Book review: “Hitler’s National Socialism” by Rainer Zitelmann (Part 2)
One root of “Hitlonomics” is Malthusianism.
Malthus famously believed that population growth was bound to outstrip growth in agricultural output, which would lead to hunger, social unrest, famine, and eventually, a fall in population numbers back to “sustainable” levels. Then, the cycle would commence anew.
Hitler agreed, and extended this logic to industrial production – demand for natural resources outstripping supply – as well. But crucially, Hitler added a new variable to the Malthusian model: conquest. A country may be running out of resources within its current borders. But what if there are other countries nearby that are less densely populated, and richer in fertile land and natural resources? This is where his obsession with “living space in the East” comes from.
This is not to say that Malthusianism must, in and of itself, lead to genocidal fascism. Hitler was obviously not just a Malthusian: he was also a Social Darwinist, and a believer in the supremacy of the “Aryan race”, which explains why he felt justified in his actions. But this does not explain why he thought territorial expansionism was worthwhile. If you are not that bothered about resource constraints, because you believe that a growing population can be accommodated via domestic productivity increases in agriculture and industry, violent conquest of foreign territories seems pointless – even if you had no moral qualms about it.
Hitlonomics is also rooted in the striving for autarky, the rejection of trade, and a profound pessimism about the future of global trade. As with Malthusianism, this was, of course, not unique to him, but a fairly common view at the time, which does not normally lead to genocidal fascism. But Hitlonomics is autarky with a twist. Proponents of autarky generally accepted that a medium-sized country like Germany was not large enough to be economically self-sufficient, or at least not at its present level of economic development. They accepted striving for self-sufficiency would make the country poorer, but believed that was a price worth paying. Unlike conventional advocates of autarky, Hitler, again, did not take the current size of the country as given. If the country was not currently large enough to be self-sufficient and prosperous, then it had to become so – through conquest.
He attributed the economic rise of the United States to their sheer size, and relative abundance of fertile land and natural resources (as opposed to good institutions and good economic policy). He wanted to build an even larger empire by force.
Hitler’s views on business ownership were messy. He was keen on businesses owned and run by a single owner-manager, and was initially sceptical of state-run enterprises because he thought this would blur responsibility. This was, of course, a mirror image of how he thought a country should be run. His criticism of state-run enterprises mirrored his rejection of parliamentary democracy, such as the Weimar Republic and the parliamentary system of his native Austria, which he saw as useless talking shops. He saw the owner-run company as more akin to a state run by a decisive “strong leader”.
That view does not lend itself to full-blown socialism. But it is also fundamentally at odds with advanced forms of capitalism, where the small-scale family-run businesses Hitler was fond of have to compete with – and can be crowded out by – multinational listed companies.
As mentioned, the economic system of the Third Reich is best described as state control of the economy without state ownership. Zitelmann shows that over time, Hitler grew increasingly weary of his system. He could pressurise private businesses into doing what he wanted, but unlike Stalin, he could not simply say “You guys will produce 21% more of this, and you guys will produce 26% more of that.” When the limitations of that system became clearer, he did not respond by turning to outright nationalisation of existing companies, but with the building up of a state-owned parallel economy, such as the Reichswerke Hermann Göring.
Zitelmann also shows that behind closed doors, in his final years, Hitler became increasingly appreciative of the Soviet economy. Reports from the Eastern Front had given him a more accurate picture of Soviet industry, which, under Stalin’s industrialisation drive, had made greater advances than Hitler had deemed a “Slavic” people capable of. He explicitly praised the Soviet system of state planning, and hinted at how this should become a component of the post-war economy.
This is just a small selection of themes from a very comprehensive study.
All in all, even though I thought I was reasonably well-informed on the subject, I can say that learned things from this book that I had either no idea about, or that I was actively misinformed about. It helps that the book is several steps removed from current-day political debates: Zitelmann is not trying to play the “Hitler card” against his political opponents. (The author is a free-market liberal, but he did most of the work for this book before he developed those views, and certainly well before the current bunch of anti-capitalist “anti-fascists” popped up.) The book ends up debunking the current attempts to instrumentalise “anti-fascism” for a fashionable anti-capitalism, but it does so more as a by-product rather than on purpose.
Its purpose is simply to make sense of the ideology that led the world into the 20th century’s greatest catastrophe.