It Never Occurred to Them

John Connelly

  • Hitler’s Beneficiaries: How the Nazis Bought the German People by Götz Aly, translated by Jefferson Chase
    Verso, 448 pp, £19.99, August 2007, ISBN 978 1 84467 217 2

What was the point of Nazism? Götz Aly, Germany’s most influential popular historian, has a new answer: it was for the good of the German people. In his view, the National Socialists were as much socialist as they were national, and they genuinely sought to better the lives of ordinary Germans.

Aly makes compelling arguments to back up this unlikely thesis. Drawing on documents from East German archives, he shows in rich detail that the Nazi state did a lot for working men and women, passing hundreds of laws strengthening social security provision. Under Hitler, German workers saw their holiday entitlement double, while landlords had a tougher time raising rents or ejecting tenants. The onset of war in 1939 further intensified the desire to keep workers happy. In October 1940, the state stopped taxing overtime pay, and the following year it enrolled all retirees in a national health insurance scheme, freeing them from reliance on the churches or public welfare.

Marxist historians have liked to portray Hitler as being in the pocket of big business, but Aly shows that the Nazi regime transferred wealth from the haves to the have-nots. Four-fifths of Germans paid no direct war taxes up until 8 May 1945, and indirect taxation was modest: duties on tobacco, brandy and beer (this last tax was lower in the beer-loving south), but never on wine. Tax burdens fell on the well-to-do. As the title of the German edition of this book has it, this was a Volksstaat, a ‘people’s regime’. But here caution is needed: there is a more sinister undertone to this word than a simple English translation suggests. Volk means ‘people’, but it also means ‘nation’ in the ethnic sense of a people joined by blood. Aly is not simply arguing that Hitler took from the rich and gave to the poor, but that the regime also supported the Volk at the expense of those deemed to be racially alien.

The most memorable examples of this concern the activities of German soldiers outside Germany. When they occupied other countries, Germans in uniform fanned out into the local economies and helped themselves to everything not nailed down, sending huge quantities of loot back to their families. One of them was the writer Heinrich Böll, whose letters home were published in 2001. As cited by Aly, Böll’s six years in the Wehrmacht appear to have been one long shopping spree. Because of special rates of exchange, he was able to buy merchandise from every corner of the Continent. In 1939 he was posting packages of coffee from Rotterdam, and the following year butter, soap, engravings, cosmetics, onions, eggs, women’s shoes and nail scissors from France. His parents became accessories by smuggling currency to their son inside books and cakes. In 1943 he was transferred to the Crimea and sent home butter, before suffering a fortuitous head wound – subsequently, his unit was all but wiped out. While recovering in the Ukraine, Böll frequented the local bazaar, from which he sent home chocolate and soap. Aly invites us to multiply Böll’s case by the million.

A more insidious form of looting took place behind the scenes. Aly is the first historian to study systematically what happened to Jewish possessions in Occupied Europe. Using recently opened archival collections he describes in exhaustive detail the arrangements made by officials in the German finance ministry to transfer stolen Jewish wealth into the state budget – from where it could support largesse expended on the Volk. The Cambridge historian Adam Tooze has contested Aly’s claim that 75 per cent of the state budget was covered by this form of looting: he says the actual figure was more like a quarter, but that is still substantial.

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