Until recently, histories of the Third Reich have focused on Hitler and anti-Semitic ideology. The Holocaust and Hitler's military adventures have been granted an enormous number of pages. A few historians have placed some emphasis on his incompetent dabbling in military strategy. That picture is overfocussed, and misleading. Goetz Aly addresses a wider scope in this fascinating study of how the Reich was able to perservere in the face of what should have been sufficient cause for its early demise. With extensive research applied to the Reich's economic practices, he ably demonstrates what kept it functioning and accepted by the German population.
The term "Nazi" means National Socialist Workers' Party. That seeming innocuous phrase has been omitted from the consideration of its meaning, according to Aly. "National" and "Socialist" are the key terms. "National", meant just that - policies were aimed at benefitting Germany. "Socialist", of course, is a philosophy designed to benefit the most people - particularly those of the lower economic classes. Aly argues with detailed evidence that this is precisely what the Nazis achieved during the 1930s and through the war years. That it succeeded right up to the end of the Reich is testimony to the effectiveness of the Nazi economic methods. The average German began, and remained the "beneficiary" of a highly manipulated financial system.
It was a complex system. Aly begins by explaining how the Nazi leaders were a group of youthful, dynamic characters. They represented change, particularly in a restructering of the class system. The deprived were to be granted first priority in social benefits. While the 1930s witnessed a slow improvement, the onset of war allowed sweeping economic and social change. This was accomplished primarily by shifting the burden of war costs to the occupied nations. France was the testing ground for many new fiscal techniques designed to maintain a comfortable lifestyle in Germany, while bleeding the local populace of essential goods by imposing "occupation costs". One technique was simply to issue a military scrip to buy local goods. Soldiers were able to ship home foodstuffs and other goods not readily obtainable in Germany. The method worked less well in Russia where the "scorched-earth" policy reduced available foodstuffs and other goods. By the time the Wehrmacht entered the Balkans, however, it had numerous finacial tactics available to apply there.
Throughout the Reich's conquered territories, it was the Jews who bore the greatest of these burdens. A number of new laws allowed financial institutions and tax collectors to fill their coffers. Heavily taxed, then dispossessed of belongings, savings, homes and, of course ultimately their lives, the Jews "contributed" to the Reich's ongoing success in several ways. Their homes and belongings were taken and sold, often to the refugees from Allied bombing campaigns. Resettlement in real homes and apartments, sometimes fully furnished, instead of being sent to refugee camps, maintained German morale. The technique provided the gloss of "successful" government policies. Instead of being swayed by charismatic leadership or effective propaganda, Aly argues successfully that personal comfort bound the populace to an adventuresome regime. As he describes it, the Holocaust will never be properly understood until it is seen "as a campaign of murderous larceny". This book makes a major contribution to that understanding. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 27 September 2007
Götz Aly research is undoubtedly good and certainly brings new understanding to the question of Reich economics. However where as his research is extensive his grasp of economics and the calculations he has made to reach his conclusions have been severely questions by Adam Tooze in his book Wages of Destruction.
In addition Aly has a tendency to make clumsy assumptions from his research, not least in his statement that the support for the regime remained high, particularly in the latter stages of the war, due to the fact that the German people were bribed or bought into complicity with the Reich's crimes by their economic policies. This I feel is too simplistic and does not pay due attention to other factors which may help explain Hitler's ability to survive right up until the end of the War. For example Hitler's grasp of power was far more complete than in other countries such as Italy where the monarchy was still in existence to readily replace Mussolini. With all power vested in Hitler as Fuhrer, Germany had no such luxury. It also ignores the genuine fear of the approaching `Hoards from the East' that research has shown spurred many Germans to resist right until the end. In addition what could have practically been done in a bombed out Berlin to remove Hitler when the more pressing concern of survival and meeting their basic needs would have been a greater priority than regime change.
To argue as Aly does, that the German people where essentially bribed by the Nazi regime is too simplistic and needs to be looked at within in the greater context of National socialism and its ability to control the German people. However his discoveries of new economic documentation does bring something new to recent on Hitler's dictatorship and for this reason is worth a read if only to spark debate as it clearly has.