The Reichstag Fire
Big Business in the Third Reich
The history of Hitler’s Germany is still full of problems. In spite of all that has been written, we still find Hitler’s career mysterious, almost incredible. How was it that such a man rose to such power and led a whole nation, willingly, through such crime, to such disaster? The historians recount and explain, but the mystery remains, to be solved, if at all, at a deeper level. Meanwhile new studies continue to alter old interpretations. Here are two books which, in very different ways, seriously modify accepted views. The first challenges an old explanation, or myth; the second penetrates below the surface of politics to the inner structure of Nazi power.
The myth which Mr. Tobias challenges is the previously accepted account of the Reichstag Fire—that dramatic episode which followed so closely on Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. It is well known that the Nazis exploited that fire by promptly blaming it on the Communists. Dissatisfied with the avowed incendiary, a young Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, they looked for German or Communist scapegoats. They pounced on Ernst Torgler, the leader of the Communist party in the Reichstag, and on three Bulgarian Communists who happened to be in Germany. Then they staged a public trial, at Leipzig. Unfortunately all their efforts were in vain: In the end they had to acquit all except Van der Lubbe, whom, by a monstrous perversion of justice, they guillotined. Nevertheless they continued to insist that the crime was a Communist crime. Van der Lubbe could not have burnt down the Reichstag alone—all the expert witnesses agreed on that—and who else could his accomplices have been? Besides, Hitler himself insisted that he knew it was a Communist plot, and he, of course, must be right.
Outside Germany few believed that Hitler was right, or that a Nazi trial could be fair. So Communist émigrés seized the opportunity to organize a more “objective” counter-trial in London. At this “anti-trial” evidence was heard, documents submitted; and the “court” decided—since they too insisted that Van der Lubbe could not have burnt the Reichstag alone—that his accomplices were not Communists, but Nazis. It was true, the supposed Nazi accomplices were as elusive as the supposed Communist accomplices; but as it was the Nazis, not the Communists, who profited by the fire, the verdict of the “anti-trial,” not of the trial, was more generally accepted. Surrounded by prudent reservations, it has found its way, by now, into the standard histories of Nazism.
Well, it will now have to find its way out again. Mr. Tobias’s exhaustive study of the evidence first appeared in Der Spiegel in 1956, then in book form in Germany; this (much abbreviated) English translation has already appeared in England. Naturally, it has raised plenty of controversy. But in my opinion its conclusions have not been shaken. Not only does Mr. Tobias show (as was already known) that much of the evidence produced at the anti-trial was unscrupulously forged by the Communist “Agitprop” in Paris: he also shows that Van der Lubbe did not need accomplices, either psychologically or physically. In 1933 it suited both the Nazis and the Communists to represent Van der Lubbe as a feckless, half-witted creature who must have been somebody’s stooge, and to argue that a building like the Reichstag could not have been set on fire by one man. It now seems clear that neither of these suppositions is true. Van der Lubbe was an independent Dutch radical who resolved to show, by a flaming gesture, that not all the European Left would go down in silence before Hitler; and history proves that many great buildings have been gutted by a spark. It all depends on circumstances; and in the Reichstag, the circumstances were favorable. That Hitler was so quick to exploit the fire does not show that he had planned it: it merely shows that he was a good exploiter.
After the Reichstag Fire, Hitler continued to exploit his opportunities. New elections gave him, with his Nationalist allies, a narrow but absolute majority, in the Reichstag. The Enabling Act gave him dictatorial powers in Germany. Then he dealt with the other parties. The parties of the Left were abolished; those of the Right committed suicide. They committed suicide because they were no longer necessary; the Nazi party itself had become the political organ of the Right. The generals and big business had first put the Nazis into power; the Rhineland industrialists had financed its election campaign; and the Catholics had a Concordat with it. What need had they now of other organs? In the summer of 1934 Hitler gave the most convincing evidence of his subservience to the Right: He murdered his own radicals, the men who pressed for a “second revolution.” This revolting crime, carried out in cold blood by a government which controlled all the means of justice, was accepted quietly, even applauded, by the German conservatives. It was just what they wanted. They had put Hitler into power to do their dirty work. Now he had done it.
What did they expect to happen then? Generally speaking, a revolutionary party which destroys its revolutionary force and rules in alliance with the pre-revolutionary élite, is gradually absorbed by that élite. It becomes a new buttress of the old ruling classes. This is what the German ruling classes expected, but in fact they were wrong. Until 1936 Hitler did govern in alliance with the German establishment. To it he sacrificed his revolutionary force, the S.A., some of his revolutionary program, and some of his revolutionary ideology. But from 1936 onwards he began a new course. By undermining the unity first of big business, then of the generals, he contrived gradually to gain control over both the economy and the army. By 1938 the old alliance was broken up: Hitler was the master; and in 1939 he was ready and able to carry an unresisting country into a radical, wholesale war. This was not what his backers had intended, but they now found it too late to protest—at least so long as there was some chance of winning it.
