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Parasites of Plunder? | The Nation

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Parasites of Plunder?

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There is, moreover, a fundamental contradiction at the core of Aly's book. For if the overwhelming mass of Germans had been as positively committed to the Third Reich as he claims they were already before 1939, sustaining an "accommodating dictatorship" from below and participating fully in a flat decision-making process, then why would the regime have felt it necessary to divert such enormous resources into trying to avoid discontent on the home front during the war? Ironically, too, the decision-making processes that Aly describes, from tax reform and welfare measures to the regulation of food parcels and the raising of soldiers' wages, originated with central figures and institutions in the regime, including Hitler and Göring themselves, and were implemented in a top-down fashion through the Finance Ministry. If the Nazi leaders had decided not to tolerate the plundering of occupied countries and stopped the troops from enriching themselves and their families, they could have done so, and things surely would have turned out differently.

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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A central feature of Nazi ideology and rhetoric, explored by many historians but for obvious reasons completely ignored by Aly, was the cult of self-sacrifice, the appeal to self-surrender in the interests of nation and race. Much of this was coupled with promises that everything would get better once the war was over, but it also had a clear message for the present. Germany was everything, the individual nothing. Goebbels's propaganda machine constantly exhorted Germans to live frugally so that resources could be focused on financing the war. There is plenty of evidence that the deep-seated identification of a majority of Germans with the nation--their nationalism, in a word--was more important than anything else in maintaining their commitment to the war effort.

In 1939, 1940 and 1941, this produced an almost hysterical euphoria, as with startling rapidity and ease German forces overran territories whose conquest had largely eluded them in 1914-18. From 1942 to near the end of the war, coupled with growing and in many respects quite justified fear of the Red Army, it instilled a grim determination to preserve the nation in the face of its advancing enemies. At the same time, disillusion with the Nazi regime escalated rapidly in 1942-43, until by 1944 even Hitler was coming under increasing criticism from the populace, and the regular morale reports produced by the Security Service of the SS had to be stopped because they made too depressing reading.

When the Red Army finally overran Berlin, and Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, any remaining allegiance to his regime among the overwhelming majority of ordinary Germans collapsed. There can be little doubt that the material conditions of their life deteriorated sharply in 1945-47, now that the income and produce of occupied countries was no longer available to them, the country's huge arms and munitions industries ceased to exist, the armed forces were demobilized and returned home to begin the difficult search for a job, millions of refugees and expellees flooded in from Eastern Europe, and the burgeoning black market fueled inflation until it reached dangerous levels. Yet despite these appallingly difficult material conditions, there was no resistance to the Allied occupation, and no serious attempt to revive National Socialism after its defeat. If material factors had been so central in creating Germans' loyalty to the Third Reich, one would have expected far more serious levels of discontent after it collapsed. As it was, the death of Hitler, the central, integrating figure of Nazism, had cut the bonds of people's allegiance to his movement. And a regime that had constantly insisted that might was right, and that the spoils went to the strong, was now unambiguously hoist by its own petard.

It was not just the end of the good times, economically speaking, therefore, that tore people's allegiance away from the principles and practices of National Socialism, important though that was. Ideology, as always, was just as important, if not more so. Götz Aly has once more done a service to our understanding of Nazi Germany by drawing our attention to material factors, but as in much of his previous work, he has exaggerated their significance, and to concentrate on them alone is to show only half the picture.

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