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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 war-crime trials. He clearly feels at home in the business world, and understands how firms are organized and how businessmen think: “Most of what historians have written about the political role of German big business in the period dealt with in this book,” he writes of his predecessors, “has been largely uninformed by knowledge about businessmen or their institutions.”

The picture that emerges from the book is of a group of men, conservative by instinct, who were frightened by the cost of social welfare programs and angry with the power of the trade unions. As Turner puts it, “Surrounded by an often sullen, sometimes openly hostile army of manual laborers, the Ruhr magnates looked back nostalgically to the days of the Empire, when they had ruled their industrial domains according to the Herrim-Hause principle.” Some of them even claimed to be liberal. “As you know,” one of them remarked, “I have always been liberal in the sense of Kant and Frederick the Great.” And indeed the core of their Weltanschauung was a liberal belief in the separation of economics from politics: “Germany’s capitalists partook of nineteenth-century liberal economic doctrines sufficiently to regard politics as a sphere of activity quite different and essentially separate from that of economics.”

They wanted above all to get on with the job of running their own businesses, and most of them realized that to do this they had to accept, as Carl Duisberg, chairman of I.G. Farben, put it in 1929, that business could not “adopt a stand of opposition to, or aloofness from, the new state as it is today but must instead take its stand in that state and with that state.” For some of them indeed this even meant occasionally working together with the trade unions in the spirit of the agreement negotiated in November 1918 between the Ruhr magnate Hugo Stinnes and Carl Legien, head of the socialist trade unions, an agreement as important, as Turner points out, as the more celebrated bargain between the army leader General Groener and the socialist chief Ebert.

Against this background Turner systematically analyzes the relations between the Ruhr industrialists and the National Socialists from the early 1920s down to February 1933. He shows that in the early years support for Hitler from business was very limited: Ernst von Borsig, head of a famous firm manufacturing heavy industrial equipment, was interested for a time in 1922 but failed to raise much money from his business colleagues in Berlin. In Munich Hitler received help from a publisher, Hugo Bruckmann, and the piano manufacturer Edwin Bechstein, but both seem to have helped the Nazis more to please their wives who were enthusiastic fans of Hitler personally than to serve their own ends, and neither could be called representative of “big” business, even if their financial aid was crucial for Hitler at a difficult moment.

Later in the Twenties individual industrialists backed the Nazi cause; but, Turner argues, the two best known of them, Fritz Thyssen and Emil Kirdorf, were not typical. Thyssen (much of whose own memoirs Turner regards as “of dubious authenticity”) turned to rightwing radical politics because his father refused to relinquish control of his steel firm; Kirdorf was eighty years old, an embittered and committed opponent of the Republic who seems to have had little success in persuading other industrialists to join him in his support for the Nazis; and indeed his own support was liable to fluctuate. Kirdorf’s doubts, even if subsequently overcome, illustrate the major difficulty Hitler had in appealing to industry. Even if, as Turner shows in some of the most interesting parts of his book, Hitler had no fixed views on economics—“the economy is something of secondary importance,” he once wrote—and so could address meetings of businessmen for two and three-quarters of an hour on end without saying anything specific about the economy, Nazi propaganda was full of anticapitalist slogans which alarmed big business (I.G. Farben was particularly singled out for attack).

And Hitler, for all his attempts to present himself to businessmen as a reasonable and moderate figure, never lost his petit-bourgeois contempt for them: “I won’t let those captains of industry put anything over on me. Captains! I’d like to know the bridge on which they have ever manned the helm. They’re shallow people who can’t see beyond their petty affairs,” Hitler remarked in 1932. As late as January 1933 the socialist newspaper Vorwärts was finding comfort in the belief that “Hitlerism has long since lost all credit with high finance, heavy industry, and the large landowners,” even if it was already commonly believed on the left that Hitler’s election campaigns had been largely financed by big business. In fact, as long as there were conservative political parties playing a leading role in the politics of the Weimar Republic, the industrialists did not need the Nazis, and seem to have contributed rather indiscriminately to the funds of several of the right-wing parties.

