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Immoral Rearmament


Almost two decades have passed since the end of the cold war, and living in a unipolar world dominated by the US has begun to change the way scholars view the history of twentieth-century Europe. For someone in his mid-thirties, like the British historian Adam Tooze, the rise of America to the superpower status it has enjoyed for most of his adult life is the fundamental fact of the last century as well as the present one. Already in the decade from 1924 to 1935, the total national income of the US averaged three times more than that of Great Britain, nearly four times more than that of Germany, and around five times more than that of France or the Soviet Union. Disparities in living standards were less marked, but still striking. Over the same period, British per capita Gross Domestic Product was running at 89 percent of the comparable US figure, French at 72 percent, German at 63 percent, and Soviet at 25 percent.

European contemporaries were very much aware of these facts; and none more so than Adolf Hitler. Already in his unpublished “Second Book,” written in 1928, he was declaring that “the European, even without being fully conscious of it, applies the conditions of American life as the yardstick for his life.” For Hitler, who read the Wild West novels of Karl May during his childhood and adolescence, it seemed obvious that America had achieved its industrial advantage and high standard of living through its conquest of the West and its extermination of the Native American population. If Germany, as Europe’s leading power, did not do something similar, the “threatened global hegemony of the North American continent” would degrade all the European powers to the level of “Switzerland and Holland.” Far from being the revival of some medieval dream of conquest sparked by the example of the Teutonic Knights, Hitler’s drive to conquer Eastern Europe was based on a very modern model, a model of colonization, enslavement, and extermination that had its parallels in the creation of European empires in Africa and Australia, or the nineteenth-century Russian conquest of Central Asia and Siberia.

Here, for Hitler, lay the key to Germany’s achievement of European dominance:

In future, the only state that will be able to stand up to North America will be the one that has understood how…to raise the value of its people in racial terms and to bring them into the state-form most appropriate for this purpose.

That state form, of course, was the dictatorship of the Third Reich, and as soon as Hitler came to power, he threw off the shackles of the peace settlement concluded at the end of World War I, which had restricted Germany’s army to a maximum of 100,000 men and banned the construction of tanks, airplanes, battleships, and other essential instruments of modern warfare.

Adam Tooze, whose work so far has focused on the emergence of economic statistics in early-twentieth-century Germany, gathers much economic data to demonstrate conclusively that rearmament was the motor that drove German economic recovery from the outset of the Third Reich. The Depression had thrown more than a third of the workforce into unemployment, and the Nazis made great play with so-called job-creation schemes like the construction of the new freeways, the Autobahnen, but in reality even these were meant to serve military purposes (ferrying troops and equipment rapidly around the country); and the number of jobs they actually provided was very small. Unemployment remained at high levels until the introduction of mass conscription soaked up entire generations of young men from 1935 onward.

Tooze is saying nothing very new here; and his claim to be overturning an entrenched orthodoxy that puts civilian job-creation at the center of the Nazi economic recovery has to be taken with a pinch of skepticism. Similarly, although he suggests that the evidence he presents for the recovery beginning in the late summer of 1932, six months before Hitler came to power, “contradicts all subsequent portrayals of the German economy under National Socialism,” the fact is that economic historians have long known that the Nazis were lucky in their timing, taking over the German economy just as it was beginning to come out of the Depression.

What his book does offer is a mass of evidence that finally puts these arguments beyond dispute. Hitler’s drive to rearm was so obsessive, so megalomaniacal, that he was prepared to sacrifice almost anything to it. In particular, consumers suffered as resources and foreign exchange were diverted into arms expenditures. Cotton imports, for example, were hard hit, and people started to complain about the poor quality of the synthetic-fiber clothing that they were forced to wear. Tooze here completely explodes the German historian GĂśtz Aly’s recent claim that the Nazi regime deliberately cushioned the civilian population for fear of alienating it.* Contrary to what Aly suggests, Tooze points out that Germany’s population was the most heavily taxed in Europe.


In the competition between guns and butter, it was always the former that won out, at least in the short term. Indeed butter was among the foodstuffs that had to be rationed from the mid-1930s on, as the arms industry began to draw workers away from the farms into Germany’s large cities; and the backward peasant-farming sector failed to cope with the demands imposed on it of making the country self-sufficient in food supplies. Hitler was only too aware of the fact that 600,000 German civilians had died of malnutrition and related diseases under the impact of the Allied blockade during World War I, and he did not want the same thing to happen again, most of all because he thought that the demoralization this had caused had been one of the factors in Germany’s defeat (through the mythical “stab in the back” supposedly meted out to the German armies by revolutionaries at home).

