Play #7: Let a Henchman Take the Fall

The great leader’s last resort: the henchman who takes the rap. Now of course, this isn’t something limited to autocracies. Anyone living in a parliamentary democracy is familiar with the unfortunate minister being shuffled off to spend more time with his memoirs as the waters of some systemic failing threaten to lap at the Prime Minister’s front door.

It’s a bit different in autocracies. In democracies, surrogates of leaders are set up with positive intent in the hope of success. They’re just allowed to take the rap when it all goes wrong. In autocracies, henchmen are often put in there as fire-breaks, designed to act as the buffers between inquisitors and the leader. This is particularly true if the leader is intentionally starting something shady. Having a coterie of others who ‘know too much’ is pretty handy. There is a reason that lots of dictatorships start off as “juntas”. Having a group of co-conspirators (often drawn from different branches of the armed forces) offers a greater number of pawns to be sacrificed if underhanded tricks come to light. The most useful allies are the ones who will absorb and deflect blame and allow for dramatic u-turns on policy, all the while allowing the dear leader to rise above the fray. We can, as usual, turn to that maestro of dirty tricks, Herr Hitler, for a lesson in how this works.

Can’t make a Dictatorship without cracking some heads

During the first year of Hitler’s consolidation of power, he still had to contend with opposition parties and a Reich President who was less than thrilled with the Fuhrer’s tactics and policies. One of the ways he forced that consolidation was by using Play #3 in this Playbook, and supporting a staggering campaign of political violence.* This violence was conducted by the Nazis’ massive paramilitary organization, the SA, and directed by its strange but effective demagogic leader, Ernst Röhm. Röhm aspired to make the SA larger and more important than the military. He was competitive with and disdainful of both the Party infrastructure and the military.  However, Hitler protected him and, indeed, quashed court cases against SA men throughout the year of `1933, because it served Hitler’s ends to let the SA crush the communists, social democrats and trade unionists as a political force.*

Political violence? Me?

Over time, it became essential for Hitler to jettison the SA. Both Nazi leaders like Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler and the traditional military detested Röhm and the SA.* Additionally, the size and power of the SA drew criticisms from Britain.* Over the course of 1933, the SA’s vigilantism and Röhm’s ambition threatened to compromise Hitler’s foreign policy and military objectives, and began to undermine his credibility with German elites.* When Röhm finally became too damaging to Hitler’s other interests Hitler had him and all other intra-party opponents murdered on June 30, 1934, in an incident that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler was able to stay above the fray by blaming Röhm for the SA violence of the previous year, and take credit for solving the problem.  He let his henchman do the dirty work, and when the dirty work became compromising, he let the henchman take the fall.  Or in this case, the dagger.

Policy failures vs. Shady shenanigans

If you’re looking to figure out whether a leader is running Play #7, or whether he’s just blaming some poor underling for a policy failure, evaluate the blameworthy act. Some dismissals of underlings are not a cause for concern. For instance, blaming the Director of FEMA for the Bush Administration’s wholesale failure to handle Hurricane Katrina was a pretty standard political move, whether Brownie did a heckuva job or not. Others should put us all on alert. Nixon blaming the White House Counsel for his campaign’s decision to bug the Watergate hotel had a rather more autocratic aroma. The hallmark of Play #7 is a henchman taking the fall for an illegal, or at least amoral, act, and as with Watergate, the more henchmen have to take the fall over a particular dirty trick, the more likely it is that the dear leader was in on it.

Citations are to from volume I of Ian Kershaw’s excellent biography of Hitler Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp.500-507.


This entry in the Dictator’s Playbook is a collaboration between Pie Face and Apple Pie Politics contributor Mince Pie.  Mince Pie is a Brit with a degree in History from Oxford University. He, like Pie Face, has taken an interest in Dictators ever since they started “studying” for their tutorials on the Third Reich by watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Nazis, he hates those guys.