Shaking Hands with Hitler: The Politics-Administration Dichotomy and Engagement with Fascism 267
Shaking Hands with Hitler: The Politics-Administration
Dichotomy and Engagement with Fascism
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Abstract: Researchers have examined the impact of the politics-administration dichotomy on the practice and theory
of public administration within the United States. But the dichotomy also influenced patterns of international
engagement by American experts in the 1920s and 1930s. Americans believed that they could set politics aside and
collaborate on administrative questions with regimes that did not respect democracy and human rights. This belief
was tested after the rise of Adolf Hitler. American experts in public administration engaged with the Nazi regime for
three years, ignoring the rising controversy over Nazi policies. The breaking point came in 1936. American experts
finally recognized that it was impossible to ignore political questions and became forthright proponents of “democratic
administration.” This struggle to define the boundaries of international engagement is relevant today, as specialists
in public administration again find themselves in a world in which a shared commitment to democracy and human
rights cannot be taken for granted.
Evidence for Practice
• In the 1920s and 1930s, American engagement with foreign experts in public administration was guided by
the belief that it was possible to ignore “grand politics” and focus on administration.
• This belief was tested after the advent of Nazism in Germany in 1933. American experts engaged with the
Nazi regime for three years.
• In 1936, these experts finally recognized that political questions could not be ignored. They saw that it was
necessary to speak up for democracy and human rights in a world in which these values were challenged.
• The experience of 1933–36 is relevant today, as democratic values are contested once again and experts in
liberal democracies define guidelines for engagement with nondemocratic regimes.
In the United States, the field of public
administration coalesced in the first part of the
twentieth century. The emerging field was built
on the politics-administration dichotomy—that
is, the notion that politics and administration are
“distinct and separable processes” (Bernstein 1952).
An immense literature has shown how the dichotomy
shaped the new field. Researchers have examined
how institutions were designed to reinforce the
wall between administration and politics (O’Toole
1987; Rosenbloom 2008). They have explored how
administrators honored the dichotomy by avoiding
political questions (Hassett and Watson 2002;
Loveridge 1968; Roberts 1994)—or honored the
dichotomy in the breach, by professing neutrality
even as they engaged in politics (Maranto and Skelley
1992). There is also a long-standing debate on
whether governmental affairs in the United States can
be divided into these two compartments at all (Kettl
2018, 68–69; Rohr 1989, 34).
Such research focuses on the influence of the
dichotomy on institutions and practice within the
United States. But in its early years, the dichotomy
shaped the field in another way. From the start,
scholars and practitioners of public administration
in the United States sought connections with peers
in other countries, to exchange best practices and
collaborate in research. This raised questions about
the boundaries of international engagement. Was
it acceptable to engage with countries that did not
respect democracy and human rights? The dichotomy
seemed to answer this question: it suggested that
Americans could engage with foreigners on purely
administrative problems without endorsing, or
inadvertently importing, nondemocratic values.
In the 1930s, this formula for collaboration was
applied but eventually abandoned. American experts
wanted to expand cooperation with counterparts in
Germany, even after the advent of a Nazi government
in 1933. At first, they ignored the rising controversy
over Nazism, insisting that they were concerned
only with administrative questions. The breaking
point came in the summer of 1936, when these
experts became the unwitting instruments of Nazi
propaganda at a conference in Berlin and then
struggled with fascists at a conference in Warsaw.
The Americans realized that the dichotomy was an
inadequate guideline for international cooperation.
Alasdair Roberts is professor of
political science and public policy at the
University of Massachusetts Amherst. He
is also a fellow of the National Academy
of Public Administration. His most recent
Can Government Do Anything Right?,
was published by Polity Books in 2018.
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 79, Iss. 2, pp. 267–276. © 2018 by
The American Society for Public Administration.