Hitler’s Inner Circle: The 7 Most Powerful Figures in the Third Reich

In Nazi Germany, to be close to Hitler was to be close to power. But who really had the Führer’s ear?

Jun 5, 2024By Ashley Wright, MA History, BA (Hons) History

hitler circle powerful figures third reich


Under the Führerprinzip, or “Leader Principle,” Adolf Hitler’s power was absolute. In any matter, at any level of government or society, the Führer’s word went above all else, superseding laws and the constitution itself.


Hitler, in effect, was king – and like a king, he even had his own “court.” Attended only by his oldest and most trusted allies, it harbored some of the most ruthless and sycophantic Nazis the Third Reich had to offer.


These are those Nazis.


1. Albert Speer

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Albert Speer in discussion with Hitler, May 1943. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Albert Speer (1905-1981) was Hitler’s chief architect and, from 1942, his Reich Minister for Armaments. He was a quiet and reserved man, but as he would later prove, he was just as clever and politically savvy as every one of his rivals.

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Compared to the others in Hitler’s inner circle, Speer was something of a late arrival. Many of his rivals had been by the Führer’s side since the early 1920s, while Speer would only join the Nazi Party in 1931. By late 1933, however, he was already attending regular dinners with Hitler, and their relationship would only go from strength to strength.


What had Hitler so enamored, and what would form the core of their bond, was Speer’s position as an architect. As an artist and fellow creative, Hitler had a great love of architecture and would often draw up structural plans and sketches of his own. It was through this mutual interest that the two became close, with Speer becoming, by his own admission, the only true “friend” Hitler ever had.


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Hitler and Speer, 1942/1943. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


So strong and personal was their connection that, at the end of their monthly phone calls, when Speer would sign off with the customary, “Heil, mein Führer!” Hitler would reply jokingly, “Heil, Speer!


By 1945, however, any such informality had ceased. In March of that year, Hitler issued the Nero Decree: the total destruction of all German infrastructure. It was a step too far for Speer, and he planned to assassinate him. He claims to have intended to use tabun, a lethal nerve agent, to carry out the task but was unable to access the Führerbunker’s air vents to administer the gas.


He was not present at the bunker upon Hitler’s death and would later be arrested and tried at the Nuremberg Trials. Unlike many of his co-defendants, however, he was not sentenced to death but 20 years imprisonment. Speer’s survival, as he was no doubt aware, hinged on his complete denial of knowledge regarding the Holocaust and the Final Solution—a denial that, after his death, was proven to be a heinous lie.


2. Martin Bormann

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Martin Bormann (left) welcoming a delegation of the National Fascist Party of Italy to Berlin, 1943. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Officially, Martin Bormann (1900-1945) was Chief of the Party Chancellery and Personal Secretary to the Führer. Unofficially, he was Hitler’s ruthless enforcer and gatekeeper.


Initially working in the office of Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, Bormann quickly gained a reputation as a canny operator and bureaucrat. Within months of his appointment to Hess’s staff, his talents were already being recognized by Hitler, and in October 1933, he was appointed Reichsleiter – the second highest rank in the Nazi Party.


Bormann had the sharpest political instinct, and when given the seemingly mundane task of renovating Hitler’s Berghof retreat at Obersalzberg, he showed it. Not only did he impress the Führer with an enormous mountain complex befitting of a king, but he placed himself right at the heart of it by moving into an existing house on a hill nearby. From here, he had a clear view of the Berghof and the road leading up to it, allowing him to observe firsthand the comings and goings around Hitler’s estate.


martin bormann meeting
Hitler meeting the prime minister of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Jaroslav Krejčí, 1944. On the right of the photograph, ever-present, is Martin Bormann. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Now his literal gatekeeper, Bormann set about controlling who had the right to an audience with the Führer and, critically, what information he would receive. As his personal secretary, everything was to go through him; nothing and no one could get access to Hitler without his approval. He even had control over Hitler’s personal finances. Naturally, this gave Bormann immense power and made him utterly indispensable all the way through to April 1945.


Despite being arguably closer to Hitler than anyone, their relationship always remained strictly professional. The two did not possess the same camaraderie he and Speer had, nor did Hitler have a particular fondness for Bormann on a personal level. What he did have was respect and appreciation for Bormann’s abilities as an administrator – abilities he could always rely on.


Even at the very end, just after Hitler’s death, Bormann was busy managing Hitler’s final requests and, true to form, trying to shore up his own position. He disappeared shortly after and was tried in absentia at the Nuremberg Trials. It was only in 1972 that his remains were found and positively identified. The exact nature of his death remains a mystery, but it is likely he died by suicide rather than face capture by the approaching Soviet forces.


3. Hermann Goering

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Reichstag portrait photo of Hermann Göring, 1932. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Hermann Goering (1893-1946) was one of Hitler’s earliest supporters, joining the Nazi Party in 1922. Arrogant and garish, he was a renowned war hero and former commander of Manfred von Richthofen’s famous Flying Circus.


