Though the Weimar Republic was destroyed, the Weimar Constitution was never formally abrogated by Hitler. Indeed—and ironically—Hitler based the “legality” of his rule on the despised republican constitution. Thus thousands of decreed laws—there were no others in the Third Reich—were explicitly based on the emergency presidential decree of February 28, 1933, for the Protection of the People and the State, which Hindenburg, under Article 48 of the constitution, had signed. It will be remembered that the aged President was bamboozled into signing the decree the day after the Reichstag fire when Hitler assured him that there was grave danger of a Communist revolution. The decree, which suspended all civil rights, remained in force throughout the time of the Third Reich, enabling the Fuehrer to rule by a sort of continual martial law.
The Enabling Act too, which the Reichstag had voted on March 24, 1933, and by which it handed over its legislative functions to the Nazi government, was the second pillar in the “constitutionality” of Hitler’s rule. Each four years thereafter it was dutifully prolonged for another four-year period by a rubber-stamp Reichstag, for it never occurred to the dictator to abolish this once democratic institution but only to make it nondemocratic. It met only a dozen times up to the war, “enacted” only four laws,* held no debates or votes and never heard any speeches except those made by Hitler.
After the first few months of 1933 serious discussions ceased in the cabinet, its meetings became more and more infrequent after the death of Hindenburg in August 1934, and after February 1938 the cabinet was never convened. However, individual cabinet members held the considerable power of being authorized to promulgate decrees which, with the Fuehrer’s approval, automatically became laws. The Secret Cabinet Council (Geheimer Kabinettsrat), set up with great fanfare in 1938, perhaps to impress Prime Minister Chamberlain, existed only on paper. It never met once. The Reich Defense Council (Reichsverteidigungsrat), established early in the regime as a war-planning agency under the chairmanship of Hitler, met formally only twice, though some of its working committees were exceedingly active.
Many cabinet functions were delegated to special agencies such as the Office of the Deputy of the Fuehrer (Hess and later Martin Bormann), of the Plenipotentiaries for War Economy (Schacht) and Administration (Frick), and of the Delegate for the Four-Year Plan (Goering). In addition there were what was known as the “supreme government agencies” and “national administrative agencies,” many of them holdovers from the Republic. In all, there were some 42 executive agencies of the national government under the direct jurisdiction of the Fuehrer.
The diets and governments of the separate states of Germany were, as we have seen, abolished in the first year of the Nazi regime when the country was unified, and governors for the states, which were reduced to provinces, were appointed by Hitler. Local self-government, the only field in which the Germans had seemed to be making genuine progress toward democracy, was also wiped out. A series of laws decreed between 1933 and 1935 deprived the municipalities of their local autonomy and brought them under the direct control of the Reich Minister of the Interior, who appointed their mayors—if they had a population of over 100,000—and reorganized them on the leadership principle. In towns under 100,000, the mayors were named by the provincial governors. For Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna (after 1938, when Austria was occupied) Hitler reserved the right to appoint the burgomasters.
The offices through which Hitler exercised his dictatorial powers consisted of four chancelleries: those of the President (though the title had ceased to exist after 1934), the Chancellor (the title was abandoned in 1939) and the party, and a fourth known as the Chancellery of the Fuehrer which looked after his personal affairs and carried out special tasks.
In truth, Hitler was bored by the details of day-to-day governing and after he had consolidated his position following the death of Hindenburg he left them largely to his aides. Old party comrades such as Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Ley and Schirach were given free rein to carve out their own empires of power—and usually profit. Schacht was given a free hand at first to raise the money for expanding government expenditures by whatever sleight of hand he could think up. Whenever these men clashed over the division of power or spoils, Hitler intervened. He did not mind these quarrels. Indeed, he often encouraged them, because they added status to his position as supreme arbiter and prevented any closing of the ranks against him. Thus he seemed to take delight at the spectacle of three men competing with each other in foreign affairs: Neurath, the Foreign Minister, Rosenberg, the head of the party’s Foreign Affairs Department, and Ribbentrop, who had his own “Ribbentrop Bureau” which dabbled in foreign policy. All three men were at loggerheads with each other and Hitler kept them so by maintaining their rival offices until in the end he chose the dull-witted Ribbentrop to become his Foreign Minister and carry out his orders in foreign affairs.
Such was the government of the Third Reich, administered from top to bottom on the so-called leadership principle by a vast and sprawling bureaucracy, having little of the efficiency usually credited to the Germans, poisoned by graft, beset by constant confusion and cutthroat rivalries augmented by the muddling interference of party potentates and often rendered impotent by the terror of the S.S.-Gestapo.
At the top of the swarming heap stood the onetime Austrian vagabond, now become, with the exception of Stalin, the most powerful dictator on earth. As Dr. Hans Frank reminded a convention of lawyers in the spring of 1936, “There is in Germany today only one authority, and that is the authority of the Fuehrer.”23
With that authority Hitler had quickly destroyed those who opposed him, unified and Nazified the State, regimented the country’s institutions and culture, suppressed individual freedom, abolished unemployment and set the wheels of industry and commerce humming—no small achievement after only three or four years in office. Now he turned—in fact, he already had turned—to the two chief passions of his life: the shaping of Germany’s foreign policy toward war and conquest and the creation of a mighty military machine which would enable him to achieve his goal.
It is time now to turn to the story, more fully documented than that of any other in modern history, of how this extraordinary man, at the head of so great and powerful a nation, set out to attain his ends.
* From February 1933 to the spring of 1937, the number of registered unemployed fell from six million to less than one million.
* Also, in contrast to the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany permitted all but a few thousand of its citizens who were in the black book of the secret police to travel abroad, though this was severely curtailed by currency restrictions because of the country’s lack of foreign exchange. However, the currency restrictions were no more stringent than those for British citizens after 1945. The point is that the Nazi rulers did not seem to be worried that the average German would be contaminated by anti-Nazism if he visited the democratic countries.
* The author was violently attacked in the German press and on the radio, and threatened with expulsion, for having written a dispatch saying that some of these anti-Semitic signs were being removed for the duration of the Olympic games.
† In an allocution to the Sacred College on June 2, 1945, Pope Pius XII defended the concordat which he had signed, but described National Socialism, as he later came to know it, as “the arrogant apostasy from Jesus Christ, the denial of His doctrine and of His work of redemption, the cult of violence, the idolatry of race and blood, the overthrow of human liberty and dignity.”
* To avoid any misunderstanding, it might be well to point out here that the author is a Protestant.
* Ziegler owed his position to the happy circumstance that he had painted the portrait of Geli Raubal.
* Amann’s own income skyrocketed from 108,000 marks in 1934 to 3,800,000 marks in 1942. (Letter to the author from Professor Oron J. Hale, who has made a study of the surviving records of the Nazi publishing firm.)
* The Reconstruction Law of January 30, 1934, and the three anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935.