Posts Tagged With: adolf hitler

The Hitler State

Broszat Hitler State

Broszat, Martin.  The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich.  Trans. John W. Hiden.  London: Longman, 1981.

Originally published in 1969, Broszat’s Der Staat Hitlers was one of the first works to take a structuralist approach to the Third Reich.  In other words, he sought to uncover the deeper forces behind the regime rather than provide a more biographical overview of the key political players.  As such, Broszat’s book is not structured like a synthesis or textbook that provides a chronological account of events.  Instead, the study is an examination of how power and authority were structured and exercised in Nazi Germany.

Broszat’s main goal is to reevaluate the view of the Nazi state as one in which it exercised complete, systematic, and standardized control over its nation.  The picture of the Third Reich that Broszat paints is one full of complex and overlapping governmental and party structures that were often competing against one another.  There was often tension between Reich ministries and the Länder organizations, between German state offices and Nazi party organs, and most often between different bureaucrats themselves.  Broszat pinpoints Hitler as the reason behind this structure in which power existed not as flowing hierarchically from the top down, but as coexisting simultaneously in different spheres.  Hitler, Broszat argues, demanded full authority in his position as Führer, but was skeptical of establishing a standardized, or rationalized, system of authority below him.  Personal loyalty to him was paramount, but beyond that, Hitler allowed for personal and organizational competition among his underlings.  This helped to assure that no significant amount of power would be collected by one office or individual outside of the Führer.

Broszat’s study focuses on the period between the seizure of power in 1933 and the preparation for war in 1939, and as he demonstrates, this is a period in which there still existed an uneasy relationship between the older conservative tradition and the radical dynamism of Nazism.  In the initial months of 1933, Nazi officials instituted a number of radical policies including purges and the construction of concentration camps.  But because the more traditional conservative forces had apprehensions about such actions – and Hitler still needed their influence, particularly with forming alliances with Germany’s heavy industry for the coming rearming mission – Hitler put a stop to the violence, thus returning to more conventional modes of governing by the end of 1933.  In 1937 and 1938, the gap between old elites and Nazi leaders widened as Nazis began ousting conservatives from the government and formulating more aggressive foreign policies in what Broszat refers to as the “second revolution” of the Nazi regime (354).

This unequal distribution of power, which was largely defined by one’s personal connection to Hitler, fueled a Darwinian competition that led to the creation of personal empires within the Third Reich (like Himmler’s death camp system).  In a functionalist vein, Broszat argues that this struggle for power forced people to develop new ways of exercising power.  With the lack of rationalized chains of command, it was left up to subordinates to figure out ways to turn Hitler’s visions into realities. In addition to allowing Hitler to stand alone above – and perhaps beyond – the system, “the “polycracy” of individual office holders…ultimately led to a proliferation of arbitrary decisions and acts of violence” (xi).  Therefore, the National Socialists did not come to the table in 1933 with the blue prints for the Holocaust as a secret goal; instead, the de-centralized and revolutionary power structure of the Nazi state led to the radicalization of goals and to extremism that murdered millions of people.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Backing Hitler

Backing Hitler

Gellately, Robert.  Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


In Backing Hitler, Gellately completely reevaluates the role that the German population played in the establishment and maintenance of the Nazi dictatorship.  Moreover, he seeks to answer the problematic question of just how much the Germans knew of the Nazis’ more heinous policies.  He provocatively argues that not only did most Germans know that their country had a Secret Police and a concentration camp system, but that they supported (or at least took pride in) the government’s heavy-handed war against those “who were regarded as ‘outsiders,’ ‘asocials,’ ‘useless eaters,’ or ‘criminals’” (vii).  The Nazi regime that emerges from Gellately’s story is not one that enforced uniform terror on everyone with no regard for popular opinion; instead, we learn of a state obsessed with finding out what its “Aryan” people thought of it.  Consequently, the Third Reich was as dependent on the Volk’s consent to function as it was on forced coercion.

Central to Gellately’s argument is the observation that “Hitler wanted to create a dictatorship, but he also wanted the support of the people” (1).  Therefore, Nazi leaders had to keep the Aryan core of the utopian Volksgemeinschaft in mind when establishing the networks of state power.  In order to tap into the power of the people, Nazis capitalized on the widespread desire to return to a more stable, traditional German society, a society that the liberal, democratic Weimar Republic had destroyed.  The Nazis, then, did not try to hide the fact that they used violence and coercion in dealing with their enemies (portrayed as enemies of the German people).  Initially, Communists were targeted, arrested, and thrown into the new network of concentration camps.  What may be surprising to readers is the fact that these concentration camps were not kept a secret either.  The opening of the famous Dachau concentration camp in 1933, for example, was announced with front-page headlines (51). Gellately argues that even if Germans did not agree with the stories of excessive violence associated with the concentration camps, they did not protest because “most of the coercion and terror was used against…social groups for whom the people had little sympathy” (2).