As the leader of the party’s paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA), he was present for the Nazis’ failed coup in 1923, during which he was shot and wounded. Years later, in line with Hitler’s drive to instead win power through the ballot box, he took on a more political role, becoming the party’s link to the establishment and high society.


From here, Goering’s star would only grow brighter. In 1932, he was appointed President of the Reichstag, and after Hitler’s ascension to power in January 1933, he was made Reichsminister without portfolio. Numerous other positions and titles would follow, including an appointment as head of the Nazis’ Four Year Plan, a position that gave him far-reaching powers over the German economy.


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Hitler congratulating Goering on his 46th birthday, 1939. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


What would endear him to Hitler the most, though, was his role as commander of the air force. As an integral part of blitzkrieg, the Luftwaffe was vital in ensuring Germany’s early success in the war – success Goering was more than happy to take credit for. By mid-1940, he was made Reichsmarschall, a position senior to every other commander in the army.


His success would not last, however. With the Luftwaffe’s failure in the Battle of Britain and the Allied carpet bombing of German cities, Goering’s influence soon waned. Hitler eventually lost faith in his Reichsmarschall and, despite promising to name him as his successor, refused to do so upon his death.


Goering later surrendered to the Allies and was sentenced to death at Nuremberg. He asked to be executed by firing squad rather than hanged, but this was refused. Regardless, he managed to avoid the hangman’s noose by committing suicide with a cyanide pill only hours before his execution.


4. Heinrich Himmler

Heinrich Himmler (center-right) in discussion with Hitler at the funeral of industrialist Emil Kirdorf, 1938. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) was the leader of the infamous Schutzstaffel (SS) and one of the principal architects of the Holocaust.


Joining the party in 1923, Himmler’s loyalty and bureaucratic efficiency soon saw him rise to high office, taking leadership of the SS in 1929. In the following years, he would transform it into an organization of unprecedented power and reach, with units involved in everything from security and policing to frontline combat. Under Himmler’s order, they would also be charged with carrying out the Final Solution—the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.


The extreme ideology of the SS, in some ways even more extreme than that of the party, was shaped directly by Himmler. The man was obsessed with racial purity and elitism and organized the SS according to these principles. Recruits had to prove they were biologically and genealogically Aryan in descent; this meant strict physical testing and, at least in the early SS, a German ancestry that could be traced as far back as the 18th century.


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Himmler on a visit to Prague, 1941. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Himmler’s personal ideology, while already crazed to the extreme, came with more than just racial fanaticism. Accompanying it was a rabid obsession with pseudoscience and the occult that he would readily incorporate into his SS mythos. For instance, Himmler thought of his elite SS men as a modern incarnation of the Teutonic Order and that, as pure Aryans, they were descended from Atlantean survivors. He also believed the witch hunts of the Middle Ages had been an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to erase the original Aryan-Germanic religion from existence, a belief he devoted a special unit of the SS to researching (the Hexen-Sonderauftrag).


Hitler was, for the most part, unimpressed by Himmler’s obsession, often ridiculing him for such outlandish notions. Like Hitler and Goering, the two were never especially close, but Hitler valued his fierce loyalty. This loyalty would not last, however, and with Berlin’s imminent fall in April 1945, Hitler’s treuer Heinrich (the loyal Heinrich), as he often called him, tried to negotiate a surrender with the Allies. Hearing of this, Hitler removed him from office and ordered his arrest.


Himmler avoided arrest but was captured soon after by the Allies. Three days later, on May 23, 1945, he bit down on a cyanide capsule during a routine body search, preferring to die rather than stand trial for his crimes.


5. Joseph Goebbels

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Goebbels speaking at a rally in Poland, 1940. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) was the regional Nazi Party leader for Greater Berlin and, infamously, the Reich’s chief propagandist.


A failed novelist and playwright, he joined the party in 1924 and quickly became enamored by Hitler and his beliefs. In Goebbels’ twisted mind, they confirmed what he so desperately wanted to be true: that his literary failings were not his fault but that of an insidious group working to undermine German society: the Jewish race. From here, his hatred for Jewish people would only become stronger, growing ever more virulent as the Nazis grew in power.


After proving himself to be an efficient organizer and talented public speaker, Hitler appointed Goebbels as the party’s head of propaganda in 1929, then Reichsminister of Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1933. Goebbels quickly set about establishing a propaganda machine of unprecedented scale, using pioneering technologies like radio and film to indoctrinate the population. He had (almost) total control of the press, the airwaves, and the screen; any form of media that did not conform to the Nazi way of thinking was totally censored or destroyed.


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Goebbels receiving members of the Hitler Youth, 1942. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Goebbels’s propaganda machine fueled the hatred and antisemitism espoused by the Nazis, ensuring the populace was compliant and willing when it came to ridding Germany of its “enemies.” Goebbels himself was more than willing to take an active role in pushing for such acts of discrimination, publicly promoting violence against Jews and, ultimately, calling for their total annihilation.


