“Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.”
—Hermann Goering

It is 40 years now since the Allies claimed victory over Germany and survivors on both sides made the first groping attempts to uncover the meaning of Nazism. Yet despite the availability of almost inexhaustible sources and the persistence of armies-of scholars, the effort to locate the Third Reich in the history of Western civilization has not produced results that are altogether satisfying. Studies of the Hitler-Zeit would fill libraries, but its inner history continues to resist conventional research strategies. Brought face to face with questions that reach to the very heart of what it means to be human, many have had recourse to psychological examinations, sociological investigations, and literary reinventions.

Perhaps it is because of Nazism’s peculiar elusiveness that the door was initially opened to enterprising ideologists who have made it their aim to bend modern German history to their political purposes. In particular, they have been eager to identify Nazism with conservatism and with capitalism. The Frankfurt School theorist Max Horkheimer once gave it as his opinion that it was impossible to speak of fascism without speaking of capitalism. The Third Reich, on such a view, was the logical consequence of a bourgeois capitalist “system” that had reached the end of its tether. In the final analysis, Nazism was to be explained in economic terms as capitalism’s desperate and ultimately doomed attempt to compel socialism’s forces to retreat. Hitler was merely the agent, conscious or otherwise, of the captains of industry, the executor of a fate that awaits all capitalist states that do not make way for History. This widely circulated myth can be traced back at least as far as Die Linkskurve, late Weimar’s quixotic Communist journal. For its contributors, as for most members of the prewar left. Hitler was no more dangerous than other tools of “monopoly capitalism,” including his predecessors in the Reich’s chancellery—Brüning, Papen, and Schleicher.

If anything can undermine faith in that particular myth, it is Henry Ashby Turner’s superbly written and impressively argued study. Turner has devoted long years to a close examination of virtually all the relevant sources—including the archives of major German corporations—in a determination to assess without prejudice the role of German big business in Hitler’s rise to power. Marshaling his evidence with skill and sound judgment, he has concluded that with the exception of Fritz Thyssen, the leaders of German big business were wary of Hitler and fed very little money into Nazi coffers. This is not particularly surprising when one reviews, as Turner does patiently. Hitler’s evasive, contradictory, and untutored economic pronouncements. Not only was the Nazi chieftain innocent of the dismal science, he was largely indifferent, insisting, quite rightly, that politics shaped historical events far more decisively.

Big business leaders were suspicious not only of the Führer, but also of the NSDAP’s left wing and its leader, Gregor Strasser. Strasser and other Party members, including Joseph Goebbels and many Reichstag deputies, were outspoken critics of capitalism and often adopted positions on issues like the eight-hour workday and the right to strike that were disconcertingly similar to those championed by the socialists and communists. To be sure, Hider always saw to it that big business was placated whenever the voice of socioeconomic radicalism threatened to drown out that of anti-Marxism. Yet to this day, it remains something of a mystery why, in view of the Nazis’ forked tongue, industrial leaders played the “longest guessing game” about the Party’s economic program for so long. By 1932, when they finally fired of waiting and lent their enthusiastic support to Franz von Papen, a man too clever by half, the die was already cast.

Although Turner does not claim to have made a comprehensive study of lesser businessmen, the evidence he presents suggests that they were far more susceptible than big businessmen to Nazi propaganda. Their enterprises were, after all, in greater and more immediate peril. And unlike big businessmen, they had a weakness for anti-Semitism. Still, during the Great Depression they were not in a position to provide the Bewegung with substantial sums of money. Nor did they possess anything like the kind of political influence that would have been required to pave Hitler’s way to power. In this, they were no different from big businessmen who, as Turner emphasizes, were never able to translate economic power into political clout. In an age of universal suffrage, votes always count for more than money, a homely truth that our demagogues and self-styled “investigative reporters” have yet to discover.

