Charismatic leadership – Adolf Hitler and the NS-state

A review of Ian Kershaw's Hitler biography

Literature Review 2001 6 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II


Charismatic leadership – Adolf Hitler and the NS- state. A review of:

Ian Kershaw, Hitler, vol.1: 1889- 1936 Hubris, Hardmonsworth (Penguin) 1998.

Ian Kershaw, Hitler, vol.2: 1936- 1945 Nemesis, London (Allen Lane) 2000.

The first question a reader of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography might ask is in what way can such a book be original with regard to the huge amount of previous research in this field? Does it offer any new knowledge about Nazi- Germany and its dictator? Making use of an almost incredible amount of primary and secondary literature and always being on the level of the state of current research, Ian Kershaw, a leading expert on Hitler and the Third Reich, offers a clear and readable narration of Hitler’s rise to and fall from power. Kershaw makes use of new sources, like the Goebbels- diaries, and tries to solve long- lasting historiographical controversies.

The author’s account of Hitler’s private life and political career is detailed, but the innovative force of the book can be found elsewhere. More interesting (and useful for historians) than Kershaw’s detailed outline of Hitler’s life is the contribution that his biography makes to a prevailing controversy about national socialist Germany and Hitler’s position within it. This controversy deals with the structure of the NS- state. The intentionalist view, which is for example held by the Hitler- biographers Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest, interprets the NS- state as a monocracy. This means that Nazi- Germany was a "Führerstaat" in which Hitler as a "strong dictator" had the unlimited power to put his ideology into political practice.[1] This classical interpretation has been challenged by a structuralist approach that described the NS- state as a polycratic system with many different centres of power competing with each other. Although Hitler’s position as "Führer" has never been challenged, he always remained dependant on these centres of power.[2]

This historiographical controversy is the starting point of Kershw’s biography. Previous biographies have always tended to prefer the intentionalist approach, which is in its nature closer to this literary genre, and investigated in Hitler’s Machiavellism or "negative greatness".[3] Kershaw is more interested in the nature of Hitler’s power than in the dictator’s personality. He intends to take a closer look at the "political structures and social forces which conditioned his (Hitler’s) acquisition and exercise of power, and its extraordinary impact."[4] Recognizing that a satisfying interpretation of the NS- stat and Hitler’s role within it "must not only take full account of Hitler’s ideological goals, his actions, and his personal input into the shaping of events; it must at the same time locate these within the social forces and political structures" which permitted, shaped, and promoted the development of Hitler and his state, it is Kershaw’s aim to form a synthesis out of the intentionalist and the structuralist view.[5] The author has chosen the theory of "charismatic leadership", developed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864- 1920) in his typology of "legitimate domination", and its application to Hitler’s dictatorship as the decisive analytical tools.[6] This is not a new approach as Kershaw could fall back on other scholar’s as well as his own previous publications.[7] A promising starting- point.


[1] Allan Bullock, Hitler. A study in Tyranny, London 1952; Joachim C. Fest, Hitler. A Biography, London 1974.

[2] Martin Broszat, Der Staat Hitlers. Grundlegung und Entwicklung seiner inneren Verfassung, München 1969; Hans Mommsen, Faschistische Diktatur in Deutschland. Historische Grundlagen, gesellschaftliche Voraussetzungen, politische Struktur, Stuttgart 1971.

[3] Joachim Fest, On remembering Adolf Hitler, in: Encounter 41 (1973), 19-34.

[4] Kershaw, Hitler, vol.1, xxix.

[5] Ibid., xxixf.

[6] Max Weber, Economy and Society. An outline of interpretative Sociology, ed. By Günther Roth/ Claus Wittich, Berkeley 1979, 241-254. (first edition published as „Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft“ in 1922); Max Weber, The Sociology of Charismatic Authority, in: Hans H. Gerth/ C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber. Essays in Sociology, London 1991, 245-252.

[7] See for example on the structure of the NSDAP: Joseph Nyomarkay, Charisma and Factionalism within the Nazi- Party, Mineanapolis 1967. On the „Führerstaat“: Mario Rainer Lepsius, Das Modell der charismatischen Herrschaft und seine Anwendbarkeit auf den „Führerstaat“ Adolf Hitlers, in: Lepsius, Demokratie in Deutschland. Soziologisch- historische Konstellationsanalysen, Göttingen 1993, 95-118. Kershaw’s own research: Ian Kershaw, „Working towards the Führer“. Reflections on the nature of the Hitler dictatorship, in: Contemporary European History 2 (1993), 103-118; Kershaw, The Nazi- Dictatorship. Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, London 1993, 59-79.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
443 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Sussex – School of European Studies
Adolf Hitler Nationalsozialismus Charismatische Herrschaft Max Weber Mario Rainer Lepsius Ian Kershaw Drittes Reich Hitler- Biographien




Title: Charismatic leadership – Adolf Hitler and the NS-state