I was inspired by a tweet by @nycsouthpaw to read Ian Kershaw’s well-known essay “Working Toward the Führer”: Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship. I was not disappointed; Kershaw gives a compelling analysis of the internal workings of a particular kind of authoritarian regime. In the interests of space, I will not quote the whole thing, so you will need to read the original for Kershaw’s observations on Stalin, Max Weber, succession planning, and other peripheral topics. But a number of passages about Hitler and how he ruled struck me as quite illuminating.
Kershaw opens by observing how detached Hitler was from the work of running a government:
Hitler’s way of operating was scarcely conducive to ordered government. Increasingly, after the first year or two of the dictatorship, he reverted to a lifestyle recognisable not only in the party leader of the 1920s but even in the description of the habits of the indolent youth in Linz and Vienna recorded by his friend Kubizek. According to the post-war testimony of one of his former adjutants:
Hitler normally appeared shortly before lunch, quickly read through Reich Press Chief Dietrich’s press cuttings, and then went into lunch. … When Hitler stayed at Obersalzberg it was even worse. There, he never left his room before 2.00 p.m. Then, he went to lunch. He spent most afternoons taking a walk, in the evening straight after dinner, there were films. … He disliked the study of documents. I have sometimes secured decisions from him, even ones about important matters, without his ever asking to see the relevant files.
He preferred to act by personal fiat, relying on individuals rather than on institutions:
Hitler seems to have had no deliberate policy of destabilisation, but rather, as a consequence of his non-bureaucratic leadership position and the inbuilt need to protect his deified leadership position by non-association with political infighting and potentially unpopular policies, to have presided over an inexorable erosion of ‘rational’ forms of government. And while the metaphor of ‘feudal anarchy’ might be applied to both systems, it seems more apt as a depiction of the Hitler regime, where bonds of personal loyalty were from the beginning the crucial determinants of power, wholly overriding functional position and status.
The almost inevitable result of this management style was that his administration existed in a perpetual and increasing state of chaos:
I have just used the word ‘system’ of Nazism. But where Soviet communism in the Stalin era, despite the dictator’s brutal detabilisation, remained recognisable as a system of rule, the Hitler regime was inimical to a rational order of government and administration. Its hallmark was systemlessness, administrative and governmental disorder, the erosion of clear patterns of government, however despotic.
This was already plain within Germany in the pre-war years as institutions and structures of government and administration atrophied, were eroded or merely bypassed, and faded into oblivion. It was not simply a matter of the unresolved Party-State dualism. The proliferation of ‘special authorities’ and plenipotentiaries for specific tasks, delegated by the Führer and responsible directly to him, reflected the predatory character and improvised techniques immanent in Nazi domination. Lack of coherent planning related to attainable middle-range goals; absence of any forum for collective decision-making; the arbitrary exercise of power embedded in the ‘leadership principle’ at all levels; the Darwinian principle of unchecked struggle and competition until the winner emerged; and the simplistic belief in the ‘triumph of the will’, whatever the complexities to be overcome: all these reinforced each other and interacted to guarantee a jungle of competing and overlapping agencies of rule.
He was able to be a such a weak head of government because his base of support wasn’t dependent on the quality of his administration:
Since the mid-1920s, ideological orthodoxy was synonymous with adherence to Hitler. ‘For us the Idea is the Führer, and each Party member has only to obey the Führer,’ Hitler allegedly told Otto Strasser in 1930. The build-up of a ‘Führer party’ squeezed heterodox positions onto the sidelines, then out of the party. By the time the regime was established and consolidated, there was no tenable position within Nazism compatible with a fundamental challenge to Hitler. His leadership position, as the font of ideological orthodoxy, the very epitome of Nazism itself, was beyond question within the movement. Opposition to Hitler on fundamentals ruled itself out, even among the highest and mightiest in the party. Invoking the Führer’s name was the pathway to success and advancement. Countering the ideological prerogatives bound up with Hitler’s position was incompatible with clambering up the greasy pole to status and power.
And yet, despite Hitler’s incompetence at pulling the levers of formal governmental power, he was quite successful at getting the state to do the insane things he wanted. Kershaw points to three mechanisms: Hitler was a unifier, an activator, and an enabler. First, he was a symbolic and ideological figurehead for his supporters:
As unifier, the ‘idea’ incorporated in the quasi-deified Führer figure was sufficiently indistinct but dynamic to act as a bond not only for otherwise warring factions of the Nazi Movement but also, until it was too late to extricate themselves from the fateful development, for non-Nazi national-conservative elites in army, economy and state bureaucracy. It also offered the main prop of popular support for the regime (repeatedly giving Hitler a plebiscitary basis for his actions) and a common denominator around which an underlying consensus in Nazi policy could be focused.
Second, he energized them to act out on their own:
As activator, the ‘vision’ embodied by Hitler served as a stimulant to action in the different agencies of the Nazi Movement itself, where pent-up energies and unfulfilled social expectations could be met by activism carried out in Hitler’s name to bring about the aims of Leader and Party. But beyond the movement, it also spurred initiatives within the state bureaucracy, industry and the armed forces, and among the professionals such as teachers, doctors or lawyers where the motif of ‘national redemption’ could offer an open door to the push for realisation of long-cherished ambitions felt to have been held back or damaged by the Weimar ‘system’. In all these ways, the Utopian ‘vision’ bound up with the Führer – undefined and largely undefinable – provided ‘guidelines for action’ which were given concrete meaning and specific content by the voluntary ‘push’ of a wide variety of often competing agencies of the regime.
Third, he used his power to ratify their actions:
Perhaps most important of all, as enabler Hitler’s authority gave implicit backing and sanction to those whose actions, however inhumane, however radical, fell within the general and vague ideological remit of furthering the aims of the Führer. Building a ‘national community’, preparing for the showdown with Bolshevism, purifying the Reich of its political and biological or racial enemies, and removing Jews from Germany, offered free licence to initiatives which, unless inopportune or counter-productive, were more or less guaranteed sanction from above. The collapse in civilised standards which began in the spring of 1933, and the spiralling radicalisation of discrimination and persecution that followed, were not only unobstructed but invariably found legitimation in the highest authority in the land.
The title of the essay comes from a remarkable quote from “the sentiments of a routine speech from a Nazi functionary in 1934”:
Everyone who has the opportunity to observe it knows that the Führer can hardly dictate from above everything which he intends to realise sooner or later. On the now contrary, up till now everyone with a post in the new Germany has worked best when he has, so to speak, worked towards the Führer. Very often and in many spheres it has been the case – in previous years as well – that individuals have simply waited for orders and instructions. Unfortunately, the same will be true in the future; but in fact it is the duty of everybody to try to work towards the Führer along the lines he would wish. Anyone who makes mistakes will notice it soon enough. But anyone who really works towards the Führer along his lines and towards his goal will certainly both now and in the future one day have the finest reward in the form of the sudden legal confirmation of his work.
I found this to be one of the most illuminating things I have ever read on the dynamics of the Trump administration.