Henry Ashby Turner
German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler
As has long been recognized, his thought contained nothing original; it consisted instead of an amalgam of nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific theories that together formed one of the most pernicious social and political creeds of all time. A basic element of that creed was racism, which—in the form of virulent anti-Semitism—Hitler was to pursue to the point of the most appalling campaign of premeditated genocide in history. But more central to his view of economic affairs was another key element of his creed: Social Darwinism. By the time he entered politics he had accepted uncritically the collectivistic Austrian variant of that doctrine. Instead of seeing life primarily in terms of a competition for advantage and advancement among individuals, as did most English and American Social Darwinists, Hitler believed that for humans the crucial Darwinian struggle took place among nations. That conflict entailed for him more than merely advantage and advancement; it ultimately condemned some nations to extinction and destined others for glory and greatness. Hitler viewed this 'struggle for existence' (Lebenskampf) among peoples in an optimistic light. It alone ensured that among mankind, as among other forms of life, the fittest would survive while the weak and defective perished. It alone made possible continued evolutionary progress by according to the strongest and ablest nations control over mankind's destiny.
The outcome of the struggle among nations must, Hitler believed, always ultimately be determined by war, or as he frequently put it, by the 'sword' or the 'risking of blood' (Bluteinsatz). To the state, the wielder of weapons, he therefore accorded an absolute primacy over the economy. The economy must always remain, he insisted, the 'maidservant' of the state, never its mistress, since no nation could ever survive through reliance solely on economic endeavor nor could war ever be replaced by peaceful economic domination. A preoccupation with peaceful economic pursuits seemed to Hitler thus not merely misguided; it was harmful, potentially even suicidal. 'World history teaches us,' he said in a speech in 1922, 'that no people has become great through its economy but that a people can very well perish thereby.' He saw as the qualities necessary to construct and maintain a state 'always the heroic virtues and never the egoism of the tradesman, since the preservation of the existence of a species requires the individual's readiness for self-sacrifice.' As proof that such 'heroic virtues' had nothing to do with economic matters, Hitler offered a stark maxim: 'People will not die for business but only for ideals.' A peaceful policy based on economic considerations could, to his mind, only lead to a 'dissolute pacifism' that would leave those afflicted by it defenseless against anyone stronger and prepared to make use of 'the more authentic forces of political power.'
The cast of mind which led to success in economic pursuits was, in Hitler's judgment, fundamentally incompatible with the attributes necessary for political achievements. Only in the rarest of instances, he wrote in Mein Kampf, did a state's periods of political strength coincide with economic prosperity. Prussia's history demonstrated conclusively that 'the creation of a state is made possible not by material attributes but solely by ideal virtues.' A strong state could provide the basis for economic development, but the reverse never held true. Indeed, Hitler insisted that in German history triumphs of political power had repeatedly been undone by materialistic preoccupations fostered by the prosperity generated by those very triumphs. This had happened under Bismarck's successors, whose reliance on peaceful economic development had resulted in what Hitler scornfully referred to as the nation's 'subjugation to economics.' He attributed the loss of the war ultimately to the displacement of ideals by materialistic—that is, economic—concerns.
Hitler's proclivity for simplification enabled him to relegate huge areas of economic activity to the periphery of reality. Just as he reduced international affairs to a Darwinian struggle to the death among nations, so he reduced that struggle essentially to the level of biology. He saw mankind motivated, like all other species, at bottom by two elemental drives: the need for nourishment and the desire for procreation. When sound and vital, a people would invariably increase in number. But instead of drawing the usual pessimistic Malthusian conclusion from this assumption, Hitler regarded population increase in a wholly optimistic light; indeed, it represented for him the most reliable index of a nation's health. He recognized that unchecked indulgence of the desire for procreation would lead to a shortage of food; he accepted that unquestionably as an inexorable law of nature. In his eyes, however, the resultant privation had positive value. For hunger drove hardy, vital nations to engage in what he described as 'natural imperialism,' that is, to stamp ut weaker, thus inferior, peoples and thereby carry forward the process of human evolution. This quest for more food could only be realized through the acquisition of additional arable land by conquest, or, as Hitler sometimes euphemistically phrased the same formula, through the 'adjustment from time to time of the amount of land to the increased population.' In his contradiction-ridden thought, this 'struggle for existence' had, despite its material basis, nothing to do with the 'materialism' he roundly and regularly denounced. Indeed, he warned against allowing excessive idealism to distract a people from the elemental task of conquering more land.
