I recently wrote on the role of inspiration and perspiration in men’s careers. I also gave the example of Charles de Gaulle, who definitely hewed closer to the side of perspiration. Through the occasional bold move and the blessings of Fortune, the Frenchman’s decades of labor were rewarded with great moments of glory. Adolf Hitler and the evolution of the Third Reich provide another and very different example of political leadership. With Hitler we have an example of a man who, for the life of him, could not hold down a day job and who was forever possessed by and ran after his passions.
People have no idea just how artistic, Bohemian, and indeed feckless Hitler was by temperament. This is something which all those who frequented Hitler knew and which all the historians of the period know but which is scarcely mentioned in the documentaries and Hollywood films which shape public consciousness. Hitler was, in effect, a lifelong NEET (Not in [formal] Education, Employment, or Training). The Third Reich seems quite unique in having such a dictator at the helm.
In one of Mein Kampf’s more relateable passages, Hitler explains that when he was young he couldn’t bear the idea of spending his whole life in a pre-defined social and professional box, going back and forth from the office, as was the case of his father, a customs official. He later told his press secretary, a despairing Otto Dietrich, that a moment’s inspired idea contributed more to the world than a lifetime’s worth of office work.
Young Hitler (on whom, see Brigitte Hamann’s excellent Hitler’s Vienna) was obsessed with art, architecture, and politics, passions which would never leave him. He was an insatiable bookworm and incorrigible loudmouth. He could produce professional architectural sketches and decent touristic paintings. He would draw sketches, read books, and talk politics and art with whoever would listen (in this case, his youthful friend August Kubizek) into the wee hours of the morning. This set the pattern for the rest of his life: most of the time he was thoroughly incapable of going to bed at a reasonable time. He certainly wasn’t interested in finding a job. As a result, when Hitler’s family savings ran out he ended up a homeless vagrant.
Hitler’s service in the German Army during the First World War seems to have done him a lot of good. After the war, he thrived not by buckling down doing some anonymous job, but by “finding his voice”: in the scandalous conditions of postwar Germany, with a defective Weimar Republic manifestly incapable of challenging the iniquities of the Treaty of Versailles, there was finally a ready audience for his scathing political analyses. In truth, his time in Vienna – in which he witnessed the farce of multiethnic democratic politics first-hand – had prepared him well. Once Hitler found his “calling,” he of course had his spectacular and erratic career, featuring prison, mastery of Germany and Europe, and total oblivion.
One cannot understand the rise of Hitlerism and its tremendous socio-cultural (and not merely political) transformation of Germany without watching Hitler’s speeches and trying understand the mindset of those who were enraptured by him. Hitler relentlessly chased after those things which emotionally resonated with him: national honor, power, and a certain aesthetic, within the framework of the Right-wing fin-de-siècle German-speaking culture which he had imbibed as a youth (let us say that Darwin, Nietzsche, and Drumont were permeating the air). Hitler presented a vision for Germany’s rebirth under a zealous nationalist elite, according to scientific principles, which resonated with a critical mass of Germans. Nationalism was all the more compelling in Germany, a nation which, unlike most, was objectively one of both great accomplishment and potential.
I must say, the stories of the Third Reich’s various bureaucratic problems make me more sympathetic toward today’s bureaucrats and officialdom with their little miserable problems.
I have not seen a good overall assessment of how Hitler’s erratic management style affected German government and the war effort. Certainly, it drove his civil servants mad. Chancellor Hitler was only able to stick to regular office hours while President Paul von Hindenburg was alive, evidently trying to make a good impression. Later, he would stay up until three or four or five in the morning every night, meaning that important decisions often could not be taken before 11AM.
After 1937, incredibly, there were virtually no cabinet meetings at all, a situation which reinforced Hitler’s own position at the center of the political system, but left his ministers and their bureaucracies in the dark regarding each other’s activities. There was no well-defined way of taking decisions, Hitler would simply send out “Führer Orders” according to his mood and whatever issues people around him raised. This system also gave tremendous power to the man who controlled access to Hitler: his secretary, Martin Bormann. This was known as the arbitrary and fickle “politics of the antechamber.”
All this is strikingly at odds with Hitler’s image at the time.
On other hand, the Third Reich was by some indicators notoriously well-organized, far better than either the Weimar Republic or the Western democracies, notably in terms of social welfare and unity, economic recovery, military preparedness, and mass participation. Hitler, being an artist at the head of a gifted country, would generally stick to his areas of interest and was often wise enough to let his subordinates take care of the details. The country’s staying power in the face of adverse military conditions was simply remarkable, although obviously ultimately vain.
The bureaucrats of course found ways around Hitler’s management quirks. Senior civil servants would send circulars around the ministries to discuss important topics of shared interest, so as to come to common conclusions on necessary action to be presented to the Führer. Interest groups within the Reich – women, corporations, youth, workers . . . – were organized and had representation in various Party bureaucracies, which then provided their input to government. These practices in many ways foreshadow the various “consultation” procedures and perpetual “advocacy” of interest groups that we find in advanced states today, democratic or not.
Hitler had a habit of creating ad-hoc positions to address a particular problem and not following up. The result was a plethora of officials and bureaucracies competing for influence. Some of these officials, lacking a well-defined mandate, would complain that they had little to do but show up at the sites of bombings in German cities and give consolatory speeches.
One wonders if the Reich would have been more successful if there had been more regular modes of decision-making. Certainly a cabinet, with the bureaucrats behind them, would tend to avoid overly ideological and impractical schemes. It also seems that isolated bureaucracies, operating more or less independently from their peers, would be more likely to engage in creeping radicalization, according to their own internal logic.