Professor Turner examines closely the occasions that have generally been supposed to have resulted in financial support for Hitler from big business and to have been decisive in his fortunes. Thus at the meeting of right-wing organizations at Bad Harzburg in October 1931, when the so-called Harzburg Front was formed in opposition to Chancellor Brüning’s economic policies—which, largely because of the prominent part played by the former president of the Reichsbank, Hjalmar Schacht, was assumed to mark a new alliance between the Nazis and the businessmen who supported the older nationalist parties—there were, Turner argues, in fact very few big businessmen or industrialists present. Turner demonstrates, and it is a good example of his method, that the origin of the list of twenty-five or so businessmen who attended the meeting was a single press-agency report, examination of which shows that only one of the names (Ernst Brandi, chairman of the association of Ruhr coal owners) was that of a powerful industrialist and that the others, insofar as they can be identified at all, were either from small businesses or were comparatively unimportant executives in larger firms—men, that is to say, attracted to the Harzburg gathering rather because of their nationalist political beliefs than from any intention of serving their wider economic interests.

Again, Hitler’s famous speech to the Industry Club in Düsseldorf on January 26, 1932, was, according to the evidence analyzed by Turner, not the triumphant success for Hitler it has been widely claimed as being. The members of the Industry Club were by no means all industrialists anyway. Hitler had no discussions with the people present, and those who were impressed by him were impressed by his nationalist clichés, which they would have applauded whoever uttered them.

Above all, the main evidence about the meeting—the account published in 1934 by Otto Dietrich, the Nazi press chief—was contradicted by Dietrich himself when in 1955 he wrote that “a collection was attempted at the door which produced some well-meaning but insignificant sums. Beyond that, one could not speak of any support worthy of mention, much less of a financing of Hitler’s political struggle by die Wirtschaft or ‘heavy industry.”’ Turner argues that the earlier account was probably ghostwritten and was a “party-line memoir,” so that the later recollection was more accurate—though it might, I think, also be argued that in the 1950s Dietrich may have had his reasons for playing down the enthusiasm for Hitler of German businessmen.

The third occasion (and here I find Turner wholly convincing) was the meeting between Hitler and Franz von Papen at the house of the Cologne banker Kurt von Schröder early in January 1933. This meeting undoubtedly prepared the way for Hitler and Papen’s agreement to bring down the government of General von Schleicher, and so made possible the formation of a new government with Hitler as chancellor; so it marked a decisive stage in the last phase of the Republic’s life. Because Schröder was a banker, it has been assumed that he acted on behalf of his fellow financiers.

This, Turner says, is to misunderstand his position. Schröder’s house was a convenient meeting place; he himself did not take part in the discussions; he was not in fact a leading banker but a comparatively small one whose fortune rested on a rather shaky speculative base. He became involved simply because he happened to know Papen and because he was a member of the circle of mostly second-or third-rank businessmen recruited by Wilhelm Keppler, who had been charged by Hitler with devising a new economic policy for the Nazis. Schröder was therefore, in Turner’s words, “one of the few persons with entrée to both Papen and Hitler, two men separated by a wide social chasm.” His role was that of an intermediary of a purely personal and incidental kind, whose own contacts with the big industrialists had been very limited and who could not be regarded as their spokesman. To quote Turner again, “Compared with the roles played by Franz von Papen and Adolf Hitler on January 4, 1933, Kurt von Schröder’s amounted to that of a mere spear holder on the stage of history.”

If the big industrialists did not help Hitler financially, who in fact did? Turner has two answers. First, the Nazi party was largely self-supporting (and he has very interesting evidence from the Prussian police archives to support this point). For their election campaigns they relied on voluntary help, but they were also very good at raising money by street collections, by charging admission fees to meetings addressed by the party’s star orators, by selling advertisement space in the Völkischer Beobachter, the party’s newspaper, and by marketing equipment “such as brass knuckles, daggers and first aid kits” for SA men and insignia for party members. One meeting alone in the 1930 election campaign made a profit of 10,000 marks—about half of what, according to the police, would support the entire campaign of an ordinary political party.

Secondly, yes, the party did get contributions from businessmen, but these were not the true representatives of die Wirtschaft, the traditional leaders of heavy industry, but managers and executives, many of them from smaller firms. One would like to know more about these contributions and their donors since this would throw light on the controversial question of the attitude of the middle class to Hitler.

