Did Hitler Have A Clear World View And To What Extent Did This Shape The Third Reich?
The Third Reich was such an atrocious time that it causes unique reactions in historians studying it and attempting to explain why it happened. One of the central areas of debate on the Third Reich is the importance of Adolf Hitler in its development of Nazism, the question of whether he really was the "evil genius", who planned the terrible Nazi crimes and the war, years before they occurred. The debate is complex and both sides have many adherents, not least because the question of Hitler’s importance in the shaping of Nazism does not just encompass the often murky detail of the structure of power in Nazi Germany, and the disturbing and confused writings and speeches of Hitler. The debate also centres on the divisive "great man" debate, of how much importance one man can have in the great events and trends of history.
Debate on this issue has settled down into two broad camps of opinion. The "Intentionalists" claim that Hitler had a clear world view from years before he came to power and he shaped to Third Reich with this. The "Structuralists", or "Functionlaists", claim Hitler had only vague ideas and little actual control of the party or government, that the "structures" of the state and party were the driving force, and policy was decided as the party progressed, not planned in advance. Neither camp would wish to excuse Hitler of any guilt, as he clearly supported events and policy, rather the debate is over whether he was the guiding force behind the crimes of the movement. The debate includes the questions of whether Hitler planned the course National Socialism was to take in advance
In the immediate post-war era the Intentionalist arguments were widely accepted. Hitler was almost demonised as an accident of history who bore responsibility for the whole Nazi era. Bracher in The Role of Hitler wrote that "National Socialism can indeed be called Hitlerism". This view of Hitler came not only from misconceptions about the nature of the Nazi state and Hitler himself, but from the comforting idea that Hitler caused National Socialism, and so with Hitler dead the world was safe from the movement. With occasional notable exceptions, such as Ernst Fraenkel and Franz Neumann in the 1940s, few challenged the idea of Hitler having had a clear world view which he put into practice, until the late 1960s. Then, a number of studies showed the chaotic multi-dimensional power structure of Nazi Germany and showed how Hitler’s personal authority was only one of many. In The Hitler State Martin Brozat turned the argument away from Hitler-centric ideas of Nazi history. Hans Mommsen stated convincingly that Hitler had improvised his policies, not worked from a long term plan.
However, there are still many convincing elements to the Intentionalist argument. We know many details of Hitler’s youth and upbringing which suggest strongly that many of the policies of the Nazi Governments have their origin in Hitler and the ideas that he formed before he joined the party. The area of Austria in which Hitler was born was, like many border areas, particularly nationalistic. He grew up with ideas that were to dominate both his life and later the Nazi movement - ideas such as Pan-Germanism. He was influenced by nationalistic ideas of his teachers, especially his History master, Leopold Pötsch. This led him to Munich, and into the army on the outbreak of war. His experiences of war shaped many of his ideas, such as German domination of Eastern Europe, the need for self-sufficiency shown by the blockade, and a hatred of socialists, who he believed had betrayed Germany in 1918.
As early as 1919 he was demanding legal attacks on the Jews, and later talked about the possibility of the extermination of them during a war. Indeed, Hitler’s anti-Semitism is something which many people agree was strong and forged at an early age, and that anti-Semitic policies were pursued so vigorously by the Nazi government would indicate Hitler’s clear influence. Of course, it cannot be said that Hitler planned the physical extermination of the Jews before the 1930s, but there is a clear continuity of his ideas from their formation in his youth.. It is also true that once the Nazi popularity was established Hitler’s emphasis on anti-Semitism in his propaganda diminished, but this was more linked to his playing to the views of the majority, who were not concerned about the Jews, rather than a development of his views. Also consistent is Hitler’s views and later actions on Communism. Hitler had always hated Communism and the Bolsheviks, and this can be seen being carried into policy during the 1930s and 1940s. Hitler, once in power, lost no time in disposing of the KPD and Trade Unions, and war with Russia was a long standing commitment of Hitler which came to fruition in 1941.
Hitler can also be shown to be a long-time believer in the idea of the use of force to expand Germany’s frontiers. In 1928 Hitler said:
If you want to feed the German people you must always give pride of place to the use of force. Without force you will never be able to give the German people the soil which is its due by virtue of its power, its numbers and the laziness of neighbouring peoples
Of course, ideas of attacking the Jews and Communists were common in 1920s Germany, as were his many other discernible policies, such as opposition to the Treaty of Versailles. There were many in the Nazi movement who held very similar views, so we have to see how far the adoption of so many policies which were personally important to Hitler was due to his direct authority. Hitler had a profound effect on the Nazi party when he joined after the war. He was, if nothing else, a good orator and through this talent came to be the dominant speaker of the party, and he greatly enhanced its fortunes. In 46 meetings held by the Nazis between November 1919 and November 1920 Hitler was the main speaker at 31. In 1921 he demanded to be made the first chairman, and soon after this collective leadership came to a complete end when he became the "Führer". By this event, the Nazi party had to a very great extent become the Hitler movement. The broad thrusts of Nazi policy came to reflect what he believed in, especially ideas of Social Darwinism and anti-Semitism. Hitler was not just useful as the party established itself - as the Weimar Republic began to fail from 1929 he was very active, more so than any other contemporary German politician. He used aircraft to move around during elections, meaning in July 1932 he was able to speak in 50 urban mass meetings in only 14 days.
