To what extent was the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime an aberration in the context of German history in the years 1848-1949?

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Literature Review

To what extent was the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime an aberration in the context of German history in the years 1848-1949?

Factual Summary

In addressing the issue outlined in the title, some key terms must first be clarified. Authoritarianism involves a political system in which individual freedom is held as subordinate to the power and authority of the state, centred either in a leader or leaders, typically unelected by the people, possessing exclusive and arbitrary power. Political theorists have added various stipulations and details to this definition over the years, but the aforementioned description is generally agreed upon. While it is clear that, throughout the period 1848-1948, Germany could never be described as being fully authoritarian, there is certainly evidence of strong authoritarianism in Germany, particularly in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. From the quashing of pluralism to racialist policies to the complete lack of constitution, there is an unequivocally strong authoritarianism working at the heart of Nazi Germany, indeed authoritarianism spilling over into totalitarianism. What must be ascertained is whether this authoritarianism was an aberration in the context of German history or whether it was a logical development of what had preceded it, the word ‘aberration’ simply alluding to an irregularity without precedent, something which deviates from normal course. In attempting to answer this question, a variety of aspects of German government and politics must be assessed, from constitution to government structure to treatment of opposition.


  • King has special executive authority: names ministers, controls diplomacy and military, can disband legislature at will, declare martial law, use emergency powers, exercise emergency powers
  • Legislature’s only real power is control over budget; they were, however, elected through universal male suffrage
  • However, they were elected via tiered voting, meaning votes of influential landowners counted for more than the votes of peasants and the working classes
  • Defeat of the liberals’ Paulskirche Constitution in 1848 meant that the King’s absolutist power remained intact, reinforcing German authoritarian pseudo-democracy
  • Prussian press muzzled, civil service purged of liberals, workers’ associations were suppressed


  • William I appoints a more liberal cabinet, accepts the need for constitution; however, through his army reforms, he completely went against the liberal desire for a civilianised army; he later dismisses this liberal cabinet in favour of a conservative administration
  • Bismarck found loopholes to get around liberal attempts at preventing army reforms (i.e. “constitutional hiatus”)
  • Government still controlled the civil service, enjoyed the complete loyalty of the army
  • Laws prevented Bismarck’s main opposition in 1860s becoming members of the Reichstag
  • New 1867 constitution protected the position of the Crown and Bismarck with minor concessions
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  • Kaiser appoints and dismisses government, could dissolve and overrule the Reichstag, holds great constitutional power
  • Appointed Bundesrat held more power than elected Reichstag, undermines power of the people
  • Socialism was suppressed, along with ethnic minorities (e.g. Kulturkampf)
  • No statement of individual rights
  • Bismarck uses Realtpolitik to steamroller opposition
  • The Confederation was very much dependent on Prussia
  • HOWEVER, only the Reichstag had the power to pass laws, therefore Bismarck had to persuade them to do so
  • Caprivi makes concessions to Socialists during his time as Chancellor


  • President has executive powers through Article 48, supreme command over ...

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