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How Powerful was Hitler in the Third Reich

Since Hitler’s death in 1945 the world has been largely divided on the subject of his power. Some argue that he was a strong and powerful dictator; others would say that he was fundamentally weak, leaving all major decisions to his subordinates.After the Enabling Act was brought into effect in 1934, Hitler succeeded in removing any serious threat to his dictatorship, by destroying the constitution, forming alliances with key industries (the civil service, army and judiciary system) and suppressing civil liberties. By January 1934 he had also banned all other political parties and dissolved the Reichstrat and state parliaments. Supreme dictatorship over the Nazi party itself was achieved with the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, which both removed Rohm and other influential Nazis, and frightened dissident groups into obeying the party – it both strengthened Hitler’s control and guaranteed that his power would not come under threat soon. When President Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler made himself absolute ruler of Germany.From then on Hitler was theoretically in a position of supreme autocracy – he had the power to appoint all ministers, approve all laws, declare war and decide foreign policy. However, for the first four years the regime did not work autocratically, and Hitler was forced to rely on his alliances and work with the army, civil service and business. By 1938, though, these constraints were removed and he had complete control over the state, and Hitler was able to dictate the actions of these sectors, rather than having to consult and work with them.Despite now being a dictator, Hitler was aware that public opinion was extremely important. Therefore, unlike most dictators who alienated the public through their lust for power, Hitler was careful to remain popular – to the extent of immense propaganda campaigns. This both removed a significant amount of threat against him, and made it easier to dictate his wishes, for example the employment initiatives after 1933 required collaboration with businesses. Although this awareness of public image gave him power and loyalty from Germans, many have argued that it lead to weaknesses in his ability to make quick, sharp decisions, and led to an avoidance of making decisions that he believed could hurt his image and prestige. He also overturned some laws because they were unpopular, including the euthanasia programme.During the last years of Nazi rule, Hitler spent much of his time at his house in Berchtesgaden, and gradually became withdrawn from government, often neglecting his responsibility to make decisions. The State Secretary in the Foreign Office, Ernst von Weizsacker, said at the time that getting Hitler to make a decision was a case of ‘making the most of a favourable hour or minute’ and that the decision itself often took ‘the form of a remark thrown out casually, which then went its way as an “Order of the Fuhrer”‘i. As the regime progressed, Hitler’s decisions were often impulsive, and depended as much on who was making the proposal and its timing as the proposal itself, with ministers such as Himmler and Speer carefully packaging their requests in a way that they knew would get the desired response.This opened the way for those who wished to take advantage of the situation, and the real power began to move into the hands of other ministers and influential Nazis, the strongest of which were Himmler, Goring, and Goebbels. As well as taking advantage of Hitler’s absences and impulsiveness, Hitler, who assumed that he could trust their judgement, also granted them a certain amount of freedom. Therefore, many of the decisions that have been accredited to ‘Hitler’s Nazi government’ were in fact proposed and carried out by other Nazi officials – the euthanasia programme, the extermination of the Jews; done in Hitler’s name, but with his role being little more than that of a rubber stamp.Although it is true that proposals Hitler himself put forward were never questioned or blocked, and he was never openly questioned as the rightful leader of Germany by his cabinet, he rarely blocked proposals his ministers put forward, and so it can be argued that he lost much of his decision-making power while still holding onto his supremacy.However, Hitler was still crucial to the regime. Public image, as he had always believed, was vitally important to the success of the party, particularly during the Second World War, and Hitler was still a great symbol that united the German people. Though his ministers were adept at manipulating him, Hitler knew that they were fundamentally loyal to him, and trusted their judgement. And, although he relinquished much of his decision-making power, he did so mostly voluntarily, and was always required to accept a proposal for it to go forward – he could still veto whatever he liked. According to Speer, although Hitler would often neglect an urgent problem for weeks, when his solution did arise he would carry it through to the end:’After the ‘sudden insight’ came, he would spend days of intensive work giving final shape to his solution.’iiSo, Hitler could be and was involved deeply in decision-making when he chose to be so. Nigel Rodgers has said that ‘although he had a remarkable memory, being able to grasp and memorise technical details with impressive ease, he had no patience for the minutiae of government, hating to read detailed documents.’iiiSome elements of both views are correct, but overall Hitler was a strong leader who chose to maintain a removed position. Far from being weak because of his lack of decision-making, this in fact shows his strengths – he had successfully set up a regime that did not need his constant supervision to prosper. Martin Collier and Philip Pedley have remarked that ‘However much initiative they were allowed, they [his subordinates] were, until the end, fanatically loyal and always tried to translate his visions into specific policies.’ivHitler was crucial to the survival of the regime, but his constant input was not needed. When he did involve himself, as has been seen, he was never challenged, and ultimately remained supreme ruler until the end.

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