to the middle class and the working class after the collapse and depression the Weimar Government had left them in. He spoke to the public asking for 4 years to transform this crumbling country. Then in February 1933 the Reichstag building was burned down.The blame eventually went on a Dutch Communist and Hitler used this scenario to his advantage. Frick drew up and Hindenburg signed The ‘Decree for the protection of people and state. ‘ This ultimately gave power to centralised government.

This suspended most civil and political liberties and thus the last week of elections saw an increase in violence with many of the Nazis opponents being arrested. The result of the election was an increase in majority in the Nazi party but from only 33. 1% to 43. 9%.

They still didn’t have a majority and still needed support from the Nationalist party.After the Night of the long knives the second most significant event if not the significant event was the passing of the Enabling Act. This proposed to suspend parliamentary procedure and legislation powers for 4 years hence giving full power to the chancellor and his government.

Hitler didn’t have a 2/3rd majority and the SA was also posing a threat to his relationship with the Nationalists. This is known as the ‘Revolution from below’ The SA wanted to use terror to take over and didn’t see the point of all this diplomacy but they were under the control of Hitler and so could not do what they wanted.Hitler knew of this threat and so on the ‘Day of Potsdam’ just cleaned up his image and appealed to the nation to such an extent that people cheered in their millions.

Hitler teamed up with the Centre Party promising them Religious freedom and they like many other institutions were deceived by his promises. When parties met at the Kroll opera house to discuss the Act, Hitler didn’t let Communists attend and they were thrown out, again showing some extent of the power he had.In the end the bill was passed and Germany had experienced what Bracher calls a ‘Legal Revolution. The revolutionary and significant element being that the chancellor could now rule by decree and this gradually became the normal ways Laws were made. In essence Hitler had complete power but there were still some strands in society that posed a threat to his power. He had to co-ordinate and Nazify these groups. This is known as, ‘Gleichschaltung,’ or the ‘honeycombing’ of Germany. The first point of focus was the Federal system which went against Hitler’s idea of a fully unified country.

Hitler abolished the Landtage and secondly created 18 Reichstatthalter (Reich Governors) who were under the control of Frick (Minister of Interior) This gave nearly all control to a central government that was headed by Nazis and the Federal Principle was as good as dead. The second institution was the trade unions. The majority of the working class were members of these and they were a powerful force. However Hitler deceived them into thinking he was on their side and then the SA and SS occupied their offices and arrested their leaders.

The unions had now lost all political power and the workers were overpowered by the DAF. The final strand that in essence could pose a problem was the threat of other political parties. Hitler wanted a dictatorship. The Communists were already limited after the Reichstag fire and on 22nd June 1933 the Social Democrats were also banned. The other parties sort of co-ordinated themselves and opted out at their own accord. This Made Hitler’s path clear and on 14th July he passed a Law on the formation of any political party and declared the Nazis as the only legal political party in Germany.This was a very important stage because now Hitler was in control of the whole of Germany without facing opposition from any rival parties and could try to implement the policies he wanted.

The final major conflict that was preventing Hitler from having overall power was that between the army and the SA. The army was at this moment the only institution that could overthrow Hitler. They were also favoured by the President Hindenburg who Hitler wanted to replace as president The SA were causing hostility and threatened to cause a revolution.Although they were loyal to Hitler, he needed the support of the army to consolidate his power. On 30th June 1934 the SS under the orders of Hitler responded to the rumours that the SA were planning a coup and attacked the SS ruthlessly killing their leaders and members. Ernst Rohm the friend of Hitler and leader of the SA was also killed. This shows that Hitler was prepared to turn on his own people to secure his position. This was also the starting point and the first we saw of the power of the SS who later on became a ‘state within a state.

‘This event is seen to be the most significant because he now had equivocal support of the army who saw their rivals weakened. This had such an effect that when Hindenburg died the army swore an oath of allegiance to the Fuhrer. Kershaw says that, ‘.

.. the oath marked the symbolic moment where the army chained itself to the Fuhrer. ‘ If the army, probably the most powerful institution in the country chains itself to its leader it just goes to show how much power Hitler had over his country. He had even convinced most people that he was working for their good. It was here that the idea of ‘Working towards the Fuhrer’ was fully established.This was probably the most important aspect of Nazi ideology because it was this concept that created tension within the administration of the Nazi Party. They only wanted to please the Fuhrer and so in this way it can be said no one directly challenged his power.

Hitler’s route to power was complete. He was president and chancellor and had no institutional restraints on him. Hitler appealed to the people because after the collapse of the Weimar Republic people saw a bleak future and lost hope in democracy especially the Mittlestand who suffered greatly after the Wall Street Crash.Hitler painted a picture of unity and discipline. The propaganda created the ‘Hitler Myth’ Hitler’s power was based on his relationship with the German people. Yes he was at the top of the structure and had ultimate power but evidence shows that he was popular amongst the masses and by the late 1930’s over 90% Germans admired him. Why did they admire him so much? Hitler knew what the people wanted and his will was the will of the people.

