Was Hitler a Weak Dictator? David Williamson Examines Two Seemingly Irreconcilable Schools of Thought. (Talking Points)

By Williamson, David | History Review, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Was Hitler a Weak Dictator? David Williamson Examines Two Seemingly Irreconcilable Schools of Thought. (Talking Points)


Williamson, David, History Review


Perhaps of all the exam questions set on the Third Reich, `Was Hitler a Weak Dictator?' is the most difficult. It leads to the heart of the complex Intentionalist-Structuralist debate. On the one hand, there are the Intentionalist historians who argue forcefully in the words of Norman Rich that `Hitler was master in the Third Reich', while the Structuralists stress the many constraints on Hitler's power which range from his own personal inadequacies to the limits imposed upon him by the structure of the Nazi party and state. Mommsen, for instance, argues that he was `in many ways a weak dictator', (1) and David Irving in one of his earlier and less outrageous books even goes so far as to describe him as `probably the weakest leader Germany has known this century'. (2)

The weak dictator/leader argument is paradoxical and is bitterly contested by a formidable array of historians who include, amongst many others, Bullock, Bracher, Dawidowicz, Hildebrand, and Jackel, who argue that Hitler had a programme and possessed the necessary powers to implement it. Bracher and Bullock, for instance, see Hitler as an immensely cunning politician who would use any tactic to further his aims. Bullock stresses that his foreign policy is only explicable if seen as a combination of `consistency of aim with complete opportunism in method and tactics'. (3)

It is certainly hard to make out a case for Hitler being a weak leader in the period 1925-33. He was able to consolidate his position at the Bamberg meeting in February 1926, and during the crucial years of 1930-32 he resisted being manipulated prematurely into a coalition where his party could be used as lobby fodder by Bruning or von Papen. Similarly he was able to restrain the SA from putting his pseudo-constitutional tactics in jeopardy by hazarding everything by risking an armed uprising in 1932. It may be, as Gregor Strasser argued, that these tactics showed a dangerous indecision and that Hitler was only saved from failure by the notorious `backstairs intrigues' of von Papen and the banker Schroder; but at least they were held to consistently, and the Party was forced to follow them.

In power once he had consolidated his position by the autumn of 1934 Hitler was, theoretically at least, omnipotent. He was both Chancellor and Head of State, and, to quote Hans Frank, `supreme judge of the nation'. (4) After 1937 Cabinet meetings ceased. Legal principles such as equality before the law and civil rights were suspended by a series of arbitrary laws such as the Decree for the Protection of the Nationalist Movement. He had too the means to enforce this power. The Gestapo, reinforced by the SS, prison camps and informers, effectively broke any opposition. It was not surprising then that von Weiszacker, the State Secretary in the Foreign Office, believed his `omnipotence existed to a large extent in fact and was highly effective'. (5) How is it then that, despite this very visible evidence of Hitler's power, he can still be called a weak dictator?

Definitions of weakness

In exploring this problem Ian Kershaw has produced what he calls `three categories of possible weakness': (6)

* Hitler's reluctance to make decisions

* The extent to which his decisions were either ignored or altered by his subordinates.

* The degree to which his policy was ultimately determined, or at least influenced, by such factors as the international situation, pressures from the Party, the threat of social unrest from the workers and the inadequacies of the German economy.

Decision-Maker and Source of Authority

Hitler's eccentric working habits have been well described by Albert Speer, his favourite architect and later Minister of Munitions and Armaments, in his memoirs:

   `I would often ask myself did he really work? Little was left of the day;
   he rose late in the morning and conducted one or two official conferences;
   but from the subsequent dinner on he more or less wasted his time until the
   early hours of the evening. … 

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