Hitler’s achievement in first serving, then mastering both big business and the army is well known. But hitherto the process has been described merely as political tactics. What Mr. Schweitzler has done in the second of these two works is to add both new economic detail and new social depth: detail and depth which, in effect, add a new dimension to the history of Nazism. He is himself a sociologist, a disciple of Max Weber. A critic might complain that he had learned style as well as method from Weber, and that his book is consequently far heavier to read than it need be. On the other hand those who have a real interest in the subject will receive illumination from it: it shows, as no other book has done, the structural changes in the German economy and in German society between 1933, when Hitler came to power as the creature of the army and big business, and 1937, when he had acquired domination over both.
For Nazism had many phases. It was not always, or inherently, an ally of big business—indeed it began as an anti-capitalist movement. In the time of the Weimar Republic, the lower middle classes, the small businessmen, the shopkeepers, artisans, and peasants, were equally opposed to organized labor and powerful capital. It was to these classes, whose hatreds and whose unity were strengthened during the Depression, that Hitler first appealed; and if his ultimate objectives were always revenge for 1918 and imperialist conquest, his immediate economic platform was “gild-controlled economy” to protect both peasants and shopkeepers against price cutting by financial leviathans, and the raising of wages by organized trades unions. Since these classes ascribed their misfortunes to the “Liberal” Weimar Republic, they were quite ready to accept dictatorship as a means of emancipation. It was ironical that, at the same time, the big business interests were also coming round to the idea of dictatorship: a presidential dictatorship to break the power of labor. So in the summer of 1931 the leaders of anti-capitalist Nazism and capitalist big business converged, and made the historic agreement which gradually brought Hitler to power.
Once in power, the anti-capitalist policy was soon dropped. Mr. Schweitzler shows in detail how the Nazi party, while punctually carrying out its anti-labor policy, gave up “gild” regulation, nationalization of banks, and other anti-capitalist aims, while by suppressing the S.A. it similarly withdrew from competition with the army. At the same time the rearmament boom and the depression of real wages both satisfied the generals and sustained economic recovery. In 1933-36 social power in Germany, he argues, was wielded not by a Nazi dictatorship but by a “fourfold structure” of the party, SS, business, and army, each autonomous within its own sphere. This nicely balanced coalition sought—or seemed to seek—agreed aims: military equality with other powers, political and economic self-determination, rearmament, suppression of trades unions, and the reinvigoration of capitalist institutions.
Why then did this “partial fascism” break down in 1936? The question is of general, not merely historical, importance because, since 1945, Communist parties have come to power in a similar way. Mr. Schweitzler shows in detail how, for the sake of government patronage, Big Business gradually yielded its autonomy and how the government-sponsored rearmament boom created new divisions within industry. In 1936 a crisis of foreign exchange sharpened these divisions. Schacht overplayed his hand; and the extent to which the government had already yoked several great economic interests (such as I.G. Farben) to its program was suddenly revealed. A year later, accident enabled Hitler similarly to divide the army and secure control of it. The Four Year Plan was Hitler’s victory over the businessmen, the setting up of the OKW his victory over the generals. From then on there was a new structure of power. Hitler, having come to prominence as the patron of the anti-capitalist peasants and radical shopkeepers, and come to power as the agent of big business and conservative generals, found himself master of them all, able to carry out, at last, his policy of imperialist war.
Nevertheless, Mr. Schweitzler argues, this last change was not inevitable. In terms of physical and even political power, Hitler could have been stopped in 1936-37. Schacht’s errors in 1936, the errors of the generals in 1937, were unnecessary. Had they chosen their ground better, business and the generals could still have made a solid front in defense of their ideals. But—outside their immediate interests and their pride—had they in fact any ideals? Associates in crime from the start, they lacked the moral force to resist an accomplice who knew his own mind, whose very immoralism was a force, and whose convictions were sustained by a formidable will. “The major lesson of the earlier Nazi experience,” writes Mr. Schweitzler, “is that partial fascism and organized capitalism do not necessarily constitute a transitional phase to full fascism” or to war. The German establishment was not defeated by Hitler: it abdicated; and its abdication was essentially moral, as abdication generally is. This is a really important book. I cannot recommend it for light reading; but those who are willing to think and seek to understand will find it one of the most rewarding books on Nazi Germany.