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‘Working Towards the Führer.’ Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship

  • Ian Kershaw


The renewed emphasis, already visible in the mid-1980s, on the intertwined fates of the Soviet Union and Germany, especially in the Stalin and Hitler eras, has become greatly intensified in the wake of the upheavals in Eastern Europe. The sharpened focus on the atrocities of Stalinism has prompted attempts to relativise Nazi barbarism – seen as wicked, but on the whole less wicked, than that of Stalinism (and by implication of communism in general).1 The brutal Stalinist modernising experiment is used to remove any normative links with humanising, civilising, emancipatory or democratising development from modernisation concepts and thereby to claim that Hitler's regime, too, was – and intentionally so – a ‘modernising dictatorship’.2 Implicit in all this is a reversion, despite the many refinements and criticisms of the concept since the 1960s, to essentially traditional views on ‘totalitarianism’ and to views of Stalin and Hitler as ‘totalitarian dictators’.



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1 Ernst Nolte's contributions to the Historikerstreit reflect this tendency. See ‘Historikerstreit’. Die Dokumentation der Kontroverse um die Einzigartigkeit der nationalsozialistischen Judenvernichtgung. (Munich: Piper, 1987), 13–35, 39–47, and his book Der europäische Bürgerkrieg 1917–1945 (Frankfurt am Main/Berlin: Proplyäen Verlag, 1987).

2 See, for instance, the recently published essay collection produced by Prinz, Michael and Zitelmann, Rainer, eds, Nationalsozialismus und Modernisierung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1991), especially the editors' foreword (vii–xi) and Zitelmann's own essay, ‘Die totalitäre Seite der Moderne’, 1–20.

3 See on this the thoughtful comments of Maier, Charles, The Unmasterable Past. History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 1988), 7184.

4 The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft is currently investigating the structures of differing authoritarian systems in twentieth–century Europe in a major research project, ‘Diktaturen im Europa des 20. Jahrhunderts: Strukturen, Erfahrung, Überwindung und Vergleich’.

5 I argue this case in chapter 2 of my Nazi Dictatorship. Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, 3rd edn (London: Edward Arnold, 1993).

6 The comparison becomes even more shallow where the focus shifts from Stalin's own regime to later ‘Stalinist’ systems. The revelations of the extent of repression in the German Democratic Republic have, for example, prompted simplistic notions of essential similarities between the Honecker and Hitler regimes. See on this the comments of Jäckel, Eberhard, ‘Die doppelte Vergangenheit’, Der Spiegel, 23 Dec. 1991, 3943.

7 On the Sonderweg debate, see the sensible comments of Kocka, Jürgen, ‘German History before Hitler: The Debate about the German Sonderweg’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol.23 (1988), 316.

8 Suny, Ronald, ‘Proletarian Dictator in a Peasant Land: Stalin as Ruler’ (thereafter Suny, Dictator') (unpublished), 1011.

9 Lewin, Moshe, ‘Bureaucracy and the Stalinist State’ (unpublished), 26.

10 Werner, Jochmann, ed., Adolf Hitler. Monologe im Führerhauptquartier (thereafter Jochmann, Monologe (Hamburg: Albrecht Knaus Verlag, 1980), 158; trans. Hitler's Table Talk thereafter Table Talk, intro. H. R. Trevor-Roper (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1953), 153.

11 Petzina, Dieter, Autarkiepolitik im Dritten Reich (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1968), 4853; Hayes, Peter, Industry and Ideology. IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 164–7.

12 See Kubizek, August, Adolf Hitler, mein Jugendfreund, 5th edn (Graz/Stuttgart: Leopold Stocker Verlag, 1989).

13 Wiedemann, Fritz, Der Mann, der Feldherr werden wollte (Kettwig: Velbert, 1964), 69; trans. Noakes, Jeremy and Pridham, Geoffrey, eds, Nazism 1919/1945. A Documentary Reader (thereafter Noakes and Pridham, Nazism) (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1984), ii. 207–8.

14 Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich, Nuremberg Document no. NG-5428; trans. Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, ii. 245.

