The Struggle for Power Under Tyrannical Leaders: The Fight for Second-in-Command in Nazi Germany, Part 3

written by Stephen Wrubel '21
edited by Caitriona Keane '22 & Nicole Stark '22

Throughout history, ordinary people have struggled to climb the ranks of life’s stations to reach an ultimate position of authority and power over other human beings. Some individuals rose from the shackles of slavery, destitution, or lack of education to the highest ranks imaginable. The thirst for power knows no bounds and nothing will stop many passionate individuals from achieving their goals. Though with limited positions available for leaders, many will come to realize that they may never reach this high plateau of status, and they may then have to settle for a second-best option. It is this second-best option that many compete and fight for, far much more than “first place.” Such was the case in the Third Reich where a select few notorious individuals struggled and clashed ever so ever intensely to fill the position of second-in-command (and possible successor) to the even more notorious Adolf Hitler.

This three-part series will briefly analyze the power contest surrounding three of Nazi Germany’s most powerful figures—Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, and Martin Bormann—henchmen, who directly reported to Hitler, spent much time in his private company, and at one point or another was named his successor in some capacity. Each of these individuals was personally responsible for the tyranny of the Third Reich and the horrific atrocities that sprang from this regime. They did not “just follow orders.” They executed orders to obtain authority and ultimate power.

Part Three:
Martin Bormann

In the Third Reich, no one could claim the degree of power Martin Bormann held under Hitler, nor was there anyone else who had so much unrestricted access to the Fuehrer. Though Bormann did not accumulate the wealth, following, or fame that many of his opponents held, he was, nevertheless, unequivocally feared by all. His profound influence on Hitler and his authority to allow or restrict others’ access to his presence was simply dictatorial, and Bormann executed such decisions with absolute tyranny.

Martin Bormann was born on June 17, 1900, in Halberstadt, Germany, to Theodore and Antoine, a lower-middle-class couple. He was one of three children from his father’s second marriage, though only he and his brother, Albert, were to survive past childhood. They both came to serve the Nazi Party as close advisors to Hitler. It was with his brother Albert that his hostilities to all others who stood in his way began. Throughout his life, Albert would remain “in the shadow of his older brother.”[1] Their relationship was so strained that even when they were together meeting with Hitler, Martin always employed an intermediary instead of speaking directly to his brother.[2] In Martin Bormann’s case, hatred and jealousy began at home.

In 1918, Bormann was drafted into the military, though the Armistice cut his career short, and he did not see any action. After the Armistice, he became overly involved with antisemitic conspiracies in which the Jews were blamed for the First World War and the defeat of Germany.[3] In 1924, after becoming close with many SS and SA (Sturmabteilung) leaders, Bormann was arrested and sentenced to one year in prison for the murder of Walter Kudo, who had betrayed Albert Leo Schlageter, a resistance fighter against the post-war French occupation, to French authorities. Likely because of the grandiose experience Hitler painted of his time in Landsberg Prison, Bormann, too, glorified his own account in prison, describing his experience in the capacity of an “ostracized prisoner.”[4]In 1927, Bormann officially joined the Nazi Party.

Bormann’s climb to power was mostly unobstructed and easy. In 1933, Rudolf Hess was named Deputy Fuehrer to Hitler and an entire office was established. Bormann became Hess’ secretary. In this capacity, Bormann did all he could to strengthen his position with Hitler and to gain prestige in Hitler’s eyes.[5] When Hess flew to England in his attempt to escape the Reich and reach a peace deal with the British in 1941, Hitler immediately named Bormann to fill Hess’ place, changing the office name to the Reich Chancellery and naming Bormann head of the department.[6] Additionally, Hitler named Bormann Reich Minister. Bormann now answered directly to Hitler. Above all, Bormann was now in Hitler’s inner sphere.

