Where are the democratic leaders

National Socialism and World War II

Hans-Ulrich Thamer

To person

Born in 1943, is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Münster. His main research interests are National Socialism and European Fascism.

Publications including: Seduction and violence. Germany 1933-1945, (The Germans and their Nation, Vol. 5), Berlin 1986; National Socialism, Stuttgart 2002.

In August 1934, Hitler had his new power confirmed in a staged referendum entitled "Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor". From now on he was head of state, head of government, commander-in-chief of the Reichswehr and supreme court lord. Nonetheless, a bitter struggle between rival interest groups raged on all levels of the system.

Adolf Hitler comes from the party headquarters of the NSDAP in Munich. (& copy AP)


On August 20, 1934, Hitler announced the end of a fifteen-year struggle for "our movement for power in Germany. [...] Starting with the top management of the Reich, through the entire administration, to the leadership of the last town, the German Reich is in the Hand of the National Socialist Party ". In fact, Hitler and the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party) had not only completely changed the political system in less than a year and a half after taking over the Reich Chancellorship, but also conquered rule to such an extent that no area of ​​economy, society and culture was relieved of the will to form National Socialism remained unaffected. Through a referendum on August 19, 1934, in which the voters had no real decision-making options, Hitler had his new power as head of state, head of government, commander-in-chief of the Reichswehr and supreme court ruler with 89.9 percent of the votes (with an unusually large number of no votes for such a vote). Another fortnight later, the 6th Nuremberg Party Rally of the NSDAP, as "Triumph des Willens" filmed by the director Leni Riefenstahl, presented the victory and rule of National Socialism and its leader, who now established his regime for the long term. The improvised party congress backdrop in Nuremberg was to be replaced by a colossal temple architecture with a claim to eternity.

The basics of National Socialist rule and the most important rule techniques were thus developed. With the characteristic double strategy of oppression and organized temptation, the National Socialists, with the support or tolerance of not inconsiderable parts of society, completely ruined the parliamentary-democratic institutions in the Reich, in the federal states and municipalities, and brought parties and trade unions into line. At the same time, the National Socialists, supported by the state apparatus of rule as well as by their own impatient mass movement, had gradually eroded the constitutional and constitutional state. In doing so, they not only made use of the power of the Reich President to issue emergency ordinances (according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution) and other pseudo-legal justifications, but also pulled out all the stops of modern mass mobilization and staging that were supposed to give the appearance of political participation and democracy.

The constitutional and socio-historical consequences of the National Socialist takeover of power in 1933/34 could hardly have been more drastic: the rule of law and parliamentary democracy were eliminated, the separation of powers was abolished. Also disappeared were the safeguards against dictatorship that had been expressly built into the Enabling Act to calm the German national alliance partners in March 1933 (see also Information on Political Education No. 251 "National Socialism I", p. 42 f.). The legislature had degenerated into a mere acclamation organ. The countries were brought into line and thus without their own law; government structures should continue to change gradually. The functions of the Reich Cabinet were eroded, and in return, new special authorities emerged which were subordinate to neither the state nor the party, but exclusively to the will of the Führer. In addition, Hitler, who after the death of Reich President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) was also Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr, still claimed the role of Supreme Court Lord.

Rival power holders

Whoever assumed that after the bloody purges of June 30, 1934 (arrest and murder of the entire top SA leadership, see also Information on Political Education No. 251 "National Socialism I", p. 53 ff.) would stabilize in the sense of a repressive, conservative-authoritarian regime under a strict leadership, saw itself in several ways deceived. On the one hand, he underestimated the inner dynamics of the National Socialist leadership state, and on the other, he overlooked the power struggles, conflicts of competence and disintegration that were taking place behind the facade of leadership. At no time did they give the political system of the "Third Reich" a fixed form. There was no uniformly structured concept of National Socialist rule, nor could regular governmental and administrative action be reconciled with a leader's will that defied any rule.

What was political practice in the NSDAP was gradually transferred to state action. There had never been a regulated structure of decision-making and command in the party; rather, the "Reichsführung" consisted of a group of individuals or cliques who were in a personal relationship of loyalty and allegiance to their "Führer". Conversely, the latter distributed his favor arbitrarily and never invited his subordinates to joint meetings, but only to individual discussions. Political decisions soon depended on access to Hitler and were no longer a matter of a formal decision-making process in a competent body. This led to the blurring of competencies and gave Hitler ever greater power, as he was able to function as a kind of arbiter between the rival power holders in the person-oriented system of rule (see also page 8).

