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Hitler’s Welfare State

Hitler, as every schoolboy ought to know, made no revolution, political, economic, or social. He left the old establishment in its entrenched positions in the economy, army, and the state. He erected, at the side of the old establishment, a new, predominantly middle-class, Nazi establishment, with its own bureaucracies, armies, even its own economic enterprises. He corralled the working man by smashing his economic and political organizations, and subordinating him to the joint authority of his employer and the new Nazi Labor Front. He then coordinated and mobilized the whole into that predatory and dynamic warfare society whose glorious national mission—the subjugation and exploitation of non-German (or, rather, “non-Aryan”) populations—was to become the cornerstone of Hitler’s grand design and the substitute for the revolution he never made.

We now know that Hitler came to power with the help of bankers, industrialists, and Junker politicians, on the understanding that he would convert the mass of the population to the “national” cause. He had already captured about a third of the population, and it seemed likely that he could win all of it. The old elites expected him to “discipline” the political parties, “tame” the unions, throw out the “Marxists” (which meant social democrats as well as communists), and build up a powerful military-industrial machine to get Germany moving again.

All of this of course strongly suggests counter-revolution and class interest. But Dr. Schoenbaum will have none of it. In his view, it was a revolution, although a novel one, in which class interest played very little part. For if it were a matter of class interest, his argument runs, how are we to explain the fact that Bosch, a prominent industrialist, eventually opposed Hider, that Fritz Thyssen fled Germany, that Krupp did not finance Hitler before 1933? But there are perfectly good answers to this argument: there is hardly another major industrialist to be placed beside Bosch—most of them stayed with the Führer; Thyssen, who had been one of the first to finance Hitler, did leave Germany, but not until 1939; as for Krupp, he had been a sponsoring member of the SS as early as 1931.

Still, if this was not a revolution, it wasn’t precisely a counter-revolution either, certainly not merely a counterrevolution. The old establishment remained, but it had little power. The magnates who thought that they had “hired” Hitler soon discovered that they had collaborated with him. They had in fact entered into a fluid, ill-defined partnership in which Hitler quickly made himself the senior partner and eventually the undisputed boss.

What began as a cynical but comparatively sedate marriage de convenance ended up as a wild joint venture in mass destruction, far wilder and far more destructive than the plotters among the old elites had bargained for. They had hoped, many of them, for something like the comparatively static fascism of Mussolini. Some had even dreamed of a monarchical fascism under a restored Kaiser (Thyssen was among those dreamers). But they had miscalculated. They found themselves stuck with the plebeian pseudo-revolutionary, the rabble-rousing fanatic whom most of them privately despised. They had wanted to use him, and continued to do so. Hitler in his turn used them, taking them moreover in a direction they would almost certainly not have chosen themselves. (Dr. Schoenbaum rightly lays great stress on this element of dynamic escalation and thus counters the simple Comintern view that Nazism simply represented the interests of big business.)

Thus it happened that, while men with university degrees continued to run the machinery of state, men with aristocratic titles continued to run the army, and men of wealth and polish continued to own and operate the economy, the uneducated, uncouth, lower-middle-class Hitler was the real boss. The old establishment did well for itself out of the partnership. But it did not, in the last resort, control it. What is more, it had to countenance the rise of the partly fanatical, partly careerist following with which the Führer now proceeded to build the new Nazi establishment.

For, as Schoenbaum shows, Hitler did not arrive alone. He brought with him a virtual army of kindred spirits, the predominantly middle-class and lower middle-class faithful who largely comprised the Nazi movement. Like their Führer, they had been clamoring for office, for opportunity, for a place in the sun. These men of the social and economic middle—shopkeepers, artisans, schoolteachers, petty officials, peasants—had wanted to strike out against both the classes above them and the classes below them, against the capitalists with their trusts and department stores and against the industrial workers with their unions, against their social superiors and their social inferiors. For Nazism as a movement was the would-be rebellion of the distressed and disgruntled in-between classes.

World War I had hit many of these people particularly hard in various ways; as did the postwar years. The war had been financed largely out of middle-class savings. First the war was lost, and then the savings as well. Many veterans had found the “meaning” of their existence in fighting for Germany. In the postwar society—with the war lost, the Kaiser gone, the Social Democrats in the government, and few jobs to be had—they were bored, restless, bitter: they found themselves living in a society drastically different from the one they had fought for, and worse. Many veterans—and many non-veterans—identified their feelings of defeat with the nation’s defeat, the nation’s former glory with the good old days when middle-class people still counted for something and could make a decent living.

Hitler promised to set everything right again: defeat—individual and national—would be avenged and turned into victory; capitalism would be curbed and so would the unions; all Germans would be united once more under a single leader in honorable and soldierly service to the national cause. The people would rise in triumph, through discipline, will power, and combat, to vanquish their enemies, rid Germany of the nefarious Jews, and assert the superior rights belonging to a superior race. all this and much more went to make up the ideological mishmash, as Dr. Schoenbaum calls it, of the Nazi movement. This was the “program” of the Nazi “revolution.”

The point to notice is that this “revolutionary” program consisted from the first of a mixture of aims: social reform plus militarization plus national self-assertion. It was these three strands taken together, and not merely a plan for the reconstruction of society, which caught the imagination of so many Germans. Hitler and his “revolution” stood for all three. When the Führer finally did come to power he could so easily scrap the vague and inconsistent plans for social reform precisely because he was in deadly earnest about the other two “planks” in his “platform.” Moreover, militarization and national self-assertion under Nazi auspices meant the creation of a predatory warfare society which provided jobs, uniforms, medals. The social revolution that had been promised never came. But the warfare society did, and it provided the opportunities. It was not revolution but war and preparation for war, militarization, and, later on, the fruits of victory which provided the Nazified middle class with material and psychological rewards.

