One of the inspirations for this book was the series of negotiations carried out by Stuart E. Eizenstat to recover damages from the Swiss and German governments on behalf of victims of persecution during World War II. Eizenstat was, of course, entirely right to demand compensation for the stolen gold and confiscated bank accounts of those murdered in the Holocaust, as well as for the slave labor performed by survivors. Nonetheless, his highly public negotiations gave rise to a distorted picture of history. The fact that the names of large Swiss and German banks—together with those of world-famous companies like Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen, Allianz Insurance, Krupp, the Bertelsmann publishing group, and BMW—were constantly in the news gave the impression that prominent German capitalists, occasionally in alliance with major Swiss banks, were the main culprits behind the terrible crimes of Nazi Germany.
There is no question that many leading German industrialists and financiers were complicit in Hitler’s regime. But it would be wrong to conclude that primary responsibility for the Holocaust or other Nazi crimes lay with the elite of the German bourgeoisie. Eizenstat’s efforts, as well as those of the Jewish Claims Conference, indirectly, if unintentionally, encouraged such a conclusion. And indeed many Germans had a stake in seeing the public’s attention focused on the captains of industry and finance, since it shifted the burden of blame for Nazi barbarism to a handful of individuals.
This book was conceived as an attempt at redressing the balance, at redirecting public attention toward the potential advantages everyday Germans derived from the Nazi regime. In so doing, it uncovered a “missing link” that was better able than previous historical arguments to explain the widespread, if always temporary, satisfaction most Germans felt with their government during the Third Reich. Precisely because so many Germans did in fact benefit from Nazi Germany’s campaigns of plunder, only marginal resistance arose. Content as most Germans were, there was little chance for a domestic movement that would have halted Nazi crimes. This new perspective on the Nazi regime as a kind of racist-totalitarian welfare state allows us to understand the connection between the Nazi policies of racial genocide and the countless, seemingly benign family anecdotes about how a generation of German citizens “got through” World War II.
I myself heard many such anecdotes. I was born in 1947 and still have vivid memories of the first two decades of postwar Germany. People often talked about how they had suffered from food shortages in 1946–47. “We were well off during the war,” they complained. “Food deliveries always went smoothly.” It was the “organizational incompetence of the Allies” after the war that “made us go hungry.” My mother told me that my portly grandfather suddenly became thin in 1946 and regained his weight only in 1950. Recounting their experiences in the Wehrmacht, my teachers—some of whom were missing an arm or a leg—never spoke of suffering. Rather, their stories made the war sound like the ordinary man’s travelogue, full of adventure and funny incidents. They recalled Italy, France, and Poland. They reminisced about the things they enjoyed in those countries, things they had never known before—foods, goods, amenities. In contrast, the American care packages that helped Germans survive the early years after the war were dismissed as little more than chicken feed. (German housewives back then were no great fans of corn.)
It was only when I began work on this book that the truth behind these stories became clear to me. The women of the Third Reich were accustomed to far better than chicken feed. The packages their husbands had constantly sent back from the German-occupied countries between 1941 and 1944 contained staple and gourmet items that supplied well beyond the minimum calories necessary for human survival. This discovery prompted me to ask my relatives some pointed questions. One aunt cheerfully recalled: “I had a real shoe fetish. My fiancé, Fritz, sent me sixty pairs of shoes from the African front.” She was still wearing some of those shoes during the 1950s. An older cousin remembered her godfather sending her a gold-embroidered down quilt from Paris. My mother received nothing—my father was sent to the Eastern Front in early 1943 and was wounded after only a few weeks. But she, too, remembered that her older sister Dora “got a package every few days from her husband in Romania, which contained everything she could possibly want. He also sent ham and honey from Russia. But she never shared anything.” I once asked my mother whether she could recall Hermann Göring’s speech on October 4, 1942. Without hesitation, she shot back: “He said we’d be getting more to eat and other extra rations for Christmas. And we got them!” In fact what Göring had said was: “If someone has to go hungry, let it be someone other than a German.”
As I was writing this book, I found I could no longer take pleasure in several beautiful pieces of antique furniture in my home. My wife and I had inherited them from my in-laws in Bremen, whose house had been bombed during the war. As I now know, Germans bombed out by Allied air raids on Bremen were resupplied with furniture taken from Dutch Jews who had been deported and murdered. In Bremen alone, many hundreds of freight cars and dozens of ships full of furniture were unloaded. Their contents, which ran the gamut from the basic to the luxurious, were handed out to Germans according to social class for refurnishing their homes. My in-laws are now dead, but the uneasy question remains: what are these heirlooms that I have in my own home? In Germany even now antique furniture can be a troubling legacy from the past.