The practice of issuing exceptions and a variety of offices, which became more and more confusing as a result of the establishment of new special authorities and commissioners, determined the further development of the regime and the permanent, creeping change in its political and social structures. The extraordinary will of the leader with his delegated special powers became the actual political driving force and thereby superimposed the formal government and administrative structures. What was quite effective in the short term as a means of increasing power and, due to its form of unregulated competition for power and favor, as a factor of acceleration and increase in performance, led, with increasing duration, to ever greater friction losses and destroyed any regularity and predictability. The propaganda formal "one people, one empire, one leader", which soon became common, gave the outside impression of a strong state ruled by a unified will of the leader.

Behind this facade, however, a confusion and opposition of individual persons and power groups from the party, SS, Wehrmacht and new special authorities unfolded, which in retrospect looks almost like an authoritarian anarchy. This is why the Fuehrer's "secretary", head of the Reich Chancellery Martin Bormann (1900–1945), worried about the internal cohesion of the regime during the war: "If the Reich's legislation was originally too cumbersome and tied to too many formal requirements, so it has experienced a loosening over the last few years, the possible effects of which must be recognized in good time if serious dangers for the government are to be avoided.

That, despite this unmistakable "loosening", which Bormann apparently feared in the long run would endanger the balance of power, the Nazi regime experienced an ever greater radicalization of its domination goals and methods and was able to develop an unimaginable energy of conquest and destruction until its end Illustration and explanation. Admittedly, Hitler became more and more the "Lord of the Third Reich" (Norman Rich). Yet Hitler's power cannot be derived solely from his will to power and his goals for power, nor can it be explained without the internal functioning of the regime and without the growing willingness of ever larger sections of the population to support National Socialism.

Radicalization and expansion of power

The radicalization and further expansion of power took place gradually, with important decisions being made between 1934 and 1938. More than any other period in the history of the Nazi regime, these years were marked by a discrepancy between the outside and the inside. The external image of the Third Reich in 1935 and 1938 was determined by an alleged stabilization and apparent political moderation in a conservative-authoritarian sense, and this is how it was often established in the perception and memory of contemporaries.

By no means all ministries were occupied by National Socialists. The Reichswehr also received a (dubious) guarantee of its autonomy after submitting a personal oath to Hitler. This time was perceived by the public as both the normal, good (peace) years and the phase of a clear economic and labor market improvement. It was considered the time of glamorous stagings of a supposed national community and foreign policy successes, ranging from the "return home" of the Saarland to the introduction of general conscription, the invasion of the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland to the "annexation of Austria".

Almost all foreign and military policy actions and decisions violated international treaties, but they could be justified with the desire to revise the Versailles Treaty of 1919, which was perceived as a dictate (see also Information on Political Education No. 261, "Weimar Republic", P. 18 ff.). Above all, they increased Hitler's myth and contributed to the creation of the beautiful appearance of a certainly authoritarian but emerging industrial and welfare state that boasted of the motorway construction he had promoted and the popular leisure organization "Kraft durch Freude". However, behind this facade hid the "ugly face" of the dictatorship in the form of the radicalizing persecution of the Jews and the permanent suppression of all opposition.

It is also true of foreign policy that the apparently peaceful years of a supposedly moderate revision policy of the German Reich up to 1937/38 cannot be separated from the years of aggression and expansion that began in 1938. Rather, the first phase served only the covert preparation and safeguarding of the habitat policy aimed at conquest and destruction. As the goal of rule, it always determined Hitler's thinking and must be taken seriously as the driving force of his policy. Its realization came closer to the extent that the power-political prerequisites for it arose. One of the internal prerequisites was the growing power of the dictator over the allies from bureaucracy, business and the military, who were striving for a Greater German Reich, but advocated a more cautious strategy and policy in armament and the implementation of foreign policy goals. The external prerequisites included the weaknesses and trouble spots in international politics. They offered favorable conditions for a revision of the Versailles treaty system, but also for a revolution in foreign policy. This consisted in a deliberate suspension of the rules of the game of international politics, which despite numerous violations were still determined by the idea of ​​collective conflict settlement through conferences and treaties as well as the principles of balance and respect for the integrity of the other states.

Above all, an unspoken principle of European politics applied to reciprocal relations between states. According to this, for reasons of the self-preservation of one's own state and one's own society alone, the means of politics should be in a calculable and rational relationship to the goals of politics. It would have to be all the more threatening for the international order if an unscrupulous political gambler like Hitler, who said of himself that he had always "played vabanque", could conquer political, economic and military power that emerged from the instability of the international To use the constellation's opportunities for blackmail and aggression. This is exactly what the National Socialist leadership did gradually from 1935 onwards. It initially achieved significant national political successes, which also strengthened the regime domestically. In the long term, however, the foreign policy of the Nazi regime, which was increasingly determined by the principle of all or nothing, resulted in an unchecked and ever accelerating dynamic that overlooked the limits of the possible and ended in war, annihilation and self-destruction.
Extract from:
Information on political education (Issue 266) - Elimination of the rule of law