It is impossible to determine whether the Nazi regime was an aberration of German history without first defining authority, and indeed what an authoritarian is. The Oxford dictionary defines authority as the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. Equally, authoritarian is defined as favouring or enforcing strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom, all key components of the Third Reich. The period of 1932 to 1945 saw Fascist Germany led by the charismatic Adolf Hitler, a pinnacle figure that encompassed all the traits of an authoritarian leader. Spurred on by the failings of Weimar Germany, and indeed the possibility of placing blame on the Jewish population of Germany, he was capable of overhauling the previously “democratic” Weimar Republic and replacing it with Nazi Germany. To wholly answer the question “To what extent was the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime an aberration in the context of German history in the years 1871-1989” a criterion must be used to compare each era – the style of leadership that each ruler commanded, and the ways in which they aligned with the leadership qualities and styles of Adolf Hitler. Based on such a criterion, one can capture the true nature of the leadership style of Hitler, the ways in which he controlled Germany and how he repressed those that stood up to him. Alike Bismarck and Wilhelm, he was capable of manipulating those below him, a confusion of power struggles with a singular figure leading the way forward. Furthermore, a degree of hatred for a non-German race appeared a necessity, with anti-Semitism key to Hitler’s rise to power. The Nazi regime is arguably a continuity of German history, coinciding with the Sonderweg theory expressed by the likes of A.J.P Taylor and W. Shirer. It is indisputable that Hitler took direct influence from the likes of Wilhelm and Bismarck, their authoritarian nature lulling the people of Germany into the belief that peace and stability was only achieved through force. The failings of the Weimar Republic, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and indeed the impact of the 1930 Great Depression tipped Germany into Nazi rule, but simply acted as a catalyst to speed up such an inevitable political shift.
Nazi Germany can never be fully regarded as an aberration of German history, rather a radical ascension of the Bismarck-Wilhelm era that contrasted the failure of the democratic Weimar Republic. Despite arguments that contradict the Third Reich as a continuation, Hitler only gravitating towards the role as Chancellor due to the 1930 Great Depression, an authoritarian leader was an inevitability in the course of German History. The two main interpretations used will be from the likes of Ian Kershaw and William Shirer; Kershaw argues that Hitler was not an inevitability and despite years of authority his rule was avoidable, an aberration in the German course of history. The latter instead argues that Hitler was simply a continuation of similar leaders Bismarck and Wilhelm; authority a deep root within Germany, Hitler simply following the leadership styles that had succeeded the unification of Germany. Hitler was ultimately a continuation of the course of history – a man following a style of leadership that the German people yearned for, both prior to and following the Third Reich.
To determine whether the Nazi State was in fact an aberration of German history, one must investigate the interpretations of a variety of historians. Interpretation 11 argues that There was nothing inevitable about Hitler’s triumph in January 1933″2, ultimately the rise of such a man was unprecedented and indeed avoidable. He further argues that the rise of the Nazi party was definitive under the Sonderweg theory is heavily disputable; “Five years earlier, the Nazi Party had been a fringe irritant in German politics”3. Such a meteoric rise, coinciding in an unstable post war Germany that contained hundreds of splinter groups of the main political factions, was not down to a German desire to return to a mirror of Bismarck rule, rather an act of desperation following the Great Depression and Bruning’s unprecedented decision to call a general election in a time of great uncertainty. Such radical tendencies appeared to disregard the way in which pre-Weimar Germany was ruled; Both Bismarck and Wilhelm ran under the influence of a monarch, and did not necessarily display the main components of the Nazi Regime so fruitfully; despite anti-Semitism stirring in the late 19th Century, it never took the form that the Third Reich led it to. Furthermore, despite elaborate and often brutal quashing of opposition, all those that preceded never partook within an event as savage as the Night of the Long Knives 1934. It is unsurprising that Kershaw came to the conclusion that Hitler, and indeed the Nazi Party, were not inevitability. Kershaw worked closely with Jürgen Kocka4, finalising that the most convincing argument for the rise of the Third Reich was a moderate Sonderweg theory, evidently the arguments displayed in this interpretation. Furthermore, Kershaw believed that the fine reasoning behind Josef Goebbels failing to fully initiate his plans of the Volksgemeinschaft shed light on the true opinions of the German people; they cared not for Fascism, but money in their pockets and food on their tables. Hitler promised this. Despite prior arguments that displace such an anti -Sonderweg theory, Kershaw establishes the domestic reasoning for such a state to exist – “external events, the Young Plan… the Wall Street Crash”5. Hitler was not inevitable, but perhaps someone very alike the Fuhrer was ready to step into the frame.