But if big businessmen did not bankroll Hitler, who did? Turner’s answer is as simple as it is unsensational: the Nazis raised most of the money themselves by charging admission to their mass rallies and by insisting upon prompt payment of Party dues. Volunteer labor and contributions in kind constituted further, if indirect, sources of income. Turner supports this conclusion with evidence that is detailed and convincing, but he harbors no illusions about its chances of winning acceptance in academic circles. “Some,” he writes “will dismiss [his book] as an apology for capitalism and its author as a lackey of powerful vested economic interests.” And although he does not say so, some will undoubtedly seek to discredit him because of the scandal that has recently rocked the American historical profession.

It was Turner who first accused Princeton historian David Abraham of having “subjected documents to systematically tendentious misconstrual” in an effort to update the Marxist interpretation of the putative Hitler-big business nexus. Despite a weak and unpersuasive rebuttal, Abraham continues to receive a good bit of emotional support from the academic left. And not without reason, for he is far from being the only historian who tailors evidence to fit preconceived theories and political enthusiasms. In the pages of the generally trendy New York Review of Books, Theodore Draper has only recently dissected the willful misrepresentation of the history of American communism by former New Leftists who “had to decide what to do with themselves and their political sympathies once the New Left illusion was taken away from them.”

Beleaguered as Turner has been for having caught one radical historian flagrante delicto, he will be heartened by R.J. Overy’s valuable study of the Nazi leader whom W.D. Snodgrass has knowingly characterized in verse (“Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering”) as a man of many masks and no face. Overy would agree, for despite its title, his book is in essence an examination of Nazi economic policy from 1937 to 1942, years during which Goering was at the zenith of his power and influence. According to this capable British historian, Goering’s career is the story of his efforts to subject the German economy to Nazi control. Neither he nor his minions had any use for private enterprise, because they were determined to mobilize the entire economy for war. As director of the Four Year Plan and the mammoth Reichswerke Hermann Goering, Goering first extended Party control over the domestic economy; subsequently, he sought to “coordinate” economically the expanding Nazi Empire.

“We did not fight this war,” Goering once said, “for the sake of private economic interests.” To be sure, some capitalists did realize profits during the Nazi years, but their success was incidental and purchased at great personal price. In due course, for example, all of the directors of the giant chemical concern I.G. Farben had to become Party members. Fritz Thyssen, that tireless proponent of Nazism, soon found it advisable to flee Germany, even at the cost of forfeiting his considerable industrial holdings. Far from exercising or sharing power in Hitler’s New Order, capitalists quickly discovered that they could expect nothing but expropriation or close supervision by the Nazi elite.

Indeed, this deeply ingrained hostility to capitalism constituted a major problem for Goering. His knowledge of economics, like that of Hitler, was limited and muddled. Added to that, he had initially been advised to plan for war sometime during the mid-1940’s—when, to Hitler’s surprise, the British and French declared war over the invasion of Poland in 1939, the German economy was not yet ready. Nor, as a consequence, were the armed forces, including Goering’s much ballyhooed Luftwaffe. Still, Overy maintains that all would not have been lost had the “Iron Man” possessed the wit to do what was clearly indicated: rationalize production. His failure resulted in part from an unshakable conviction, formed during his service in World War I, that the personal heroism of those engaged in combat was far more essential to victory than support services and production. To make matters worse, he shared the disdain of German designers and military authorities for capitalist mass production. Incredibly enough, the war was almost over before the Germans began to manufacture standardized parts. Overy reports that “the ]u 88 bomber was designed with 4,000 different types of screw and bolt and had to be riveted by hand.” By the time the more farsighted Albert Speer became head of wartime construction in 1942, it was already too late.

All of this is by way of demonstrating how far removed Nazism was from capitalism and from conservatism. Indeed, Overy makes it clear throughout that it was a revolutionary movement “whose sympathies with the conservatives were transparently tactical and whose heritage was 1848 rather than 1866.” The latter part of the argument is by no means new; the distinguished Polish-born historian. Sir Lewis Namier, advanced it first in his overheated Raleigh Lecture of 1944—1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals. Nor is it very convincing. Overy is on far more solid ground when he calls attention to the Nazis’ kinship with the Bolsheviks, not only in the Party’s control of administrative and economic life, but also in a shared enthusiasm for a “restless dialectic of violence” that had as its purpose the dissolution of all the old social and political bonds. (Here he follows rather closely Hermann Rauschning’s still unrivaled analysis in The Revolution of Nihilism.)

