John Connelly reviews Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State by Götz Aly for the latest issue of London Review of Books:
What was the point of Nazism? Götz Aly, Germany’s most influential popular historian, has a new answer: it was for the good of the German people. In his view, the National Socialists were as much socialist as they were national, and they genuinely sought to better the lives of ordinary Germans.
Aly makes compelling arguments to back up this unlikely thesis. Drawing on documents from East German archives, he shows in rich detail that the Nazi state did a lot for working men and women, passing hundreds of laws strengthening social security provision. Under Hitler, German workers saw their holiday entitlement double, while landlords had a tougher time raising rents or ejecting tenants. The onset of war in 1939 further intensified the desire to keep workers happy. In October 1940, the state stopped taxing overtime pay, and the following year it enrolled all retirees in a national health insurance scheme, freeing them from reliance on the churches or public welfare
A more insidious form of looting took place behind the scenes. Aly is the first historian to study systematically what happened to Jewish possessions in Occupied Europe. Using recently opened archival collections he describes in exhaustive detail the arrangements made by officials in the German finance ministry to transfer stolen Jewish wealth into the state budget – from where it could support largesse expended on the Volk. The Cambridge historian Adam Tooze has contested Aly’s claim that 75 per cent of the state budget was covered by this form of looting: he says the actual figure was more like a quarter, but that is still substantial.
Aly asks at the outset: ‘What drove ordinary Germans to tolerate and commit historically unprecedented crimes against humanity, in particular the murder of millions of European Jews?’ His answer is that ordinary Germans co-operated in genocide because they benefited from it in material terms. According to Aly, the Nazi dictatorship was built not on terror but on a mutual calculation of ‘interest’ between leaders and people. This claim entails a further shift in our understanding of the regime: not only did it serve the welfare of the common people, but if there was fear, it was the fear the regime felt of the people, not the other way around. Top Nazi leaders worried that their regime would be toppled by popular unrest if the people’s mood soured: their ‘satisfaction’ had to be ‘purchased’ every day.”
Read the full review here.