Alternatively, Shirer dismisses the argument that Nazi Germany was anything but an aberration, instead a culmination of Bismarck and Wilhelm following a period of democratic failure. Shirer states within Interpretation 26 that the “acceptance of autocracy, of blind obedience to the petty tyrants who ruled as princes, became ingrained in the German mind”7 – it became apparent that, in the special course of German history, a democratic failing would lead to a devolution back to absolute authority, in this context Adolf Hitler, a megalomaniac who grafted his powerbase from the successes of Bismarck. Shirer opts to explain the rise of Hitler through the victories of Bismarck. Ultimately, Germany had been numbed to the pain of oppression, eager to bolster their country and maintain its dominance, “held together by naked aggression”8. It perhaps explains Hitler’s quest to maintain the Aryan race, a common goal to band the people together, as Bismarck did within his Hohenzollern autocracy. The theory of Sonderweg was common in American scholarship during the time of writing, a period of high tension as the USSR and the USA fought democracy against communism, following the downfall of the Third Reich; as Fullbrook, in support of the Sonderweg theory stated “fear of immigrants…unemployment and housing”9 could have easily led to right wing support – such fear was employed by Hitler following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and another versatile right wing fanatic could simply follow suit. Likewise, fear of immigration, of others, was prevalent during the era of Bismarckian era; Jonathan Steinberg, writing as the Annenberg Professor of History, remarks that from 1880 the Landtag “debated the ‘Jewish Question’, as if thousands of German Jews had suddenly become no longer German”10; Ultimately, anti-Semitism had reached such a peak that Bismarck was no longer in control of his people’s opinions, and continued innately until Hitler unleashed the same views upon the public. It is not surprising that Shirer shares the popular view of the Sonderweg theory; from 1930 Shirer documented Nazi rise from within Berlin, even going as far as witnessing solider perspectives on the Western Front – he witnessed anti-Semitism from within Germany, and made historical links back to Bismarck, thereby affiliating it within the Sonderweg theory. Kershaw and Shirer have clear differing views, but they are not as radical as, for example, the theories of Goldhagen. They offer coherent viewpoints, allowing a final conclusion that will express a mixture of both. It is near impossible to declare the Third Reich as an aberration of the German Course of History – elements of Bismarck’s regime seeped into Hitler’s ideologies, to form a new Fascist state, however the radical theories that brought the party to the forefront of German politics are sparsely found prior to 1921. To truly form a well-rounded argument, one must sought out complementing interpretations for both Kershaw and Shirer. The likes of D. Blackbourn; A History of Germany 1780-1918 are in direct agreement with Shirer; Blackbourn concludes that the 1880s heralded the “Domination of colleagues, browbeating opponents and pushing government business through the national parliament”i11 through Bismarck; Hitler appeared to do the very same during his rule, suspending the powers of his opponents and colleagues through the 1934 Rule by Decree, and eliminating a large majority of opposition during Kristallnacht. Alike the era of Bismarck rule, this violent behaviour went without scrutiny paving the way for Hitler to enact the very same. Dissimilarly, D. Peukert believes that “The Weimar Reich constitution provided an open framework for an experiment in democracy which would have been quite capable of further refinement”12 – alike Kershaw, Peukert stands by the argument that the Nazi regime was not inevitability, rather a mistake caused by external shock and fear of uncertainty within Germany.