In this capacity, Bormann not only decided who was to gain admittance to Hitler, but he also was his “mouthpiece,” disseminating his decrees to all other offices and authorities.[7] However, much of the time, he added, eliminated, and even distorted information for his own gain.[8] He spent extra-long hours at Hitler’s side and sought every opportunity to be of assistance.[9] He was also heavily involved with the Fuehrer’s Obersalzberg residence, in charge of all the finances. There was no end to his involvement with Hitler, as even personal relationships were not out of bounds.[10]

Though Bormann did not make public speeches or spend much time in the public’s eye, among Hitler’s inner circle, he was feared and hated. The complexity of his character and his enigmatic personality baffled everyone. As such, most attempted to stay out of his way, Even Albert Speer who had few rifts with other Nazi leaders avoided Bormann. In his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, Speer noted:

I avoided Bormann; from the beginning we could not abide each other. We treated each other with formal correctness, as the private atmosphere at Obersalzberg required.[11]

Goebbels, in his diary, also noted how difficult it was to ascertain Bormann’s true personally and relayed his “deep skepticism” towards him.[12] In most cases, no one ever challenged Bormann, nor did anyone attempt to slip between his closeness to Hitler. Bormann’s ability to charm and influence Hitler remains a mystery.

Though Bormann’s authority was sometimes limited, specifically when dealing with access restrictions for those in the inner sphere such as Goering, Himmler, and Goebbels, nonetheless, he “was one of the most powerful men in Germany.”[13] By remaining at Hitler’s side on all occasions and at all times of the day and night, he constantly “pulled strings” to get his way and influence major decisions. From architectural building finances, the Wehrmacht’s campaigns, and Gestapo promotions, all to the information regarding the Final Solution and the Jews, nothing was hidden from Bormann. Anything that Hitler digested was first digested by Bormann.

After the assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944, Hitler entrusted Bormann with duties to help clean out those who had anything to do with the plot.[14] With this leeway, Bormann was able to remove many personal obstacles in his quest for power, and as such, took advantage of the situation to eliminate those he had previous feuds with.[15]

Bormann remained by Hitler’s side in the bunker as the Soviets closed in on Berlin. In the bunker, Bormann arranged the wedding of Hitler to Eva Braun, and Hitler named him as his executor. Unlike Goering and Himmler, who Hitler had both stripped of their power, Hitler, in his last will in testament, named Bormann to the Office of the Party Minister.

Martin Bormann disappeared from the bunker on May 1, 1945. He was tried in absentia at the International Military Court in Nuremberg and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to death by hanging.

After many conflicting theories over the years as to whether Bormann was alive or not, in December 1972, a skeleton was uncovered in Berlin, and in 1973 it was confirmed to be Bormann’s.[16] Finally, in 1998, with the aid of DNA, it was reaffirmed, and in 1999, his ashes were scattered in the Bay of Kiel outside Germany.[17]

The once all-powerful Bormann—who in many ways controlled Hitler— faded into history. Though the atrocities he perpetrated, the murders he executed, and the crimes he committed will forever linger on in the annals of humanity along with Himmler, Goering, and all the other infamous Nazi leaders. We must remember that the fight for second-in-command of the Reich under Hitler was not only a private battle between rivalries; it was a battle for who would decide the fate of those who were under the tyranny of the Nazis. We are thankful today that these individuals are no longer here to dictate. With that, we must remember and never forget these atrocities so that they may never happen again.

[1] Volker Koop, Martin Bormann: Hitler’s Executioner, trans. Cordula Werschkun (Yorkshire: Frontline Books, 2020), 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 5-6.

[5] Ibid., 33.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 28.

[10] Ibid., 25.

[11] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (New York: Ishi Press

International, 2009), 88.

[12] Volker Koop, Martin Bormann: Hitler’s Executioner, 42.

[13] Ian Kershaw, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany 1944-1945 (New York: Penguin, 2011), 21-22.

[14] Volker Koop, Martin Bormann: Hitler’s Executioner, 222.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 277.

[17] Ibid.