Thursday, March 18, 2021

Hitler's Beneficiaries by Gotz Aly

In April 1945, a German-born British officer named Julius Posener returned to his former homeland, traveling from the lower Rhine region to the bombed-out city of Cologne. He had previously fought on the Italian front, "where in the hard winter of 1944-1945 Neapolitans had starved to death on the streets by the hundreds" and where the people, "even from the upper echelons of society, were broken, pale, and hopeless." The war had been relatively benign in France, Posener wrote, "but that was nothing compared with the rows of lovely girls dressed in white" in Germany, "taking an evening stroll past the ruins of the city."

Although the extent of the damage exceeded his expectations, Posener, who was a construction engineer in civilian life, had been prepared for the destruction of cities. What surprised him was the way the people looked: "The people did not fit the destruction. They looked good. They were rosy cheeked, happy, well-groomed, and very well dressed. An economic system that had been propped up by millions of foreign hands and the total plunder of an entire part of the world was here displaying what it had achieved."

This book documents that. Nazi means National Socialist, and they took the latter part extremely seriously. They promised equality and to support the common man--and they did, provided he was German. And they were rewarded with loyalty. They didn't need a great deal of internal coercion: In 1937 the Gestapo had 7000 staff, while the Stasi later would employ 190,000 and an equal number of volunteers.

From the beginning the Nazis played financial games to keep the goodies coming, and when they launched their wars they were careful to make sure that as much of the revenue as possible came from looting--Aly estimates 70% (Revenue is not the same as expenditures.). They had determined not to finance more than 50% of their war effort from loans, and to keep taxes as low as possible, in order to keep full support of the German people. This was obviously never going to be stable, and only a "blitzkrieg victory" would keep financial collapse away. But in the meantime, they found many ways to loot.

One clever scheme was RKK certificates. They were sort of like marks, but they couldn't be spent in Germany. When the German army needed to requisition a horse, they'd pay the owner in RKK. These were redeemable in the local currency by the local banks (or else). So the farmer doesn't object too strenuously, or hide all of his stuff or refuse to grow crops--because he gets paid, and gets French francs for his stuff, even if it's inconvenient. The French bank and government get stuck with the bill redeeming the RKK notes. And that eventually has to come out of the farmer's hide, but that comes later.

He explains how schemes like this, occupation cost charges, and manipulation of international clearing accounts worked in the different occupied countries.

Demanding that Jews turn over all assets and buy Reich bonds looks superficially legal, though they made sure nobody would live to collect. Stealing 100% from a few percent of the people actually has a noticeable effect on revenue--for a year or two. Aly goes through country by country to show how the extermination of Jews supported the Wehrmacht. It enriched corrupt people along the chain too, but most of the money wound up in the German treasury. Aly claims that the preoccupation with exterminating Jews wasn't a detriment to the war effort, and didn't divert resources. Salonika Jews were robbed of 12 tons of gold--which he traces to being used (for a change!) to try to prop up the Greek banks instead of the German, since the drachma was in free fall and Germany needed a working economy to provide the resources Germany needed to steal.

The Holocaust will never be properly understood until it is seen as the most single-mindedly pursued campaign of murderous larceny in modern history.

The campaign against Jews grew in intensity as losses grew and the need for money grew.

He describes slaves a bit, and forced labor a bit more. The latter was paid: 1/2 to 2/3 the going rate. But of course, most of the money was used to buy Reich bonds on the laborer's behalf, and then there was room and board to pay, and a tax for services, and and and

Food was another thing to be stolen, on a huge scale. Even allies like Italy came out on the short end. Soldiers were informally allowed to ship home what they could buy or steal. Back home, things were not bad at all--better than in Britain.

Later, when the fighting was over, the fateful collaboration of millions of Germans vanished, as if by magic, to be replaced by a wildly exaggerated--and historically insignificant--record of opposition to Hitler.

Even if the Nazis had won, they'd have run out of other people's money, and the way they treated captive peoples wasn't going to generate prosperous economies they could tap into.

Belgium comes off well--they often refused to cooperate.

Lessons learned: it isn't hard to buy a people's support for a while. When the bill comes due, those purchasers can turn hideously ruthless to stay in power. Theft can be very devious. Beware of politicians promising the moon.

The Nazis screamed that the Jews were economic bloodsuckers of the world. It proved to be the Nazis who were.

The book might have benefitted from some reorganization, with sections divided into "summary and human interest", followed by the details of how the schemes worked out in each region if you wanted to read those too.


RichardJohnson said...

I have put this book on my to-read list. Thanks for the suggestion and summary.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Agreed. I have had occasional contact over the years with Germans from the war years, though they were usually children or quite young. They retained bitterness for harsh treatment they felt they had received, as in the bombing of Dresden or things "stolen" by the Allies when they took over. Almost no insight into what their country had done. To a one, the felt that the reports of what had happened to the Jews was exaggerated, and they felt it was all a later PR campaign. They were mostly good about keeping quiet about it. Mostly.

RichardJohnson said...

In the '70s and the '80s, I knew a fair number of Germans of my generation in Latin America, either as coworkers or fellow tourists. I got the impression that they were making an effort to come to terms with the crimes of their parents. More than the Japanese, I'd say. I would add that I found Germans more compatible than the Brits- too reserved- or the French- too arrogant.

In the 1990s, my sister married the German-born stepson of an Operation Paperclip engineer. His stepfather's memoir had some of the attitude that AVI mentions- he mentioned being angry at the Allied bombing- but he corrected himself by adding, "but that is what we were also doing."

Like so many German emigrants of his generation- at least I have read a number of such memoirs- my sister's husband had a career-first career- in the US military. Why did so many German emigrants who came as children to the US after WW2 end up in the military? I suspect that paying back what they had gained by coming to the US played a part. For example, after several years in the US the Paperclip Engineer had the chance to return to Germany, but the children were adamant about remaining in the US. Promised land versus bombed-out land.

My brother-in-law said that they had some Jewish relatives. His Paperclip Engineer stepfather never joined the party.

My brother-in-law broke the family mold by showing an entrepreneurial bent from an early age. Republican. His brother followed the family trade by becoming a Ph.D. chemist. Democrat. Very. Such as sending a letter to my sister that included a passage about that Nazi Trump.

Be very wary of Germans who criticize the US, as that criticism often hides a German fault. Such as Herta Daubler Gmelin, famous for comparing Bush to Hitler, whose SS father's signature helped facilitate transport of Slovakian Jews to the camps. Or Germans who condemn the US for its use of the death penalty, conveniently forgetting that the impetus for banning the death penalty in West Germany came from the far "right" to stop executing Nazis.