[Marxism] Query on Nazism
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 7 15:40:20 MST 2013
NY Times February 18, 2007
Handouts From Hitler
By DAGMAR HERZOG
Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.
By Götz Aly. Translated by Jefferson Chase.
Illustrated. 431 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $32.50.
What was life like for a typical non-Jewish German under Nazism? Answers
vary. A discredited though still popular view has it that the Third
Reich was a nightmarish inferno where informants, scoundrels and sadists
ruled through fear and intimidation. A state where constant terror
ensured that citizens would cooperate, accommodate and capitulate.
Another position — one given renewed authority in Daniel Jonah
Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and the subsequent
scholarship it inspired — is that Germany in the 1930s and early ’40s
was a land gripped by Jew-hatred. In this view, the German populace
during the Nazi era required little or no incentive to summon both
disgust and rage at the Jews in its midst — whether the anti-Semitism is
understood as rooted in a time-honored German cultural tradition, or
fueled by Germany’s traumatic defeat in World War I.
Yet another interpretation focuses on the tremendous personality cult
that surrounded Hitler. German citizens were so entranced by the vision
of a better National Socialist world to come that they happily submitted
to the allures of fascism. In one version of this account, typical
Germans are cast as unwitting victims of an unparalleled propaganda
campaign (and thus also come to represent a cautionary tale of how media
manipulators can redirect an innocent society toward warfare and
genocide). In more sophisticated versions, the German people are
understood to have been taken in by Hitler’s charisma not least because
the remilitarization he initiated — not to mention the Wehrmacht’s early
battlefield successes — was a balm to wounded national pride.
The provocative power of Götz Aly’s “Hitler’s Beneficiaries,” available
in this fine English translation after having created a fierce debate in
Germany, is that it seeks to move beyond each of these explanations.
That it is not wholly successful does not diminish its intellectual
significance as a fresh model for grasping how the Nazis gained such
broad support from so many Germans for as long as they did.
In Aly’s view, Nazism secured the compliance of the German people not
because of Hitler’s charisma or Goebbels’s propaganda, nor because of
its anti-Semitic policies or the Gestapo’s ruthlessness. A majority of
Germans were not seduced or scared by the Nazis. On the contrary, their
loyalty to the regime was bought and paid for — quite literally so.
According to Aly, who teaches at the University of Frankfurt, millions
of care packages of plundered items were sent back home from the
occupied territories by Wehrmacht soldiers who were themselves given
hearty rations and plenty of disposable cash. Clothing and household
objects that had once belonged to Jews were sold at affordable prices at
government-organized public auctions, or simply handed out free as
emergency relief. And the Nazis also introduced a progressive income tax
that shifted a far greater tax burden onto corporations and the very rich.
“Hitler’s Beneficiaries” argues that nothing more than an unremarkable
pursuit of self-interest led most Germans to pledge allegiance to the
Nazi regime. Germans wanted their children to have nice Christmas gifts.
They wanted to set aside money for retirement. They wanted to send a
special someone back home a pretty sweater from Holland or perfumed soap
from France. Citizens were sated with decent wages, generous overtime
pay and innovative pension plans — that is, through the establishment of
a complex, if absolutely amoral, welfare state.
Aly, in short, makes a serious and well-researched attempt to put the
“socialism” back in National Socialism. And in so doing, he offers his
own explanation for why so many Germans closed their eyes to the
systematic expropriation of Jewish property and ultimately to the
deportation of their Jewish fellow citizens, not to mention the Jews in
the many nations occupied by or allied with the Nazis across the
Aly makes the case that although goods and gold, stocks and bonds, real
estate and savings accounts stolen from murdered Jews accounted for at
best 5 percent of the Third Reich’s operational revenues, this 5 percent
was often the essential piece that stabilized the vulnerable economies
of the occupied nations. The money allowed the regime to pass the costs
of war and occupation onto the occupied while keeping the local
populations and the German soldiers alike quiescent and complacent — and
ultimately to benefit Germans back home. Many Germans hardly thought
twice before moving into apartments that had belonged to deported German
Jews, or furnishing those apartments with beautiful objects that had
belonged to Jews of other nations.
This was grand larceny on a scale seldom seen in the modern world. From
Tunisia to Greece, Czechoslovakia to the Netherlands, France and Italy
to Serbia and Romania, Aly walks us through the Aryanization process. He
demonstrates how Jewish property was first nationalized via a variety of
tricks (like declaring the assets of deported Jews “ownerless” and
therefore state property) and then funneled into German government
coffers, and eventually into keeping the working and lower middle
classes satisfied. He also shows that in a number of instances the
urgency of the thievery process hastened deportations and killings.
“Hitler’s Beneficiaries” is based on a wealth of military and economic
documents, and it is chock full of data on consumer spending power,
money-laundering techniques, and bankers’ and civil servants’
inventiveness in making theft look legal — or invisible. The book also
makes clear that even with the money and goods plundered in the occupied
territories from both Jews and non-Jews, only a German military victory
would have let the German economy survive the enormous debt burden it
had accrued. The evidence is powerful on its own terms. Yet the
connections Aly draws are not equally persuasive.
When “Hitler’s Beneficiaries” first appeared in Germany in 2005,
scholars challenged Aly’s figures. Yet the discrepancies in the balance
sheets of revenues and expenses they uncovered are explicable by the
different calculation methods used, and Aly’s rebuttals to his critics
have been included in this English edition. Readers can make up their
The more significant problems have to do with interpretation. First,
there is Aly’s monochromatic notion of human nature — the assumption
that Germans under Nazism were moved primarily by material self-interest
(rather than, say, feeling thoroughly enthusiastic about Nazi militarism
as long as it was successful, and unconcerned that Jews were demoted to
second-class citizens — and then disappeared).
The second difficulty has to do with assumptions about causation. It is
Aly’s great accomplishment to demonstrate that World War II could not
have gone on for as long as it did, nor the German populace kept content
for as long as it was, without the expropriation of the property and
monies of slaughtered Jews. But correlation is not causation, and
illustrating connections does not prove motivation.
The historian Jonathan Petropoulos has written, “The Nazis were not only
the most notorious murderers in history but also the greatest thieves.”
“Hitler’s Beneficiaries” offers stark proof that the murder and the
theft were in many cases integrally linked. The Holocaust was
unquestionably accompanied by outrageous greed. Yet this fact cannot
make us conclude that greed alone drove the Holocaust.
Dagmar Herzog’s most recent book, “Sex After Fascism: Memory and
Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany,” appears in paperback this month.
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