Business as Usual

German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler

by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.
Oxford University Press, 504 pp., $25.60

The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis

by David Abraham
Princeton University Press, 366 pp., $36.00

Any explanation of the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s success is bound to have strong moral implications. The crimes of the Third Reich—war, persecution, genocide—were so great, but at the same time the similarities between Germany and other Western industrial societies are so close, that any discussion of the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the establishment of the Nazi dictatorship raises the anxious question: could it happen here? Is our society, which shares so much of Germany’s cultural and intellectual heritage as well as having many common economic and social features with Germany, equally vulnerable to nihilism?

The most reassuring answer is to point, as many historians do, to the peculiarities of German history, the deutsche Sonderweg, and draw attention to the differences between German social and economic structure in the period when Germany became a modern industrial state and that of Britain, the United States, or France. Or again one can try to escape the issue, as many Germans did in the period immediately after 1945, by concentrating on the personality of Hitler himself, the wicked enchanter who seduced an innocent, peaceful, and industrious people, and led them into committing crimes of which many of them maintained they were unaware.

Others regard fascism as an endemic threat to modern industrial society, either because the loss of religious faith and the breakdown of traditional ethical codes reduce the masses to a state of alienation and anomie that makes them peculiarly vulnerable to the seductions of totalitarianism, or because fascism is an inevitable stage in the decline of capitalism, a phase in which, as Gramsci pointed out, the bourgeoisie were prepared to destroy the liberal state they themselves had created in order to retain their social and economic position. Applied to the rise of National Socialism in Germany, this view in one version argues that it was the German capitalists, and especially the leaders of heavy industry, who saw in Hitler the savior of the capitalist order in the face of threats to it from its own economic contradictions and the menace of the socialists and communists. It is this version that Professor Henry Turner sets out to refute in a lucid, learned, and powerfully argued book. “Did big business play a significant part in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power?” he asks on the very first page. “Did German capitalists undermine the Weimar Republic?” And his answer is a strong “No.” “Only through gross distortion,” Turner writes in his conclusion, “can big business be accorded a crucial, or even major, role in the downfall of the Republic.”

Turner concentrates his attention primarily on the great industrialists of the Ruhr, associated in what looked like a powerful pressure group, the Verein zur Wahrung der Gemeinsamen Wirtschaftlichen Interessen in Rheinland und Westfalen, more popularly known as the “long name” association. He has used a formidable number of corporate archives and private papers and he has demonstrated how much evidence still lies unused in the immense documentation assembled for the Nuremberg…

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