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"Führerprinzip" (leader principle)

The leadership principle, Führerprinzip, was a central component of National Socialist ideology, structure, and function after Hitler’s release from prison. The party believed the führerprinzip was the ideal model of leadership and was the basis for the formal and informal workings of the party and state organizations. The führerprinzip significantly explains the wider ideological implications of governmental policy choices, the workings of the bureaucracy, and the culpability of senior civilian and military leaders for the national security decisions made about strategy and operations.

In Mein Kampf Hitler expressed his theory on the relationship between leaders and followers: "They never understood that the strength of a political party lies by no means in the greatest possible independent intellect of the individual members, but rather in the disciplined obedience with which its members follow the intellectual leadership. The decisive factor is the leadership itself".

"... the leadership principle may be imposed on an organized political community in a dictatorial way. But this principle can become a living reality only by passing through the stages that are necessary for its own evolution. These stages lead from the smallest cell of the State organism upwards. As its bearers and representatives, the leadership principle must have a body of men who have passed through a process of selection lasting over several years, who have been tempered by the hard realities of life and thus rendered capable of carrying the principle into practical effect."

"A philosophy of life which repudiates the democratic principle of the rule of the masses and aims at giving this world to the best people – that is, to the highest quality of mankind – must also apply that same aristocratic postulate to the individuals within the folk-community. It must take care that the positions of leadership and highest influence are given to the best men. Hence it is not based on the idea of the majority, but on that of personality."

"Only those should rule who have the natural temperament and gifts of leadership. Such men of brains are selected mainly ... through the hard struggle for existence itself. In this struggle there are many who break down and collapse and thereby show that they are not called by Destiny to fill the highest positions; and only very few are left who can be classed among the elect."

"There are no decisions made by the majority vote, but only by responsible persons. And the word 'council' is once more restored to its original meaning. Every man in a position of responsibility will have councillors at his side, but the decision is made by that individual person alone."

" ... the strength of a political party never consists in the intelligence and independent spirit of the rank-and-file of its members but rather in the spirit of willing obedience with which they follow their intellectual leaders."

Eberhard Jäckel, in his examination of Hitler’s philosophy, sums up the centrality of Hitler’s leadership to the structure and functioning of the state: "There was only one Führer, extremely isolated even on the human level, and there were his extensions, appointed by him either directly or indirectly, on the various levels of the power structure. On the administration level, this resulted eventually in a complex system of chanceries – each with a presidential, governmental, Party, and military function – which on the one hand passed along to the Führer all matters requiring his decision, and on the other hand formulated and handed down the so-called Führer-decisions, which were frequently oral. This entire system was based on a concept of absolute and hence obedience which comes closest to the concept of following orders as it prevails in the military, from where it was probably derived. Everyone swore allegiance to Hitler’s own person, not to the state".

A well-documented element concerning this leadership philosophy was the lack ofknowledge by even his key lieutenants about the Führer’s upcoming plans let alone the intent oflong term goals. This information vacuum allowed the development of rival power centers within the party and the state and at times required the direct and immediate attention by the Führer.

The führerprinzip was grafted onto a modern bureaucracy and as such was ill suited to a nuanced national security policy formulation process. In fact, in accordance to Hitler’s narrow strategic formulations, options were deliberately narrowed; and yet, once strategy was determined its coherence and effectiveness was further limited due to the Third Reich’s Byzantine complex system of chanceries each with a presidential, governmental, party, and military function.

The führerprinzip allowed Hitler to operate on the international stage with limited domestic oversight to the risks he was posing to the nation. Albert Speer assessed him as an intelligent amateur unburdened by conceptions of standards and practices to approach problems in strategy and operational planning. Speer associated Hitler’s ignorance of the prevailing “rules” of the geopolitical game as the source of his victories in the early years of international conflict and war. Hitler’s autocratic personality, combined with aperceptive if untrained intelligence, was able to take advantage of adversaries trained to apply the rules in a “rational” manner. Hitler’s intelligent opportunism allowed him to achieve surprisetime and again over adversaries. Unfortunately for Hitler his ignorance of the rules in periods ofmilitary setbacks revealed his incompetence in catastrophic ways.

One of the most significant legal concepts established at the Nuremberg Trial was that a defendant's argument that he was following orders was neither a defense nor an excuse justifying or mitigating the perpetration of a criminal act. The post-World War II Nuremberg trials clearly established that “just following orders” is not a viable defense. The verdicts delivered at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg and Eichmann trial established the premise that no one, regardless of official position, is above the law and the defense that someone is just following orders is no longer valid.

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