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Guardian of the Grail’

For more than fifteen years Henry Ashby Turner, of Yale, has devoted his energies to collecting the evidence to answer the question, what part did big business play in Hitler’s rise to power? His conclusions are certain to arouse controversy. Few earlier historians of the Third Reich, including myself, escape censure; but it is those for whom the connection between capitalism and Nazism is still an article of faith who will protest most loudly. This is unlikely to perturb Professor Turner who, in the final pages of German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler,1 summarizes the indictment his critics are likely to bring against him and restates his confidence in the historical method he has followed. But controversy should not be allowed to obscure the value of the most impressive and original contribution to the study of Nazism in years, matched only by Richard Hamilton’s Who Voted for Hitler?

Since I have been asked to write a review of a quite different book, this introduction may appear gratuitous. However, not only is Professor Turner the editor of Hitler—Memoirs of a Confidant (an earlier and fuller version of which was published in German in 1978), but his interest in their author, Otto Wagener, arose naturally from his inquiry into the role of big business. More important, it is only within the frame of Turner’s inquiry that it is possible to “place” Wagener and to evaluate the picture he draws of Hitler. For his memoirs are certainly not an account to be taken at face value without understanding the part that Wagener (like other peddlers of economic nostrums) had in the Nazi movement, and his relationship to Hitler.

Otto Wagener was born in 1888 into a solidly middle-class Protestant family in Baden. His father was the head of a medium-sized company that manufactured sewing machines and bicycles. After attending the Gymnasium, the son went to a special military school and later to the Prussian War Academy in Berlin. He reached the rank of captain in the First World War and was then appointed to the General Staff (1916). After Germany’s defeat Wagener acted as an officer in the Freikorps, and was involved in fighting in the Baltic region, Silesia, Saxony, and the Ruhr. He served a term in prison after taking part in the Kapp Putsch which failed to overthrow the Republic in 1920; then he went into business and became active in anti-republican politics in Baden.

Wagener’s life was transformed in the summer of 1929 when he was unexpectedly asked by Hitler, whom he had not previously met, to become Chief of Staff of the brown-shirted SA. Throwing up his business career, he took full-time work in the Nazi party, of which he was then not yet a member. At the beginning of 1931, Wagener handed over office as SA Chief of Staff to Ernst Röhm and became head of the Economic Policy Section in the party leadership to prepare plans for a future Nazi government.

For three years, from the end of 1929 to the end of 1932, he was a member of Hitler’s circle, frequently in his company and often, when staying overnight in a hotel, able to talk at length with him. Then, as suddenly as he had been taken up, he was dropped; he continued to be active in the party for the first six months after it came to power, but was dismissed at the end of June 1933 and only by luck escaped being executed in the purge a year later. He withdrew to an estate in Saxony and concerned himself with farming and business for the rest of the 1930s. Returning to the army in the Second World War, he rose to the rank of major general before surrendering the German forces on Rhodes to the British in 1945. After seven years in internment he returned to Bavaria and, as Turner writes, “dabbled in nationalistic politics until his death in 1971 at the age of eighty-three.”

Wagener’s memoirs cover the years between 1929 and 1932, when he was closely involved with Hitler, and they were written in circumstances which guarantee that they are genuine: he composed them in a British internment camp at Bridgend during 1946, in thirty-six British military exercise books, bearing the inspection stamps of the camp officials. The manuscript was handed to the Red Cross, delivered to Wagener’s wife, eventually recovered by Wagener himself, and sold to the Munich Institut für Zeitgeschichte in 1957. Wagener neither completed nor revised his memoirs, which break off abruptly at the point when he was transferred from Bridgend to London. The original German edition printed roughly half of the 2,300 pages preserved in Munich; this has been further reduced for the English edition, with connecting passages and notes supplied by the editor.

Granted that Wagener’s memoirs are authentic, how reliable a record are they of what Hitler thought and said? They can be compared with a much-used historical source, Hermann Rauschning’s Hitler m’a dit, published in Paris in 1939 and describing meetings with Hitler in the overlapping period between 1932 and 1934. Theodor Schieder, the German historian who analyzed Rauschning’s book in detail, concluded that the direct speech Rauschning used, purporting to give Hitler’s own words, was to be understood more as a literary form than as a verbatim record such as Bormann organized for Hitler’s table talk.2 Nonetheless, he concluded that it was “a document of unquestionable value, since it contains views derived from immediate experience.”

