What was the point of Nazism? Götz Aly, Germany’s most influential popular historian, has a new answer: it was for the good of the German people. In his view, the National Socialists were as much socialist as they were national, and they genuinely sought to better the lives of ordinary Germans.
Aly makes compelling arguments to back up this unlikely thesis. Drawing on documents from East German archives, he shows in rich detail that the Nazi state did a lot for working men and women, passing hundreds of laws strengthening social security provision. Under Hitler, German workers saw their holiday entitlement double, while landlords had a tougher time raising rents or ejecting tenants. The onset of war in 1939 further intensified the desire to keep workers happy. In October 1940, the state stopped taxing overtime pay, and the following year it enrolled all retirees in a national health insurance scheme, freeing them from reliance on the churches or public welfare.
Marxist historians have liked to portray Hitler as being in the pocket of big business, but Aly shows that the Nazi regime transferred wealth from the haves to the have-nots. Four-fifths of Germans paid no direct war taxes up until 8 May 1945, and indirect taxation was modest: duties on tobacco, brandy and beer (this last tax was lower in the beer-loving south), but never on wine. Tax burdens fell on the well-to-do. As the title of the German edition of this book has it, this was a Volksstaat, a ‘people’s regime’. But here caution is needed: there is a more sinister undertone to this word than a simple English translation suggests. Volk means ‘people’, but it also means ‘nation’ in the ethnic sense of a people joined by blood. Aly is not simply arguing that Hitler took from the rich and gave to the poor, but that the regime also supported the Volk at the expense of those deemed to be racially alien.
The most memorable examples of this concern the activities of German soldiers outside Germany. When they occupied other countries, Germans in uniform fanned out into the local economies and helped themselves to everything not nailed down, sending huge quantities of loot back to their families. One of them was the writer Heinrich Böll, whose letters home were published in 2001. As cited by Aly, Böll’s six years in the Wehrmacht appear to have been one long shopping spree. Because of special rates of exchange, he was able to buy merchandise from every corner of the Continent. In 1939 he was posting packages of coffee from Rotterdam, and the following year butter, soap, engravings, cosmetics, onions, eggs, women’s shoes and nail scissors from France. His parents became accessories by smuggling currency to their son inside books and cakes. In 1943 he was transferred to the Crimea and sent home butter, before suffering a fortuitous head wound – subsequently, his unit was all but wiped out. While recovering in the Ukraine, Böll frequented the local bazaar, from which he sent home chocolate and soap. Aly invites us to multiply Böll’s case by the million.
A more insidious form of looting took place behind the scenes. Aly is the first historian to study systematically what happened to Jewish possessions in Occupied Europe. Using recently opened archival collections he describes in exhaustive detail the arrangements made by officials in the German finance ministry to transfer stolen Jewish wealth into the state budget – from where it could support largesse expended on the Volk. The Cambridge historian Adam Tooze has contested Aly’s claim that 75 per cent of the state budget was covered by this form of looting: he says the actual figure was more like a quarter, but that is still substantial.
Aly asks at the outset: ‘What drove ordinary Germans to tolerate and commit historically unprecedented crimes against humanity, in particular the murder of millions of European Jews?’ His answer is that ordinary Germans co-operated in genocide because they benefited from it in material terms. According to Aly, the Nazi dictatorship was built not on terror but on a mutual calculation of ‘interest’ between leaders and people. This claim entails a further shift in our understanding of the regime: not only did it serve the welfare of the common people, but if there was fear, it was the fear the regime felt of the people, not the other way around. Top Nazi leaders worried that their regime would be toppled by popular unrest if the people’s mood soured: their ‘satisfaction’ had to be ‘purchased’ every day.
But was the Nazi leadership so fearful? Aly alleges that in 1943, Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, who carefully monitored the popular mood, ‘called for urgent measures to prevent the German populace from rising up against the regime’. But check this against Goebbels’s diaries and you find anything but fear of the population. The Italians had just changed sides and he feared the Hungarians were next. The Ruhr had been devastated by bombing, Berlin was now a target and German troops were failing in the East. Propaganda could not hide these facts, but Goebbels didn’t worry about the Germans, even in the two cities where the Nazis were least popular: Berlin and Cologne. On 10 September 1943, he wrote:
The Berliners go about their business in a completely normal way. We register a handful of defeatist voices. In general, not only the Berliners, but the entire German people are calm and composed. Of course, everyone is waiting for some healing words from the mouth of the Führer: the sooner the better. The Führer owes the people a speech. But the people wait patiently. In times of crisis like these, they are irreproachable in their behaviour. Again and again we see one fact: that we will never lose this war because of the people. The people will persevere in this war until their last breath.
As an image-maker Goebbels was a professional optimist. Yet subsequent events proved him right: the German people held on until they were overwhelmed. There were no strikes, no mutinies. On the vast Eastern Front only one town – Greifswald – surrendered without a fight.