Gellately traces distinct phases of consent for Hitler and Nazism.  The first phase was when the Nazi government was able to provide tangible results: a recovered economy and a drop in the crime rate (1933-1938).  The second phase began with the start of the war and lasted until 1944, and was one in which Germans increasingly consented to the implementation of “police justice,” or the ‘preventative’ use of force against even potential criminals, outside of the jurisdiction of the courts.  During this time, the concentration camp inmates became an integral part of daily life as they were marched to and from factories to work for the German war effort.

The book is most concerned with the level of popular knowledge of and consent for the Nazis’ violent and authoritarian methods.  Gellately concludes that the regime made sure its secret police wasn’t much of a secret at all.  The media was used not as a way to simply “brainwash” Germans, but to present the regime’s violence as taking a firm stance against crime and undesirables, thus forging a harmonious “racial community of the people.”  The Nazi surveillance state encouraged citizens to join the cause and denounce anyone who was an enemy of the people.  In fact, 50% of all recorded denunciations came from everyday citizens, even if the motives for these denunciations were selfish.  In conclusion, Gellately states, “On balance, the coercive practices, the repression, and persecution won far more support for the dictatorship than they lost” (259).


For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here.

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ian Kershaw’s Hitler Biography

Kershaw Hitler


Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998.  And Hitler: 1936 – 1945, Nemesis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Ian Kershaw’s biography of Adolf Hitler has, in the last decade, come to stand as perhaps the definitive account of the Führer’s life.  This two-volume biography seeks to put Hitler in his appropriate historical context, and as such can also be seen as a history of the Third Reich rather than just a narrow biography of just Hitler himself.  Consequently, Kershaw humanizes Hitler, revealing a narcissistic man of quirks as opposed to the images of a mythical figure that have emerged, and indeed, that the Nazis themselves promulgated.

After very quickly outlining Hitler’s birth and early years, Volume 1 (1889-1936, Hubris) turns to Hitler’s time in Vienna.  He demonstrates that while Hitler retrospectively overemphasized how he had crystalized his worldview during those years, “there can be no doubting that the Vienna ‘schooling’ did indeed stamp its lasting imprint on his development” (30).  Of greater consequence was the impact on Hitler’s worldview of the First World War.  Kershaw then adds that the doctrine of Lebensraum wasn’t incorporated until years later, so that Hitler’s worldview can only be regarded as fully formed starting in the mid-1920s.

When dealing with the Nazi Machtergreifung (seizure of power), Kershaw attributes the National Socialists’ takeover more to the failure of others than to the Nazis’ own political maneuvering.  Democrats didn’t do enough to stop the eroding of the republic in the first place, and the conservatives who helped place Hitler in power seriously underestimated him.  In January 1933, Franz von Papen dismisses reservations over Hitler’s chancellorship, stating, “We’ve hired him” (421).  Such sentiments could not have been more wrong.

Kershaw’s account highlights the emergence of the Hitler cult and the impact that this adoration had on Hitler’s own self-image.  Seeing the widespread support from the German people, Kershaw argues, gave Hitler self-confidence.  But the Hitler cult was also largely self-fashioned through political theatrics.  “He was above all a consummate actor,” Kershaw writes (280).  The adoring crowds only saw the image of the Führer that Hitler and Goebbels wanted them to see.  The political successes of the early 1930s epitomized by the reoccupation of the German Rhineland in 1936 turned Hitler’s egomania into destructive hubris.

Volume 2 (1936-1945, Nemesis) focuses on the radicalization of the Nazi regime, especially during the war years.  Central to this volume is Hitler’s role in the Holocaust.  Nemesis – and indeed, both volumes as a whole – represents a middle ground in the “intentionalist” (the Holocaust was Hitler’s intention from the start) versus “functionalist” (the Holocaust was the result of a slow but steady radicalization of policies) debate.  Kershaw demonstrates that Hitler was indeed a powerful dictator who set the overall goals for the Nazis, including his “prophecy” of 1939 that if the Jews started another world war they would be annihilated.  But Kershaw also shows that the concept of “working towards the Führer” meant that Hitler’s subordinates did not need specific orders for how to carry out their leader’s vision.  Therefore, while the how may not have been planned from the beginning, Kershaw argues that genocide was “central, not peripheral, to what had been deliberately designed as a “war of annihilation”” (461).

In conclusion, the focus of Kershaw’s books is “not upon the personality of Hitler, but squarely and directly upon the character of his power – the power of the Führer” (Vol. 1, xxvi).  In this light, he studies the structures that allowed Hitler to achieve such power.  But, this biography also shows that “without Hitler and the unique regime he headed, the creation of a program to bring about the physical extermination of the Jews in Europe would have been unthinkable” (Vol. 2, 495).

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at