Why should there be leaders?

National Socialism: Rise and Rule

Michael Wildt

Michael Wildt is a trained bookseller and worked for Rowohlt Verlag from 1976 to 1979. He then studied history, sociology, cultural studies and theology at the University of Hamburg from 1979 to 1985. In 1991 he completed his doctorate on the subject of "On the way to the 'consumer society". Studies on Consumption and Eating in West Germany 1949-1963 ”and then worked as a research assistant at the Research Center for the History of National Socialism in Hamburg. From 1997 to 2009 he worked as a research assistant at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and completed his habilitation in 2001 with a study on the leadership corps of the Reich Security Main Office. Since 2009 he has been Professor of German History in the 20th Century with a focus on the Nazi era at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

His main research interests are National Socialism, the Holocaust, the history of violence in the 20th century and notions of social and political order in modern times.

Contact: mailto: michael.wild[email protected] «

Peter Krumeich, Employee at the chair of Professor Wildt, contributed to the development of the content of the magazine and, in particular, in coordination with the editorial team, was responsible for the image research for this magazine.

By integrating all social groups and "aligning" the press and radio, the regime tries to co-opt the population. Propaganda, actual and alleged successes in politics and business as well as community actions should convey confidence and a feeling of belonging. Those who are not part of the "national community" experience exclusion and disadvantage.

Adolf Hitler drove into Berlin's Olympic Stadium in 1937 during the National Socialist May Day celebrations. (& copy Federal Archives, Image 183-C06292 / Photo: Schwahn, Ernst)


The upheavals of 1933/34 had fundamentally changed the state and society. All parties except the NSDAP were dissolved, the unions smashed, the rule of law suspended by the Reichstag fire ordinance, and parliamentary democracy abolished. The Reich Cabinet only met sporadically. Instead, the head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans Heinrich Lammers, organized the laws in circulation, with the ministries involved giving their approval one after the other, with Hitler always having the decisive word. Similarly, at the state level, political power had passed to the Reichsstatthalter, who, in personal union, were mostly also the NSDAP Gauleiter. These long-time party fighters formed the actual power core of the NSDAP, and Hitler relied on them in his important political decisions.

The NSDAP built its own political structures, some of which were interlocked with the state, some of which existed alongside and beyond them. Heinrich Himmler, as Reichsführer SS and thus leader of a branch of the NSDAP, became head of the entire German police in 1936 and in the years to come he ensured that this central executive instrument became a medium of rule of the NS regime controlled and permeated by the SS. As Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and President of the Reich Chamber of Culture, Joseph Goebbels directed public discourse, press, radio, film and art to an extent that would have been hardly conceivable just a few years earlier in the cultural diversity of the Weimar Republic. In addition, as the Gauleiter of Berlin, he remained a central political actor in the Reich capital, who repeatedly drove the persecution of the Jews in particular. Hermann Göring not only united in his person the function of the powerful Prime Minister of Prussia as the largest and most important country in the German Empire. He was also Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force and Reich Aviation Minister and was appointed commissar for raw materials and foreign exchange in 1936 and then appointed representative of the four-year plan. In doing so, although there was still a Reich Minister of Economics, he actually achieved the role of an economic dictator who geared the economy towards the war and organized the plundering of Jews in Germany and later in the occupied territories.

These parallel and special structures ensured that there were power rivalries, conflicts of competence and confusion of offices within the structure of the Nazi regime. Albert Speer, for example, whom Hitler chose as his favorite architect and to whom he entrusted the future planning for the Reich capital, was in constant dispute with the Berlin administration and the mayor Julius Lippert, which he typically lost and which led to his resignation in 1940.