15 Suny, ‘Dictator’, 11–13, 24, 34–5, 38.

16 Rebentisch, Dieter, Führerstaat und Verwaltung im Zweiten Weltkrieg (thereafter, Rebentisch, Führerstaat) (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden, 1989), has clearly shown that Hitler involved himself in civilian affairs to a far greater extent than was once thought. However, when he intervened it was usually at the prompting of one of the few favoured Nazi leaders graced with regular access to his presence, and providing him with one-sided information on specific issues of concern to them. He remained at all times alert to any extension of their power which could undermine his own. Other than this, there was nothing in his haphazard interventions to indicate any systematic grasp of or clear directives for coherent policy-making. In military matters and armaments production, from the middle of the war onwards, Hitler's involvement was on a wholly different scale. Here, his interventions were frequent – at daily conferences – and direct, though his dilettante, arbitrary and intransigent interference was often disastrously counter-productive. See Helmut, Heiber, ed., Hitlers Lagebesprechungen. Die Protokollfragmente seiner militärischen Konferenzen 19421945 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1962), and Boelcke, Willi A. ed., Deutschlands Rüstung im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Hitlers Konferenzen mit Albert Speer 1942–1945 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlagsgesellschaft Athenaion, 1969).

17 See Lothar, Gruchmann, ‘Die “Reichsregierung” im Führerstaat’, in Günther, Doecker and Winfried, Steffani, eds, Klassenjustiz und Pluralismus (Hamburg, Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, 1973), 192.

18 See Diehl, Thiele Peter, Partei und Staat im Dritten Reich (Munich: Beck Verlag, 1969), 61–9.

19 Suny, ‘Dictator’, 28, 32.

20 Ibid., 30; Koehl Robert, ‘Feudal Aspects of National Socialism’, American Political Science Review', Vol. 54 (1960), 921–33.

21 My main orientation was gleaned from the debates in The Russian Review, Vols 45–6 (1986, 1987), as well as from Getty, Arch Origins of the Great Purges. The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985);Moshe, Lewin, The Making of the Soviet System (New York: Methuen, 1985);Tucker, Robert C., ed., Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation (New York: Norton, 1977); and the unpublished papers by Ronald Suny and Moshe Lewin (see above notes 8–9).

22 Suny, ‘Dictator’, 20, 27.

23 Fröhlich, Elke, ed., Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels (Munich: Saur Verlag, K. G. 1987), iii. 198 (entry for 10 July 1937).

24 A good example was his successful appeal to his old comrades, the Gauleiter, to close ranks at the moment of deep crisis following the sudden departure of Gregor Strasser in December 1932. See Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, i. 112–14 (based on an unpublished vivid, post-war account by Hinrich Lohse held in the Forschungsstelle für die Geschichte des Nationalsozialismus, Hamburg). I am grateful to Jeremy Noakes for letting me see a photocopy of this document.

25 See Jochmann, Monologe, 158–60; Table Talk, 153–6.

26 Trevor-Roper, H. R.The Last Days of Hitler (London: Pan Books, 1973), 202.

27 See seeAnton, Hoch, ‘Das Attentat auf Hitler im Münchner Bürgerbräukeller 1939’, Viertel-jahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 17 (1969), 383–413; and Lothar, Gruchmann, ed., Autobiographie eines Attentäters. Johann Georg Elser (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1970).

28 SeeHans, Mommsen, ‘Social Views and Constitutional Plans of the Resistance’, in Graml, Graml, et al., The German Resistance to Hitler (London: Batsford, 1970), 59.

29 Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, i. 46.

30 The term is that of Hans Mommsen. See his article, ‘Der Nationalsozialismus: Kumulative Radikalisierung und Selbstzerstörung des Regimes’, in Meyers Enzyklopädisches Lexikon, Vol. 16 (1976), 785–90.

31 Suny, ‘Dictator’, 21–2.

32 See Martin, Broszat, Der Staat Hitlers (thereafter Broszat, Staat) (Munich: dtv, 1969), esp. chs. 8–9.

33 The internal government of Germany during the war has now been systematically examined by Rebentisch, Führerstaat (see n. 16 above).

34 Lochner, Louis D., ed., Goebbels Tagebücher aus den Jahren 1942–43 (Zürich: Atlantis Verlag, 1948), 241, 274, 296.

35 Speer, Albert, Erinnerungen (Frankfurt am Main'Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1969), 271.

36 See Broszat, Staat, 262, 361–2; Rebentisch, Führerstaat, 101, 421–2.

37 Max, Weber, Economy and Society, ed. Guenther, Roth and Claus, Wittich (Berkeley'Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978), 241–54, 266–71, 1111–57.

