Parasites of Plunder?
Hitler's Beneficiaries, it has to be said, does not begin well. The opening pages on prewar Germany contain many sweeping claims that have long since been exploded by serious research. Thus, contrary to what Aly says, the German middle classes were not impoverished by the hyperinflation of 1922-23 (it was great for debtors, mortgage holders and the like); relatively few Communists went over to Nazism in the early 1930s; the plebiscite that brought the Saar (an ethnically German region on the French border under the control of the League of Nations since 1919) back to Germany was not a free election; and the Nazi leadership did not make automobiles "affordable to everyday Germans." Nazism preached equality, but as with so many aspects of Nazi rhetoric, the reality was very different, and to speak repeatedly, as Aly does, of the Nazis' "socialism" is to mislabel what is better seen as populism; real socialist regimes were very different in their basic political thrust, and few things in this book are less convincing than its attempt to show that the Third Reich was a genuinely redistributive regime that robbed the rich to pay the poor.
Desperate to demonstrate that the overwhelming mass of Germans enthusiastically supported Nazism from the start, Aly provides a highly selective list of examples of young people, some of them his own relatives, who waxed rhapsodic about the possibilities the regime offered them. Typically, he quotes Hanns Martin Schleyer, who became president of the Employers' Association in postwar West Germany, enthusing in 1942 about the opportunities Nazism gave to the young: "We learned at a young age during the movement's days of struggle to seek out challenges, instead of waiting for them to come to us--this and our constant efforts for the party, even after it took power, made us ready to take on responsibility much earlier than usual" (Aly neglects to mention that Schleyer was kidnapped and murdered in 1977 by ultra-left German terrorists from the "Red Army Faction," founded by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof). He also cites two male relatives' entries in the Aly family guest book during the war, with slogans such as "tomorrow belongs to us" and "our country is heading towards a great and glorious future." But one could of course cite just as many testimonies by Germans who were frightened and disturbed by what the Nazi regime was doing, even in the 1930s.
The leadership did not divert resources to fulfilling consumer desires "to the detriment of rearmament"--rather the opposite. True, the Nazis' charitable organizations like the Winter Aid, designed to support the unemployed and their families at a time when jobs were few, or the Nazi People's Welfare, a larger, more formal institution aimed at doing essentially the same thing through the year, raised a lot of money for the less well-off, but a very high proportion of this charity was collected through contributions coerced from the population, including compulsory deductions from wages. The profits gained from the "Aryanization" of Jewish property were significant for those who availed themselves of them, but Jews made up less than 1 percent of Germany's population, and not all of them by any means were rich or even well-off; the difference this made to the nation's living standard overall was minimal, though Aly claims that the Jews were dispossessed, and indeed eventually exterminated, not least in order for the German state to get its hands on their property and use it to raise the people's standard of living.
The reductio ad absurdum of all this is reached when Aly claims that "the Third Reich was not a dictatorship maintained by force," citing the small size of the Gestapo, and the fact that there were fewer than 5,000 inmates in concentration camps by 1936; but the Gestapo was only one of a huge range of institutions of coercion and surveillance, all the way down to the "block wardens" who kept order in every street block, and by 1936 the concentration camps had long since given way to the prisons and penitentiaries, where there were some 23,000 political prisoners at this time, put there by a series of draconian laws that abolished every civil freedom and even prescribed the death penalty for telling "hateful" jokes about Hitler.
Even more bizarre, Aly describes the Third Reich as being run by a flat decision-making process, dependent on individual initiative rather than on a top-down hierarchy. The millions of people in Nazi Germany who were caught up in an undemocratic, totalitarian system governed by the all-pervasive "leadership principle" whereby Hitler's most casual remarks were immediately translated into official policy, often with devastating consequences, certainly would have been surprised to learn this.
Aly makes such crude and sweeping generalizations in part because he is almost entirely unfamiliar with the English-language literature on Nazi Germany, which is too large, diverse and sophisticated to be ignored with impunity. One feels that here, as elsewhere, his grasp of the secondary literature, and his knowledge of what other historians have written, including in Germany, is less than secure.
Aly's work rests overwhelmingly on documentary research. And here, once he gets beyond the simplistic account of Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the war, he has some interesting discoveries to present. Long ago, British historian Tim Mason pointed out that the Nazis' monomaniacal drive to rearm in preparation for a general European war got the German economy into increasing difficulties by 1939, as growing shortages of materials and labor began to impose growing constraints on production. Workers were increasingly coerced into working longer hours; they responded with rocketing rates of absenteeism, and the regime responded by drafting Gestapo agents into the factories to keep workers' noses to the grindstone. In this situation, economic salvation lay in conquest and plunder. Aly shows that as well as appropriating huge quantities of raw materials from Eastern and Western Europe, and eventually forcing more than 7 million workers from conquered and occupied countries to work for minimal pay in Germany, the regime also exploited the countries it occupied so as to prevent the mass of the German population at home from having to bear the real financial burden of the war.
It did this, as again Mason pointed out some thirty years ago, because Hitler and the leading Nazis were anxious to the point of paranoia about a possible recurrence of the "stab in the back" of 1918, when they believed--quite wrongly, of course--that a catastrophic deterioration of living conditions on the home front had led to a mass revolution, fomented by Jewish subversives, that had betrayed Germany's otherwise victorious army and brought about the country's defeat in World War I. As the Nazis pursued this deadly fantasy, more than half of Germany's Jews were forced out of the country by 1939, and the rest were dispossessed and marginalized and, from 1941 onward, deported and murdered. However, from the Nazi leadership's point of view, this still left the problem of how to maintain a decent standard of living at home.