Adam Tooze is the Barton M. Biggs Professor of History at Yale University. In 2007 he won
the Wolfson prize for Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi
About Adam Tooze
An Interview with Adam Tooze
More About Adam Tooze
Adam Tooze talks about The Wages of Destruction
The Wages of Destruction is in effect a very original new history of the Nazi regime and the Second World War: how is it different from the many other books on what is obviously the key subject of the modern era?
Well, I believe that an economic history does provide a different perspective on Hitler’s war. For anyone approaching the history of the mid twentieth century from an economic point of view, the truly dramatic development of the epoch is the emergence of the United States as a dominant superpower, whose only real rival was to be the Soviet Union. This perspective casts new light both on why Hitler launched his regime onto its course of aggression and why he was doomed to fail.
The starting point of my argument is the assumption that the rise to global dominance of the United States, left Germany with two options: either to ally itself with America, the option chosen by the Weimar Republic, or, alternatively, to make a bid to escape American dominance by launching a campaign of pre-emptive conquest in Europe. This was a fundamental choice facing all European statesmen in the interwar period. It was overlaid in Hitler’s case by his paranoid anti-Semitic worldview, which meant that the status quo was unacceptable. Germany faced annihilation if it did not actively prosecute the racial struggle. For the German right the United States was always identified with “world Jewry”. By the late 1930s this identification of President Roosevelt with the menacing threat of “encirclement” had become a dominant feature of Hitler’s world view and a crucial factor in precipitating his decision to go to war with the Western powers over Poland in September 1939. Previous histories have radically underestimated the importance of America in Hitler’s strategic calculations between 1938 and 1941. Furthermore, they have failed to spot the way in which his fear of America intersected with his anti-Semitic worldview.
On the other hand for an economic historian the question is not why did Hitler not win World War II, but how Nazi Germany ever managed to get as far as it did. Many histories of the Third Reich, follow the fashionable line of seeing Hitler’s regime as less than the sum of its parts, an incoherent, disorganized mess held together loosely by a weak dictator. This is certainly not how it appears once we fully appreciate the underlying problems of Germany’s economy. Germany in the late 1930s had an industrial sector barely larger than that of Britain. And Germany did not have the resources of a global Empire to draw on, nor the financial assets which Britain and France had accumulated in the course of the 19th century. By contrast, the labour power of millions of German men and women was squandered in grossly inefficient peasant farming. For Germany to have assembled the military potential that it had by the early 1940s required a dramatic and highly effective effort at mobilization, in which, as I show for the first time, Hitler himself played a crucial role. And yet Hitler knew that time was not on his side. It was his accurate appreciation of the limited means at his disposal, which drove him from one act of aggression to another.
What made you start out on what has proved to be a long road?
Well, my interest in the history of the Third Reich stems back to my childhood, first in Britain in the early 1970s and then growing up as a teenager in West Germany. Once I began teaching history professionally I realized that there was simply no adequate book on the economic history of Hitler’s regime in either English or German. There were studies on the Nazi economic recovery of the 1930s and on the war, but there was no book that spanned both periods and showed the connections between them. The debates of the 1970s and 1980s had left many crucial questions unanswered about the relationship between the armaments economy and Hitler’s foreign policy – questions raised but not answered by the furious arguments over Hitler’s so-called “Blitzkrieg strategy”. Finally, there was a general disconnect between the wider historiography of the Third Reich and the specialist economic histories of the period and this was most troubling in relation to the literature on racial policy, forced labour and the Holocaust.
When you finished the book did you find your conclusions to be the same as you had expected or were you surprised by them?
I have been genuinely surprised by how much new ground I have had to break in writing this book. And I am fortunate that I have been able to do so, not on my own, but in the company of a new generation of historians of the Third Reich. In this sense Wages of Destruction stands as a preliminary summary of work done over the last ten years by a new cohort of younger historians.
What are the new conclusions?
