Hitler couldn’t drive – or swim or dance

Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_1994 Jun. 02 16.52Werner Willikens was quite a senior Nazi civil servant. In the crushed and castrated government of Prussia, he had become the state secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture. It was in February 1934, just over a year after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor, that Willikens made a speech to agriculture officials from all over the Reich, using words that have come in our own time to fascinate historians. ‘The Führer,’ he said, ‘finds it very difficult to bring about by order from above things which he intends to realise sooner or later.’ It was, therefore, ‘the duty of each one of us to try to work towards him in the spirit of the Führer’. The German, not easy to translate precisely, is ‘im Sinne des Führers ihm entgegenzuarbeiten’.

Willikens was not revealing some unknown fact. But he was offering posterity (as well as the party comrades in front of him) a really useful way of understanding how decisions were made in the Third Reich. ‘Working towards the Führer’ explains how many initiatives, including some of the worst, originated in the wider Nazi bureaucracy rather than with Hitler himself. And it can be argued that this commandment to second-guess and anticipate Hitler helped him to surf into ever more radical and terrible policies which are usually attributed to his invention alone.

As Volker Ullrich points out, there is an apparent contradiction here. On the one hand, the Leader’s will was supposed to be absolute and monocratic, and anyone who could claim convincingly that he was carrying out ‘the Führer’s will’ would get his way. On the other, a chaotic, ‘Darwinian’ struggle of overlapping Nazi institutions raged as each competed to make up Hitler’s mind for him. Behind all this was the weird, slovenly manner in which Hitler formed policies.

More here. [Thanks to Corey Robin.]