Such material benefits suggest how the regime maintained its popularity during the war. Indeed, concern for the people’s welfare—at any cost—was a mark of the Nazi system from its inception. Between 1933 and 1935, the leadership owed its domestic support to its efficient campaign against unemployment. However, the regime succeeded in combating joblessness only by incurring a fiscally irresponsible level of state debt. Later the regime would require a not particularly popular war to keep government finances afloat. But Hitler was able to maintain general morale by transforming Germany’s military offenses into an increasingly coordinated series of destructive raids aimed at plundering other peoples. The Nazi leadership established a framework for directly sharing the spoils of its military victories with the majority of Germans—the profits derived from crippling the economies of occupied and dependent countries, the exploitation of work performed by forced laborers, the confiscated property of murdered Jews, and the deliberate starvation of millions of people, most notably in the Soviet Union. Those benefits, in turn, made the recipients amenable to Nazi propaganda and gave them a vested interest in the Third Reich.
Although the Nazi crimes were unprecedented, there is no reason to think that the circumstances in which they arose were completely extraordinary. However understandable it may be for subsequent generations to want to distance themselves from the Third Reich by classifying the regime as an extreme aberration, the evidence uncovered in this book undermines various attempts by historians, past and present, to reduce Nazi guilt to this or that specific group. It also belies the optimistic conviction that we today would have behaved much better than the average person did back then. Readers of these pages will encounter not Nazi monsters but rather people who are not as different from us as we might like them to be. The culprits here are people striving for prosperity and material security for themselves and their children. They are people dreaming of owning a house with a garden, of buying a car of their own, or of taking a vacation. And they are people not tremendously interested in the potential costs of their short-term welfare to their neighbors or to future generations.
In aiming to shed light on the symbiotic relationship between the Nazi Volksstaat (or people’s state) and the regime’s crimes against humanity, this book departs from the usual historical approach of separating the manifestly vicious side of National Socialism from the political programs that made Hitler’s regime so attractive to the majority of Germans. My goal is to locate Nazi barbarism within the broader context of twentieth-century German history. The genesis of the Holocaust is not to be found solely in the official files devoted to the “Jewish question.” My alternative approach in no way lessens the achievements of historians who have focused directly on the phenomenon of genocide. On the contrary, I was inspired to undertake this book by a fundamental issue raised by their works: what were the preconditions that made the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes possible in the first place?
The chapters that follow address the simple but still unanswered question of how Nazi Germany could have happened. Or, to put it another way, what drove ordinary Germans to tolerate and commit historically unprecedented crimes against humanity, in particular the murder of millions of European Jews? Without doubt, state-propagated hatred of “inferior peoples”—of Poles, Bolsheviks, and Jews—was a major factor. But ideology alone is not an adequate explanation. In the decades preceding the Hitler regime, Germans were no more malicious toward or resentful of Jews than other Europeans were, nor was German nationalism more racist than that of other nations. There was no specific German deviation from “normal” cultural development that led to Auschwitz. Nor is there any empirical basis for the proposition that a special exterminatory anti-Semitism and xenophobia took root early on in German history. It is a mistake to assume that an especially catastrophic aberration must have extraordinary, long-term causes. The Nazi Party rose to and consolidated power because of a constellation of factors situated in a specific historic context. The most important of these factors are to be found in the years after—and not before—1914.
In consolidating their authority, the Nazis certainly relied on propaganda depicting Jews as “parasites,” “traitors,” and “subhumans.” But anti-Semitic ideology rarely functioned in isolation. Even the traditional anti-Jewish pogroms in medieval Europe were not always based on religious hatred alone. Often, anti-Semitism was combined with plunder for plunder’s sake. To cite just one of many examples from the nineteenth-century historian Heinrich Grätz’s History of the Jews: “In Nördlingen in 1384, the entire community, including women and children, were killed. Throughout the region of Swabia [today part of southwestern Germany], Jews were persecuted, and in Augsburg, they were imprisoned in dungeons until they paid the sum of 20,000 guilders.” Emperor Wenceslas, Grätz continues, had ordained that “all Jewish claims upon Christians—in terms not only of interest, but also of capital—[were to be] erased and all instruments of debt handed over. The imperial decree was announced (in September 1390) from every pulpit, and the cancelation of debt [evoked] great jubilation.” In addition, Grätz records, the emperor “declared all property acquired by Jews to be his own and forbade them from transferring it or giving it away.” The ideological justification for this instance of plunder and murder conformed to the Christian hostility to Jews typical of the era. “The Jews concerned deserved their fate,” it was proclaimed, “because they were seen outside their homes on Easter Sunday.”
The Nazi war on the Jews was similarly complex. The widespread enthusiasm for the Nazi campaign of “Aryanization,” for example, was not easily reduced simply to the anti-Semitic predilections of those involved. Indeed, such enthusiasm can generally be observed whenever a part of society claims the right to nationalize other people’s property, justifying that act with the rationale that the beneficiaries make up a homogeneous and theretofore underprivileged majority, the “people” itself. The eagerness with which individuals have assumed this position is a fundamental element in the history of twentieth-century violence. While anti-Semitism was a necessary precondition for the Nazi attack on European Jews, it was not a sufficient one. The material interests of millions of individuals first had to be brought together with anti-Semitic ideology before the great crime we now know as the Holocaust could take on its genocidal momentum.
