|(On the 60th anniversary of the end of WW II, a detailed look by a German
historian at the populist nature of the Nazi regime which bought it social
peace and even a large degree of active popular support, including in
conditions of wartime deprivation. The "national" characteristics of
Nazism - the crushing of the once powerful German labour and socialist
movement, military spending, and imperialism - secured the support of German
capitalists, until the whole edifice came tumbling down. Gotz notes that the
support of German capital for Nazism has received the greater attention as a
means of avoiding "the general question: how could an enterprise which, in
retrospect, appears as overtly deceitful, megalomaniac and criminal as
Nazism have achieved political consensus on a scale we find it hard to
explain today?" The article is another demonstration of how fascism, because
of its popular base and social policies, is a more complex phenomenon than
the authoritarian or imperialist regimes which have have been labelled as
such in anger - including, most recently, the Bush administration.)
The World At War
Germany: the division of the spoils
by Götz Aly
Le Monde diplomatique
I WANT to ask a simple question that has never really been answered: how
could it have happened? How could the Germans have allowed and committed
unprecedented mass crimes, particularly the genocide of Europe's Jews?
While the hatred the state whipped up against all "inferior" peoples -
"Polacks", "Bolsheviks" and "Jews" - no doubt prepared the ground, it is
not an adequate answer.
In the years before Hitler came to power, the Germans harboured no
greater feeling of resentment than did other Europeans; German
nationalism was no more racist than that of other nations. There was no
Sonderweg (special German path to modernity) that would lead logically
to Auschwitz. There is no empirical basis for the idea that a specific
form of xenophobia, a deadly anti-semitism, had developed early in
Germany. It is wrong to assume that there must have been specific and
long-standing causes for a mistake with such fatal consequences. A range
of factors led to the National German Socialist Workers' party (NSDAP)
gaining and consolidating power, but the most important arose only after
At the heart of this study is the relationship between people and
political elite under national socialism. We know that the edifice of
Hitler's power was fragile from the start. So how was it stabilised in a
way that allowed it to last for 12 destructive years? We must clarify
the general question: how could an enterprise which, in retrospect,
appears as overtly deceitful, megalomaniac and criminal as Nazism have
achieved political consensus on a scale we find it hard to explain today?
I consider the Nazi regime as a dictatorship in the service of the
people. The war period, which brings out clearly the other features of
Nazism, provides the best answer to the question. Hitler, the NSDAP
Gauleiter (regional leaders), many of the ministers, state secretaries
and advisers acted the part of traditional demagogues, constantly asking
themselves how best to secure and consolidate general satisfaction and
daily buying public approval or at least indifference. Giving and
receiving was the basis on which they founded a consensual dictatorship
consistently endorsed by the majority; an analysis of the internal
collapse at the end of the first world war had revealed the pitfalls
that their policy of popular beneficence would need to avoid.
During the second world war, the Nazi leadership tried to distribute
food supplies in such a way that they were seen to be fairly allocated,
particularly by poorer people. They did all they could to maintain the
apparent stability of the Reichsmark (RM) to prevent any worrying
reminder of the inflation of the 1914-18 war or the collapse of the
German currency in 1923. And they saw to it - this had not happened
during the first world war - that families of the military received
enough money, nearly 85% of mobilised soldiers' former net pay, compared
with less than half for British and American families in the same
position. It was not unusual for the wives and families of German
soldiers to have more money than before the war; they also benefited
from the presents brought back by soldiers on leave and parcels sent
from occupied countries by military post.
To reinforce the illusion of benefits that were guaranteed and likely to
increase, Hitler saw to it that the farming community, manual workers,
white-collar workers and lower- or middle-rank civil servants were not
significantly burdened by war taxes; the situation in Britain and the
United States was crucially different. Exempting most German taxpayers
meant considerably increasing the tax burden for those sections of
society with large incomes. The exceptional tax of RM8bn that property
owners were required to pay at the end of 1942 is a striking example of
the policy of social justice ostensibly practised by the Third Reich.
The same is true of the tax exemption for bonuses for working nights,
Sundays and public holidays accorded after the defeat of France (and,
until recently, considered by Germans as a social benefit).