The people saw him as the Messiah after the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic and the November criminals.This is the overriding factor he had over any other individual in the state. He was popular among the people and this then reinforced his position at the top. Many people didn’t like the Nazi party but admired Hitler. However some historians still claim that in actual fact Hitler was a weak leader. They base their reason on Hitler’s personality and his personal weaknesses. He was lazy and loathed paperwork.

He hesitated in making decisions and was easily influenced into passing legislation.This therefore gave opportunity to people who were below to get their legislation passed and thus showing that it was other peoples policy that was being passed. The Nazi party was fundamentally flawed when it came to the administration. Many Ministers and their positions overlapped each other and in some sense caused conflict. However Hitler didn’t make personnel changes as it made the party seem weak. This is true to some extent but the fact that can’t be disputed is that Hitler was the leader of the Nazi party and even till the last moments in the bunkers people awaited his orders.

Yes he had personal weaknesses and hated paperwork, and people did push their policies through but no major policy went through without Hitler’s permission. No one could block his will and he was prepared to use his power if he felt threatened as can be seen in The Night of the Long Knives. Although other people influenced their legislation one has to see that they had to convince Hitler first because he had ultimate power and everyone was ‘working towards the Fuhrer.This is probably the most significant issue because it meant that Hitler didn’t have to intervene over day to day issues as everyone was implementing the will of the Fuhrer and nothing would be done without his central ideas. Some say that he didn’t intervene because he liked the discontent among his party, as this didn’t directly challenge his power. He trusted the likes of Goebbels and Himmler to be loyal and was never concerned about their power. His real power can be seen when it came to decision making. Hitler provided the overall vision, which was then turned into policies by people around him.

If anything was to happen it could happen on the basis of Hitler’s will. Although Hitler had overall power that didn’t mean that he was the only person with power. Hitler had co-ordinated nearly all threats to his position and had made the Nazi party the only legal party. A ‘threat’ therefore could be from within the party. The role of key individuals such as Bormann, Goebbels, Himmler is essential to the ‘success’ of the Nazi party and it can be argued that without these people the Nazi party wouldn’t have been what it was.

Hitler somewhat laid the foundations of what he wanted doing and these people in charge of their own departments went and did it. Once in power the party was seen as a career opportunity for some and they were more concerned with personal advancement. However most Nazi officials held high positions.

. Martin Bormann joined the party in February 1927 and rose quickly through the ranks of the Nazi party. The key to Bormann’s early power was Rudolph Hess to whom he was appointed stabsleiter (chief of staff) in 1933 when Hess became Deputy Fuhrer.When Bormann became private secretary to Hitler his key power was that he controlled who gained access to Hitler.

This was important because as we know Hitler was a somewhat manipulative character and so Bormann could stop or allow people he favoured or disliked from seeing Hitler and for this reason many Nazis including Himmler saw it important to keep on the right side of him. Another key power Bormann had was that he had the trust of Hitler. During the Anchsluss talks between Hitler and the Austrian Chancellor Hitler chose to have Bormann there.The trust of Hitler was an essential key power because it was through this that Hitler could easily be persuaded to pass legislation. Bormann’s power increased during the war when Hitler wanted to give his undivided attention to the war and so passed on domestic affairs to Bormann. A committee of three was set-up, which included Lammer, Kietal and Bormann who, was in charge of party affairs. His position was further strengthened when Lammer who was in charge of the government couldn’t fulfil his role and so Himmler took over. He now had control of all legal and constitutional matters.

He had not only made the party a more organised body but with the Flight of Hess had reinforced his power base and by 1943 the only threat he had was from Himmler and the SS. Arguably one of the strongest body within the party was the SS and their leader Henirich Himmler. Himmler joined the officer cadets in 1918 but didn’t see any war action.

Bitter at the defeat and failing as a poultry farmer he joined the NSDAP and his chance came in 1929 when he became leader of the SS. The SS was relatively unheard of at this time but within 6 years it was to become the most dominating and powerful force within Germany.In 1933 he took over the Bavarian police and by 1936 had unified all the police (which included the Gestapo) and security services (SD which he developed in 1931) under his control as Chief of German Police and Reich Leader SS. Between the Night of the Long Knives and Himmlers appointment as head of German police and Reichsfuhrer SS in 1936, the membership of the SS grew rapidly from 50,000 to 240,000. The Gestapo which was the original Prussian state police once under Himmlers control became the most important security agent of the state, able to decide for itself what the Law was.In Himmler’s words, the SS was in charge of ‘creating’ power and police power became creative power.

The SS-Police-SD system was only answerable to Hitler and with the Emergency Power of Decree could take suspects into protective custody. This organisation grew in to a key power bloc in the Third Reich and maintained terror, fear and control. It had many divisions within its self, such as the Waffren SS and ‘SS-Totenkaopfverbande’ (The Deaths Head Formation. ) The SS had evolved from a police organisation operating within an administrative whole to become an independent party.Their real power is shown by Sax’s evaluation when he says, ‘The police could do anything in the name of volksgmeinschaft. Aside from this other individuals like Goebbels also had power. Goebbels was in charge of popular enlightenment and was the Propaganda Minister.