Lacking the overseas colonies and transatlantic connections of Britain and France, and the resources provided by the vast Eurasian empire of the Soviet Union, Germany was forced, Hitler believed, to fall back as far as possible on its own resources until it could harness the oil fields of the Caucasus and the granaries of the Ukraine to its own use. That would be the moment when the sacrifices of the German people would be rewarded with an affluence far beyond anything they had experienced. To achieve this, as he said on numerous occasions from the early 1930s onward, the conquest of the East, preceded by sharp and decisive blows against Germany’s enemies in the West (which meant in the first place France), would be necessary. Hence the need for a huge army, backed by an air force that would be bigger than any other in Europe.

So extensive was Hitler’s drive to rearm that it was absorbing over a fifth of German state expenditure by the eve of the war. So much raw material had to be imported to feed the Moloch of the arms industry that serious foreign exchange crises hit the country in 1934 and again in 1939, forcing severe cutbacks in arms expenditures. Among Tooze’s most original contributions is his demonstration that these well-known problems had their root in Hitler’s refusal to devalue the Reichsmark despite the urgings of numerous economics experts, although he does not really explain why Hitler was unwilling to take this step. So severe was the shortage of hard currency that the regime even undermined its own policy of forcing Germany’s Jews to emigrate by banning them from taking their assets and savings with them; this caused a drop in emigration until the violence of the November 1938 pogrom and the forcible dispossession and expropriation of Germany’s remaining Jews pushed the figure up again.

Shortages of steel—particularly because of a lack of imports of suitable iron ore—made a mockery of Hitler’s irrationally ambitious aim of deploying an air force of 21,000 planes at the beginning of the coming European war, and the army and navy were similarly unable to find the raw materials to equip themselves properly. Gangs of storm troopers roamed the country tearing down iron railings around parks, cemeteries, and even private gardens to be melted down for arms and ammunition, and the chemists of IG Farben worked around the clock to devise synthetic substitutes for rubber and gasoline; but it was all to no avail.

Very much aware of these problems, and conscious by the middle of 1939 that Britain and France were rearming apace, Hitler decided to get in the decisive blow while Germany’s armaments were still superior to those of its potential enemies. The crisis in armaments production was not, as the late British historian Tim Mason argued, a general crisis of the whole economy, leading to rising worker unrest, but it was severe enough all the same to make Hitler, as he told Mussolini in March 1940, “begin immediately…even at the risk of thereby precipitating the war” with “the Western powers two or three years earlier” than he had always envisioned.

Tooze makes effective use of the work of military historians over the past few years in showing that the famous Blitzkrieg strategy of short, decisive blows by rapidly moving armored columns against an enemy pulverized by heavy air strikes was the result of improvisation, not of careful planning designed to minimize the burden of war on Germany’s civilian population. German plans for the invasion of France originally envisioned a direct and probably lengthy confrontation of the main armies. It was only the chance discovery of the plans by the Allies that forced their abandonment and the substitution of the celebrated though extremely risky push through the densely forested Ardennes and the subsequent “sickle-cut” that disposed of the Allied armies in France and Belgium in the space of a few weeks in 1940.

When it came to the invasion of the Soviet Union the following year, the Blitzkrieg strategy had an even shakier foundation. It depended for its success on the racist assumption that a country populated by supposedly subhuman Slavs under the leadership of a political elite the Nazis regarded as “Jewish-Bolshevik” exploiters would collapse after the first defeat, leaving the Third Reich to pick up the pieces. When this did not happen, the Nazis found themselves embroiled in a war they could not hope to win.


Looked at from an economic perspective, indeed, the cards were stacked against the Germans from the outset. Tooze perhaps overstresses the point when he describes Germany, as he frequently does, as a “medium-sized European power”; even according to his own figures it far outclassed all other European states with the exception of Britain and the Soviet Union. The point was, however, that by the end of 1941 it had arrayed against it the combined might not only of these two countries, together with the British Empire, still at this time the largest the world had ever seen, but also of the United States.

  1. *

    Götz Aly, Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, translated by Jefferson Chase (Metropolitan, 2007).

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