Without the willingness of the old elites to support the National Socialist regime, the new rulers would certainly have quickly come to an end. The military hoped for a strong expansion of armaments and a militarization of society, which placed the "defense concept" in the center. The employers naturally agreed to the dismantling of the workers' organizations and expected that their authoritarian authority in the company would come into effect again unhindered. The bureaucracy was confronted with new political structures, but was freed from the rule of law restrictions by the Nazi regime and believed that it could finally act at its own discretion. The young Prussian civil servant Fritz-Dietlof Graf von der Schulenburg, who later turned into an opponent of Hitler, was involved in the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 and was executed for it, in a memorandum in April 1933 demanded that the civil servants of the future should join should be understood as “a force of political fighters”. Formal legal administrative structures still existed parallel to the politically dominated ones. But the persecution of the Jews in particular opened up an “enabling space” even for tax officials, which destroyed the previous constitutional order, which granted its citizens the same rights and duties, and turned Jews, but also Roma and Sinti, so-called anti-social, sick and disabled people into second-class citizens who were vulnerable to persecution.

The ruling structure of the “Führer state” was quite diverse, rival, also overlapping and contradicting itself. A uniform, fixed and clear order of government and administration was never achieved. But this by no means necessarily meant chaos and weakness of the system. Rather, the appointment of “commissioners” and “special staffs” has repeatedly contributed to the dismantling of traditional hierarchies, the shortening of administrative routes, the strengthening of cooperation between different institutions and thus to the efficiency and mobilization of resources. As much as power struggles within the National Socialist apparatus and conflicts of competency between economic or state decision-makers and the NSDAP determined politics, the ability of the NS regime consisted in continually deriving options for action. The British historian Ian Kershaw has justified the willingness of so many different institutions to cooperate with the will to "work against the Führer". It was precisely the “disorder” of the Nazi regime that opened up many opportunities for commitment and willingness to act, always believing that one's own actions could rise up in the system and contribute to the success of the whole.

This polycratic structure of the Nazi regime was held together by the "Führer", who stood at the head of state and society and had unrestricted decision-making power. Hardly any other politician of the 20th century, like Hitler, has succeeded in binding people's longings for social and political order by believing in his person as a “leader”, engaging the traditional elites and in the inevitable struggles for power and interests as a decisive authority to act. All those in power in the regime invoked the “will of the leader”; Hitler's word counted when rivalries had to be resolved and conflicts of decision resolved. Hitler held a position of power in the Nazi regime which, precisely because it was supported by the broad approval of the population, was certainly unique.

The National Socialist system of rule
The use of this graphic is subject to a fee.

Source text

Charismatic rule or system of terror?

Max Weber, a founding father of sociology, made the distinction between the three pure types of legitimate rule: traditional, rational-bureaucratic and charismatic. The latter depends on the broadcast
a single person. Is the Nazi state a case of charismatic rule? Or was terror holding him together? The historians Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Ludolf Herbst and the sociologist M. Rainer Lepsius take a stand.

[...] Even 65 years after the fall of the Nazi state, very different interpretations of the dictatorship and its “Führer” are competing with one another. [...] Most recently, Ian Kershaw effectively used Weber's ideal type of charismatic rule in his two-volume biography of Hitler in order to capture Hitler's special position in a rationally controllable form with a coherent interpretation. [...]
Weber's ideal type of charismatic rule has two focal points like an ellipse. The first focus is the warlike, rhetorical, religious, political special talent of the charismatic bearer, who rises thanks to an existential crisis and then has to prove himself as a savior in need. His personal charisma is shaped by the charismatic community of his devout followers, based on personal loyalty, which was brought together by a “revolution of attitudes”, the metanoia. The administrative staff are not formed on the basis of factual qualifications, but through the personal trust of the charismatic. The competition between rival power centers creates a polycratic system in which he wins the final decision-making authority or at least occupies the role of referee.
The second center consists of the attribution of charismatic abilities by society (at least growing segments of it) which, thanks to the political culture of the country, have saved the tendency to entrust their political skills to great personalities, especially in crisis situations. This willingness to ascribe is at least as effective as the aura of the charismatic special talent. In this respect, when interpreting charismatic rule, it is always important to give high weight to the expectant attribution supported by a leap of faith. This is also the aim of Kershaw's key quote, “to work against the leader”. [...]
In fact, only the charismatic rule of Hitler could bundle the destructive forces of the epoch in such a fatal way - supported almost to the end by the approval of a majority in German society. The thesis of the messiah's invention by a few strategically placed accomplices, and thus also of the successful manipulative propaganda, completely misses the phenomenon of Hitler and National Socialism. It not only distracts from a conceptual analysis of the dictatorship of the Fiihrer, but also from the unchanged, irritating willingness to consent of all those who persistently, even fanatically, ascribed the charisma. The fact that so many Germans were primarily seduced by skilful propaganda for the Messiah ultimately amounts to a startling trivialization of the political driving forces of German society in the fatal years between 1920 and 1945.

