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New Left Review I/176, July-August 1989


Ian Kershaw

The Nazi State: An Exceptional State?

Any discussion of the character of an ‘exceptional’ state must presumably begin with a notion of what categorizes a state as ‘normal’. [*] This is a revised version of a paper presented to the seminar on ‘State, Revolution, and Social Development’ held in spring 1988 at the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History, ucla. I am most grateful to the members of the seminar for their stimulating and constructive criticism. This goes above all for Perry Anderson, Michael Mann, Maurice Zeitlin, Günther Roth, Robert Brenner, Jane Caplan, Peter Loewenberg and, not least, Saul Friedländer. My own starting assumption is to accept Max Weber’s concept of the state: ‘an administrative and legal order subject to change by legislation . . . (claiming) binding authority . . . over all action taking place in the area of its jurisdiction, . . . a compulsory organization with a territorial basis . . . (where) the use of force is regarded as legitimate only so far as it is either permitted by the state or prescribed by it’, and to see this as the basis for the ‘normal’ state, residing in ‘legal’ authority executed through a rational-bureaucratic framework. [1] Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed. Günther Roth and Claus Wittich, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1968, p. 56. I accept, too, that the ability to sustain such a state would depend upon what Michael Mann has called its ‘infrastructural power’—‘the capacity of the state to penetrate civil society and implement logistically political decisions throughout the realm’. [2] Michael Mann, ‘The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results’, Archives Européenes de Sociologie, 25 (1984), pp. 188–90. This is usually well developed in modern capitalist democracies, but where the capacity is weak, or fails, the consequence is the resort to ‘despotic power’, actions of the state elite undertaken ‘without routine institutionalized negotiation with civil society groups’. A state based upon despotic power, under modern capitalism, can therefore be regarded as an ‘exceptional state’. But, useful as Mann’s two-dimensional model is, it does not distinguish between types of ‘exceptional state’. And theoretically, as well as in actual reality, it seems important to make such a distinction.

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