Hitler and Capitalism

John Ralston Saul

[This is the fourth entry in a series on “How Hitler Saved Capitalism and Won the War.”(The previous mini-essays are found under the heading “Hitler and Christianity” just below the masthead of this blog site.) The entry below follows a third installment which attempted to clear up some common misconceptions about fascism which many see as threatening to take over the U.S. today just as it did Germany in the early 1930s. Fascism, the last entry concluded, might best be defined as “capitalism in crisis.” The current installment looks more specifically at Hitler’s relationship to capitalism. (Unless otherwise indicated, all references are to Jackson Spielvogel’s text, “Western Civilization,” a source commonly used in courses by the same name in colleges and universities.)]

To understand Adolph Hitler’s connection to capitalism, it helps to distinguish common perceptions from what textbooks like Spielvogel actually say. Common perceptions are that the German economy was devastated following World War I. The impositions of the Treaty of Versailles are well-known. Images of Germans marshaling wheelbarrows full of deutsch marks to pay their grocery bills are fixed in everyone’s mind. After the Great War, inflation was rampant. In such context, Hitler’s rise to power is typically explained as the reaction of a humiliated German people to the Allies’ shortsighted demands for war reparations and border concessions inherent in their Treaty. Germans were so desperate, the story goes that they turned to a madman, Adolph Hitler, to restore their national pride.

Of course, there is truth to such understanding. Germany’s economy was in a shambles after World War I. Inflation had reached unprecedented levels. Ordinary Germans saw their earnings and pensions disappear. They were humiliated, desperate and in search of an alternative to the Weimar Republic which was under fire from factions on both the left and the right.

However, two key realities, relevant to the argument at hand, are often overlooked about Germany’s post-World War I situation. The first reality is that by the time Hitler emerged as a serious factor in the German political scene, the country’s economy had long since been intensively and triumphantly capitalist. Already by 1870, Germany had become Europe’s undisputed industrial leader, replacing Great Britain in that role (Spielvogel 682). By the 1920s, the country’s real reins of power were firmly in the hands of capitalist giants.

Germany’s most effective leadership came no longer from the aristocrats of William II’s Empire. Much less was it provided by Paul von Hindenburg, the backward-looking monarchist who succeeded Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann to head the country in the mid-twenties. Instead, leadership and power found location in the private enterprises today being sued for compensation by those they employed as slave labor during Hitler’s Reich. That leadership resided in banking industry giants such as Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank; in auto-makers, Volkswagen and BMW; in chemical and pharmaceutical companies Bayer, Hoechst, and BASF; in industrial firms Degussa-Huels, Friedrich Krupp and Siemens; and in the Allianz Insurance Company.

Secondly, Spielvogel makes it clear that Germany’s economy had largely rebounded from the devastation inflicted by the Treaty of Versailles. In fact, from 1924-1929, the country actually participated in “the Roaring Twenties.”

“The late 1920s were . . . years of relative prosperity for Germany, and, as Hitler perceived, they were not conducive to the growth of extremist parties. He declared, however, that the prosperity would not last and that his time would come” (796).

Hitler, of course, was correct that his party’s time had not yet come. During the ‘20s, Hitler’s Nazis remained a minor right-wing faction. For example, in the elections of 1928, the Nazis gained only 2.6 percent of the vote and only twelve seats in the German Parliament (796).

Hitler was also correct that his time would come. It arrived with the onset of the Great Depression (796). The collapse of market economies throughout the industrialized world had their leaders scrambling to save a system that seemed moribund. Socialists and communists were gleeful and ascendant. Indeed, in 1934, Josef Stalin convoked a “Congress of Victory,” to celebrate socialism’s apparent triumph over capitalism and what he called “the end of history.”

As Spielvogel reports, such threats from the left forced German capitalists to turn to Hitler as their Messiah. Industrialists and large landowners provided the firm base of support he needed. More specifically, the elite were fearful, because the Depression’s economic hard times had given heart (and popular appeal) to socialists and communists who in Russia had seized power in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Spielvogel writes:

“Increasingly, the right-wing elites of Germany, the industrial magnates, landed aristocrats, military establishment, and higher bureaucrats, came to see Hitler as the man who had the mass support to establish a right-wing, authoritarian regime that would save Germany and their privileged positions from a Communist takeover” (796).

The capitalist nature of Hitler’s system stands clear in this description – though it is fogged by circumlocutions. The attentive reader should note that, along with the military hierarchy and government administrators, the powers behind Hitler’s takeover of Europe’s leading capitalist nation are the captains of industry and large landowners.

Spielvogel’s avoidance of the term “capitalists” seems dictated by concerns about “political correctness” in a textbook intended for educational institutions whose mission is to inculturate rather than to raise consciousness. Once again, such avoidance contributes to general misconceptions about the nature of the Nazi regime.

(Next week: Capitalist Support for Hitler)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “Hitler and Capitalism”

  1. Hi Mike
    This is great stuff.
    I always though Hitler came into power by the Molly Malones with wheelbarrows of continentals.
    But i should have known better since we all knew most of the Dow Jones Average composite companies supported the 3rd Reich and all it birthed. The US top banks, oil companies, motor industry, IBM and the patriotic creator of Fanta the soda drink designed just for the Nazis.

    Edward Snowden (and Glen Greenwall) in demmocracynow.com today points the way ahead….
    http://www.democracynow.org/2013/6/10/youre_being_watched_edward_snowden_emerges
    but what can we do about it….just hope I guess that Paul Hellyer the Canadian ex-minister of defense is not nuts.
    Especially what he gives as the solution then and now to all our problems…..do unto others….and forget that Jesus or HRCC has an exclusive on it.
    Exclusivity like resurrections where not his nature.

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    1. Thanks, Jim. It seems to me SO important to understand this stuff, especially in the light of the Assange, Manning, and Snowden revelations. Fascism as defined in this article and in today’s posting is here. It seems, however, that readers are not as interested in these matters as I am. We “Americans” are so complacent. We’re willing to see the Constitution trashed. Apparently the Fourth Amendment no longer applies. And you’re right: the “Democracy Now” interviews were extremely revealing and disturbing.

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  2. Pingback: Quora
    1. In the 1930s almost everyone was against capitalism which was exposed as bankrupt during the long years of worldwide depression. Capitalism was in a position similar to socialism’s following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s. No one wanted to be identified with it. So “socialisms” of both left and right surfaced and prospered. Hitler’s was such a phenomenon. So was Roosevelt’s New Deal. Both retained private ownership of the means of production, while introducing state control in many spheres. Basically, they remained mixed economies — largely mixed in favor of the elite — though nothing like what happened following the Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution.

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