A well-respected German historian has a radical new theory to explain a nagging question: Why did average Germans so heartily support the Nazis and Third Reich? Hitler, says Goetz Aly, was a "feel good dictator," a leader who not only made Germans feel important, but also made sure they were well cared-for by the state.
To do so, he gave them huge tax breaks and introduced social benefits that even today anchor the society. He also ensured that even in the last days of the war not a single German went hungry. Despite near-constant warfare, never once during his 12 years in power did Hitler raise taxes for working class people. He also -- in great contrast to World War I -- particularly pampered soldiers and their families, offering them more than double the salaries and benefits that American and British families received. As such, most Germans saw Nazism as a "warm-hearted" protector, says Aly, author of the new book "Hitler's People's State: Robbery, Racial War and National Socialism" and currently a guest lecturer at the University of Frankfurt. They were only too happy to overlook the Third Reich's unsavory, murderous side.
Financing such home front "happiness" was not simple and Hitler essentially achieved it by robbing and murdering others, Aly claims. Jews. Slave laborers. Conquered lands. All offered tremendous opportunities for plunder, and the Nazis exploited it fully, he says.
Once the robberies had begun, a sort of "snowball effect" ensued and in order to stay afloat, he says Germany had to conquer and pilfer from more territory and victims. "That's why Hitler couldn't stop and glory comfortably in his role as victor after France's 1940 surrender." Peace would have meant the end of his predatory practices and would have spelled "certain bankruptcy for the Reich."
Instead, Hitler continued on the easy path of self deception, spurring the war greedily forward. And the German people -- fat with bounty -- kept quiet about where all the wealth originated, he says. Was it a deplorable weakness of human nature or insatiable German avarice? It's hard to say, but imagine if today's beleaguered government of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder could offer jobs and higher benefits to the masses. "No one would ask where the money came from and they would directly win the next election," Aly says.
Likewise, in the 1940s, soldiers on the front were instructed to ravage conquered lands for raw materials, industrial goods and food for Germans. Aly cites secret Nazi files showing that from 1941-1943 Germans robbed enough food and supplies from the Soviet Union to care for 21 million people. Meanwhile, he insists, Soviet war prisoners were systematically starved. German soldiers were also encouraged to send care packages home to their families to boost the morale of their wives and children. In the first three months of 1943, German soldiers on the Leningrad front sent more than 3 million packages stuffed with artifacts, art, valuables and food home, Aly says.
"About 95 percent of the German population benefited financially from the National Socialist system. The Nazis' unprecedented killing machine maintained its momentum by robbing from others. ... Millions of people were killed -- the Jews were gassed, 2 million Soviet war prisoners were starved to death ... so that the German people could maintain their good mood." By contrast, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill cajoled his people in 1940, just after France had fallen, to "brace ourselves to our duties" so that in a thousand years, "men will still say, this was their finest hour."
How to make a criminal regime thrive
Aly's theory is not only fascinating for its brazenness, but also for the ruckus it is causing in Germany, where lately the trend has been to accept that Germans, too, suffered under Hitler and under the Allied bombing raids at the war's end. Aly is now negating much of that suffering, insisting that every single German benefited from Hitler's culture of killing. The Feuilleton, or cultural pages, of German newspapers -- which only recently exploded with coverage of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Aushwitz -- have teemed with articles about Aly since the book, "Hitler's People's State" came out on March 10. In the left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung, he has even engaged in an open fight with Cambridge economics historian Adam Tooze who has criticized the mathematical methods he used to substantiate his theory. Sales, too, are much better than he or his publisher imagined. "I didn't write the book for the lay person," he says. "It's crammed full of facts and dry historical and economic data and has close to 1,000 footnotes." But if people want to read it, he says he won't complain. It will come out in French this autumn and in English in 2006.
