Keeping Germany Fat

If it can be said that Germany was a world power before it began to act like one, this was largely because of its banks. In the remarkable extension of German interests around the globe in the nineteenth century the chief agents were the great banking institutions, particularly the so-called D-Banks, the Deutsche Bank, the Dresdner Bank, the Darmstädter-und-Nationalbank (Danatbank), and the Disconto Gesellschaft. These organizations, which controlled about 40 percent of Germany’s commercial deposits, had been founded in part to promote industrial growth, but it was their purpose also, as stated by one of their publications, “to foster commercial relations between Germany and other countries.” They did this by investing in foreign banks and sharing in their operations or by estab-lishing branches of their own and using their capital to support commercial operations. Their success in the 1890s was remarkable, as is illustrated by their creation of the Deutsche-Asiatische Bank in China and subsidiaries of the Dresdner and Deutsche banks throughout Latin America and by their capital investments and railway concessions in South Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

The First World War and its aftermath brought changes in the struc-ture and activities of these organizations. The Deutsche Bank became a truly multibranch bank with 173 branches throughout Germany by 1926, and in 1929, in the biggest amalgamation of the period, it merged with the Disconto-Gesellschaft. Greater changes portended after January 1933, for Hitler’s new ruling party was suspicious of all banks as “plutocratic” and “Jewish,” and soon gave tangible form to its feelings by carrying through a de facto nationalization of the Dresdner Bank and then forcing it to merge with the Danatbank. As for the Deutsche Bank, it had long been criticized by the Nazis for its concentration on large-scale industrial finance and international trade and its neglect of small business customers, and it was soon the object of other pressures.

Harold James, one of five historians who were invited by the Deutsche Bank to examine the bank’s behavior during the Nazi era and to write an unexpurgated account of it, describes where these pressures led. The bank, he points out, had no desire to become involved in party business:

The history of Deutsche Bank in the Third Reich is the story of the clash of two fundamentally contrary strategies of adaptation: on the one hand, self-defense against the intrusions of party and state; on the other, accommodation and compromise.

The management of the bank might have tried to retreat into purely economic activities had it not become clear very quickly that the Nazi Party regarded all such activities to be political. When Hitler launched his campaign to purge business of Jewish influence, the bank found itself automatically involved in individual cases in which it had to choose “Aryans” over Jews—a process of “Aryanization”—because of its extensive business contacts and its representation on the supervisory boards of other corporations. It was easily drawn into the search for new owners or other aspects of …

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