Well, we have fundamentally dismantled the propagandistic myths, which continue to surround Hitler’s work creation programme and such public relations stunts as the Volkswagen project. Goering’s Four Year Plan, of 1936 also appears as less significant than it was once thought to be. By contrast, what has emerged as crucial for the entire period between 1933 and 1940 is the management of Germany’s cripplingly inadequate foreign exchange reserves. In 1934 this problem was so severe that Hitler’s regime came very close to economic meltdown, a crisis which has been grossly underrated in the literature. And even after that crisis was overcome, every aspect of Hitler’s economic policy whether with regard to armaments, the forced expulsion of the German and Austrian Jews, or the maintenance of the domestic standard of living, was dictated by the difficulty of managing the balance of payments.
This in turn has led to a reappraisal of both the limitations and the achievements of the armaments effort. Crucially what my book reveals for the first time are the factors that dictated the abrupt setbacks to the armaments effort in 1937 and then again in 1939. Just as the international crisis was reaching its climax, Hitler was forced to face the fact that his armaments effort was set to decelerate. He knew by the summer of 1939 that he would be unable to match the renewed efforts of Britain and France. This throws dramatic new light on his decision to start the war a few months later.
In relation to the history of the war economy the revisionism is if anything even more wholesale. A close inspection of archival evidence and the statistical record has revealed the brutal energy with which Hitler and his allies in the military mobilized the resources both of Germany and newly occupied Poland in the early phase of the war. And this in turn throws new light on the Albert Speer’s so-called armaments miracle after 1942. What has also emerged with shocking clarity is the direct connection between the management of the food and labour supply to the war economy and the regime’s notorious programme of genocide both towards the Jews and the wider population of Eastern Europe.
In short, when I set out on this project I anticipated writing a conventional survey of the literature. What has emerged is a book whose revisionism is at times quite daunting. By the same token, however, I also hope it will be of greater interest both to specialists and the general reader.
You have a large amount of very original and disturbing detail in your narrative about how the War carried on so long after the Nazis were clearly beaten. Much of this is attributable to the role of Albert Speer? How does your picture of Speer differ from that portrayed in, say, Gitta Sereny's famous bestseller about him?
Sereny’s study of Speer is symptomatic of the new emphasis in the literature on questions of biography, memory and the Holocaust. What she and many others have left unquestioned is Speer’s role in orchestrating the so-called “armaments miracle”. This means that serious questions concerning Speer’s “political role” in the Third Reich have been concentrated on his role as Hitler’s confidant and his knowledge of the Holocaust, rather than his primary function as manager of the war effort. My aim in Wages of Destruction is to critically demythologize the “armaments miracle” and at the same time to highlight the political function that Speer served after February 1942 in allowing the regime to answer the fundamental question: how was Germany to avoid defeat at the hands of its economically superior enemies? Speer’s role was not only to produce more guns, ammunition and tanks. It was crucial that these weapons were “made to tell a story”, to maintain a narrative of the invincibility of the German nation, despite the overwhelming odds against it. Within weeks of his appointment Speer had struck up a new relationship with Joseph Goebbels, from which emerged a new brand of “armaments propaganda” celebrating and mythologizing the triumphs of mass production and the invincible quality of Germany’s new tanks, machine-guns and U Boats. To this very day, Speer’s armaments propaganda continues to be recycled in popular accounts of the Wehrmacht’s weaponry.
In direct response to Sereny’s overly subtle account of Speer’s “battle with truth”, I would maintain, and I believe I do so in agreement with most of my expert colleagues, that Hitler’s Armaments Minister quite simply lied about his knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust. On the basis of my investigations of the crucial issues of labour and foods supply, questions that were particularly acute in the months immediately following Speer’s appointment in February 1942, there can be little doubt that Speer was fully complicit in the mass starvation and killing of millions of people in Eastern Europe, including above all the Jewish population of Poland. In the autumn of 1943 there can be little doubt that Speer and many key members of his staff witnessed Himmler’s famous report on the Holocaust to a conference of Gauleiter. Furthermore, in the early summer of 1944 Speer’s office maintained a telephone hotline to the railway ramp in Auschwitz, where hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were selected either for gassing or forced labour.