While the Nazi regime was ruthless in its dealings with Jews and peoples
it considered racially inferior or alien (fremdvölkisch), its class
awareness led it to tax in a way that benefited the weakest Germans.
Taxing the moneyed classes (only 4% of German taxpayers were earning
more than RM6,000 a year) could not provide the funds necessary to
finance the second world war. So how was it possible to finance the most
costly war in history with minimal impact on the majority of the
population? Hitler spared middle-class Aryans at the expense of other
To curry favour with its own people, the government of the Third Reich
ruined the currencies of Europe by exacting ever-higher occupation
taxes. To secure the standard of living of its own people, it stole
millions of tonnes of food to feed its soldiers, and had the rest sent
back to Germany. German armies were supposed to feed themselves at the
expense of the occupied countries and to settle their running costs in
those countries' currencies: they mostly succeeded. German soldiers
deployed abroad, which was almost all of them; supplies provided to the
Wehrmacht in occupied countries; the raw materials, industrial products
and foodstuffs purchased on site for the Wehrmacht or to be sent back to
Germany; all these were paid for in currencies other than the
Reichsmark. The leadership applied simple principles: if someone has to
die of hunger, it should not be a German; if wartime inflation is
inevitable, it should affect any country except Germany.
Strategies were devised to achieve this. German coffers were filled with
the billions acquired by despoiling Europe's Jews, first in Germany,
then in allied countries and those under Wehrmacht occupation.
Relying on large-scale predatory and racial war, national socialism was
a source of real equality, largely based on a policy of social
advancement on a scale unprecedented in Germany; that made it both
popular and criminal. The material comforts, the benefits of mass
criminality - indirect and with no sense of individual responsibility,
but willingly accepted - left most Germans feeling that the regime was
taking care of them. That drove the policy of extermination forward: the
criterion was the people's wellbeing. The absence of anything that could
be described as real internal opposition and the subsequent lack of any
feeling of guilt are a product of this historic combination of factors.
By answering the "how could this have happened?" question this way, we
avoid resorting to anti-fascist formulas. This answer is hard to post up
on walls and impossible to isolate from the national histories of
postwar Germans in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Federal
Republic of Germany (FRG) or Austria. But it is essential to understand
the Nazi regime as a form of national socialism so as to question the
recurring tendency to blame individuals or clearly defined groups.
Sometimes the mad dictator, a sick and charismatic figure, and his
immediate entourage are blamed; sometimes the ideologists of racism.
Others blame the bankers, the big bosses, the generals or the
exterminators in the grip of killing fever. In the GDR, Austria and the
FRG, a wide range of defence strategies have been adopted, but they have
all gone in the same direction, allowing most of the population to enjoy
a tranquil existence and a clear conscience.
Those who profited from the policy of Aryanisation are usually too
quickly linked with big industrialists or bankers. The committees of
inquiry into the Nazi period set up during the 1990s in many European
states and big companies, made up of specialist historians, reinforced
that impression, but it is misleading in the overall context.
Historiographers are happy to add a number of middle- or high-ranking
Nazis to the list of those who profited from Aryanisation. For some
years the "man next door" has figured too: Germans, Poles, Czechs or
Hungarians, whose questionable services to the occupying power were
often rewarded with goods taken from Jews.
But any theory that focuses solely on individual beneficiaries fails to
answer the question - what happened to the assets of Europe's
expropriated and murdered Jews?
The method of financing the war adopted in Germany in 1938, requiring
that private assets be converted into government bonds, has been passed
over by those who have considered the policy of Aryanisation from a
legal, ethical or historiographical perspective. That viewpoint
reflected the desire of the German leadership to hush up the material
benefits of the pillage. Reference to the forced conversion of Jewish
assets into government bonds was taboo, the actual figure kept secret.
The persecution of the Jews had to be presented by the Nazis as purely
ideological, and the defenceless victims of mass murder seen as
In 1943 the Wehrmacht high command drew up a list of 19 political and
military issues that were a source of concern to soldiers, which
officers had to answer as uniformly as possible. It included: "Haven't
we gone too far on the Jewish question?" The answer was: "Bad question!
National socialist principle forms part of our Weltanschauung [world
view] - no debate" (1). But there is no reason to confuse the arguments
available to Nazi indoctrinators with the historical facts.
