How Totalitarian was the Third Riech?

To be able to decide to what extent the Third Reich can be considered to have been a totalitarian state, we must first decide what we mean by ‘totalitarian’. One very influential definition was formulated by Carl Friedrich, who came up with 6 features of totalitarian states. These were only one official ideology, a single mass party, terroristic police control, a monopoly of the media, a monopoly of arms, central control of the economy. However, many have now discounted this theory as too rigid a definition. Hannah Arendt came up with a more fluid definition of totalitarianism, talking of how it was only possible in modern society, as the state control of people’s lives replaces the community they have lost through moving from the village system. In this model groups such as Roman Catholics and the Working Class are not usually interested as they have their own set of beliefs and a world view. A more complete theory came from K. D. Bracher. He did not want to tie himself down to the static theory of Friedrich - more decisive for him is the total claim to rule and lead of a totalitarian state.

It is fair to say that the Nazi Party did have as its intention the creation of what we would see as a totalitarian state, but the important question is how far they achieved this goal. Whatever definition of totalitarianism is used, certain factors must be present. For example, the degree to which they controlled groups such as the administration, the police and the army are very important, as power bases outside party control should not be a part of a totalitarian state. The extent to which the Nazis built totalitarianism can also be seen in the extent to which people in the Third Reich felt part of the system, and how much they felt apart from it, although obviously this is a more objective measurement.

However, for many people a measure of how totalitarian the Third Reich was can be seen in the nature of its government, and especially the extent to which power was concentrated in the hands of the leader of the state, Adolf Hitler. The leader was bound to be an important part of a German Dictatorship. In his book The Hitler State, Martin Brozat talks of the idea of a national leader being an important and popular one with the middle classes, dating back to when the nationalists had wanted a strong leader to take over from the feeble Kaiser Wilhelm before the war. Hitler was certainly able to take this position due to his exceptional ability as a propagandist and an orator, and in the minds of people inside and outside Germany, he seemed to be a very complete and strong ruler.

Hitler had dominated the Nazi Party since he joined it just after the war. He became their key speaker and was crucial in building their base of support in the early 1920s. When in 1921 he demanded to be made the first chairman of the party with far reaching power the others quickly agreed, and as he soon became the "Führer" of the party collective leadership ended and the NSDAP. As the Nazi Party gained popular support he remained just as important to it, and by 1930 "Heil Hitler" became the dominant greeting in the party. Bracher in The Role of Hitler says that "National Socialism can indeed be called Hitlerism"

Hitler retained this level of authority in government, and supreme power was concentrated - at least in theory - in his hands. Access to the Führer became the most important thing for government to proceed, and ministers who did not have access to him quickly fell from authority. Obviously the competence of this ruler to govern such a massive country was limited by many factors, especially by the information he received and the people who carried out his direct orders. Many have said however that he was not able to exercise the level of actual control of the country that his personal authority implies. This argument is part of the contentious debate between the "Intentionalists" and "Structuralists". This argument revolves around whether or not Hitler had a clear plan of policies to follow, and whether he was able to put this into practice. The structure of government was certainly chaotic and confused, but some would say this gave Hitler an advantage which enhanced his personal authority. Otto Dietrich, the Press Chief of the Third Reich from 1933-1945 saw the functioning of the state close up, and said Hitler concentrated great power in his hands by "playing one off against the other".

Hitler ended the use of independent heads of departments with their own authority, replacing them with dependant secretaries with no authority to do what he told them and no more. For example, he never had the support of a war minister or Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, assuming himself the position of war leader and in 1941 becoming the supreme commander of the army.Hitler did allow some trusted men to gain authority over certain areas which he was not interested in, such as Goebbles in Propaganda and Göring in the air force, but he would not allow the development of any personality to rival his.

However, Hitler did not exercise this immense authority efficiently enough to become a totalitarian leader. Mommsen describes how he became very removed from day-to-day decision making and distanced himself from policies, either through laziness or through a fear of becoming associated with unpopular decisions (e.g. the Euthanasia programme, which became unpopular and was officially withdrawn). By the later stages of the regime so many orders of the Führer were issued he must have had these brought to him by the government machine, orders which were then signed and issued as Hitler’s direct will. Indeed Mommsen goes further, saying that Hitler’s fanatical and irrational objectives could not have formed the basis for rational government. He remained a propagandist and much of what he said was nothing more than propaganda.

The chaos of the system doubtless limited the extent to which the Third Reich was totalitarian. In theory Hitler built a very efficient system, made more so by not being tied to wasteful democratic institutions. The system emphasised the chain of command, with a Pyramidal structure of responsibility and the Führer in time appointing a Senate to decide on his successor. Competence would decide all appointments, and so the most able would naturally drift to the office of Führer, an expression of Darwinistic ideas of natural selection applied to government.

However, in reality this created utter chaos, largely because Hitler did not construct the state machine effectively. Instead of constructing a hierarchy of leaders to check and advise him, he allowed no other authority but his. In The Hitler State Martin Brozat reveals the chaotic system of government which saw remaining state governmental institutions govern alongside Nazi institutions in an uneasy "power-sharing". Within the party centralised governmental planning largely ended with the end of the Cabinet in 1938. Nazi institutions were established whose jurisdiction overlapped to a great extent resulting in government activity being reduced to a shambles of constantly shifting power bases. For example, as head of the Four Year Plan, Göring had control over the entire German planned economy, yet there was also a minister for the economy, Schact. Later, the minister for War Production, Spear, was engaged in a permanent feud with the High Command of the Armed Forces over problems of armaments. Hitler in 1933 appointed Goebbles chief of the German Press Association, but he also appointed a Reich Head for the Press and a Reich Press Chief. Sometimes this system could breakout into feuding and violence, such as when the SA were destroyed.

