Government of Nazi Germany

The Government of Nazi Germany was a dictatorship run according to the Führerprinzip. As the successor to the government of the Weimar Republic, it inherited the government structure and institutions of the previous state. Although the Weimar Constitution technically remained in effect until Germany's surrender in 1945, there were no actual restraints on the exercise of state power. In addition to the already extant government of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi leadership created a large number of different organizations for the purpose of helping them govern and remain in power. They rearmed and strengthened the military, set up an extensive state security apparatus and created their own personal party army, which in 1940 became known as the Waffen-SS.

Working towards the Führer

On 30 January 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. This event is known as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power).[1] In the following months, the Nazi Party used a process termed Gleichschaltung (co-ordination) to rapidly bring all aspects of life under control of the party.[2] All civilian organisations, including agricultural groups, volunteer organisations, and sports clubs, had their leadership replaced with Nazi sympathisers or party members. By June 1933, virtually the only organisations not controlled by the NSDAP were the army and the churches.[3] By 1939, party membership was compulsory for all civil service officials.[4] Hitler ruled Germany autocratically by asserting the Führerprinzip (leader principle), which called for absolute obedience of all subordinates. He viewed the government structure as a pyramid, with himself—the infallible leader—at the apex. Rank in the party was not determined by elections; positions were filled through appointment by those of higher rank.[5] The Nazi Party used propaganda to develop a cult of personality around Hitler.[6]

Top officials reported to Hitler and followed his policies, but they had considerable autonomy. Officials were expected to "work towards the Führer" – to take the initiative in promoting policies and actions in line with his wishes and the goals of the Nazi Party, without Hitler having to be involved in the day-to-day running of the country.[7] He often deferred making decisions, avoided clear delegation and allowed subordinates to compete with one another, especially in the pre-war years. The government was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but rather a disorganised collection of factions led by members of the party elite who struggled to amass power and gain the Führer's favour.[8]

The system of government was formed whereby leading Nazi officials were forced to interpret Hitler's speeches, remarks and writings on government policies and turn them into programs and legislation. Hitler typically did not give written orders; instead he communicated them verbally, or had them conveyed through his close associate, Martin Bormann.[9] He entrusted Bormann with his paperwork, appointments, and personal finances; Bormann used his position to control the flow of information and access to Hitler.[10] Hitler's cabinet never met after 1938, and he discouraged his ministers from meeting independently.[11]

Hitler's leadership style was to give contradictory orders to his subordinates and to place them into positions where their duties and responsibilities overlapped with those of others, to have "the stronger one [do] the job".[12] In this way, Hitler fostered distrust, competition, and infighting among his subordinates to consolidate and maximise his own power.[13]

The process allowed more unscrupulous and ambitious Nazis to get away with implementing the more radical and extreme elements of Hitler's ideology, such as antisemitism, and in doing so win political favour. It was protected by Joseph Goebbels' effective propaganda machine, which portrayed Hitler as a heroic and infallible leader.[14] Further, the government was portrayed as a dedicated, dutiful and efficient outfit. Through successive Reichsstatthalter decrees, Germany's states were effectively replaced by Nazi provinces called Gaue.

After June 1941 as World War II progressed, Hitler became preoccupied with military matters and spent most of his time at his military headquarters on the eastern front. This led Hitler to rely more and more on Bormann to handle the domestic policies of the country. On 12 April 1943, Hitler officially appointed Bormann as Personal Secretary to the Führer.[15] By this time Bormann had de facto control over all domestic matters, and this new appointment gave him the power to act in an official capacity in any matter.[16]

Historical opinion is divided between "intentionalists" who believe that Hitler created this system as the only means of ensuring both the total loyalty and dedication of his supporters, and the impossibility of a conspiracy; and the "structuralists" who believe that the system evolved by itself, and was a limitation on Hitler's totalitarian power.

