Any discussion of the character of an ‘exceptional’ state must presumably begin with a notion of what categorizes a state as ‘normal’.footnote 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.footnote1 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’.footnote2 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.

Whatever perspective is adopted, the Nazi State was plainly an exceptional type of state. The most superficial, commonsensical notion would suggest that a state which could plunge the world into war and murder six million Jews was no ordinary state. On a more sophisticated, theoretical plane, the exceptionality of the Nazi state has from the earliest days down to the present preoccupied analysts from a variety of Marxist persuasions and has also been a basic premise of most non-Marxist theorizing. The nature, degree and causes of its exceptionality remain, nevertheless, extremely contentious issues. We can distinguish three broad groups of interpretative approaches, which we shall term liberal, Marxist and structuralist (or functionalist). I have explored these approaches elsewhere, and examined their historiography and relative merits in accounting for different aspects of Nazi rule.footnote3 I will therefore deal only in brief terms with them here, with specific reference to their explanations of the exceptional character of Nazi rule.

Under the rubric of ‘liberal’ approaches, I am, of course, subsuming a number of interpretations which are often at odds with one another—sometimes quite sharply so—and yet display a common basic framework. One characteristic feature is their paucity of theorizing about the nature of the state, about its relationship to economics, or the autonomy of the political executive. There is generally an implicit assumption that the political sphere in any system enjoys a primacy over economics, that state executive power is autonomous, and that there is normally a clear divide between the public and private domains. In this perspective, the role of leading actors on the political stage develops an extreme significance, so that in the case of the Third Reich, Hitler becomes the central focus of attention, while explanations of the character of Nazi rule revolve around the Führer’s intentions, ideological convictions and dictatorial control. Correspondingly, economic developments in the Third Reich are seldom accorded a leading importance, or even systematically explored.

Insofar as any theoretical position is adopted, this is almost invariably dependent upon the concept of totalitarianism. Thus Karl-Dietrich Bracher, while consistently and vehemently rejecting the notion of Nazism as a branch of generic fascism, on the grounds that the uniqueness of Nazism lay in the person and ideology of Hitler and that in the end only Hitler’s Weltanschauung mattered, is nevertheless adamant that techniques of rule point to a basic similarity with the Soviet state.footnote4 Klaus Hildebrand, who has adopted a similar perspective in his numerous writings,footnote5 has not surprisingly taken a conservative position in the recent Historikerstreit, emphasizing the merits of comparisons between Nazism and Bolshevism.footnote6 From a different starting-point, that of a biography of Hitler (in which economic matters scarcely figured at all), Joachim Fest has also advanced the virtues of a conservative totalitarianism position in the Historikerstreit.footnote7 The linkage of the Hitlerite specificity of Nazism to totalitarianism theory amounts, in our context, to saying that the singularity of the Nazi State can be attributed to the ideology of its leader and the policies which flowed from that, while its exceptionality was that of a species of state called ‘totalitarian’ and distinguishable in its instruments of rule by features which also characterized the Soviet Union, particularly under Stalin.

The limitations of this cluster of approaches seem self-evident. The pronounced Hitler-centrism means a level of autonomy for the factor of personality which either reduces any non-personal components of an explanation to supernumerary significance, or at best elevates the realm of ideology to a plane wholly detached from socio-economic forces and operating as a complete independent variable. As soon as one begins to question, as empirical evidence allows one to do,footnote8 whether the personalized ideological vision of Hitler adequately accounts for the appeal of Nazism or the motivation of its mass following in the period of its astounding growth and consolidation of power, the explanatory weakness of the personality-based liberal interpretation is exposed. This seems evident even if one accepts the bald assertion of the primacy of politics, and the consequent ignoring or playing down of economic and social factors.