In part, Goebbels based his optimism on direct observation. Göring hated to be seen in the towns his Luftwaffe had failed to protect, but the propaganda minister suffered no reservations. On the night of 28 June 1943, the RAF had bombed Cologne, smothering or burning to death some 4000 people. A raid on 4 July cost another 600 lives; on 9 July, shortly after midnight, British bombers attacked Cologne once more. A few hours later Goebbels was there, touring the ruins. He noted in his diary that there were not enough coffins to bury the dead, nor enough workers to dig the graves. Of 800,000 original inhabitants only 300,000 remained. One third of all houses and apartments were uninhabitable. Still, he did not worry, because the people in Cologne had a ‘good sense of humour’ and were ‘optimistic about life’.
If there are reasons to question Aly’s portrayal of the leadership and its fears, there are reasons also to doubt his claims about the war’s benefits for the Volk. Does the phrase ‘Hitler’s beneficiaries’ properly describe Germans digging themselves out of the rubble, or the soldiers arriving on leave in Cologne in the summer of 1943, their packs heavy with bacon and butter, but their homes obliterated and their families evacuated or dead? What kind of balance sheet might they have drawn up between interests satisfied and interests frustrated?
We know from secret reports compiled by the regime that many supposed beneficiaries felt deeply alienated. Spies stood in the queues that working-class women endured when they wanted simple foodstuffs late in the war: these women knew they belonged to a society still riven by the class divide. There was the obvious fact that they were queuing while other, better situated women were not; or that when working women arrived at shops everything had already been bought by women who were not working. There were rumours too that wealthier people could protect their sons from doing military service.
Aly wants no empathy with the Volk, however. At the start he admits that Germans may have suffered in the war, but insists that is no concern of his: ‘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 . . . there is no place for human casualties in the balance sheet of war.’ This cold rationality is exemplary of the ‘structuralist’ school that has dominated studies of Nazism in Germany for the last half-century, a school whose basic approach Nicolas Berg has depicted as resting on a ‘pathos of sobriety’.
But if one turns to some of the letters ignored by Aly it’s not hard to empathise, for example, with Heinrich Böll. How did this ‘beneficiary’ view his lot in the Third Reich? On 29 September 1943, he wrote: ‘You can feel it everywhere that this war has lasted almost five years: the misery is unbelievable, the squalidness indescribable.’ Three days later: ‘War is an insane horror.’ Ten days later: ‘May God put a quick end to this war.’ Throughout his six years in the army, Böll laments the passing of the best years of his life, curses the idiocy of military life, wishes he were back home. Aly disregards such complaints and tells us instead that Böll ‘rhapsodised’ in a letter to his wife a day later that ‘it was the source of truly indescribable joy for me to supply you with butter.’ Aly argues that this points to ‘the pervasive – though in Böll’s case passive – loyalty felt by Germans toward the Nazis. And that was all the dictatorship required to keep functioning politically. The Bölls . . . were basically satisfied with their lot.’
Aly takes Böll to be typical of a bargain the regime struck with the soldiers. But what we see in him is a confusion of desires and perceptions: hatred of war, pining for family, but at the core a loyalty to the German state. Benefits or not, Hitler’s Germany was his Germany. Whatever he thought of the Nazi elite, Böll acted as a German national and, without considering the consequences for Europe or for the world or for his bourgeois self, he took for granted that Germany should win its war of racial conquest. Empathy has its limits. When you probe more deeply into his letters, you find that he had bought into Nazi ideology, even if the benefits that accrued to him personally from Nazism were slight. In December 1943, he confessed to his wife that he dreamed of a ‘colonial existence here in the East after a victorious war’: a benefit of some sort, perhaps, but certainly not the rational outcome of any cost-benefit analysis.
Most remarkable is what he did not see. In a letter of 5 June 1944, Böll repeated his lament that ‘war is completely senseless’ and added the potentially subversive words: ‘Politics is endlessly evil and rotten.’ But there was no hint of an event that had just transpired in the Transylvanian town where he was stationed: the deportation of 3000 Jews from the Sepsiszentgyörgy ghetto to Auschwitz. The day after a fifth of the town’s inhabitants disappeared, he depicted the town scene as follows:
I sold my cigarette lighter and so I was able to buy stationery. We have leave every day from 2 to 5 in the afternoon, but have to forgo the delicacies for sale in the bakeries and restaurants. This charming little town has a wonderful promenade, with many happy couples, charming women and girls, and children! It is a colourful and beautiful life that is presented to us here, but alas, we can have no part in it.
