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Alex Harrowell on Adam Tooze's The Wages of Destruction

Alex writes:

Review: The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze: The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy... is getting some very good reviews, and this one will be no different. Tooze’s thesis is that the Nazi German economy was a more powerful factor in many decisions taken by the leadership than hitherto assumed, that its structural weaknesses were determining in the failure of Nazism, and that Nazism itself can be understood as an effort to escape them by a combination of will and technology. The first is fairly original, and certainly controversial, the second is hardly controversial (although it is surprising that it still needs restating; the image of impregnable fascist might dies hard), and the third is both new and highly controversial.

Tooze begins with a discussion of Germany’s economic problems and relative place in the world whilst passing through the Depression. He provides an excellent account of Stresemann’s policy in terms of a special relationship with the United States.... America in German eyes is a main theme of the book, and a little-remembered sub-theme of Nazi discourse more generally. Not only were leading Nazis concerned about the potential power of the US, they both idealised what they took to be the unique efficiency of 1920s US industry, and demonised what they took to be the decadence and miscegenation of US society....

Stresemann and his fellow liberals, and the Social Democrats, thought the answer to America was to preserve the international political and trading structure; perhaps with a European community in the far future. The Nazi response was to shake the structure until it fell down....

What got Germany back to work was rearmament, and Tooze argues that much of what is thought of as civilian investment was actually more like disguised military investment, or investment in war-supplying industry. It is well worth pointing out here that Tooze is excellent on the corporate world of Nazi Germany, and especially the fast-growing influence and power of the top technical executives of big industry (especially chemicals and aeronautical engineering), who made up something like an independent technocratic lobby in their own right. J.K. Galbraith’s technostructure comes to mind; this may have been the most malevolent and evil manifestation of it ever....

The upshot was that the decision for war, and then the decision to take the offensive in the West, and finally the decision to take the offensive into Russia, were at each step driven by a logic of economic bootstrapping. War, and the consequent loss of world trade, had a serious initial impact on the German economy; inflation threatened to burst out of control, there was a constant struggle between interests over short-supply assets, and a key feature of the German economy caused deep discontent....

Peasants were a key Nazi constituency, as well as occupying an important place in ideology; unfortunately this image of virtue didn’t translate into grain all that well.... Here, the appalling figure of Herbert Backe, State Secretary and later Minister of Agriculture, stands out; Backe wrote a PhD thesis years before entering office on the Russian grain business, in which he explained that the superior people without space must get rid of the Russians in order to secure the Ukraine’s surplus and settle enough of their urban working class to overcome the unrooted, degenerate tendencies created by the modern nomads, that is to say the Jews....

[A]lthough the conquest of western Europe turned a very bad economic position into a tolerable one with considerable potential, Europe was far more globalised than the Nazi economists assumed. Oil is the canonical example, but Europe also imported a lot of animal feed, and also British coal. Problems with transport, and the planners’ inability to come up with a settlement of coal supply between the mighty interest groups concerned, exacerbated the feed problem. As agricultural productivity fell, so did productivity down the mines; it probably would have done anyway, French communists not being likely to bend their backs any harder for German fascists, but hunger is enough to explain the droop in coal output per hour.... The upshot was a European economy operating massively below capacity and a German economy running red hot, with a continent-wide shortage of key inputs. Soviet trade, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, matched part of the difference, but the Soviet government demanded its price, especially in terms of technology transfer....

[W]ith the occupied territories only a marginal benefit, and much capital investment not yet producing, Germany was faced with the rapid spin-up of US production. Where to go for the next bootstrap, before US industrial power took effect? Russia, clearly. Tooze’s book may be a final slam-dunk demonstration for the “functionalist” view of Nazism, dominant since the 1980s, which argues that the regime’s internal politics, shared assumptions, and the incremental radicalisation caused by a succession of crises drove Germany into war and genocide, rather than a clear rationalist design. Independent decisions, taken for different reasons, mutually reinforced each other....

In nearly all British accounts of the second world war, the author takes sides regarding one or more of the morality, effectiveness, and wisdom of the RAF’s strategic bomber offensive against Germany; it’s an identity-creating decision for any British historian.... Tooze argues, against Galbraith, that the bombing was indeed effective....

In conclusion, what stands out is that the Third Reich was fascinated by the United States, perhaps even more than the Soviet Union; Hitler spoke of the Volga as Germany’s Mississippi, and various SS Schreibtischtäter of treating its inhabitants as “Red Indians”. The size of the proposed empire was frequently compared to Canada or Australia. It is clear that a major motivating factor for many leading Nazis was a wish to escape from an increasingly integrated world economy, and a matching desire to have a Grossraumwirtschaft to match the people seen as controlling the world economy; Tooze’s book leaves the disturbing sensation that this is us.

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