When big business did pay something to the Nazis individually or locally, this was part of a policy of spreading their bets by contributing to several parties, paying Versicherungsprämien (insurance premiums), as an executive of I.G. Farben told the Nuremberg tribunal. “The NSDAP,” Turner writes, “had not approached fellow-travelling benefactors cap in hand: the latter had sought out particular Nazis and pressed money on them after the NSDAP had—without the help of big business—already become a potent force in German politics.” Above all, there was no considered or centralized policy among businessmen which led them to back Hitler as a body in order to preserve their economic interests. Politics, as Hitler himself believed, always takes precedence over economics; and those businessmen who did give financial help to the Nazis did so because they believed in some or all of the National Socialist political aims.

Professor Turner realizes that with Hitler’s assumption of dictatorial powers a new chapter begins. “The full story of how big business and the executives who ran it fared during the twelve years of tyranny imposed upon Germany by the Nazis cannot, however, be told here. That is a story in its own right and still awaits its historian.” It is also a story that might show big business in a less favorable light than in Turner’s account. One is reminded of how big business behaved during World War I. While businessmen did not cause the war, they very quickly discovered how to profit from it. Twenty years later, few German businessmen, in their concern for their immediate economic interests, thought of trying to resist the Nazi dictatorship. And even if, as Turner suggests, the big industrialists regarded anti-Semitism as being “benighted and plebeian,” they do not seem to have done much to protest the destruction of the Jews.

The German industrialists described by Turner were all concerned with their own businesses and their own profits. In their political judgment they were often shortsighted. What they wanted from the Weimar Republic was a stable, conservative government that would provide the conditions in which they could make money undisturbed. The picture is not one of a scheming capitalist class overthrowing the Republic and replacing it with a dictatorship for their own ends but an almost equally alarming one of men of great power but faulty political judgment and little sense of the larger effects of their actions. “As such,” Turner concludes, “they were sorely ill-suited to deal with a phenomenon like Nazism.” This seems to me to be nearly as serious an indictment as that provided by Marxists who believe in the farseeing conspiratorial activity of ruthless capitalists.

Henry Turner’s sober arguments and the battery of sources with which he supports them will force many of us to look again at what we have written or read about Hitler’s rise to power. This is “revisionist” history of considerable importance. There are moments when Professor Turner reminds us of the picture restorers at work in museums, whose removal of coat after coat of varnish, some of it contemporary with the paintings themselves, reveals a new dimension to the picture. Yet at the same time removal of varnish and dirt sometimes also leaves us with the feeling that some passages acquire a prominence they lacked in the original, and that the tonal values have been changed in such a way that some of the balance of the picture has been lost.

All historians have a general view of the world, an idea of the factors that produce change in history and of the ways in which human beings behave; and these preconceptions determine the kind of questions they ask when writing history. Behind the most objective-seeming empirical studies lies a political, philosophical, or ethical Weltanschauung. In the final pages of his book Henry Turner states his position with admirable clarity and candor:

One of the most basic premises of the professional study of history is that events are not directly caused by abstract concepts, whether those be “the hand of God,” “manifest destiny,” or “monopoly capital.” The concrete events of history occur because of the actions of human beings, who often carry out their will, to be sure, through institutions of their own creation. Unless this proximate form of causation can be convincingly demonstrated, the invocation of more remote levels of causation remains empty speculation, bereft of any foundation in the realities of history.

And one of the purposes of his book is to demonstrate that those writers who have used the rise of National Socialism as part of a “crusade against capitalism” have of necessity been bad historians:

Close, empirical investigation of the relationships between actual capitalists and actual Nazis…can only lead to the conclusion that although there are many legitimate reasons for faulting the large-scale, organized industrial capitalism of the twentieth century, responsibility for the Third Reich is not a valid cudgel with which to belabor that economic system.