Hans-Ulrich Wehler, “Forces of a sad figure. The dictatorship found real approval ”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of July 20, 2011

[…] For historians, the question arose in relation to the person of Hitler, how such an average talented person who, according to all bourgeois performance criteria, did not justify hopes enough, could develop such a great, albeit fatal, effect. They sought the answer in an analysis of the complex reciprocal relationships between the person of Hitler and the bureaucratic apparatus that shaped and permeated the total state, at whose head Hitler had been since 1933, in all areas of life. In the context of totalitarianism research, attention was drawn to the propaganda and terror apparatus. Structural history was linked to biographical approaches, because this much can be said for every social and state system in modern times: Left on their own, even the most powerful politician remains powerless. Nazi researchers such as Karl Dietrich Bracher, Martin Broszat or Hans Mommsen avoided characterizing Hitler as a “sheer omnipotent charismatic leader” (Wehler) with good reason. [...]
The characterization of the Hitler dictatorship as charismatic rule goes astray because it takes the propaganda facade that the NSDAP erected to legitimize its rule for reality. The direct emotional relationship between the leader and the people, asserted by the propaganda and revered in many ways today, was designed to blend in with the complex and problematic social reality of the so-called “Third Reich”. If the historian follows this illusion, he misses - to say the least - the central aspect of the National Socialist system of rule: the bureaucratisation and penetration of all areas of life with command structures. They were supposed to ensure that the political leadership was able to pursue its insane, all common sense and humanity contradicting goals and going far beyond the power of Germany.
This contradiction between claim and performance forced the Nazi leadership to cover all areas of life with a network of steering authorities. Hitler personally certainly played a central role in this network - but not as a person and charismatic bearer, but as an appellant. The functioning of such a complex system could only be guaranteed if Hitler's role was completely depersonalized. The leader became a principle.
The “Third Reich” was a Führer dictatorship not because “the” Führer was at its head, but because the Führer principle applied at all levels. The overall system is therefore not to be understood in terms of one leader, but rather in terms of the large number of leaders and subordinate leaders who were placed at all nodes. In order to find their way around in this system, even the contemporary needed a guide lexicon, which was published like a telephone book in constantly updated form for every area of ​​life and function. The more important of these Führer-functionaries were involved in several hierarchies at the same time. In this way, with the concentration camps behind them, the influence of the SS and the party on all levels could be ensured.
The National Socialist system of rule with its monolithic facade was as complex as it was unstable. It would therefore be completely wrong to assume that there was only one will, namely Adolf Hitler's, and that one “worked against” it. Rather, this power structure showed a tendency to develop into a diadoch system. Therefore, when one speaks of the “Führer state”, this is only justified if one takes the plural into account and directs one's gaze to the Führer principle and not to the person of the Führer at the top. [...]

Ludolf Herbst, “Not charisma, but terror. The propaganda facade did not correspond to reality ”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of July 20, 2011

