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Nazi Leadership and the Holocaust

The dictatorial regime Hitler set up in Germany after January 30, 1933, had a complicated structure.  In particular, power was shared between the official German government and the Nazi party.  Hitler ultimately controlled both, and many of his most important followers also held key positions in both hierarchies, so that lines of command were often confused.  Nazi policy toward the Jews involved not just Hitler but all the leading figures of the regime.  This handout is designed to provide a brief overview of the principal personalities and organizations involved in the Holocaust, and their roles.

Key Personalities in the Nazi Dictatorship

  • Adolf Hitler:  As the Führer or leader of the Nazi Party, Hitler controlled the organization; he did not have to answer to any other group within the Party.  On January 30, 1933, he became Chancellor or prime minister of the German government.  In this position, he theoretically needed the support of the legislature or Reichstag and of the elected president, von Hindenburg.  By getting the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act in March 1933, Hitler was able to issue laws and decrees without consulting the legislature; this was the basis for his dictatorship.  When the elderly Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler left the office of president vacant; he no longer had to worry about possible opposition from the president either.  At this time, he also took over the president’s position as commander in chief of the armed forces.  From this point on, Hitler’s dictatorship was total:  there was no longer any person or institution in Germany that could legally challenge his power.  Although Hitler held total dictatorial power in Germany, he did not set all details of German policy.  Fundamentally lazy and undisciplined, Hitler often left it to his subordinates to make decisions, which he might later approve or disapprove.  He often also announced broad general goals, but refused to involve himself in discussions about how to achieve them, or in efforts to resolve contradictions between the various policies he announced at different times.  As a result, many policies in Nazi Germany were initiated by lower-ranking officials who competed with each other in trying to carry out what they assumed Hitler wanted done.  This was known as “working toward the Führer”—trying to anticipate Hitler’s wishes and sometimes exploring possibilities he hadn’t explicitly considered.  It tended to result in a steady radicalization of policies.
  • Heinrich Himmler:  Himmler had joined the Nazi Party in the 1920s, and eventually became the leader of the Schutzstaffel or SS, a special security unit within the larger Party militia or SA which was recruited for its special loyalty to Hitler.  After the Nazis came to power, Himmler worked to acquire control over the various police organizations in Germany, some of which were part of the national government while others belonged to the different German provinces or Laender.  By June 1936, he had become the head of a unified national police, the Gestapo, while also remaining head of the SS.  This put him in a unique position to lead the campaign against supposed enemies of Germany, particularly the Jews.  Under Himmler’s command, the SS grew into a bureaucratic empire.  It controlled the concentration camps in which victims of the regime were held; it also began to set up factories and business enterprises of its own, and eventually developed its own army, the Waffen-SS.  SS members had to proclaim loyalty to Nazi ideology and demonstrate ‘pure’ Aryan ancestry going back to at least 1800.  The SS thus recruited the most enthusiastic Nazi supporters.  The fact that the same man controlled the SS and the police meant that the full powers of the police were used to carry out Nazi policy, even though not all policemen were convinced Nazis.
  • Himmler’s lieutenants and the Holocaust:  Several of Himmler’s lieutenants or subordinates played very important roles in the campaign against the Jews.  The most important were Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s right-hand man until his assassination in June 1942, who was responsible for supervising concentration camps and implementing policy toward the Jews in occupied Poland after Sept. 1939, and Adolf Eichmann, originally the SS specialist on the Zionist movement, who parlayed his expertise about Jewish organizations into a position where he organized the systematic deportation and extermination of Jewish populations throughout Europe.
  • Hermann Goering:  another longtime Nazi, Goering held several positions in the regime.  A WWI flying ace, he headed the Luftwaffe or German air force.  He also involved himself extensively in German economic policy and directed the Four-Year Plan begun in 1936 to promote German military production.  His ambition to control the German economy made him a leading advocate of ‘Aryanization,’ the confiscation of Jewish businesses, but often brought him into conflict with Himmler, whose SS had its own economic empire, and with other figures in the government.  An art lover, he profited from the plunder of Jewish victims to build up his personal collection.
  • Joseph Goebbels:  Goebbels was the Nazis’ leading propagandist.  After the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, he also headed the ministry of culture and led the campaign to drive Jews out of journalism, cinema and the performing arts.  A violent anti-semite, he encouraged Hitler’s radical policies, and his diaries provide valuable evidence of their development.
  • Albert Speer:  A young architect and a personal favorite of Hitler’s, Speer was eventually put in charge of war production once Goebbels’ incompetence had been demonstrated.  Less emotionally anti-semitic than other top Nazis, he sometimes complained that the extermination policy was hurting the war economy, but he never actively resisted it.  In his postwar memoirs, he tried unconvincingly to claim that he had known little about the Holocaust.

Other Organizations Involved in the Holocaust

Although the SS was the principal organization involved in planning and carrying out the Holocaust, other parts of the government and the Nazi Party also played significant roles in making it possible.

  • SA (Sturmabteiling):  the SA was the Nazi party’s uniformed militia.  It staged street demonstrations, intimidated and attacked opponents of the Nazis, and played a crucial role in Hitler’s rise to power.  Until 1934, it was the largest organization within the Nazi Party.  It tended to attract the most violent Party members, and its leader, Ernst Röhm, sometimes defied Hitler himself.  In 1933, the SA pushed for immediate action against the Jews.  It was the leading force behind the economic boycott of Apr. 1, 1933.  Hitler was determined to bring this unruly organization under control.  On June 30, 1934, he used the SS to murder Röhm and other SA leaders, as well as several other political figures.  After the “Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler no longer had to fear opposition from the SA, but the organization’s members continued to demand a steady radicalization of policy toward the Jews.
  • The Wehrmacht and the German military:  The military was one organization that never came under complete Nazi control, although Hitler used his position as commander in chief to remove military leaders whom he didn’t trust and to promote those who showed themselves to be loyal Nazis.  Nevertheless, he had to rely on commanders who had the respect of their troops.  Headed by Goering, the German air force (Luftwaffe) was strongly pro-Nazi, but had relatively little direct role in the Holocaust.  The navy had strong traditions of its own and was reputed to be less pro-Nazi than the other services; it also had little direct role in the Holocaust.  The army (Wehrmacht), on the other hand, was very much involved in policies toward the Jews in the areas it occupied.  After the war, Wehrmacht leaders tried to claim that the army had confined itself exclusively to fighting, and that the Holocaust had been carried out by the SS.  In fact, top Wehrmacht commanders were fully informed about the extermination policy and cooperated in carrying out, although they left most of the actual killing to others.  Particularly in occupied Russia, army units rounded up Jews, participated actively in the looting of their property, and sometimes killed them.  On the other hand, some Army officials complained about the extermination of Jews who contributed economically to the war effort, and army officers played a leading role in the unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, although opposition to the extermination of the Jews was not the main issue that concerned them.
  • German Foreign Ministry:  another branch of government service with long traditions of its own, the Foreign Ministry dealt with other governments.  During the Nazi period, it was headed by the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg.  Not a leading figure in the regime, he nevertheless did everything he could to facilitate the implementation of measures against the Jews.