However, though Hitler was influential in the early years in shaping the character of Nazi policies, how far did have the personal authority to shape policy once the Nazi party came to power? Though Brozat talks about the great importance and influence of Hitler he also concentrates on the form which Nazi government took. It is a common misconception that the Nazi governmental system was efficient and centralised. Any pretence National Socialism had to centralised, directed government was reduced greatly when the cabinet stopped meeting in 1938. Party and state institutions clashed with organisations such as the Four Year Plans and the SS, who cut across governmental boundaries. Hitler was a very important factor in this increasingly chaotic system of shifting power bases and competition for authority, and some have seen the chaos as something he gained personal strength from the division - a "divide and rule" policy. However, the disintegration of government activity meant policy could not easily be centrally controlled, and rational direction of government was impossible. Hitler also had little to do with the day-to-day running of the system: he had to maintain this position to remain outside factional infighting and avoid being associated with unpopular decisions. This is all important for the question of whether Hitler had a clear plan for Germany which he carried though on his personal authority because it undermines the idea that Hitler was in control of the system and shaped it according to his will. The Hitler of Brozat’s model was able to form the direction of policy but was not able to be the absolute dictator many assume him to have been.
Hans Mommsen went even further, stating that Hitler’s fanatical and irrational objectives could not have provided the basis for rational government, and that his ideas were more propaganda than policy. He also said that Hitler was weak and avoided decision making. Hitler was not solely responsible for the extreme policies of the Nazi years - there were many others who furthered the process and encouraged it, including the élites of Germany who had helped the Nazis to power. Indeed, though many assume that the Nazis had destroyed all opposition to them and acted alone in government, they were never to be free of the interests of the élites - the army, large-scale industry, even the nobility, all had enough influence to force the Nazis to consider their views. Of course, neither Hitler not his party were ever free of the need to keep the support of the people.
Therefore, Hitler did not, because of a number of factors, have the freedom of action he would have needed to be responsible for the planning and execution of Nazi policies. It can also be claimed that he did not even have the plans for the development of Germany under his rule planned out in detail before he came to power. Of course, tendencies such as violent expansion, Social Darwinistic views of race and foreign policy and anti-Semitism can be seen from fairly early on, but the plans were by no means complete. For example, he recognised the need for alliances if a war was to be successful, and though no necessarily the same as what occurred, they were at least as logical as his other plans. For example, he held the view for many years that Great Britain could be a possibly ally against France and Russia. However, these plans took no account of the USA, by then the most economically powerful state on earth. Equally, he talked of German expansion into the East, but often ignored the USSR in his plans.
Many of Hitler’s speeches and writings are also contradictory and vague, partly because he tended to become "carried away", especially by the response of an audience he was speaking to. He never wrote a systematic account of his views, or his plans for the future, and so trying to decide on what his plans were, and how early he formed them, is not as easy process. There is also the factor that he talked of things which did not become Nazi policies. It must also be kept in mind that as a politician, Hitler said things because they were convenient, for propaganda purposes, and sometimes it is very hard to separate the policy from the propaganda.
This aside, the Intentionalist arguments remain, to an extent, convincing. Despite contradictions and shifting ideas, the concepts behind the detail of Hitler’s plans, judging them by his public speeches and oratory, remained very consistent through his public career. They were also to a large extent the policies of the National Socialist Party in government. Some of these ideas were illogical to the point of insanity, such as plans to move entire populations from eastern Europe, and replace them with Germans, running farms and businesses, the infamous "General Plan East", but the government even made an attempt at putting this into practice (although they found the German people less eager to return to the land than they expected). That plans such as this were carried out shows there was some guidance by Hitler. In the Autumn of 1932, at a Conference at the Munich Brown House, Hitler outlined his plans for the whole of Europe, starting with self-sufficiency and ending with the absolute domination of the party, and the racial domination of the ‘Aryans’.
This is not to discount the Structuralist argument. This is right to argue that Hitler could not have carried through all the Nazi policies alone, and the administrative chaos of the system was a very important factor in the extent of Hitler’s contribution. Other groups in Germany, such as the army and industry, as well as the varying parts of the party, all had a part to play. However, Hitler was at the centre of National Socialism, and the movement was without doubt shaped by his influence. He was not, as some have seen him, simply a nihilist believing in nothing but power. Rather, there were clear goals which he and his party sought and in many cases tried to put into action. In the absence of a coherent record of his views and plans, we cannot say to what extent he had decided on Nazi policies and carried them through before he came to power. Yet, from the writings and speeches he left, and what we know of his character and that of his party, it is clear that Hitler had much to do with the shaping of policy, and that these policies had their basis in the opinions which he had held for much of his life. While not the only cause of National Socialism, Hitler remains a crucial factor, perhaps the most crucial factor, behind its policies and direction.
Martin Brozat, The Hitler State, Longman 1981
William Carr, Hitler - A Study In Personality and Politics, Edward Arnold, 1986
Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship (3rd Edition), Edward Arnold, 1993