The Holocaust must always be a central concern in any history of the Second World War. How does your economic perspective on the conflict change or add nuance to our understanding of the Holocaust?
This is obviously a highly controversial area. For many people it is still anathema to treat the Holocaust as anything other than sui generis, let alone to suggest that it served certain practical purposes for Hitler’s regime. However, there is no doubt that when the Third Reich invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 it did so in pursuit of not one, but three loosely coordinated programmes of mass murder: a mission to destroy the politically dangerous Jews of the Soviet Union; a long-term programme of colonization accompanied by the “removal” of virtually the entire native population – the so-called Generalplan Ost; thirdly, an immediate programme for death through starvation of the entire urban population of the Soviet Union, numbering approximately 30 million people, to release food for German use.
How exactly were these three programmes related to each other?
This is a matter of on-going dispute amongst historians of the Third Reich. In Wages of Destruction I argue for a synthesis that depends on recognizing the difference between 1941 and 1942. In the euphoria of 1941, when the Germans expected an immediate defeat of the Red Army it was programme 1 (Judeocide) and programme 2 (colonization) that were most closely connected. The SS planners appear to have intended to use the Jewish and Slav populations of Eastern Europe as slave labour for the construction of the infrastructure required by Himmler’s gigantic settlement projects. This was the vision outlined by Heydrich at the Wannsee conference in early 1942 and it continued to command support from Himmler and Hitler up to the autumn of 1942, when the German invasion of the Soviet Union finally ran aground at Stalingrad. Meanwhile, in early 1942 the food supply had emerged as an overriding preoccupation. The Hunger Plan of 1941, intended to remove the urban population of the Soviet Union from the food chain had been only a partial success. Germany now faced a severe shortage of grain and was forced to impose deep ration cuts even on the Wehrmacht. It was in this context that plan 1 (Judeocide) and plan 3 (general genocide through redistribution of food) converged. Goering and the Agricultural Ministry, now led by the sinister Herbert Backe, demanded a dramatic reallocation of grain and meat within the Nazi Empire, towards Germany. And it was in this context in the early summer of 1942 that Himmler happily agreed to accelerate the killing of the 2 million strong Jewish population of occupied Poland as a vital contribution to freeing up food for use by the Wehrmacht.
There was thus always an economic logic to the genocide. But it changed over time, from one which focussed on labour, to one which focussed on genocide as a means of food redistribution.
Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that one of your conclusions is that the Second World War was effectively just a terrible mistake?
Certainly until the remarkable and entirely unanticipated battlefield events of May 1940, when the Germans defeated the combined forces of Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands in a matter of weeks, it appeared that way to most of the German military leadership. Prior to February 1940 they did not even have a promising plan for the attack on France. Ever since the autumn of 1937 the prospect of a war against Britain and France had deeply alarmed Germany’s more far-sighted generals, not to mention most of the population at large. And for this reason tensions between Hitler and the Army leadership rose to the point of near rebellion first in the summer of 1938 and then again in November 1939. The swift conquest of most of western Europe allayed these tensions. But they resurfaced again in November-December 1941, when the failure of Barbarossa undid Germany’s strategic planning. It was precisely in response to this crisis of faith in the war effort, that Hitler installed Speer, a man of unquestioned loyalty as Armaments Minister. Speer’s principal role was to silence the question you have asked. To demonstrate through a spectacular production drive that the war could still be won.
Hitler, however, did not miscalculate. In my view he was engaged in a conscious gamble. A gamble at long odds, for sure. But a conscious gamble. He believed war to be inevitable. Those who still believed in the 1930s in a prosperous and secure future for Germany under an Anglo-American umbrella were simply naïve. Conquest and racial struggle were the only true routes to prosperity and security. Armaments were the means to that end. Hitler chose war in the autumn of 1939 because in light of renewed economic difficulties, he no longer believed that he could win the arms race with Britain and France. It was now or never. And he chose to escalate the war in 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union for the same reason. In the end of course the balance of force prevailed and Germany went down to defeat. But the remarkable thing surely is how close to success Hitler came.
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