So why did the complaining women in Berlin, the bombed-out in Cologne, or millions of other disgruntled Germans fail to rise up against the regime? Böll’s case suggests a simple answer: because it never occurred to them. Loyalty to Germany transcended any momentary doubts. Late in the war people lost their lives for doubting that Germany would win, even once defeat was certain. But were these martyrs or otherwise loyal members of the Volk who momentarily forgot to be cautious? Until very recently professional historians in Germany disparaged the notion of Volksgemeinschaft, or a ‘people’s community’, arguing it was no more than a propagandistic fiction serving no real interest. But the lesson of Heinrich Böll is that Volksgemeinschaft meant something real.
Aly writes as someone consumed by the need to find those responsible for the crimes of Nazism. In the book’s preface, he confesses to his own inability to take pleasure in some antique furniture inherited from in-laws who had lived in Bremen, once he knew that ‘Germans bombed out by Allied air raids on Bremen were resupplied with furniture taken from Dutch Jews who had been deported and murdered.’ A few pages later he invites us into the family retreat – a vacation lodge in south-west Germany – where he opens a guest book with entries from 1940 and 1944. We discover that his uncles were fervent Nazis. Perhaps the evident moral energy in this book is a search for guilt among the author’s close relatives.
His professional inspiration, however, has come from a different set of ‘uncles’: the historians who came of age in the 1950s, and imprinted the ‘pathos of sobriety’ on the emerging interpretation of National Socialism. Why was sobriety so important to them? An obvious answer is the Nuremberg trials, which caused revulsion throughout Germany not for the crimes they revealed, but for their moralising and ‘simplifying’. The historian of Nazism Martin Broszat, who died in 1989, castigated those who studied the Third Reich in terms of such legal categories as guilt and innocence, because these were allegedly separate from, indeed hostile to, the demands of scholarship. The Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, which Broszat joined in 1955, pronounced in 1956 an ambition to ‘foster solid and neutrally cool scientific work’. An unspoken intergenerational collusion to marginalise questions of guilt thus emerged, admitting ‘of course’ that Hitler and his entourage bore blame, but failing to examine the precise nature of the blame they shared with various segments of German society.
The goal of Broszat’s school was to express conceptually the relation between the leaders and German society, invariably stressing the dynamics of the state machinery. Human actors and their intentions faded from focus, and what struck historians of the 1970s was the extraordinary proliferation of agencies and fiefdoms under Hitler. Rather than clear chains of command, what was found in the surviving documentation was confusion, a mish-mash of competing offices. The term found for this apparently non-totalitarian order was ‘polycracy’. Agencies proliferated because Hitler hated decisions, and when pressed either procrastinated, or created new centres of power. Hans Mommsen famously called him a ‘weak dictator’, pushed into war by forces beyond his control, in a process of ‘cumulative radicalisation’.
German historians took a long time to include the destruction of European Jewry among the subjects meriting ‘sober’ study, but when they did the focus continued to be on processes with their own dynamics, not easily traceable to central decision-making (a direct order from Hitler initiating the Holocaust has never been found). In a 1984 conference in Stuttgart – the first ever held on German soil – Broszat repeatedly referred to the ‘automatism’ of the Holocaust, as if it had been launched by a sadistic deus absconditus.
More recently, basing their work on evidence from Eastern Europe, younger historians have pushed further in this same direction, publishing studies in which questions of responsibility are absorbed into processes of ‘rational’ decision-making going beyond what any single human being might possibly will. Christian Gerlach has studied Nazi plans to extract food from occupied Eastern countries. When less food was forthcoming than expected, millions were put down for starvation. First in line happened to be Jews, who were done away with, not as Jews but as ‘surplus eaters’. Dieter Pohl has described how various agencies endeavoured to solve problems in the housing market (too few flats) and provision of healthcare (too many claimants). Time and again the solution found was that ‘Jews must disappear.’ Walter Manoschek has written of the dilemma of the German army in Serbia in 1941. It risked alienating the local population by taking Serbs as hostages in reprisal for Partisan attacks. It solved this ‘problem’ by rounding up and shooting Jews. In these studies the Holocaust is treated like something that happened while the Nazis were planning other things.
Aly’s new book, with its idea that Jews were killed in order to take their valuables, is the most extreme manifestation of the structuralist school. He portrays neither the regime nor the citizenry as hating Jews; everything they did was meant to further an end that could be calculated in terms of material reward. The question of anti-semitism is discussed on only ten of more than four hundred pages.
Even stranger, the moral passion that has produced this hyperrational scholarship appears to deliver a sweeping indictment of Aly’s real and figurative uncles, and everyone else who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945. But what exactly were they guilty of? In the Western tradition any assessment of guilt hinges on intention, yet what Aly identifies as the intention of Germans under Nazism is the one virtually everyone has: to live a more comfortable life. Hitler’s beneficiaries were ‘guilty’ of trying to improve their social security arrangements or of buying goods at reduced rates in French and Belgian shops. More than an exculpation of them, this book is a gesture in intergenerational reconciliation, telling the ‘uncles’: what you did was wrong, but I understand. Rather than level an accusation, what Aly has done is to shield wartime Germans from more searching historical inquiries.