The timing for the book's German release, as his publishers well know, couldn't be better. Germany will spend the next six weeks hitting dozens of World War II anniversaries before arriving at memorial celebrations on May 8 and 9 marking 60 years since the war's end. It is also, says Aly, no coincidence that the work comes close to three generations after Hitler's suicide.
"The book could have been written 10 years ago, even 20 years ago," he says. All of the documents were there. We just weren't open to them. Personally, I didn't have the questions then."
The documents include reams of complex economic, bank and tax records as well as thousands of clippings from regional newspaper archives that Aly spent the past four years scouring. In the book, he uses them to support his theory that half the war was financed by government credit and that close to 70 percent of the rest came from plunder. "I am not trying to turn the history of National Socialism on its head," he insists. "But I think -- despite all the time that has passed -- it is still important to ask the most fundamental questions, namely how all this happened. What were the most important elements that allowed this criminal regime to thrive? So much came out of the German middle class. That is the most troubling aspect of the history."
Such ground has been broken before. In his 1996 bestseller, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust," controversial Harvard professor Daniel Goldhagen -- an American Jew -- dared to point his finger at average Germans and insist they not only knew about the Third Reich atrocities, but in their rabid anti-Semitism were eager co-conspirators. And for decades, historians have spoken of Hitler's popular appeal, his ability to head off unemployment and shore up the nation's shoddy infrastructure. In fact, Germany's famous "Autobahn" (highway) is sometimes called the "Hitler Bahn" because it was built by the Nazis. His Napola and Adolf Hitler schools famously cut through social classes, admitting rich and poor to Nazi indoctrination. Still, until now, economists have struggled to prove that the plunder from abroad really drove the war machine.
Perhaps, says Aly, that is partly because German historians weren't ready to look at what he calls "secondary" questions about the structural and financial underpinnings of the Nazi war machine. "Writing about them would have reduced the human scale of the tragedy," he says. Plus, he insists, it is always "much easier to say it was the fault of a small group of elites, the power-crazed SS commanders, or even big businesses" than to point to your own greed. German society has spent decades digesting and "perhaps now we have reached a new level," he says.
Were Germans liberated from the Nazis, too?
Current politics seems to mirror this sentiment. These days, making use of an agile word and mind flip, Germans have begun to insist that they -- like the rest of Europe -- were also liberated on May 8, 1945. They say it marks the day they and their children were freed from Nazi oppression. Still, in 1945, says Aly, Germans didn't think they were being liberated. "They had to be liberated from themselves," he says. "That's the problem."
In truth, Germans have made great strides in accepting their guilt and have even "liberated themselves," enough that it is now politically acceptable for German politicians to participate in World War II anniversaries in other countries. In May, Gerhard Schroeder became the first German chancellor to participate in a D-Day celebration. In January, German President Horst Koehler bowed his head at Auschwitz in memory of the 1.5 million people killed before the Red Army liberated the camp. Another trip is planned to Moscow for May celebrations.
Scholarship and even more delicately, German Holocaust sensitivities, too have progressed in recent years. In January, the first post-war German-Jewish comedy, "Alles Auf Zucker" (Bet it all on Zucker) was released and became an immediate box office hit. Before its release, film and television executives had long held that any productions involving Jews and Germans meant poison at the box office. Germans are also starting to talk about their own suffering during the war, particularly during the relentless Allied bombing of German cities such as Dresden. Aly accepts such suffering as truthful, saying talking about it shows that Germans have made advances from the shame-faced decades just after the war when no German academic could look at the war objectively. The question, he says is, "how do you relegate that suffering? We were also victims of our own aggression."
The important thing, he says is that German perspectives continue to evolve. He sees his book as an important part of that process. "I think in 10 years, because of this book, our understanding will be very different than it was less say a year ago," he says. "That's because my book contains a large number of short descriptions and sketches, and I am quite certain that the questions I ask will be investigated by my colleagues. That will definitely give us a lot more information. I notice it already in the echo from the book. I am getting letters from families who corroborate what I write. I'm sure more of that will come."