The period of 1933 to 1945 saw an intense Nazi Germany rise from the ashes of the Weimar Republic fronted by Adolf Hitler, who as stated will be the basis of all comparison whilst answering the question “To what extent was the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime an aberration in the context of German history in years 1871-1989”. Hitler, and indeed Nazi Germany, was no mistake. Despite advocating hatred towards the crumbling Weimar Germany, and indeed all opposition of Germany, he meticulously reignited the past desires of authority to fit within contemporary Germany; a return to the likes of rule under Bismarck and Wilhelm II. Such a period of radical uprising allowed the resurgence of brutal legislation within the German borders, but the likes of A.J.P. Taylor suggests such atrocity to simply be a continuation of the German course of history, as it was “no more a mistake for the German People to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea.”13 Taylor suggested that the likes of Hitler or someone very alike to Hitler, was not only expected but predetermined, a continuation in German history. Ultimately, despite the setbacks and hardships that arose from the 1930 Great Depression, and perhaps the bitterness towards the Weimar State following the failings of the Treaty of Versailles 1919, it was what the people of Germany, en masse, yearned for. Adolf Hitler is a perfect example of an authoritarian leader; brutal, decisive and solitary. “There was a growing movement among the industrial elites of the country to support a constitutional reformism towards the right and to modify the existing political structures of the Republic in an authoritarian direction”14. In 1933 Hitler was granted the right to rule by decree through the Enabling Act, in effect ushering through a continuation of dictated power under a single figurehead. The suggestion that this direct switch to the most ultimate form of authority is an aberration is arguable, but not fully decisive; the likes of President Hindenburg ensured that he had the right to rule by decree through the use of Article 48, which was ordered during a time of a seemingly democratic nation of Germany. It would therefore be ridiculous to characterise the Nazi State as a simple aberration of Germany, but instead a continuation of indeed the Weimar Republic.
Such a powerful shift from the more democratic Weimar republic physically enabled Hitler to enact direct revenge on those that opposed him, the “demagogic dictator”15 ordering the 1934 Night of the Long Knives, a cold-blooded attack on the opposition, including SA leader Ernest Rohm, who posed as his biggest internal threat. Carr believed that “overnight the Brown shirts became a harmless mass organisation devoid of all political significance”16, in effect describing the deaths of the 77 “traitors” as an effective and opposition rendering act of consolidation. By imposing himself as head of the Nazi party, without the potential uprising of the SA, Hitler concreted himself as one leader under the Nazi flag, in an authoritarian government and Germany. Such an attack defines Hitler and the Nazi Party – his methods of removing all those that conflicted with his best interest were culled or imprisoned, but with minimal public criticism (although those outspoken quickly met the same fate). The Night of the Long Knives is instrumental when comparing the leadership styles of past and future German leaders; it was clear, from the offset of his rise to power, that strict and powerful silencing was his method to take full control of the Third Reich.
Regardless of the Sonderweg theory displayed by Taylor and indeed Berghahn, such regard and desire for Hitler and an authoritarian state was not fully universal, even from within the Nazi Party itself. A Special Report of the State Police in Hannover, August 1935, was documented following the surge and takeover of the Nazi state. Strangely, Source 117 remarks heavily in favour of an indifference towards the Nazi state, despite being written by members of the SS, who would be more likely to speak praises from a public perspective. In contrast, the source is written with an air of brutal honesty, as it has been scripted to be sent to Heinrich Himmler to highlight the work needed to be done to indoctrinate and secure Nazi loyalty both politically and socially. For such a report to exist confirms an air of disloyalty from the public of Germany, and indeed members of the SS, disapproving an argument to suggest that Hitler was destined to rule as a dictator, yet alone be victorious in the German political system. The SS comment on the weakness of the German people, as they “take great care not to express its opinion publicly”18, but also dissatisfied “the increase in the cost of foodstuffs”, ultimately arguing that the rise in Nazi popularity was due to “knife and fork”19 politics – determination to stay alive, no matter the change to the political landscape, in this case the emergence of a radicalised right wing party in the form of the Nazis. The report is incredibly valuable in answering the question, as it is in clear favour of the theory of aberration – Adolf Hitler was arguably only successful in becoming the Chancellor of Germany due to the desperation of the German people, the ludicrously high costs of living heightening “the dissatisfaction among workers”20 bringing about a need for Nazism. It is therefore critical in evaluating the working class population’s true desire for an authoritarian regime, and deciding if Nazi Germany was truly an aberration; their political spectrum revolving around egocentric tendency, extracting only what benefitted them from Hitler’s speeches. From this source alone it can be concluded that the Nazi Regime was not inevitability for Hitler to reign as a singular authority, rather a party which pandered to the requirements of a desperate nation. Despite its clear strengths, the source remains heavily reliant on the public voting on the Nazi party solely on the basis that they wanted less expensive necessities following the aftermath of the 1930 depression, but this is simply untrue – a plethora of reasoning went into Nazi-led support. For example, many nationalists were enraged with the treatment of Germany within the Treaty of Versailles, claiming Dolschtoss by the Weimar Republic had cost them their freedom- the failings of the Weimar Republic and by association democracy causing the destruction of a Germany Bismarck and the Kaiser had maintained ruthlessly. The source, although having limitations with scope is of great importance. As previously stated, a confidential source would remain without agenda, confidentiality often revealing the truth behind such a secretive state. It can therefore be regarded as key to deciding if the Nazi state was an aberration – using the argument from this source, it can be concluded that by 1935 Nazism was not underpinned in German society, and still required manifesting within German society.
