Before half-term I covered the extent of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany with my second year A-level class. It is a topic that I’m incredibly intrigued with, especially in terms of how oral history and local history can help us build more of a comprehensive picture of what Germany was truly like in the 1930s-1940s. I commented on this in a previous post – a case-study about the extent of the power of the Gestapo – a few weeks ago. This post is a follow-on, of sorts, where I will outline the debate of the so-called ‘Hitler Myth’.

The traditional view of Hitler states that he was an all powerful dictator with unlimited totalitarian control. Propaganda was used to instil this message, with Hitler displayed as the tough warrior who lifted Germany from ruins to become a great power once more. The two images provided below provide an overview of this message, with Hitler shown powerful, uncompromising, and at one with the German nation.

This argument is supported by many writers, including Huber:

If we wish to define political power in the [Third Reich] correctly, we must not speak of ‘state power’ but of ‘Fuhrer power’.

For it is not the state as an impersonal entity that is the source of political power, but rather political power is given to the Fuhrer as the executor of the nation’s common will.

However, despite Hitler’s central role, many historians believe that there are limitations to the view that Hitler was all powerful. These arguments include:

  • Government and law emerged in a haphazard fashion.
  • Hitler was dependant on subordinates to put policy into effect.
  • Hitler’s personality was ill-suited to government.

This final point is one argued by the likes of Layton, who states that:

Hitler’s own personality and attitude towards government were mixed and not conducive to strong and effective leadership.

Hitler’s own background before becoming Chancellor in 1933 could provide light as to his unsuitability to govern: he had no prior experience and was little concerned with details. As his own book Mein Kampf makes clear, he preferred to deal with big visions, and this allowed others to fill in the gaps with regards to specific policies.

To what extent was the image of Hitler as the all powerful dictator a propaganda creation? It is an intriguing question. The past four decades has seen more information revealed about the day-to-day activities of Hitler. It becomes clear that he was not a “hands-on” ruler, with regular absences from Berlin to escape to the Bavarian alps. The memoirs of one of his staff-members is very revealing:

Hitler normally appeared shortly before lunch… When Hitler stayed at Obersalzberg it was even worse. There he never left his room before 2.00 pm. He spent most afternoons taking a walk, in the evening straight after dinner, there were films.

He disliked the study of documents. I have sometimes secured decisions from him without his ever asking to see the relevant files. He took the view that many things sorted themselves out on their own if one did not interfere.

He let people tell him the things that he wanted to hear, everything else he rejected. One still sometimes hears that view would have done the right thing if people surrounding him had not kept him wrongly informed. Hitler refused to let himself be informed…How can one tell someone the truth who immediately gets angry when facts do not suit him?

All of this paints a negative picture of Hitler’s capacity to actually govern. At best it comes across as the man being lazy, at worst incredibly irresponsible regarding the running of Germany. Hitler’s removed approach to governance has created many theories about how Germany was ruled during the Nazi period, with some arguing that Hitler’s stand-off approach was intentional as it was a classic case of divide and conquer. The chaos in central government meant that nobody could successfully unite against him, as they would compete against one another for his approval and affection. This theory has an additional layer as stated by Ian Kershaw, called ‘Workings towards the Fuhrer’. Hitler’s subordinates, in an attempt to plug the void created by his absence, would strike up policies that would appeal to the Fuhrer. This particular approach may explain why the Holocaust escalated in the manner that it did: many leading Nazis continued their anti-Semitic policies in an attempt to appeal to Hitler’s own hatred of the Jews.

The past four decades has seen the oft-cited debate of Intentionalists v Structuralists with regard to Hitler’s rule. Intentionalists have argued that Hitler was the master of Nazi Germany and that he ultimately called the shots with a clear, intended vision. Structuralists argue that the entire regime was chaotic which in turn created pressures from within; the lack of clear government direction led to the growth of unseen policies. Structuralists believe that Nazi Germany cannot be easily distilled down to one man, and that other leading Nazis (such as Goring and Himmler) exerted a huge influence. No doubt, Structuralists would cast doubt on the idea of Hitler as the all-seeing powerful dictator.

As for my own position, I must admit that I’m stuck in-between the two. On the one hand, Hitler was absolutely essential to the establishment of Nazi Germany: it was his vision and his crusade that led to the Nazis to power in 1933. However, it is unwise to argue that Hitler was “hands-on” when the evidence suggests otherwise. Furthermore, the impact of one man – even one that has taken the law into his own hands – can easily be over-estimated. Ultimately, Hitler was one man and could not possibly hold totalitarian control, as if he held the infinity stones as Thanos did in the recent Avengers movies.

Similar with the recent Gestapo post, there is more to the debate that what first appears. There are many other levels to the debate regarding the ‘Hitler Myth’, and it is not a simple black or white solution. It is a key reason as to why I enjoy returning to the debates of this period: they test the historian at every turn, meaning that nothing can be treated with certainty or ease.