[...] It is advisable to consult Max Weber, who coined the term charismatic rule before the First World War, more precisely. There you will be able to read that “charisma” should mean the “extraordinary quality” of a personality that emanates from forces that are ultimately “God sent”. Because of them, the charismatic is valued as an exemplary leader. The fascination with the pretended mission is combined with the fascination with the person. Conceptually, charisma has no positive connotation. Even an average and criminal person like Adolf Hitler can have charisma.
The charismatic is in the service of “transcendental powers”, in the case of Hitler, “Providence”, and has a “mission”, in the case of Hitler, the renewal of Germany's international standing. The slogan of the time of struggle was accordingly: “Germany, awake!” For many contemporaries, Hitler was also an “awakening experience”. The recognition of the Führer is not just personal admiration, it is - as Weber says - "duty", namely a commitment to the ideals that the charismatic promises to fulfill.
The charismatic relationship is two-sided.The one who pretends to have charisma has to prove his claim, in the case of Hitler during his time of struggle first through successes at large rallies through his rhetoric, later through electoral successes [...]. After the seizure of power, the charismatic claim proved itself on the one hand through the decline in unemployment (whereby the causality of Hitler's measures is irrelevant) and the foreign policy successes, which in fact meant the repeal of the Versailles peace treaty.
These are based on Hitler's willingness to take risks, to risk war. That was neither rhetoric nor wanted by the population. At the beginning of the war, the military victories served as a test (although it is irrelevant whether they were achieved by Hitler's decisions). A proven charisma in this sense is not the invention of manipulative propaganda, however much this may have contributed to the spread of belief in Hitler's charisma.
On the other hand, the charisma givers for their part also raise material claims that the charismatic should meet. This was done initially for the young unemployed followers within the growing party organization and its militias, later through benefices in the state apparatus and in the Reich Labor Service, and finally through the rapid expansion of the military, financed by the indebtedness of the Reich budget. After the seizure of power, wages remained frozen. The increase in income was replaced by symbolic measures: strength through joy, winter relief organization, model settlements. [...]
The charismatic relationship must be distinguished from the charismatic rule. The latter will be realized through the extensive de-institutionalization of the current order. Personalization always means de-institutionalization of rule. As Max Weber explains, the administrative staff does not know any officialdom, but is recruited from the "disciples" who have the trust of the Fiihrer. There are no established authorities. Ad hoc special staffs that are directly responsible for the leader act on the direct instructions of the leader. The resulting administrative chaos is not an argument against the charismatic rule, but rather its result: the arbitrary action of the leader should not be restricted by the responsibilities of others. Hitler opposed legally binding new regulations, such as a new National Socialist penal code or the attempts by Interior Minister Frick to enforce a new organization of the authorities.
In order to establish such a regime, all institutions that oppose it must be dissolved. The National Socialists acted consequently and quickly. Four weeks after the takeover of power, the Emergency Ordinance was issued, which abrogated the constitutional civil rights, and after a further three weeks the Enabling Act was passed, which suspended the legislative competence of the Reichstag for four years. Finally, after the death of Hindenburg, the offices of Chancellor and President were merged. There were no institutional limits to arbitrary rule. There was no longer any freedom of expression and the political opposition could be immediately criminalized without legal protection. The charismatic rule is more than a mere emotional communalization, it is a structure of political rule.
It should be noted that for the management and organization of a complex industrial state by no means everything can be regulated according to the maxims of a charismatic ruling association. Ernst Fraenkel made a distinction between rule management and measure management. The Führer did not have to decide everything himself; it was enough that nothing essential could be decided against his veto power. He delegated to the shop stewards he had chosen, but was therefore not a “weak dictator”. He kept the decisions that were important to him for his “mission”, for war preparation and “extermination” of the Jews in his hand. Charismatic rule is by no means based solely on the ruler's charisma or on terror against the opposition.
The decision-making process follows a military model: hierarchically graded orders with the duty of obedience by a commander. There is no collective decision-making and decision-making. Even in the NSDAP there was no party council or collegial board of directors. Even the Gauleiter appointed by Hitler were not allowed to meet and deliberate. So it was in the Reich: the cabinet meetings were suspended, the decision-making process took place in individual discussions between Hitler and the respective commanders. The individual chances of access to Hitler and the individual instructions he often gave only orally determined their own weight and that of their administrative staff. In this respect, there were no institutional arrangements to depose Hitler (as in Mussolini's Italy). Killing Hitler was the only and illegal way to end Hitler's rule. [...]
The Hitler regime cannot simply be characterized as charismatic rule that was legitimized by an unconditional belief in Hitler's personal charisma. Large parts of the exercise of power followed the model of bureaucratic rule and the legitimacy belief in the validity of the legality of the orders, without recourse to a charismatic belief.
[...] So we are dealing with a mixed system [...]. Until the end of the war, Adolf Hitler's personality had the ability to convince doubters and critics (such as generals) of his pretended charisma again and again in one-to-one conversations.

M. Rainer Lepsius, "Max Weber, Charisma and Hitler", in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of August 24, 2011