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Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Hitler's Beneficiaries"

This is a review of Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, by Götz Aly. The book argues that Hitler exploited self-interest to maintain his grip on power:

Handouts From Hitler, by Dagmat Herzog, NY Times Book Review: 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. ...

Another position ... is that Germany in the 1930s and early ’40s was a land gripped by Jew-hatred. In this view, the German populace ... required little or no incentive to summon both disgust and rage at the Jews in its midst...

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 ..., 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...). 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 ... 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...

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 ... 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...

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...

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 ... 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 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. ... Aly’s rebuttals to his critics have been included in this English edition. ...

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...

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. ...

 “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.

    Posted by on Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 02:25 PM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (141)

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