The Nazi state gave outward impressions of being an orderly, well-managed system of government, with strong leadership and clear structures and hierarchies. As the Schutzstaffel (SS) appeared finely tuned and well disciplined, so seemed the government and bureaucracy of Nazi Germany. In practice, this was far from the case. The Nazi state was complicated, disorganised and shambolic. There was a myriad of high-ranking leadership positions, government departments, ministries, agencies and security forces – but there was no Nazi constitution and no clear framework or division of powers. Hitler repeatedly tinkered with the organisation and structures of the state, creating new offices or departments and shifting responsibilities from one to the other – but there seemed to be little method or long-term planning involved in these decisions. In the end, Nazi government ended up being what one historian described as “polycratic chaos”.
Perhaps the only political certainty in the Nazi state was Adolf Hitler’s status as its supreme decision-maker. According to the Nazi doctrine of fuhrerprinzip, all power and sovereignty were vested in the leader; he would use that power to create a Nazi state that would serve the needs of Germany and its people. Hitler certainly possessed far more power than another other individual or agency in the Nazi state – but he was also a lazy and sometimes vague ruler who left much of the work up to others. Hitler was not an experienced politician, nor was he much interested in administration or organisation, developing long-term planning or detailed policies. He instead preferred to dictate grandiose visions and vague orders, leaving the details and specifics to be devised by his subordinates. Those who pleased Hitler by presenting him with good suggestions or policies were praised and rewarded; some were welcomed into his inner circle, the highest accolade of all. This created a culture of competition and sycophancy, as leading Nazis competed against each other to impress the Fuhrer.
During his rise to power, Hitler had offered no clear vision of the structure or organisation that a Nazi government might use. Once ensconced in power he instead ‘invented’ new departments or positions, to deal with issues as they arose. The Nazi state therefore grew and evolved organically and haphazardly, with no blueprint and no real hierarchical backbone. Over time it became a hotchpotch of bureaucracies, organisations and offices. The jurisdictions and responsibilities of these departments were not well defined: in many cases, it was unclear exactly who had ultimate responsibility for a given area, so there was often ‘overlap’ or conflict between two or more departments.
The Reich Chancellery. Overseen by Hans Lammers and Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, the chancellery was the closest equivalent to a Nazi executive cabinet. It met regularly with Hitler and his other advisors, playing an important role in drafting legislation and policy, and making important decisions when Hitler was absent or unavailable. The chancellery was also responsible for Hitler’s finances and his movements; anyone wanting an audience with the Fuhrer had to go through the chancellery.
The Reich Interior Ministry. Headed by Wilhelm Frick, then Heinrich Himmler, this department was responsible for overseeing the internal organisation and security of Nazi Germany. It was given the task of ‘Nazifying’ existing government structures and departments, ensuring they were run by party members or sympathisers. The Interior Ministry also played a leading role in drafting and implementing racial laws and suppressing other political parties and opposition.
The Reich Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. One of the most visible organs of Nazi rule, this department was created in 1933 and headed by the infamous Dr Joseph Goebbels. Its main function was to influence and manipulate public opinion, which it did through control of newspapers, film and radio. This ministry was also involved in organising the NSDAP’s huge public rallies in Nuremberg, as well as smaller events such as festivals and art shows.
The Reich Office of the Four-Year Plan. Headed by Hermann Goering, the Four-Year Plan was an economic program announced by Hitler in 1936. Its publicly stated aim was to make Germany self-sufficient by increasing agriculture, building, public works, roads and production of automobiles and synthetic materials. But it was also intended to prepare Germany for war, by speeding up armament and military production. The Four-Year Plan was so successful that this office remained in operation well into World War II after the plan had officially ended.
The German Labour Front (or DAF). Headed by Dr Robert Ley and twelve ‘trustees’, this department not only organised and co-ordinated the German workforce but acted as a state-run union for industrial workers. Factory employees were expected to be DAF members; it was almost impossible to obtain a job without membership. Most DAF workers wore paramilitary-style uniforms and their wages were set by DAF leaders. All other unions were banned.
Many groups outside the Nazi bureaucracy also shaped government policy. Germany’s wealthy industrialists were an influential lobby group, since Hitler relied on their cooperation to achieve his program of rearmament. The upper echelons of the military provided Hitler with feedback, advice and policy suggestions. Also in the fuhrer’s ear were high-ranking NSDAP members, economics advisors, civilian ministers and politicians, Nazi Gauleiters in charge of the former German states, important academics and other experts. Any one of these people could suggest an idea or policy that might catch Hitler’s eye and win his approval. He made these decisions as he saw fit, often on a whim and without consulting relevant branches of the government. There was no clear process of decision-making or policy formulation and little accountability.
Historians have long debated why the Nazi state evolved into this jumbled contraption of competing organisations. Two schools of thought have emerged: intentionalism and functionalism. Intentionalist historians argue Hitler operated with a broad, pre-conceived plan; every decision he made was done with a purpose. The intentionalists believe the creation of a confused and complex Nazi state was a deliberate ploy on Hitler’s part, allowing him to ‘divide and rule’ and enhance his own power. The functionalist school contends Hitler had no such plan: he simply made decisions on a day-by-day basis, as they were put to him. Functionalist interpretations stress divisions, competition and rivalries as important factors in the Nazi movement. They also query whether Hitler’s power was as absolute as is claimed by intentionalists and that he often made decisions to protect his own position.
1. The Nazi state gave outward appearances of order, organisation and discipline – but this was not the case in reality.
2. Hitler appointed ministers or invented offices as they were suggested, relying on others for the details.
3. As a result, the Nazi state grew organically into a patchwork of conflicting departments, without a clear structure.
4. Many politicians, bureaucrats and military officers competed for Hitler’s favour, leading to self-interest and corruption.
5. There is considerable debate among historians about how and why the Nazi state became so uncoordinated and chaotic.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Nazi state”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/the-nazi-state/.