These views help to explain the puritanical zeal with which Turner has attacked David Abraham’s The Collapse of the Weimar Republic (published in 1981) and its author. Dr. Abraham’s book explicitly uses a neo-Marxist (and specifically Gramscian) structural analysis in order to explain the fall of the Weimar Republic and the role of both capital and labor in that fall. Moreover, Turner was able to point to a number of serious scholarly lapses in Abraham’s detailed use of his sources, lapses that were bound to confirm Turner in his belief that much of the evidence bearing on the relations between big business and the Nazis “has been dealt with by historians in a fashion marked by a striking suspension of professional standards.” In a review which he then circulated widely to colleagues in the historical profession, Turner wrote,

Abraham’s book will unfortunately be of little use to future scholars. His indifference to particulars leads him to misidentify numerous individuals and publications, to re-write quotations, to invoke only those parts of documents which suit his needs, and to employ footnote citations so vague as to discourage a check of his sources. The book is, in short, unreliable in detail as well as in terms of its thesis.

As readers of The New York Times, Time, The Nation, and numerous other periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic will be aware, the circulation and amplification of these criticisms by Turner and others started a major controversy in the American historical profession in which a large number of prominent historians have felt obliged to take sides. It has turned into a kind of historical Dreyfus Affair (others have called it a historical Watergate, though here the parallel is less clear) in which the original issues have often been obscured by the personal virulence and moral indignation with which Abraham has been attacked and the bitter and polemical tone of his replies. (There have been attempts to discourage appointment committees in several universities from offering him jobs, as well as calls for the banning of his book and the withdrawal of his Ph.D.)

As in the Dreyfus case, people have tended to take sides for emotional reasons and from loyalty to causes that are not necessarily involved—old against young, radical against conservative, imagination against pedantry. There is no point in going over the details of a quarrel that has been raging (it’s the right word) for some three years, but it is perhaps worth looking again at Abraham’s book and seeing if anything survives of his arguments after the effective onslaught on his scholarship first by Turner and then, with even greater insistence, by Professor Gerald Feldman of Berkeley and the German scholar Dr. Ulrich Nocken of Düsseldorf.

Feldman was one of the people who recommended Abraham’s book to the Princeton University Press for publication, and the demonstration of the extremely casual and careless use of sources in the book, by Turner and subsequently and at great length by Nocken—and now largely admitted by Abraham himself—must have been personally very painful to him. I can indeed sympathize. In August 1982, in reply to a request from the chairman of the History department at Princeton, I myself submitted an assessment of Abraham’s work which ran, in part:

I am very impressed by David Abraham’s originality and scholarship and by the depth of his analysis and the breadth of his research. His book…seems to me to be a major contribution to our understanding of the failure of democracy in Germany and to have suggested new approaches to the interaction of economics and politics which are likely to suggest new lines of research. Although Abraham starts from specific ideological models, especially those of Gramsci, which occasionally lead him to some stylistic obscurity, he uses these to suggest important questions rather than to impose rigid patterns.

I see now, after reading the criticisms of Turner, Feldman, and Nocken,* that I was wrong to be impressed by Abraham’s scholarship. One does of course take it for granted that a scholar quotes his sources accurately, whatever one’s view of the conclusions he draws from them. The fact that Abraham has in many cases substituted sometimes loose and inaccurate summaries for verbatim reports and wrongly identified the writers of some documents, among other unacceptable practices, is bound to affect his reputation as a scholar and is hard to forgive. But it is also a sign of how sensitive anything to do with either National Socialism or Marxism is that it is unusual for a historical work to be subjected to the kind of detailed documentary scrutiny that has been applied to The Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Works on other, earlier periods in European history have usually escaped this kind of examination. Still, the number of errors and misrepresentations is bound to weaken one’s confidence in the author’s arguments and in his professional competence and conscientiousness. Does this mean that the entire book is worthless?

Abraham has written an ambitious book that ranges very widely. He has been led to do this by a belief that it is possible to explain the failure of the Weimar Republic by the inability of various interest groups to find enough common ground to provide support for the republican constitution, so that they were each bound to come to terms with the Nazis, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes reluctantly. Thus the relations of heavy industry with National Socialism before 1933—the section of the book on which the criticisms have been centered—form only part of Abraham’s subject; and he is at pains to point out that his book “is not at all centrally about individual businessmen and the Nazi party.” Indeed, some of his most interesting chapters deal with other matters: the agrarian sector of the German economy; the relations between peasants and large landowners; the conflicts of interest within the industrial sector; and the breakdown of the compromise between capital and organized labor on which the comparative stability of the short period between 1925 and 1928 had depended.