The organization of the Nazi state was as follows:

Cabinet and national authorities

Reich Offices

Reich Ministries


Occupation authorities

Legislative Branch

It has to be considered that there is little use talking about a legislative branch in a totalitarian state, where there is no separation of powers. For example, since 1933 the Reichsregierung (Reich cabinet) was enabled to enact Reichsgesetze (statute law) without respect to the constitution from 1919.

Judicial System

Most of the judicial structures and legal codes of the Weimar Republic remained in use during the Nazi era, but significant changes within the judicial codes occurred, as well as significant changes in court rulings. Most human rights of the constitution of the Weimar Republic were disabled by several Reichsgesetze (Reich's laws). Several minorities, opposition politicians and prisoners of war were deprived of most of their rights and responsibilities. The Plan to pass a Volksstrafgesetzbuch (people's code of criminal justice) arose soon after 1933 but didn't come into reality until the end of World War II.

As a new type of court, the Volksgerichtshof (people's court) was established in 1934, only dealing with cases of political importance. From 1934 to September 1944, 375 death sentences were passed by the court. Not included in this number are the death sentences from July 20, 1944 until April 1945 which are estimated at 2,000. Its most prominent member was Roland Freisler who headed the court from August 1942 to February 1945.

After the war, some surviving jurists were tried, convicted, and sentenced as war criminals.

Military organization

Wehrmacht  Armed Forces

OKW  Armed Forces High Command
Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces  Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel
Chief of the Operations Staff  Colonel General Alfred Jodl

Heer  Army

OKH  Army High Command
Army Commanders-in-Chief
Colonel General Werner von Fritsch (1935 to 1938)
Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch (1938 to 1941)
Führer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1941 to 1945)
Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner (1945)

Kriegsmarine  Navy

OKM  Navy High Command
Navy Commanders-in-Chief
Grand Admiral Erich Raeder (1928-1943)
Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz (1943-1945)
General Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg (1945)

Luftwaffe  Airforce

OKL  Airforce High Command
Reichsluftschutzbund (Air Force Auxiliary)
Air Force Commanders-in-Chief
Reich Marshal Hermann Göring (to April 1945)
Field Marshal Robert Ritter von Greim (April 1945)

Abwehr  Military Intelligence

Rear Admiral Konrad Patzig (1932-1935)
Vice Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (1935-1944)

Waffen-SS  Nazi Party military branch

Paramilitary organizations

National police

Reich Main Security Office (RSHA  Reichssicherheitshauptamt) Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Kaltenbrunner

Political organizations

Service organizations

Religious organizations

Academic organizations

  • National Socialist German University Teachers League
  • National Socialist German Students League



  1. Shirer 1960, pp. 183–184.
  2. McNab 2009, p. 14.
  3. Evans 2005, p. 14.
  4. McNab 2009, p. 78.
  5. Kershaw 2008, pp. 170, 172, 181.
  6. Evans 2005, p. 400.
  7. Kershaw 2008, pp. 320–321.
  8. McElligott, Kirk & Kershaw 2003, p. 6.
  9. Kershaw 2008, p. 377.
  10. Speer 1971, p. 333.
  11. Kershaw 2008, p. 323.
  12. Speer 1971, p. 281.
  13. Manvell & Fraenkel 2007, p. 29.
  14. Kershaw 2008, pp. 292–293.
  15. Kershaw 2008, p. 752.
  16. Speer 1971, pp. 333–334.


  • Evans, Richard J. (2005). The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-303790-3.
  • Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-06757-6.
  • Manvell, Roger; Fraenkel, Heinrich (2007) [1965]. Heinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the SS and Gestapo. London; New York: Greenhill; Skyhorse. ISBN 978-1-60239-178-9.
  • McElligott, Anthony; Kirk, Tim; Kershaw, Ian (2003). Working Towards the Führer: Essays in Honour of Sir Ian Kershaw. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-6732-4.
  • McNab, Chris (2009). The Third Reich. Amber Books. ISBN 978-1-906626-51-8.
  • Shirer, William L. (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-62420-0.
  • Speer, Albert (1971) [1969]. Inside the Third Reich. New York: Avon. ISBN 978-0-380-00071-5.
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