Why did Germans keep supporting Hitler and the Nazis until the end of the war? Why didn’t they rise up against a regime that was committing mass murder and atrocity on an unimaginable scale? Why didn’t the mass Allied bombing of German cities lead to a popular revolt against Hitler?
Many historians have tried to answer these questions over the years since the Nazi regime collapsed in ruins in 1945. Older explanations looked to stereotypes of the German national character for an answer–militarism, love of violence, willingness to obey authority, desire for strong leadership, civil passivity and similar clichés of dubious validity. More recently, some historians have argued that propaganda played a central role in rallying Germans to the Nazi flag; others have stressed the growing terror to which the Nazi Party subjected the German people, above all in the later stages of the war. A few years ago, American political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen suggested that the overwhelming majority of Germans were fanatical supporters of Nazi anti-Semitism from the outset. Others have sought an explanation in the Germans’ mindless enthusiasm for the charismatic leadership of Adolf Hitler.
None of these explanations by itself has proved very convincing. Simplistic notions of a German national character have foundered, like Goldhagen’s sweeping generalizations, on the objection that a majority of Germans, in the Social Democratic and Communist parties, the Catholic community and many other parts of society, refused to lend their support to the Nazis in any of the elections of the Weimar Republic, where the Nazis never got much more than a third of the vote. There is plenty of evidence that Nazi propaganda, though not wholly ineffective, was limited in its impact, especially among these previously resistant sectors of the population and above all in the second half of the war, when Germany was demonstrably heading toward defeat. Hitler certainly seemed immune from popular criticism, at least until 1943, but he was admired as much for what he did as for the image he projected. And terror, though a very real, continuing and in 1944-45 rapidly escalating force, was surely not enough in itself to keep the entire German population in thrall.
In this startling and absorbing new book, which created a considerable storm in Germany when it was published in 2005, Götz Aly advances another explanation. It was, he says, material factors that persuaded the great mass of Germans to support Hitler and the Nazis almost to the very end. The Nazi leadership, he claims in Hitler’s Beneficiaries, made the Germans into “well-fed parasites. Vast numbers of Germans fell prey to the euphoria of a gold rush…. As the state was transformed into a gigantic apparatus for plundering others, average Germans became unscrupulous profiteers and passive recipients of bribes.”
Already by the late 1930s, Aly argues, even former Social Democrats had become reconciled to the regime because it replaced the mass unemployment and economic misery of the Depression with full employment, generated not least by rapid rearmament, prosperity and consumer satisfaction. During the war, he continues, “the cascade of riches and personal advantage–all derived from crimes against humanity…led the majority of the populace to feel that the regime had their best interests at heart.”
Aly has offered this kind of materialist explanation before, in dealing with Nazi genocide, which he portrayed in his book “Final Solution”: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews, published in English in 1999, as the outcome of rational, or perhaps one should say pseudo-rational, processes of state planning and ethnic reordering generated in the Nazi and SS bureaucracies. In Architects of Annihilation, published in English in 2002 (more than ten years after its first appearance in German), written in collaboration with Susanne Heim, Aly turned his attention to the planners, demographers, civil servants and academics who devised these plans, and argued that in the drive to adjust the ratio between “productive” and “unproductive” population groups in Europe, the planners “advocated state-directed mass extermination as a necessary and logical component of social modernization,” envisioning in the process “not only one ‘final solution’ but serial genocides, planned in detail to be carried out over several decades.”
This approach originates in a particular German far-left understanding of Nazism, which seeks at every juncture to link it to processes of modernization culminating in the Federal Republic of the present day. In Hitler’s Beneficiaries, for instance, Aly misses no opportunity to mention prominent figures in postwar Germany who were enthusiastic about the Third Reich as young men. Not long ago, he caused a stir by indicting much-admired German university historians of the 1950s for what he saw as their role during the Third Reich in planning or justifying Nazi genocide. What makes Aly such an uncomfortable figure for Germans is that his arguments are always buttressed by painstaking, meticulous and very extensive archival research. His voice may be an outsider’s voice, but it has to be listened to.
In his new book, he caused an even greater upset in Germany than before by arguing that it was not only the elites whose support for the Nazi regime was based on rational, nonideological grounds but also the vast mass of the people. How does his new claim stand up to critical scrutiny?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.