This system was no accident - it was Hitler’s method of ruling. He played one man or department off against another, and played the role of arbiter in disputes between departments with authority over the same areas - giving him enormous control over the decision making process. Yet the system was hugely wasteful, as departments would have to employ many people in the completely unproductive work of sorting out jurisdictional conflicts. The system was even extended to the occupied territories during the war, spreading still further the confusion and waste in the system. All this could be said to be unimportant to a debate on the totalitarian nature of the Third Reich, yet this chaos limited the Nazis’ power in several ways. The chaotic administrative system meant planning and decisive policy, essential to the efficient governing of a state, was not possible. Through its divisions, the Nazi regimes fought each other instead of outside enemies, allowing the authority of the government to slip. For a fully totalitarian regime, the government would have had to have lived up to its own theoretical standards, but because it was so inefficient, different groups managed to retain their own power bases of authority.

Perhaps the most important of these was the Army. Hitler had tried from the outset to gain the support of the army, as he knew from 1924 that he would need it maintain him in power, as well as needed the experience of the generals for foreign policy. Conservative forces in the army were ready to support him, but he had to make concessions. Part of the reason for the destruction of the SA was that the army were concerned it could be used to replace them, as top Nazis had suggested, and its removal won over many. The army was willing to tolerate Hitler as he promised to restore their prestige. After the seizure of power, the army resisted attempts to gain control of it with the party, and it was not until the later 1930’s that moves were made to establish authority over it, with the removal of Field Marshal von Blomberg and Colonel von Fritschin 1938 when they disagreed with the Führer’s plans. Also in 1938 Hitler made himself Commander in Chief of the army and created a new High Command staffed by men loyal to himself. The oath of allegiance to Hitler, although voluntary, increased Nazi control further. Because of Conscription and non-Nazi soldiers being killed as war began, the government was able to make the influx into the army loyal to National Socialism. Therefore, although the army was never fully under the control of the Nazis, it was usually compliant and became more under their control as time went on.

There were other groups in Germany outside the direct control of the Nazis. The Élites continued to operate as an effective group with their own identity, but these had of course allowed the Nazis into power for their own objectives, especially to prevent left-wing or democratic government from resuming after the Great Depression. Like the army, with whom they were usually connected, they tolerated the Nazis, and were scarcely a very powerful group. More important were the areas of the state apparatus which remained, usually in conflict with Nazi institutions. The process of Gleichschaltung had only removed those with democratic sympathies, and so many who were non party members retained administrative power as bureaucrats and experts. This was one reason why economic planning was never fully concentrated in the Party, as many conservative administrators remained in their positions. The legal system was never fully brought under control, although many in the judicial system co-operated with the Nazis and some Nazi jurisdiction grew up alongside the traditional legal system, such as the activities of the Gestapo.

Another vital aspect of the extent to which the Third Reich was totalitarian is how it affected the everyday life for people. It was a fact that the Nazis could never afford to ignore public opinion completely - even at the height of the war Germany was not able to commit as much of her economy to war production as other countries. Some see the elimination of the SA as partly a concession to a people who were tiring of street violence and political killing. The Nazis also had many popular policies which helped them keep the people in line, especially national success, and success over unemployment and maintaining the standard of living. Improvements in law and order won support, as did emphasis on the role of mothers. However, some groups were disappointed with the Nazis as they had broken promises, especially small businesses and the peasants. The Churches were also a natural base of opposition to the Nazis as their sense of morality might be offended more by Nazi policies and they already had the sub-culture and world view which Fascism offered so many. They also resented attempts to promote a Germanic rather than a Christian religion. The Working Class also had a culture and beliefs of their own, and so were never wholly convinced by Nazi government, but their institutions which could have expressed this officially - the Trade Unions and left wing parties - were dissolved by the Nazis and so their protest had to remain largely private, such as working slowly or sabotaging production, rather than collective protest.

Images we see of Germany under Nazi rule can deceive us into thinking that the regime had more power and control than it did. Pictures of huge rallies and cheering crowds were filmed for propaganda purposes and can have little relevance today. The people cannot as a whole have had the level of enthusiasm they appear to display, but is true that the Nazis ended organised opposition on any scale to their rule. Yet the exceptions in the regime, the groups not under their control, combined with the inefficient system of government they developed, mean the Nazi state was not wholly totalitarian, whichever model is used. It is hard to apply the term totalitarian to a country led by a party and government which had such deep divisions.


Broszat, M, The Hitler State, Longman, 1981.

Kershaw, I, The Nazi Dictatotrship, (3rd ed.,), Edward Arnold, 1993.

Mommsen, H, 'Reflections on the Position of Hitler and Goring in the Third Reich', in T Childers and J Caplan (eds), Re-evaluating the Third Reich, Holmes and Meier, 1993.

Sax, B and Kuntz, D (eds), Inside Hitler's Germany, DC Heath and Co, 1992.

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