Kay Heriot subscribes to the Rauschning/Overy view of Nazism as a revolutionary movement that had nothing whatever in common with the conservatism of which she is an impassioned defender. In her judgment, Nazism was the nihilistic consequence of a long chain of events set in motion by the Committee of Public Safety’s Reign of Terror. It was by its very nature the implacable foe of all those who cherished the moral and aesthetic traditions of the West. That, finally, is the burden of her new novel, although one might also read it as an extended and moving meditation on friendship.

The scene is Germany in the late 1930’s. In their determination to discredit an uncooperative aristocratic family, the Nazis spread a slanderous rumor to the effect that the family’s only son and his best friend are homosexual “lovers.” The terrible suffering that this calumny produces constitutes the symbol and measure of the regime’s radical evil. Although Heriot sometimes gives in to sentimentality, she offers numerous insights and worthy judgments concerning a wide range of topics, moral and aesthetic. Above all else, though, she is concerned to hold up the young friends as representatives of the “Other Germany,” that of Goethe and Schiller, of Bach and Beethoven, and of those conservative heroes and martyrs who resisted and finally attempted to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944—Stauffenberg, Moltke, Trott zu Solz, and the gifted Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, It is to their memory that this German-born writer has dedicated her book. No wonder, then, that one of her protagonists joins the resistance and falls victim to Hitler’s sadistic revenge. By their suffering and sacrifice, Heriot wants us to understand, he and those like him redeemed Germany. We are reminded of the question that Abraham put to God concerning Sodom: “Peradventure ten [righteous men] shall be found there?” And God said, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”

But if it is true that the suffering of some can redeem the sin of the many, is it not also true that the sin of some is the burden of all? Heriot’s novel is tasematmg not least because it raises anew a particularly complex and awesome question—that of corporate guilt. “You feel responsible,” one of the friends says. “What is happening here is our tragedy, and ultimately our guilt.” That this conviction of collective responsibility is deeply experienced, we are not left in any doubt. But why should this be so? It seems, after all, to contradict the tradition of Western individualism that owes so much to the Protestant spirit.

However problematic the issue remains, it continues to haunt the pages of almost every study of Nazi Germany. Although, as we have seen. Turner defends the men of German big business against the false charges that have been leveled at them, he does not exonerate them of all responsibility. Most, he observes, “viewed Nazism myopically and opportunistically.” Concerned with little beyond narrow self-interest, “most failed to perceive the threat [the NSDAP] posed to the very foundations of civilized life.” In this, they differed little from most members of the country’s elite. For his part, Overy is reluctant to point an accusing finger at Germans who were not Nazis, but he cannot and does not disguise their sometimes shocking complicity.

That being said, the question remains: Do all Germans share somehow in the Nazi guilt? The answer, I believe, must be a properly qualified yes, for our destiny—indeed our very being—is inextricably intertwined with that of others: family, countrymen, and, in the last analysis, all men. In Adam, all men die, the New Testament teaches us. That does not mean, of course, that every German, much less every human being, must shoulder legal responsibility for Nazi crimes, but it does mean that no one is completely free of the contagion. All of us participate in the sins of our fathers and of our country, just as we share in their achievements and triumphs. If this seems unbearable and unjust, we need only recall St. Paul’s comforting words: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This, perhaps, is one of the Third Reich’s deepest meanings. 


[German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.; Oxford University Press; New York]

[Goering: The “Iron Man”, by R.J. Overy; Routledge and Kegan Paul; London and Boston]

[To The Edge, by Kay Heriot; The Book Guild; Sussex, England]