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Parasites of Plunder? | The Nation

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Parasites of Plunder?

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At this point in the argument, Aly's exposition becomes quite technical and very hard-going for the reader, with a plethora of figures and calculations of tax burdens and exchange rates; but its broad outlines are clear enough. In every country they occupied, the Nazis either introduced a new currency or fixed exchange rates so that German soldiers, administrators and others could use a strong reichsmark to buy up goods cheaply and send them back home to their families. Buying goods abroad also helped control inflation at home. Special credit arrangements were made to assist in this process, and German troops in other countries were specifically allowed to receive money from their families at home to spend on goods they could not get in Germany.

About the Author

Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. His books...

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Aly cites to dramatic effect the correspondence of a number of German soldiers who described with enthusiasm what they were buying and sending back to their families, among them the young Heinrich Böll, who many years later was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novels and stories. "I've got half a suckling pig for you," he announced triumphantly to his family just before coming home on leave in 1940. After the regime lifted restrictions on how much could be sent home in this way, the number of packages sent from France to Germany by military post ran at more than 3 million a month. Soldiers' pay was increased toward the end of 1940 explicitly in order to help them pay for the foreign goods their families desperately needed.

At home, taxes on the general population were kept as low as possible in order to avoid discontent, while business was taxed more heavily, not least on the grounds that this would not incur the wrath of the population at large. Elaborate welfare arrangements and benefits were put in place to insure that families did not suffer while their principal breadwinner was away on military service. More important, occupied Eastern Europe was subjected to a ruthless policy of exploitation and expropriation, in which foodstuffs were seized in vast quantities from the granaries of the Ukraine to feed the population at home, while more than 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war were deliberately left to die of disease and starvation, and German war plans envisaged up to 30 million or in some versions 50 million Slavic civilians perishing in the same way. A similar policy was put into effect as soon as the German Army occupied Greece, with huge quantities of food being shipped home while Athens succumbed to a famine of terrible dimensions.

In 1941 Nazi planners urged the incorporation of "Russia's food economy into the European framework," leading to the "extinction" of "large segments of the population," running into "tens of millions." Aly cites many similar documents. German historian Christian Gerlach in particular has argued that the extermination of the region's Jews was hastened by the desire of German administrators to reduce the number of "useless mouths" in a situation where the German armed forces had to live off the land and food supplies at home constantly needed to be replenished from abroad. For Aly, indeed, a major reason for Hitler's decision to deport the remaining Jews in Berlin to the east in the summer of 1941 was the need to use their homes to house Germans made homeless by Allied bombing raids.

Here, however, a fundamental weakness of Aly's approach becomes apparent. In all his work, including his earlier study "Final Solution", he has applied a kind of economic reductionism that leaves other factors too much out of account--notably ideology and belief. His arguments are always stimulating and deserve the closest consideration, but they by no means tell the whole story, and they considerably exaggerate the impact of material factors on Nazi decision-making, which was fundamentally irrational at its core.

In a series of complex calculations, Aly comes to the conclusion that no less than 70 percent of the wartime revenues of the German Reich derived from occupied countries, from forced labor and from the murder of nearly 6 million of Europe's Jews (whose assets and possessions fell to the Reich once they were killed). One could make a case that Aly actually underestimates the amount of plunder extracted from the occupied countries, since he relies overwhelmingly on official documents and ignores the vast scale of the unofficial looting carried out by German soldiers as they marched into one country after another. Heinrich Böll described with disapproval how his fellow soldiers broke into deserted houses on their way into France, taking anything they wanted; and in Poland and the East, the troops stole food, jewelry, silver and gold, artworks of every description and much else besides from the country houses and monasteries they encountered on their victorious march toward Warsaw. The contribution all this made to the standard of living of the soldiers' families back home should not be underestimated, even if it is impossible to calculate.

But overall, Aly's figure is surely anything but an underestimate. Other calculations, notably by Adam Tooze in his forthcoming history of the Nazi economy, Wages of Destruction (to be published by Viking in April) put the figure more plausibly at around 25 percent; still substantial, but a long way from keeping almost the entire German people going, as Aly claims. Aly has relatively little in qualitative terms to say about the standard of living of Germans on the home front, and citing government social policy measures is no substitute. There can be little doubt that a deterioration in general living standards set in relatively early, as rations were steadily cut; people began to have recourse to the black market, where prices rapidly became inflated; and bombing raids from 1941 onward began to have their effect.

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