When Götz Aly's book Hitlers Volksstaat (Hitler's Volksstaat) was published in Germany a year ago, it apparently struck a nerve among German historians as well as the general reading public. But unlike movies such as Der Untergang (The Downfall) or television features about Albert Speer which were enjoying popularity at the time, Aly's research does not concentrate on the personalities of individual perpetrators during the Nazi dictatorship. Instead, it focuses on the benefits that an average, non-Jewish German wage-earner reaped owing to the policies of the National Socialist regime. Aly's study touches only marginally upon the extent to which the beneficiaries realized the source of their relative prosperity, namely, the rapacious looting of the occupied countries and of Jews who had been deported and murdered. The author leaves it to his readers to draw their own conclusions from the material he presents.
With painstaking diligence the author perused archives and sifted through the records on tax and financial legislation. What were the details of taxation policy during the various phases of Nazi rule? Which income groups were increasingly enlisted to foot the bill for social policies on the one hand and war policies on the other, and at which junctures? How did Hitler's financial policy-makers manage to keep domestic inflation at bay and offload it to the occupied countries?
Aly develops a highly suspenseful approach to examining such supposedly dry questions as financial policy. He scrutinizes the populistic social reforms during the first years of Nazi rule and provides documentation that the broad social safety net for the population exceeded by far the regime's financial resources and therefore soon resulted in excessive debt. The search for new sources of revenue within the country itself led to increased financial repression of the Jewish population, culminating initially in a one billion Reichsmark surcharge, an "atonement payment," that was imposed on Jewish citizens (following the pogrom night of November 9, 1938). As early as December of the same year, however, Göring formulated very concrete steps for converting the assets of German Jews - calculated at some eight billion Reichsmarks - into German State Bonds. The sweep of the plan becomes clear when one considers that even one billion Reichsmarks would already have increased the Reich's revenues by 6 percent.
The author shows how the occupied countries, with the help of well-contrived systems, were saddled with the costs of the occupation and in part also with providing for the German population "within the Reich," thereby wrecking their national economies. Soldiers were issued a type of artificial currency that they could use as tender, for example, in French or Belgian shops. These credit notes were then submitted to the respective national central banks for the ultimate purpose of being redeemed in Germany. Special clearing houses were set up in Berlin which would issue credits for these costs to the occupied countries after the Germans had been victorious. Even young soldiers whose morals were relatively intact found their sense of justice undermined and were corrupted by this system of obfuscation, as Aly demonstrates using the letters that a young Heinrich Böll sent home to his family from France, telling of his hoarding purchases.
Aly researches the various means of financing the national budget that were employed over the entire Nazi period. In addition to the taxation policies mentioned above, he examines the gradually proceeding expropriation and subsequent deportation and annihilation of the Jews, as well as the ransacking of the occupied countries. He proves that the well-known figures such as Hitler, Goebbels, Göring and Himmler were not the only ones to plot and implement the destruction of European Jewry; the regime's financial policy-makers were equally cold-blooded and calculating, as they not only took millions of deaths into account but viewed them as a legitimate means of acquiring additional revenue.
If growing numbers of Jews were deported to Poland shortly after heavy bombing runs on Hamburg, then a clear connection emerges between bombed out non-Jewish citizens and the fully furnished apartments of Jews which now became "vacancies." It is hardly conceivable that no one asked where all the beautiful things came from. It appears more readily believable, however, that average citizens didn't question where the money for expanding social services might have originated. After all, there was no concurrent rise in their tax burden.
Aly's book has been criticized for its central proposition, namely, that the vast majority of average German citizens profited in a personal sense from the crimes of the Nazis. It is said that the author overrates greed as the driving force behind the genocide and thereby assigns too minor a role to the motive of racial hatred. Still, this is not the historian's first book on the National Socialist regime, and he enjoys honing provocative arguments. Since the early nineties he has been publishing works on many different aspects of the Nazi regime, the annihilation of European Jews, and the continuity of certain social elites in German history.
It is no longer necessary to declare that historical explanations must never be one-dimensional. But the ability to portray history, and financial history in particular, in such a suspenseful manner is immeasurably valuable.