Professor Turner argues that the same can be said of Wagener’s account, in which Hitler’s views are constantly expressed in direct speech. Rauschning had the advantage of working from notes taken at the time, and of writing only five to seven years after the event; Wagener had no notes to help him and wrote fourteen to seventeen years later. But he claimed to have made such notes and kept an irregular diary between 1929 and 1933. He said he repeatedly read these over after his fall from favor, and reconstructed his memoirs from his memory of this material after the war. The advantage Wagener had over Rauschning is that the latter had a maximum of thirteen conversations with Hitler, while Wagener was constantly in his company over four years, frequently unaccompanied by anyone else and in circumstances where Hitler could relax and talk to him freely as one of his familiars.

Wagener has little fresh to tell about the politics of Hitler’s rise to power. There is a good deal about Hitler’s views on foreign policy, with which Wagener disagreed, believing that Hitler would never get the support from Britain on which he laid so much stress as the key to a policy of eastern expansion in search of Lebensraum at Russia’s expense. But there is nothing new in this, any more than in the anti-Semitism the two men shared. More interesting is the distinction Hitler made between his attitude toward the teachings of Jesus, whom he claims as a forerunner, and the teachings of the Christian churches, which he denounces as corrupted by the lust for power. “There is nothing new about this Weltanschauung,” Hitler told Wagener.

Whenever I read the New Testament Gospels…I am astonished at all that has been made of the teachings of these divinely inspired men, especially Jesus Christ, which are so clear and unique…. They were the ones who created this new worldview which we now call socialism, they established it, they taught it and they lived it! But the communities that called themselves Christian churches did not understand it! Or if they did, they denied Christ and betrayed him!…

We are the first to exhume these teachings! Through us alone, and not until now, do these teachings celebrate their resurrection! Mary and Magdalene stood at the empty tomb. For they were seeking the dead man! But we intend to raise the treasures of the living Christ!”

Much the most valuable contribution Wagener’s memoirs make to understanding the history of Nazism is in economics. The years in which he was close to Hitler were those of the Great Depression, which hit Germany harder than any other European country and was a major factor in discrediting the Weimar Republic and winning support for the Nazis.

If there was one question to which any party seeking to form a German government between 1929 and 1933 had to provide an answer it was how to end the slump and bring down unemployment. And once the leaders of German big business—who referred to themselves collectively as die Wirtschaft (“the economy”)—realized that the National Socialists had to be taken seriously as contenders for power, there was no question to which they were more eager to know Hitler’s answer. Wagener’s belief that he had an answer, and could persuade Hitler to adopt it, led him to join the party. Only very slowly and reluctantly did he come to recognize that Hitler was not interested in formulating a clear economic policy, certainly not before he obtained power, and that he was content to let the party speak with conflicting voices on economic issues.

Why? A common view has been that Hitler was ready to repudiate the anticapitalist clauses in the original twenty-five-point Nazi program of 1920 as soon as he saw a chance of securing financial support from big business. Wagener’s memoirs, amplified by the additional evidence Professor Turner has collected for his own book, suggest a different answer.

Contrary to a still widely held belief, the primary source on which the Nazis relied to finance their ride to power was not subsidies from big business, most of which went to their right-wing rivals, but the contributions that they demanded, and got, from the party’s members and sympathizers. With a few exceptions, such as Fritz Thyssen and Emil Kirdorf, whose importance has been exaggerated, the men who controlled the corporate political funds of German industry were deeply distrustful of the Nazis. There was a good reason for this: Hitler’s strategy aimed not at a Putsch, but at capturing the votes of the masses, and in the Germany of the Depression this was only to be done with a radical program of state intervention. As the Nazis’ drive for power intensified in the course of 1932, the year of elections, the more strident became their anticapitalist rhetoric. The economic program that Wagener and his Economic Policy Section were trying to sell to Hitler was certainly not Marxist, but it called for a degree of state involvement in the economy—for example by a large-scale program of creating jobs through increased taxation of the well-to-do and deficit spending—which the business community rejected as opening the way to socialism.

