Gotz Aly: Hitler’s Beneficiaries

May 4, 2015

9780805087260This is not an easy read, but it’s a very enlightening book.

I can’t really see economics as a science: the various theories I’ve read enough about exist and can seem to make sense within their own hermetic little worlds, but once outside these and subject to real world scrutiny, they tend to dissolve in a cloud of contradictions and fairy dust. As someone whose existence was shaped by the Second World War, although I was born long after it ended, I’ve read widely about it, and every now and then return to some aspect of it, in an effort further to understand the ultimately incomprehensible.

Gotz Aly‘s book attempts to show how the Nazi economic system worked and succeeded for so long in its own terms, first within Germany and then, during the war, in the lands under its domination. It’s details like this this us ordinary non-historians never think about unless prompted to: where do you get the money from to launch and sustain such a war, for so long? Similarly (although this isn’t the subject of his book) how do you get so many people on trains to extermination camps without disrupting the entire European rail system, and allegedly without people knowing it was going on?

The author shows how the overriding need was to keep ordinary Germans contented and materially satisfied. If they were, then the war could continue. So taxation was organised to impinge hardly at all on almost all Germans – rich property-owners bore the brunt of internal taxation. When countries were conquered, they were systematically plundered to keep the home consumers satisfied. And then, there was so much Jewish property to confiscate and re-sell…

The entire banking systems first of Germany and then of occupied Europe were inevitably involved; all occupation costs had to be met by the country being occupied, and were, and a parallel money system allowed occupying troops to buy up anything and everything they wanted from those countries was set up, allowing troops to send enormous numbers of goody parcels home; economists kept a close eye on things to make sure that inflation didn’t take off. And Jewish property was carefully confiscated and became state property; the book-keeping relied on all sorts of trickery, some of it supposedly in order to comply with the Hague Conventions(!) and endless loans which could be repudiated when Germany won the war… and forced loans from Jews based on their property and wealth, which they would never be in a position to call in, once they had been ‘resettled’ in the East. The ultimate economic logic of the system was that Germany had to win the war (!) and that the destruction of European Jewry was an integral and necessary part of the economic war plan.

Gotz Aly demonstrates that all Germans, whether they were aware or not, benefitted from these arrangements; what shocked me most of all was how much of the documentation was destroyed after the war by the authorities in both the Federal and Democratic Republics… which, of course removed possibilities of individual compensation claims. As so often when I get to the end of a book like this, I feel that, though I always knew war was an evil and dirty business, it is even dirtier and more evil than I had imagined thus far.

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