On rereading the book, I found there are points at which it seemed to me that Dr. Abraham underestimates the purely political motives that affected the behavior of people in the different sectors of the economy—the appeal of nationalism or the fear of socialism and communism; and he underestimates the growing difficulty that all members of the right had in maintaining a separation between conservative nationalism and National Socialism. But Abraham’s account of the polarization of the advocates and opponents of the Weimar Republic’s social welfare schemes shows clearly the extent to which in this as in other cases economic differences led to political divisions. The curious thing that emerges from both Turner’s and Abraham’s books is in fact how little the leaders of the various economic pressure groups understood where their interests lay; and the Nazis were able to profit from this.

Now it may be said that a book in which Dr. Nocken has, so he tells us, found mistakes on ninety-eight of the 327 pages and in which only four out of the seventy footnotes he has checked are free from error (though I suspect that some of these, at least, are the kind most of us are likely to make) should be angrily cast aside. Yet not all the errors vitiate all the arguments; and much of what was said in numerous reviews both for and against Abraham’s book when it first appeared still seems to me to stand in spite of the evidence subsequently made available about Abraham’s careless and sometimes misleading use of sources and handling of points of detail.

In any case the questions raised by Abraham’s theoretical analysis won’t go away. As T.W. Mason wrote at an earlier stage of the controversy, “Proven errors of this kind have done a lot to discredit Marxist and neo-Marxist interpretations of fascism or Nazism”; but this does not mean that such interpretations are not worth pursuing, since models proposed by some neo-Marxist theorists may well suggest lines of research that may provide a more satisfactory explanation of large historical phenomena than that given by those positivistic historians who are reluctant to believe that men ever act from other than very short-term motives or who maintain that the contingencies of individual behavior are the only appropriate subject for historians to study.

Nearly all historians approach their sources with a preconceived idea of what they expect to find there. Perhaps even Professor Turner suspected that he would find in the archives proof of how little the German industrialists helped Hitler. The larger and more powerful the theoretical model, the greater the danger that individual phenomena that do not fit it will be rejected as irrelevant or else forced by one means or another into the preconceived pattern. (Examples of the first tendency can be found in the work of some quantitative historians who are just not interested in the reasons for the minor fluctuations on their graphs, and examples of the second among those “radical” art historians who sometimes insist on interpretations that run counter to the images in paintings which are on display for all to see.) One can therefore see how Dr. Abraham, knowing what he expected to find in the archives and anxious to get through a mass of material within a reasonable time, tended to take hasty and evidently inaccurate notes and then to paraphrase them in the light of his prior expectations of what they contained. To understand is not to pardon; and the danger of too strong an a priori theoretical commitment is that it leads people to think that facts don’t matter; whereas it is just because of the difficulty of linking observed general trends and theoretical models with the individual historical event that, to quote T. W. Mason again, “the greatest precision is called for.”

Nevertheless one hopes that Dr. Abraham, with this in mind, will go on to develop his many interesting ideas about twentieth-century Germany and the reasons for instability in capitalist societies in a further book. It would certainly be sad for the historical profession if the row over his first book prevented him from doing so. And for all historians of whatever age and persuasion, this painful and disagreeable controversy can only serve to remind us what an exacting discipline we follow, how great are the problems of linking the general to the particular, of combining precise scholarship with that broader view which even the most narrow and positivistic historians, whether they like it or not, are bound to have.

  1. *

    The most recent texts for anyone who wants to go into the dreary details are Nocken’s article “Weimarer Geschichte(n): Zum neuen Amerikanischen Buch “Collapse of the Weimar Republic” in Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial-und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, vol. 71, no. 4 (1985) and the exchanges that are published between Feldman and Abraham in Central European History, vol. 17, nos. 2/3 (June–September 1984). A further response from Dr. Abraham is to appear in Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, vol. 72, no. 3.

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