Years of authoritarian Prussian rule, and indeed Otto von Bismarck’s role as first Chancellor of the newly unified Germany in 1871 certainly influenced the methods and traits of Adolf Hitler during his own rise to power through the means of imposing the opposition that surrounded him. The new German political system was built to ensure that the Reichstag could be ruled without any clear party in majority; “only twice did Bismarck call a meeting of all the state secretaries to discuss policy”21, with the likes of A.J.P Taylor regarding the Bismarckian era as a “dictatorship imposed on opposing forces” that was “autocratic to the highest degree”22. By 1876 5/6 of all Prussian bishops were under arrest, or in exile, leading to a quarter of all parishes without priests. Such an assertive dominance over religion was key to creating an authoritarian state; by controlling the masses, alike Hitler’s desire to implement the Gleichschaltung to create the German Faith Movement, Bismarck not only eradicating those that remained candid but gaining a voice from the altar, a staple part of the illiterate population of Germany. The removal of opposition was fundamental to an Authoritarian dictatorship, something Bismarck attained to but never truly admitted – his implementation of the 1878 Anti-socialist law banned socialist meetings and publications and the state could declare state of siege with heightened police power “throughout his chancellorship, he was determined to prevent ant extension of parliamentary power”23. Such a radical law upon a group of direct opposition directly parallels Hitler’s own law to ban all opposition parties on July 14th 1933, a clear legislation to depose all those who acted negatively to the state, and more importantly Bismarck. The evident parallels between the anti-socialist laws and the ban of all opposition by Adolf Hitler highlight the lack of irregularity between the Bismarckian Reich and the Third Reich, merely a continuation of what was and what was to come in the 20th century, and therefore Nazi Germany cannot be regarded as a direct aberration of German history, the correspondence of the two eras noticeably similar. Such correspondence is evident between Bismarck and Hitler; Similarities drawn between the 1871 Reich Constitution, which granted the Chancellor to dominate both German and Prussian governance, allowing both a lack of clear orchestrated opposition and the 1933 Enabling Act mirrors such an air of control. The degree at which both Bismarck and Hitler mastered the German political system is astounding – such a consolidated power base ensured cemented rule over both opposition and the people, Hitler taking clear inspiration from the first of the unified German Chancellors; Bismarck.
In 1890 Kaiser Wilhelm II ended the domination of Germany under Bismarck, but instead of implementing a system of democracy he heightened his control over both foreign policy and of course opposition. Such a “transition from the ‘Bismarckian’ era, dominated by the consequences of political unification and the need to consolidate a national state to the ‘Wilhelmine’ era”. 24 In Source 225 Friedrich Naumann, a Lutheran pastor and politician, provided an insight into the powerbase of the Kaiser following the end of the Bismarckian era. He remarks that “in the present-day Germany there was no stronger force than the Kaiser”26, concluding that “all policy, foreign and internal, stems from the will and word of the Kaiser”27. The source argues heavily in favour for the German course of history being continuity, parallels being drawn between Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler as they strove to rule Germany as a singular body, rather than use the Reichstag to reduce their respective Reich’s. Naumann’s argument is valuable when regarding the question ‘To what extent was the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime an aberration in the context of German history in the years 1871-1989’, as it highlights a key link between Wilhelm’s Germany and the Third Reich – authoritarian leadership, a ruling of the German people with a dictator heading the state. One must highlight the true power of the Kaiser; he did not have the power that the Chancellor wielded, but was capable of holding a great deal of control onto the likes