Any investigation into Hitler’s ascent must thus examine the give-and-take relationship between the populace and the Nazi leadership. It is a matter of historical record that the party hierarchy was, from its earliest days, extremely unstable. The mystery is how it managed to stabilize itself, if only temporarily, so that the regime could survive for twelve spectacularly destructive years. Solving this mystery requires a more precise rephrasing of the general question “How could Nazi Germany have happened?” Namely, how did National Socialism, an obviously deceitful, megalomaniacal, and criminal undertaking, succeed in persuading the great majority of the German people that it was working in their interest?
One answer is that as harshly as the Nazi leadership applied its racist ideology to Jews, the handicapped, and other “undesirables,” their domestic policies were remarkably friendly toward the German lower classes, soaking the wealthy and redistributing the burdens of wartime to the benefit of the underprivileged. These “social” policies are the focus of part I of this book.
Moreover, once the Nazi state undertook what became the most expensive war in world history, the majority of Germans bore virtually none of the costs. Hitler shielded the average Aryan from that burden at the cost of depriving others of their basic subsistence. To ensure contentment among its own people, the German government destroyed a number of foreign currencies—most notably the Greek drachma—by forcing other countries to pay ever-increasing contributions and tributes to their occupiers. To maintain living standards, the Wehrmacht plundered millions of tons of food to keep German soldiers well fed, then shipped what was left over back to the fatherland. And while the Third Reich was gorging itself on food from the countries it occupied, the German army paid its operating costs in the devalued local currency. Officials in Berlin were guided by two iron principles: if someone had to starve in the war, then better them than us, and if wartime inflation was inevitable, let it happen everywhere, but not in Germany. Part II of this book examines the financial tricks and techniques that were devised to achieve those ends.
The German war chest was also filled with billions of reichsmarks garnered from the dispossession of European Jews. That is the focus of part III, which traces how Jewish property was stolen in Germany, in allied states, and in countries occupied by the Wehrmacht. These chapters proceed by example, without any claim to encyclopedic completeness. The same holds true for the chapters describing the methods used by Germans in World War II to plunder other nations; the emphasis is on specific instances that were typical of the larger procedure.
By exploiting material wealth confiscated and plundered in a racial war, Hitler’s National Socialism achieved an unprecedented level of economic equality and created vast new opportunities for upward mobility for the German people. That made the regime both popular and criminal. The cascade of riches and personal advantages—all derived from crimes against humanity, for which ordinary Germans were not directly responsible but from which they gladly profited—led the majority of the populace to feel that the regime had their best interests at heart. Conversely, the Nazis’ genocidal policy gained momentum from the fact that it also improved the material welfare of the German people. The lack of significant internal opposition to Hitler as well as ordinary Germans’ later refusal to acknowledge any personal culpability for the crimes of the Third Reich arise from one and the same historical constellation. That is the subject of part IV.
So complex an answer to the question of how Nazism could have happened does not lend itself to mere antifascist sloganeering or the didacticism of museum exhibits. It is necessary to focus on the socialist aspect of National Socialism, if only as a way of advancing beyond the usual projections of blame onto specific individuals and groups—most often the delusional, possibly insane Führer but also the cabal of racist ideologues or the members of a particular class, like bankers and business tycoons, or certain Wehrmacht generals or the elite killing units. The chief problem with such approaches is they all suggest that a special group of evil “others” bears culpability for Nazi crimes. At the very least the present volume attempts to break through this comforting proposition by showing how everyday people, acting on ordinary calculations of self-interest, could become complicit in a government-driven program of larcenous genocide.
The following chapters are necessarily full of numbers: budget figures, property calculations, tax revenues, occupation costs, currency values, and so on. A table of exchange rates set by the German government for foreign currencies can be found on page 333. To get an idea of the actual value of the sums discussed, a good rule of thumb is that one reichsmark was roughly equivalent to 12 dollars in 2006 terms; 200 reichsmarks represented a better-than-average gross monthly income in 1939, and a monthly pension of 40 reichsmarks was standard. In autumn 1942, when the price for fifty kilos of potatoes went up to 75 pfennigs, the rise led to “scattered discontent” among the populace.
Relative to general living standards at the time, wartime expenditures reached dizzying proportions. But readers should also remember the costs not included in the billions of reichmarks discussed in this book. The figures include only expenditures on the German side for weapons, fortifications, transport, food, wages, and family income support. The costs incurred by those people who had to defend themselves against German aggression and by wounded veterans or the families of fallen soldiers cannot be taken into account. The incalculable sums that went to rebuilding Warsaw, Rotterdam, Kharkiv, and tens of thousands of other war-damaged cities and towns are likewise omitted, as are the postwar costs of repairing destroyed bridges, industrial facilities, railways, roads, and dams and of restoring fields and forests. Lastly, there is no place for human casualties in the balance sheet of war.
Copyright © 2005 by S. Fischer Verlage GmbH, Frankfurt am Main
Translation copyright © 2006 by Metropolitan Books
All rights reserved.