Hitler's foreign-policy aims bore the imprint of these Social Darwinist assumptions. Early in his political career, he began to view Germany's population growth, which he assumed had long since outstripped the country's food-producing capacity, as the central factor in its relations with the rest of the world. In 1920 he adopted the position to which he would hold until the end of his life. The only remedy for this purported imbalance lay, he proclaimed, in obtaining additional 'land and soil.' For a time Hitler thought in terms of overseas colonies suitable for large numbers of German settlers. But by 1924, at the latest, he had opted for the conquest of 'living space' (Lebensraum) to the east, mainly in Russia, where millions of Germans would be resettled on the land.
The cold-bloodedness with which Hitler proclaimed his aggressive intentions toward Russia and the 'border states' of eastern Europe in Mein Kampf and then later sought to achieve his goals through war has distracted attention from a revealing aspect of his foreign policy, namely, its agrarian basis. In his writings on the subject, he justified the conquest of Lebensraum exclusively in terms of the need for soil to guarantee Germany's agricultural self-sufficiency. Only a nation that possessed within its own borders land enough to produce all the food it consumed could survive in the Darwinian jungle, a world 'where one creature lives off another' and where 'there can be no other way to deal with an enemy than to kill him.' The only indications that Hitler took any note, prior to acquiring power, of other economic resources to the east, such as fuels and industrial raw materials, appear in reports by contemporaries of conversations with him. And strikingly, even in conversation, where broader considerations were bound to be touched on. Hitler consistently accorded a subordinate role to the non-agrarian potentialities of his dream of Lebensraum in the east. His conception of economic autarky remained narrowly and archaically agrarian, assigning at most a secondary status to the vast and immensely valuable industrial resources which the realization of his grandiose scheme for conquest would have placed at Germany's disposal. During the years when he strove to gain control over one of the world's most advanced industrial nations, Adolf Hitler accorded primacy, in his plans for the future, to the agrarian aspects of economic life.
Hitler's agrarian bias echoed the views of those critics of German industrialism who, in the great controversy at the end of the nineteenth century, opposed increased reliance on commerce and manufacturing through freer trade and argued that the country must retain a balance between its industrial and agricultural sectors. He deplored the set-backs suffered by that school of thought. He traced to the inroads made by the advocates of industrialism and free trade much that had gone wrong since then, including Germany's estrangement from England in the years before 1914. Throughout the 1920s he repeated in his writings and speeches the viewpoints of the turn-of-the-century critics of industrialism. When speaking of Germany's industrialization he usually employed such adjectives as 'harmful,' 'excessive,' or 'unbridled,' and he referred frequently to the country's 'over-industrialization.' Like so many other critics of industrialism, he also harbored a profound distaste for the huge urban concentrations of population to which that process had given rise. He looked on the great industrial cities of Germany with loathing as 'abscesses on the body of the Volk, in which all evil vices, bad habits and sicknesses seem to converge.'
Hitler's negative outlook toward industry and cities carried over into his attitude toward the practitioners of big business. In referring to Germany's capitalists in Mein Kampf, he repeatedly made use of pejorative cliches, referring to 'dividend-hungry businessmen,' their 'greed and ruthlessness,' and their 'short-sighted narrow-mindedness.' Early in his political career he had made two big businessmen into targets of his ire: Ruhr magnate Hugo Stinnes and Wilhelm Cuno, the managing director of the Hamburg-America shipping line who had served as Reich chancellor in 1922-23 at the time of the Ruhr occupation, the unsuccessful passive resistance to it, and the final, runaway phase of hyper-inflation. As already noted, Hitler repeatedly pilloried Stinnes publicly for spreading the 'nonsensical notion' that 'the economy as such could by itself raise Germany up again.' Cuno, to whom he referred as 'a merchant dabbling in politics,' became the butt of his ridicule. The shipping executive, he maintained, had committed the folly of approaching problems of state as though these were business transactions, which had inevitably resulted in disastrous failure. Such rhetoric might be dismissed as a demagogue's exploitation of widespread hostility toward the conspicuous rich had not Hitler displayed much the same scorn and mistrust for the practitioners of big business even in private conversations where tactical considerations of that sort played no role. According to one participant, for example, he told a small group of Nazi leaders in 1932, 'I won't let those captains of industry put anything over on me. Captains! I'd like to know the bridge on which they've ever manned the helm. They're shallow people who can't see beyond their petty affairs.' The passage of nine years, during eight of which he had ruled as dictator, did nothing to improve his opinions. Speaking in private to his entourage in October 1941, he referred to big businessmen (die Wirtschaft) as 'rogues' and 'cold-blooded money-grubbers' who ceaselessly bemoaned their plight. He had never met an industrialist who, on catching sight of him, had not put on a woebegone expression in hopes of obtaining something.