It was this very unrestrained and very public brand of antisemitism that brought Goebbels and Hitler close together. Hitler’s friendship with Goebbels’ wife, Magda, further endeared him to the Führer until he learned of Goebbels’s affair with the Czech actress Lída Baarová. This kind of scandal he could not abide, and although Goebbels maintained his position and standing with Hitler, their relationship would forever be soured.


Nevertheless, Goebbels remained unequivocally devoted to Hitler and National Socialism, as did Magda. After Hitler’s suicide in the Führerbunker, Goebbels was made Reich Chancellor. One day later, he and his wife arranged to have their six children sedated and poisoned with cyanide. Both then killed themselves, though the exact nature of their suicide remains unknown.


6. Rudolf Hess

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Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, 1933. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party and one of Hitler’s earliest and most devoted acolytes.


After hearing Hitler speak at a rally in Munich in 1920, Hess was immediately taken in. Utterly infatuated by the man and his ideals, he joined the party that same year and would be by Hitler’s side for the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. Hess’s resulting prison sentence was to be served alongside his Führer in Landsberg Prison, where, to his delight, Hitler would read and discuss with him chapters from his memoir in progress, Mein Kampf.


When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Hess was named Deputy Führer. He now had a role befitting of his unflinching loyalty, but it was a role that ultimately held little actual power. Hess had no drive or ambitions beyond serving Hitler, and unlike the other members of the inner circle, he did not use his position to further himself, nor did he care for power or politics. All that mattered was Hitler and Germany—both of which, in his eyes, were inseparable.


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Hess speaking at the podium, 1937. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


While the power of his rivals increased, Hess found himself sidelined from important decision-making. It was now his eccentricities really began to show, and he became obsessed with homeopathy, astrology, divination, and telekinesis. Whenever he came to dine with Hitler, he would bring his own food served in a tin vessel, the ingredients of which had to be of specific “biodynamic” origin. Needless to say, Hitler was not impressed.


By the time of the Second World War, Hess had become little more than a joke in the inner circle. Most thought him mad, and in 1941, he seemingly proved them right. Fearful of Hitler’s decision to fight a war on two fronts, he took a modified Messerschmitt Bf 110 and flew solo to Scotland, hoping for a meeting with the Duke of Hamilton (and ultimately King George VI) to negotiate Britain’s exit from the war. After losing his way and bailing out of his plane, however, he soon found himself in captivity. No negotiations would take place, and his flight of fancy had failed.


In Germany, Hess’s betrayal was met with rage and disbelief. Hitler stripped him of all titles and honors and had him publicly declared a madman. Hess would spend the rest of the war incarcerated and, after his sentencing at the Nuremberg Trials, the rest of his life too. He was found dead in the prison garden at Spandau in 1987, having hanged himself with an extension cord.


7. Reinhard Heydrich

Portrait photograph of Reinhard Heydrich, 1942. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


One of the Third Reich’s most morally reprehensible figures, Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942), was head of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the intelligence service of the SS, and later Director of the Reich Security Main Office.


He joined the Nazi Party and SS comparatively late in 1931 but rose quickly after catching the eye of SS chief Heinrich Himmler. Heydrich became his deputy and was soon tasked with developing the SD into an effective counterintelligence apparatus, a task he took to with ruthless efficiency.


Heydrich’s power, and that of the SS, would only continue to grow as the Gestapo (secret police) came under their control in 1934, followed by all of Germany’s police forces in 1936. By 1939, the SD and other security agencies, including the Gestapo, were combined into a new organization, the Reich Security Main Office.


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Heydrich (center) oversees a meeting between German and Spanish police heads, 1942. Source: National Digital Archives, Poland


Heydrich firmly believed in the deportation and extermination of the Reich’s perceived enemies, most notably Jewish people. To this end, he oversaw the creation of the Einsatzgruppen – SD death squads tasked specifically with following German forces into occupied territory and murdering those perceived to be a threat. They would go on to massacre over one million innocent civilians, most of whom were Soviet Jews.


In 1942, it was Heydrich who would chair the now-infamous Wannsee Conference. Here, with the firmest conviction and belief, he outlined the Nazis’ plans for “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” It called for the extermination of over 11 million Jews, six million of whom would be murdered before the war’s end.


Barely five months after the conference, Heydrich, then acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, was assassinated in Prague by Czech partisans. He survived the initial bombing of his car but later died of an infection caused by his wounds. Hitler and the Nazis mourned his loss greatly and ordered savage reprisals against the Czechs, massacring civilians and razing the towns of Lidice and Ležáky until there was nothing left.

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By Ashley WrightMA History, BA (Hons) HistoryAshley is a published novelist and contributing author from Greater Manchester, England. He holds an MA and BA (Hons) in History, graduating from the University of Huddersfield in 2020. His research and interests include the First World War, late 19th century British politics, and the Middle Ages in contemporary culture. When not writing, he enjoys hiking, playing historical games, and supporting Arsenal Football Club.