Were the actions and atrocities of the Third Reich the result of Hitler's policies, directed from atop the Nazi hierarchy or was he just a weak dictator? Was Hitler really the mastermind behind it all or were others the true orchestrators of evil?
For people trying to make sense of the horrors of Third Reich in the aftermath of the Second World War, it seemed obvious that the man at the top must have masterminded everything.
The image of Hitler presented by the Nazis had been one of an all-powerful leader, single-handedly directing the nation, and Germany had indeed been an absolute dictatorship. This view persisted into the 1950s and 1960s with historians and the general population understanding the war and Nazism as fundamentally the result of Hitler's policy-making and direction.
In media and pop culture as well this image of Hitler still, in fact, endures with films, books and television shows often portraying Hitler as the genius Nazi emperor, hiding out in his evil mountain lair, implementing his grand plans for Europe.
Looking closer at the mechanics of the Nazi state however an image emerges of not a simple top-down structure with all actions leading back to Hitler, but a many-headed Nazi hydra moving in often conflicting directions.
Hitler undoubtedly was the defining aspect of the early years of the Nazi party, supplanting its founder Anton Drexler, fending off potential challenges and ruthlessly crushing any sign of rebellion from the likes of the Strasser brothers, Otto and Gregor or Ernst Rohm and the SA. It is certainly true too that having seized power in 1933 Hitler was declared Führer and absolute ruler of Germany the following year. Once in this position, however, Hitler showed little interest in governing or translating his ideas into policies to implement.
Numerous accounts exist from those closest to Hitler expressing how he “disliked the study of documents” and frequently attended meetings with officials without any preparation or knowledge of a subject. He found it hard to make decisions too, sometimes devolving such decisions to lesser minions.
When Hitler did make a decision or express his approval it was often to simply agree with the suggestions being made by that particular official at that particular meeting. Indeed even arranging a meeting to discuss policy and government with the Führer could be difficult as his daily routine didn't see him appear until lunchtime.
This situation was made even worse during Hitler's regular stays at his alpine retreat, the Berghof at the Obersalzburg where he spent most afternoons taking a walk and in the evening straight after dinner he loved to watch films. This left little time for governing at all. Such a person would prove incompetent as a democratic leader, let alone a dictator supposedly in control of everything.
The result of this institutional anarchy was a situation where multiple ministries, departments, officials and stooges each interpreted what little direction they received from Hitler and implemented policies according to their own ideas.
The “leader principle” or Führerprinzip saw these state and party institutions compete for access to Hitler in order to pursue their agendas ruthlessly as the “will of the Führer”, often in direct opposition to each other. As the chaos developed key individuals were able to carve out their own empires whilst jostling for control over areas of the Third Reich in an attempt to realise their vision of the Führer's will.
In offering a solution to Hitler's impossible demand to make Germany's economy “ready for war” and grow his own influence Göring with his Four Year Plan was able to directly challenge Reich Minister of Economics, Hjalmar Schacht, the person you would expect to be in control of the finances.
Himmler too, after managing to persuade Hitler to eliminate his boss, Ernst Rohm was able to realise the Führer's demand for a unified police force, managing to incorporate the Gestapo and other forces into his growing SS army. This was undertaken in complete opposition to Reich Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, the logical person to oversee domestic policing. This situation continued and intensified with the outbreak of war in 1939 until the Third Reich had become, instead of Hitler's monolith, a series Nazi fiefdoms controlled by those closest to the Führer.
So does all this just make Hitler a weak dictator? A Nazi figurehead merely wheeled out at party rallies to wave his hands around angrily and scream a few slogans? Not quite.
Whilst Hitler had little involvement in the mechanics of government when he did get involved his word was final and his views were the general guiding force. Despite this however it's clear the Führer was only one cog in the Nazi machine that conceived the horrors of the Third Reich, with other key members of the inner circle having a major part to play. The chaotic, institutional anarchy that existed below Hitler allowed these individuals to flourish and carve out their own empires from which they could translate and enforce what they saw as the Führer's will.