In the new establishment Hitler gave his followers new opportunities and a new sense of importance and well-being. In the Labor Front which controlled the working classes, in the Reich Food Estate which controlled the farmers, in the various Party organs, and especially in the SS—police, army, colonial administration, and economic enterprise all rolled into one—the Nazified members of the middle classes found countless opportunities. A few even managed to infiltrate the strongholds of the old establishment, but, as Dr. Schoenbaum shows, they did not get very far: few Nazis reached ministerial level, few became generals, very few indeed became company directors. Their best chances by far lay in the new establishment.

The predatory warfare society which Hitler created was in fact a new and thoroughly perverse kind of opportunity state. Dr. Schoenbaum sees, and records, the opportunities, but not the perversity. He has much to say about the beneficiaries of the system but nothing to say about its victims. Yet the fate of these victims—principally Jews at first, then mainly Slavs, but in the end people from all over conquered Europe—was an integral part of the Nazi social program, an essential part of its social system. By contrast with the program for social reform, it was consistently and rigorously carried out. It involved—for these Jewish Germans excluded from German society, for the concentration-camp inmates and prisoners of war of all races and nationalities who were worked to death, and for those simply exterminated—a “status revolution” incomparably more drastic than any other experienced by “Aryan” Germans. By saying virtually nothing about this other social “revolution”—Nazi population policy—Dr. Schoenbaum has gravely distorted the picture of what Nazi society was like.

Moreover, he also distorts the “positive” aspect of the Nazi opportunity state when he does not differentiate sufficiently among its various beneficiaries. He is right to insist that there was at least something in it for nearly everyone—either concrete benefits or imaginary ones. But the rewards and opportunities varied enormously. The fact of the matter is that for the old elites, opportunity remained largely as it had been before, only greater: profits, promotions, medals. By contrast, the working man merely got a job again and later on, as labor became scarce, some fringe benefits; but he got very little more. The working class was largely excluded from the new establishment. Workers apparently rarely got—or rarely sought (we are not told which)—the chance to make a career in a Nazi organization. The new establishment with its new opportunities remained, by and large, the preserve of the middle classes. What Dr. Schoenbaum describes as a social revolution transforming the whole of German society turns out instead to have been simply the promotion of many middle-class Nazis to a place of distinction.

In discussing the imaginary benefits Dr. Schoenbaum is at his worst. He knows perfectly well that the Nazi talk about a new liberty, a new equality, a new fraternity (Volksgemeinschaft), was empty talk; even if some people fell for it. Yet he presents the “new social consciousness”—which he has gleaned almost exclusively from Nazi speeches, Nazi editorials, Nazi pamphlets—as not merely a psychological but as a social reality. Here his argument, as often happens, flies in the face of his own evidence. Here is his version of fraternity: “Since the Third Reich involved [!] all classes, since it brought both benefits and disadvantages to all classes, both loyalty and hostility largely ceased to be matters of class, and perhaps for the first time, Germany achieved a certain identity between leaders—or Leader—and followers.” But the author himself doesn’t believe this: a few pages later he tells us that “beneath the cover of Nazi ideology, the historic social groups continued their conflicts like men wrestling under a blanket.”

As for liberty and equality, he gives us the following “paradox”:

Practically, labor was a scarce commodity and treated accordingly. If its legal status was that of a chattel, it should not be forgotten that prudent owners treat their chattels well. Champion cattle are well taken care of, and this, too, was an aspect of labor’s status in the Third Reich…. From our point of view, it may have been slavery, but it was not necessarily slavery from the point of view of a contemporary. Or alternatively, it was a slavery that he shared with former masters and thus, paradoxically, a form of equality or even liberation [pp. 117-118].

This is not a paradox; it is nonsense. The worker did not share his slavery with his masters (who were in any case not “former” masters but very much his present masters), since the worker was tied hand and foot to a poorly paid job while the boss was still a comparatively free agent and at least tolerably well-off. Their situations were certainly not equal. Even if it were true that both had been enslaved, it is pure double-think to maintain, as Dr. Schoenbaum seems to do, that slavery is freedom.

It is a pity that Dr. Schoenbaum’s book, which contains a great deal that is informative and illuminating, is virtually ruined by its distorted perspective. The analysis of social change in what was in fact a predatory warfare society is completely miscast as a social “revolution.” By omitting any serious discussion of the activities to which this society was geared, Dr. Schoenbaum in effect “normalizes” and partly even rehabilitates Nazi society. The following example indicates the absurd and horrifying consequences of separating social form from social substance:

…the staff of the SS mobile unit Einsatzgruppe D [sic], as tried at Nuremberg in 1947/48, is a revealing cross section of the SS as an institution in the establishment of the Third Reich. The twenty-three defendants ranged in rank from general to lieutenant. With one exception, their ages at the beginning of the war, from twenty-four to thirty-eight. Impressive in this case was the high frequency of academic titles: seven doctors and a total of seventeen Akademiker [university people], not counting a dentist, an engineer, and an opera singer…. virtually the entire group had made its way through administrative posts in the civil service, the Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service), or the internal administration of the SS before being brought together in Russia to organize murder.

The word “murder” is casually mentioned at the end, as if it had been incidental to those distinguished middle-class careerists. Dr. Schoenbaum’s vision is kept under narrow bounds: this analysis of the ranks, ages, and educational achievements of SS leaders—whose task it was to plan and administer the conquest, exploitation, and murder of millions of “racially inferior” but usable Slavs and Jews—appears in the chapter on “Social Opportunity.”

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