38 See André, Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (London: Pluto Press, 1982), 58–9, 62–3.

39 The model is interestingly deployed by M.Rainer, Lepsius ‘Charismatic Leadership: Max Weber's Model and its Applicability to the Rule of Hitler’, in Graumann, Carl Friedrich and Serge, Moscovici, eds, Changing Conceptions of Leadership (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986). My own attempt to use it is in my recent short study Hitler. A Profile in Power (London: Longman, 1991).

40 For the imperialist traditions on which Nazism could build, see Smith, Woodruff D., The Ideological Origins of Nazi Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). The ways in which Nazism could exploit ‘mainstream’ nationalism are stressed by William Sheridan Allen, ‘The Collapse of Nationalism in Nazi Germany’, inJohn, Breuilly, ed., The State of Germany (London: Longman, 1992), 141–53.

41 Hans, Frank, Im Angesicht des Galgens (Munich/Gräfelfing: Beck Verlag, 1953), 466–7; trans. Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, ii. 200.

42 Huber, Ernst Rudolf, Verfassungsrecht des Groβdeutschen Reiches(Hamburg, Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1939), 230; trans. Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, ii. 199.

43 For a compelling analysis of ‘national rebirth’ as the essence of the fascist doctrine, see Griffin, Roger, The Nature of Fascism (London: Pinter, 1991).

44 See Broszat, Staat, ch. 8.

45 The recently discovered, formerly missing, parts of Goebbels' diaries make explicitly clear Hitler's role in approving the most radical measures both as regards to pogrom itself and its aftermath. See the extracts published in Der Spiegel, No. 29 (1992), 126–8; an abbreviated version of the diary entry for 10 Nov. 1938 is available in Reuth, Ralf Georg, ed., Joseph Goebbels. Tagebücher (Munich: Piper, 1992), iii. 1281–2.

46 I have attempted to present the evidence in my study The ‘Hitler Myth’. Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

47 For an excellent study of how the medical profession exploited the opportunities offered by National Socialism, see Kater, Michael H., Doctors under Hitler (Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

48 Broszat, Martin, ‘Soziale Motivation und Führer-Bindung des Nationalsozialismus’, Viertel-jahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 18 (1970), 405.

49 Burleigh, Michael and Wolfgang, Wippermann, The Racial State. Germany 19331945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), back cover.

50 See Noakes, Jeremy, ‘Nazism and Eugenics: The Background of the Nazi Sterilisation Law of 14 July 1933’, in Bullen, R. J. et al. , eds, Ideas into Politics (London/Sydney: Croom Helm, 1984), 75–94, esp. 84–5.

51 See the documentation by Klee, Ernst, ‘Euthanasie’ im NS-Staat. Die ‘Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens2nd edn (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1983).

52 Ibid., 100–1.

53 Broszat, Martin, Nationalsozialistische Polenpolitik 1939–1945 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1965), 11, 25.

54 Ibid., 200 n. 45.

55 Ibid., 122.

56 The correspondence between Greiser and Himmler on the subject, dated between 1 May and 3 Dec. 1942, is in the personal file of Arthur Greisler in the Berlin Document Center (thereafter BDC). For a more extended discussion, see my article, ‘Improvised Genocide? The Emergence of the “Final Solution” in the “Warthegau”’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th Series, Vol. 2 (1992), 51–78, here 71–3.

57 BDC, Personal File of Arthur Greiser, Greiser to Himmler, 21 Nov. 1942.

58 BDC, Personal File of Arthur Greiser, Greiser to Himmler, 1 May 1942.

59 Examples in the Archive of the Polish War Crimes Commission, Ministry of Justice, Warsaw, Greiser Trial Documents, File 11, fol. 52, File 13, fol. 15. According to the post-war testimony of one of the heads of regional administration in the Warthegau, Greiser never missed an opportunity in his speeches to insist that he was ‘persona gratissima’ with the Führer (File 36, fol. 463). Another contemporary commented that his gratitude knew no bounds once Hitler had granted him this special plenipotentiary authority. See Burckhardt, Carl J., Meine Danziger Mission 1937–1939 (Munich: dtv, 1962), 79. I have provided a short pen-picture of Greiser for the forthcoming second volume ofSmelser, Ronald et al. , eds, Die braune Elite und ihre Helfer (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1993).

60 Niedersächisches Staatsarchiv, Oldenburg, Best. 131, nr. 303, fol. 131v, speech Werner Willikens, State Secretary in the Ministry of Food, 21 Feb. 1934; trans. Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, ii. 207.

61 See Arendt, Hannah, Eichmann in Jerusalem (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).

62 See Neumann, Franz, Behemoth. The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (London: Victor Gollancz, 1942).


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