Hitler's Beneficiaries, by Götz Aly


As a US native who grew up before neighborhood commerce was decimated by automobile-oriented planning, big-box retail and Amazon, Stockholm sometimes feels like stepping back in time. Streets are filled with storefronts, from the center of town to the most sedate far-flung suburbs. Good shops are everywhere: Groceries, butchers, fish stores, bakeries, hardware stores, boutiques, bike shops, accordion palaces, pet emporiums, you name it. You can see and buy good things pretty much anywhere, and it's a joy (except that everything is so expensive). There are even lots of record stores, which I find perplexing given that almost everyone seems to be perpetually listening to Spotify with permanently affixed headphones. (Topic for another post)

There are bookstores! Big ones and small ones. Last weekend, Jonny and me happened upon the Antikvariat Hundörat used bookstore in Södermalm. The owner, Peter Bodén, protested that he was closing in 5 minutes. It was clear within seconds that Peter actually had no intent of closing at all, and that the hundörat (translation: dog ear) would stay open all night as long as we were looking. So, we bought a couple of books and extricated ourselves from the stacks to meet the rest of our crew for dinner.

Thus, on to the nominal topic of this post: 

Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. Götz Aly, 2005. 

This book caught my eye almost immediately after entering the store. I sometimes feel the need to apologize for the periodic dominance of Nazi Germany and Revolutionary Russia in my reading lists, but Hitler and Stalin had a pretty major influence on who I am today, in the most literal ways -- I wouldn't have been born where I was, to the parents I was born to, without them. My religious education, as far as I can tell, mostly embedded inside me a deep and simultaneous attraction to, and disgust with, ideologies, messiahs, and anyone or anything that claims to have a big answer, which, again, tends to lead me back to this period. I find these books, even in cramped rooms where books are haphazardly stacked from floor to ceiling. Or maybe they find me.

As both the victims and the beneficiaries of the Holocaust (and Stalinism) have faded from this mortal coil, historical research and writing has, in parallel, moved to a different stage as well. Older works, understandably, often focus on brutal first-person narratives. There's so much to mine in direct experience, but they often float in the layer of the obvious and experiential.

Several interesting authors and researchers are delving deeper into the underlying motivations and mechanisms of the events of era, crunching the numbers and reading the extant newspapers, diaries and archives with, perhaps, greater alacrity and detachment than was possible a few decades ago. The work of Timothy Snyder is a prime example of scholarship that has illuminated some of the deeper whats and whys to a new depth that seems surprising given the quantity of ink that's already been spent on these subjects. I guess that's what historians do.

In Hitler's Beneficiaries, Götz Aly reconnects National Socialism back to all the other socialisms. In thinking about Nazi Germany I always think about the national part, and about fascism. I always assumed that 'socialist' was just an empty nod to the competing ideologies of the day. Apparently, I was wrong.

The socialism in National Socialism wasn't just an empty word. The Nazis' version was undemocratic and for Aryan Germans only, but it was a social welfare state just the same, with the same emphases on social mobility, security, family, and egalitarianism as other forms of socialism. Nazi Germany pioneered many of the social economic benefits that are still part of the fabric of German life today. I was surprised to find in Aly's book a catalog of domestic and family economic policies that sound more in tune with my expectations of contemporary Sweden than WWII Germany. These programs continued, and expanded, during the war. Instead of belt-tightening, German civilians received government benefits, high-end food from France, chocolate from Belgium, and so forth. Their taxes did not go up. Consumer goods were always available, if sometimes slightly used. 

German living standards remained high right up to end of war, even amid the Allied conquest, fed by the cash, assets and blood of those whose subsistence was literally of zero interest to the regime.

I may not have previously understood the socialist aspects of Nazi Germany, but I have always wondered what happened with all of the stuff that was stolen from Jews. None of what I heard ever really added up, or seemed to account for the actual scale of wealth that one could steal from millions of people, even if most of them aren't wealthy. Aly traces how the assets of the Jews, along with the resources, gold, money and products of the conquered lands from France to Norway to the Ukraine to Greece were used to systematically fund both the German social welfare system, and the war effort itself.

Aly largely dismisses the possibility of widespread ignorance of the sources of these material goods. German soldiers shipped millions of packages of all manner of items from occupied lands back to the home front. German citizens who lost property in bombing raids could easily acquire replacement furniture and household items from government warehouses. One of the book's central theses is that the the Aryan welfare state was the primary driver of mass support for the Nazi regime.

...[T]he state's general concern for the welfare of the masses...made them conformists, eager to enjoy the daily advantages the state offered them.

It's hard sometimes to understand the chronology of the Nazi genocide in WWII. Many have attributed the hard-to-understand progression of some events of the Holocaust to a combination of ideological insanity and fog of war. Some of the most interesting chapters of the book directly connect dispossession, deportation, drafting into slave labor, and ultimately murder, with specific pressing monetary needs faced by Germany. Ideology clearly set the stage for the larceny that followed, but many of the individual events, such as the deportation of the Jews of Salonika, become more comprehensible (but no less criminal) when we can understand better why it happened when, and in the precise form that it did.

One early chapter describes Reich Credit Bank (RKK) notes, a type of banknote issued to German soldiers and officials that could be used to procure items in occupied lands based on a fixed exchange rate with local currency. These notes were a coercive requisition device disguised as money. They made a transaction appear nominally legitimate, but their introduction into the currency pool devalued the local currency in occupied areas, creating hyperinflation. 

In my house growing up, there was a small box in the basement with old photos and papers that my parents brought with them from Europe when they emigrated to the US. In that box were a couple of bills of "Ghetto Money" not unlike the one below that I came across recently in the Stockholm Coin Museum.

Nazi Germany "Jewish" banknote. (Stockholm Coin Museum)

Based on Aly's explanation of the motivations behind, and fiscal dynamics of, RKK notes, I understand much better the significance of these bills I encountered growing up, and I understand how, as a bureaucratic fiscal tool, they fit into a strategy of dispossession and starvation. Fiscal and economic explanations aren't my strength, but if you want to understand this better, read the book.