There is no doubt that many Germans were sceptical of Nazism. But many
of those who allowed themselves to be carried along by it latched on to
vague elements in the programme. Some followed the NSDAP because of its
attitude to France, the old enemy; others because the young German state
was making a major break with traditional morality. Some Catholic clergy
blessed the weapons used in the crusade against pagan Bolshevism and
opposed the confiscation of church assets and euthanasia.
The Volksgenossen (national comrades - that is, Aryan citizens) with a
socialist bent were enthused by the anti-clerical and anti-elitist
aspects of national socialism. The follow-my-leader attitude that
millions of Germans adopted for individual reasons and with disastrous
consequences could later easily be reformulated as historically
ineffective "resistance" precisely because this range of partial
The actor Wolf Goette was as far removed from Nazi ideology as the
writer Heinrich Böll. He always found German policy repugnant and felt
"dreadfully ashamed" when he passed anyone wearing the "yellow
insignia". But, unlike Böll, he initially considered the film Ich klage
an (I Accuse), which sought to justify euthanasia, as taking a "proper
and appropriate line". He thought it a moving work of art that showed
"with remarkable cinematographic quality" the "need for euthanasia" in
the "case of certain incurable diseases", although he later voiced
discreet doubts "in the event that a despotic state were to proclaim
that idea". But Goette appreciated his career possibilities and
opportunities for fine living as a result of the German dictatorship in
Prague, a city of plenty. He was preoccupied with his personal interests
and politically neutralised (2).
It was only the frantic pace of activity that allowed Hitler to maintain
a balance between the unstable mix of the broadest range of interests
and people's political positions. There lay the political alchemy of his
regime. He took decisions and staged events in rapid succession. He
enhanced the status of the NSDAP and supported his original militants,
the Gauleiter and Reichsleiter, more than his own ministers. His skill
in organising power became apparent after 1933: he did not allow the
all-powerful party to become a mere appendage of the state. He was able
(unlike East Germany's Socialist Unity party later on) to mobilise the
state machinery with unprecedented success, to allow it to develop
creativity that contributed to the objectives of national uprising and
stretched Germany's forces to the limit.
Most Germans were initially caught up in the process, intoxicated as the
pace of history seemed to speed up. Later, as a result of Stalingrad,
which had a major impact inside Germany because of related Allied
carpet-bombing, people went into a state of shock that produced the same
torpor. The bombing was a source of indifference rather than fear:
people felt they couldn't give a damn. The deaths on the eastern front
made people focus on daily concerns and wait for news of son, husband or
Germans lived through the 12 years of Nazism as if in a permanent state
of emergency. In the whirlwind of events, they lost all sense of balance
and measure. "It all seems like a film to me," said Vogel, the grocer
described by Victor Klemperer in his journal (4), speaking in 1938, in
the middle of the Sudeten crisis. A year later, and nine days after the
start of the Polish campaign, Hermann Göring assured the workers of
Rheinmetall-Borsig in Berlin that they could soon count on a leadership
"teeming with energy" (5). In spring 1941 Goebbels confirmed that in his
diary: "All day, a crazy pace"; "rapturous life on the offensive under
way again". Or, in the anti-British intoxication of victory: "I spend
the whole day in a fever of happiness" (6).
Hitler frequently warned his inner circle that he might soon die - all
part of his attempt to keep up the pace required to maintain the
political equilibrium of his regime. (Like an inept tightrope walker who
can keep his balance only by using his pole in ever-broader sweeps,
faster and faster, until he crashes to the ground.) An analysis of
Hitler's military and political decisions is always more accurate if it
focuses on the immediate reasons for those decisions and their effect in
the short term, rather than on all the extreme propaganda directed
towards the future.
(1) Administrative services of the Wehrmacht, Points discussed
(May1943), NA, RG 238, box 26 (Reinecke Files).
(2) Wolf Goette (1909-1995) letters to his family, Wolf Goette archives,
(3) Birthe Kundrus, Kriegerfrauen, Hamburg, 1995.
(4) Victor Klemperer, Mes soldats de papier, Paris, 2000.
(5) Völkischer Beobachter, 11 September 1939.
(6) Elke Fröhlich, ed, Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels, Munich, 1997.
Translated by Julie Stoker