Hitler was not unsympathetic to such views. He had no higher opinion of capitalists than of right-wing politicians and generals, and he frequently assured Wagener (and Wagener’s rivals who sought to win his endorsement for their own radical panaceas) that, once the party came to power, he would initiate a revolution that would transform German economic as much as German political institutions. But he insisted that this could only be after they had come to power. Until then, he would not silence the radicals in the Nazi factory-cell organization (NSBO) and Goebbels’s Der Angriff, but he would not commit himself to them. Their discussions, he told Wagener, must remain secret, and despite Wagener’s protests, Hitler would take no steps to prevent Göring, Funk, and other Nazis from reassuring their business friends that the campaign rhetoric was not to be taken seriously. Whenever he got the opportunity to speak to industrialists and bankers himself, Hitler kept away from economic themes and laid all his stress upon the need to restore Germany’s greatness and power.

The reason for Hitler’s equivocation was not financial—a fear that he would displease his “capitalist paymasters”—but political:

You underestimate the political power of these men, Wagener, and the power of business as a whole. I feel that, for the time being, we will not conquer the Wilhelmstrasse against their opposition. So, no matter how much I feel that your plans—which are also mine, after all—are correct and necessary, it nevertheless seems to me expedient to hold back entirely as far as those plans are concerned until we have secured our place in the Wilhelmstrasse and until we truly and surely have the backing of at least two-thirds of the German Volk.”

The upshot of the many discussions Wagener had with Hitler about economic policy was always the same: it was politics, not economics that decided the fate of nations and would decide that of Germany. In a speech of 1922, Hitler declared: “World history teaches us that no people has become great through its economy but that a people can very well perish thereby.” A strong state could provide the basis for economic development but the reverse never held true.

Ten years later he told Wagener:

Your reasoning isn’t bad…. But what is at stake at the present great turning point? An individualistic world view is being replaced by a socialistic one…. Such a change cannot be decreed by legislation. What is crucial is the internal conversion of the people, of the Volk. And that is a political task…. Do you think that a confirmed entrepreneur is prepared suddenly to admit that his property is not a right but a duty? That capital should no longer rule but be ruled? That it is not the individual that matters, but the totality?… But when you see the masses streaming to join the SA, then you will sense that inner conversion, then you will realize that a new faith is awakening…. It is on this basis alone that a new world can be built!”

As Hitler put it to Rauschning: “What need have we to socialize banks or factories? We socialize human beings.”

Apart from the discussions on economics, Wagener’s reports of Hitler’s views are largely repetitive, but the fact that in the early 1930s Hitler’s talk displays the same brutal, dogmatic, cocksure characteristics as in Mein Kampf (dictated in 1924 and 1925) and in the later Table Talk recorded between 1941 and 1944, only underlines the consistency of a mind that, once it had crystallized in the mid-1920s, remained remarkably constant.

At the conclusion of this English edition of his memoirs, Wagener describes himself as “the guardian of the grail.” This was the phrase Hitler himself had used in accepting his resignation, speaking while “he held my hand and looked at me with that gaze of his, inscrutable but nevertheless spellbinding,” of “the grail whose innermost truth can be disclosed to only the few.” Because of the obligation this laid on him, Wagener labored to provide an authentic, uncorrected record for posterity of what he had seen with the eyes of faith and heard with the ears of a believer.

If Wagener’s memoirs gave him little insight into the character and mind of Hitler by comparison with other witnesses who grasped—however long afterward—his unequalled gift for dissimulation, he provides, as few other witnesses have, an insight (as Professor Turner says) “into the mind of a German who, like millions of his countrymen, saw in Nazism Germany’s salvation and in Hitler its savior.” And how that could have happened, for all the millions of words that have been written about it, remains the real enigma about the career of Adolf Hitler.

  1. 1

    Reviewed by James Joll in The New York Review, September 26, 1985.

  2. 2

    Hitlers Tischgespräche, translated as Hitler’s Secret Conversations 1941–1944, was published in New York in 1953, with an introduction by H.R. Trevor-Roper.

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