He had a monopoly over the media and used this effectively in trying to create positive propaganda for Hitler. He had control over the press, films, music fine art literature etc. In essence he had the power to control what everyone saw and heard. This was a powerful position because in a sense Goebbels could make people see what he wanted to see and think.The success of this is a debatable question but one fact that cant be argued is that it was his propaganda that played a major role in both the Government’s popularity and historians interpretation as Hitler being Master of the Third Reich. However non-of these individuals and bodies actually challenged Hitler’s power. They all had power in their own right and they did exercise it too, but they all used their power for one aim and that was to maintain the Nazi party They all worked towards the Fuhrer and worked to impress him. There is little if any evidence to show that any of these individuals actually challenged Hitler’s authority.

They were all united in aim, which was to work towards the Fuhrer. Also Hitler was at the top of the regime. He was the one with ultimate power and could dismiss these officials if he felt threatened as the Night of the Long Knives showed.

The police could do what they wanted but that was also at the will of Hitler. The police system may have seemed all-powerful because of the terror they seemed to invoke, but this is seen to be a myth. The power of the Gestapo was in fact much weaker and most people supported the regime and never really rebelled anyway.The administrative system was chaotic and there was personal rivalry within.

Many people were in their for their own interests and didn’t really care for the Party or its aims. The overlapping of bodies meant that it was unclear where responsibility lay and it was only at the intervention of Hitler that either a new body was set-up or confusion was resolved. Hitler very rarely intervened as most of the time he was engulfed in his foreign policy and his idea of ‘Lebensraum’ or living space for his master race and secondly he let them bicker among themselves because this neutralised the direct threat to his power.One of the most successful policies that Hitler pursued to ensure he maintained power was his policy of ‘Gleichschaltung. ‘ This co-ordination of powerful groups made sure that these traditional power structures didn’t oppose him. Hitler did keep most of the existing structures of the Weimar and ignored plans drawn up by Frick. The main Law making/enforcing bodies lost a lot of power.

The Enabling Act gave Hitler the power to pass Legislation. After this the Reichstag passed only seven more laws. The Cabinet also lost power, as Hitler didn’t believe in an orderly system.Although the Cabinet had legislative power decisions were made on individual basis depending on whom Hitler favoured, and laws were just issued through Hitler.

Hans Lammers was the head of the chancellery, which was the department that drafted the proposals. He was a Nazi as well as Rudolph Hess who received the draft from Lamerrs. Lammers also sent a new version to Hitler who normally agreed and then signed the formal decree.

Two of the most influential people within the Nazi party were at the center of the legislative process and Hitler was at the top.Even if these institutions did want to pose a threat through legislation they couldn’t because Hitler had overall power. The Civil Service didn’t really pose a threat because they had traditionally been conservative and anti-parliament. They therefore transferred happily into the Third Reich. It also became more Nazified as many members joined it and as by 1939 it became compulsory for bureaucrats to join the party. The courts and legal systems were in favour of an authoritarian regime but wanted to keep the police and Judiciary separate.

However many of these people thought that the best way to maintain their positions was to go along with the regime. Nazi ideas penetrated here as well as the Gestapo and SS took over the ordinary courts. Hitler promised not to destroy elected state governments but state governments became agents of the central government, which were ruled by the Reich Governors who were usually Gauleiters. These people had considerable power and communicated directly with Hitler and had a lot of influence on the legislative process. By using these people Hitler could control the states and have his policy implemented.

The only institution that Hitler had to worry about was the army and he couldn’t afford to rush to try and co-ordinate it. He already gained their support by weakening the SA but even still Hitler was worried that they posed a threat to his regime so he left it mainly untouched until 1938. The state and the army were seen as one and the army generals mainly co-operated with Hitler as they shared his view on military actions and Anti-Bolshevism. It was in 1937 when Hitler really started to take over when he dismissed Blomberg and Fritsch Hitler then became Commander in Chief of all armed forces.Hitler now had almost complete control over all elements of Germany. Although he didn’t control every element of every institution he now weakened them to such an extent that they would not threaten his position.

Therefore in conclusion it can be said that no one had ultimate power in the Third Reich, the simple reason being because it wasn’t a Totalitarian state. However the conclusion that can be drawn is that overall power lay with the Fuhrer. His policy of co-ordination had worked to a great extent as all external institutions that posed a threat had been Nazified.The only thing that could pose a threat was the party, but the discontent and chaos and then the idea of ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ made sure that no one directly challenged Hitler or his power. Although his image has been somewhat glorified and the concept of him being master is too simple, one can not argue against the fact that no one within the party challenged Hitler and no major laws passed without his permission which takes me back to the first statement: ” The essential political decisions were taken by a single individual – in this case by Hitler. “

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