The Leadership Principle

“The Fűhrer’s spoken word is above all written law.” This is the idea of Fűhrerprinzip, the “leader principle” which was the basis of the Third Reich in Germany. It wasn’t specifically formulated by the Nazis, first articulated by Hermann Graf Keyserling in the beginning of the 20th century with some debt to Hegel, but used extensively by them from the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 to their demise in 1945. It states that a dynamic leader born to rule should be obeyed by all without question, and in larger operations, each section of a business or government would have a leader with ultimate authority over his section. This principle was cited directly by Reinhold Heydrich at the Wannsee Conference that organized the death camps, and Adolf Eichmann used it as his defense at his trial in Jerusalem, saying he was only following the orders of a dynamic leader who demanded ultimate obedience.

The problem with Fűhrerprinzip is Nazi beaureaucrats used it to promote their own opposing personal agendas, each based on a casual comment Hitler made out of context, and many German governmental departments worked openly against each other. Many Nazi officials were nervous about making decision without Hitler. There were redundant bureaucracies, including 20 different intelligence services, that did not cooperate. In the end, many were willing to see Germany’s defeat more than seeing a rival’s projects succeed. The greatest weakness was some subordinate leaders were incompetent, and their incompetence cost much in time and resources, not to mention the weakness of the man at the top. Germany probably would never have gone to war without Hitler, but without Hitler and Fűhrerprinzip,they might have won the war.

I bring this up because variations on this theme are working in today’s world. There are many movements, political and religious, liberal and conservative, formal and informal that practically follow this idea of taking each statement of its leader or leadership as unquestioned truth and attempt to impose it on everyone else. In some Christian groups, the rationalization is one person’s interpretation of Christ; the followers of Richard Dawkins seem to use this maxim as well. The problem is it puts ideas and practices beyond reproach because they come from the leader’s dictums.

Probably the only time Fűhrerprinzip could work is a limited project with a definite completion time. An artist creating a new work needs absolute control over those helping him, but only in the creation of the work and only for the time it takes to do it. A teacher needs absolute control over their classroom, but only over the education when school is in session, and not over the entire lives of their students. The military needs to work within this kind of boundary as well, but only within the scope of its objectives, and only within specially defined parameters of conflict. The same is probably true over some business projects, but only within the boundaries of the project. Any attempt to make it general and universal is destructive, opening myriad possibilities for abuse and exploitation.

The idea that any group should follow the leader turns that group into a kind of ponyride, as different members take turns exercising ultimate authority without reference to anything else that’s happened before or after. It leads to inconsistent standards over time and lack of fidelity to Virtue, since the leader’s thought replaces Right and Wrong. It’s present in abusive marriages, where the wife is expected to do whatever the husband wants, even if it violates her personal integrity or risks her life. It’s been the weakness in celebration of Mass where priests, liberal and conservative, see the liturgy as a means to impose their preferences on the rite and community rather than serve it as a presider. It’s a weakness in many churches of every kind, when leadership arbitrarily imposes its standards without consideration of the Common Good and the Gospel.

I’m not saying America or any other country is in danger of being overthrown by modern Fascists. I’m saying this principle still walks the earth in disguise, particularly in political parties and religious movements, and it’s toxic. It appears to work when a dynamic genius is around to operate it, but it’s limited by the limits of the leader, and a succession of similar leadership is almost impossible to maintain: with great luck, one great leader follows another, but it’s impossible to maintain the chain of quality necessary to keep things going. That’s assuming the dynamic leader’s weaknesses don’t ultimately destroy the movement, as Hitler eventually destroyed Germany. Whenever it’s recognized in a particular groups politics, it should be named and discontinued.

Fűhrerprinzip is alive and well in the world, and it has limited use. Unfortunately, a lot of social conflict today is fed by it, and a lot of potential dialogue is short circuited by it. It is an almost infallible recipe for conflict.

If you’d like a lighthearted view of this idea, check out this classic.


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