Big Business: Friend or Foe of Hitler?


German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., New York: Oxford University Press, 528 pp., $25.00

Capitalism, according to economist Joseph Schumpeter, stands its trial before judges—the intellectuals—who already have the sentence of death in their pocket. As evidence for this dictum, consider the succession of arguments used to vilify the system. Capitalism, critics argue, condemns the working masses to poverty; it decrees the annihilation of the middle classes between monopoly capitalists and pauperized proletarians; it leads to military and political expansion into the precapitalist world, thus producing increasingly frequent conflicts among the capitalist nations; it maintains or destroys (take your pick) the family unit; and so on. No sooner is one argument rendered dubious or nugatory by historical developments or rational analysis than it is replaced by another. The verdict is always the same: capitalism is guilty. It is the of what that keeps changing.

A historical thesis popular today in East Germany, the Soviet Union, and in left-leaning circles in West Germany and elsewhere proposed to lay a very large sum indeed on the debit side of capitalism's account. This thesis states that the major (or one of the few major) causes of the Nazis' coming to power in Germany in the 1930s was the vigorous and generous support accorded Hitler's movement by German big business. It is not clear, logically, how these alleged actions of even a large number of German capitalists can constitute an argument against capitalism itself, but the rhetorical effect, and intention, of the argument is clear: "in the last analysis," capitalism was responsible for Nazism, World War II, and genocide.

Mainstream Western historians have not, of course, gone to the lengths of their left-wing brethren in tying big business to the rise of Nazism. Still, ever since the connection was postulated back in the 1920s, Western writers have tended to acknowledge big-business support as significant, at least at certain crucial points, in Hitler's success. After the publication of Henry Ashby Turner's German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, a magnificently researched and brilliantly reasoned book, this will become difficult indeed for any honest historian.

With masterly thoroughness and care, Turner, of Yale University, traces the development of relations between the German business community and the Nazi movement. In the earlier stages—before their electoral breakthrough in 1930—the Nazis excited virtually no support and a good deal of hostility and suspicion among the business elite. (Their one important convert was Fritz Thyssen, prominent in the steel industry.) This derived largely from the anticapitalist elements in the National Socialist ideology and practice, although Nazi anti-Semitism also often offended big businessmen, who tended to consider this form of bigotry vulgar and plebeian. The prominence in the Nazi ranks of men like the economic crank Gottfried Feder, with his rantings against the "tyranny" of lending money at interest, and Josef Goebbels, whose diatribes against capitalism sometimes could not be distinguished from those of the Communists, was also hardly reassuring to the business community. Until the very end, its members preferred to support the "bourgeois" parties (DVP, DNVP, DDP), more dependable from their point of view. It was to them that big business channeled the great bulk of its political contributions.

Where, then, did the Nazis obtain financial support? At first, seed money came from disparate sources, including the Pan-German League, White Russian émigrés, and a few smaller businessmen, like Edwin Bechstein, the owner of a Berlin piano company. But the financial undergirding of the Nazis' march to power, through the lean years of the 1920s and even the period of growing influence after 1930, was forged by the fanaticism of their own membership. The great German Socialist party, the SPD, had shown how a major political organization could be supported by its own adherents. The Nazis, as Turner says, "applied socialist organization and financial techniques to a considerably more affluent following."

After the Nazis had established themselves as a major factor in German politics, some big businessmen contributed relatively minor subsidies, mostly to particular Nazis. The aim was to assure themselves of "friends" in positions of power, should the Nazis enter the state apparatus. Other industrialists, like many other anti-Marxists, looked forward to bringing the Nazis into a great conservative coalition—in effect, "taming" them and exploiting their popular appeal for traditional right-wing purposes.

All these efforts, however, were quite marginal to the process of Hitler's ascent to power. His strategy called not for mobilizing big business behind him but for neutralizing it as a possible hindrance, a task he astutely accomplished. In time, those from smaller and medium-sized firms came to join the Nazis in substantial numbers. On the other hand, there were fighters for the good cause until the end, among them "the Hansa-Bund, a pro-free trade, anti-cartel organization with a sizeable following in banking, commercial, and manufacturing circles," which continued to brand the Nazis the "vigorous enemy of the individualist and capitalist order for which we stand."

Turner's book is a work of historiographical revision in the best sense of the word—the replacement of ideologically motivated myth by a truer picture of past reality, based on the most comprehensive command of the sources. In the course of this salutary debunking, the author has occasion to examine more specific legends that have come to be enshrined in accounts of the period. These legends—concerning, for instance, Hitler's appearance at the Industry Club of Düsseldorf in January 1932 and his meeting with Franz von Papen and the "representative" of big business, Kurt von Schröder, in Cologne a year later—have been repeated and elaborated on not only by sensationalistic journalists such as William L. Shirer but by reputable historians such as Alan Bullock, A.J.P. Taylor, Norman Stone, and H. Stuart Hughes, as well. Having taught modern European history for many years, I can only state my gratitude to Turner for clearing away these seriously misleading fabrications.

Besides the steady development of his main theme, Turner often brings out new features in territory one had thought sufficiently investigated already. Take, for example, the dreadful economic crisis that in the end brought the Nazis to power. What was the role of the Weimar Republic's "advanced" and widely admired Sozialpolitik—welfare-state system—in hindering economic growth and fostering extraordinarily high unemployment rates? Is it possible that, by insisting on the sacrosanctity of Weimar Sozialpolitik, the Socialists (and others) unwittingly contributed to the triumph of Nazism?

Finally, Turner is to be commended for joining battle head-on, in his concluding section, "Myths, Preconceptions, and the Misuse of History," with the advocates of the thesis of big-business complicity. These historians, he contends, evince a deep-seated bias against the world of industry and trade. This is true not only of Soviet and East German writers—whose jobs, after all, depend on generating rationales for the death warrant on capitalism. Even Western historians, he writes, "generally have little or no personal contact with the world of business. Like so many intellectuals, they tend to view big business with a combination of condescension and mistrust." Perhaps Turner's rich and pleasingly written book is a sign there are some changes under way.

Ralph Raico is associate professor of history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo and a fellow of the Institute for Humane Studies, at George Mason University.