The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy
Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze is the Senior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of Cambridge. His qualifications in the field of economics cannot be slighted and so a study of the economics of the Third Reich by such an academic has to be taken seriously. Tooze claims that his is the first attempt at a thorough and broad study since Galbraith undertook his work in the immediate aftermath of the war. It has obviously been something that has been long overdue if the conclusions Tooze reaches are anything to go by.

Tooze sets out first to describe and inform the reader of the fundamental situation facing Germany in the early 1930s both in terms of economy and society. At odds to most works which focus on the German economic ‘juggernaut’, Tooze points out that in reality Germany had a relatively small number of global leaders in business (for example, companies such as Krupp) but was held back by its reliance on a large but inefficient farming sector. As he proceeds in his analysis of the fundamentals of the German economy, Tooze links in the tenets of National Socialist ideology to show how Hitler was in fact chiming with the concerns of a large section of the rural electorate rather than pursuing some form of ideological rural idyll. Very quickly it is obvious to the discerning reader that Tooze is not making the question to be answered by his work “how did Germany lose” but rather “how did Germany manage to survive a global conflict for so long”.

The early chapters of The Wages of Destruction are somewhat convoluted for those of us who do not have a grounding in economics. That said, I doubt whether Tooze could have made his material more accessible to a wide readership without appearing to be patronising to those who do have a basic grasp of the subject matter. As a former arts student, it did take me several readings to fully get to grasps with the financial manipulations of Schacht but it was re-reading and study that paid dividends. Perhaps it is safe to say that this is accessible, as such complex economic issues will become to a general reader.

Tooze tracks the problems of Hitler’s drive to rearm Germany with a focus on both detail and a concern for showing a wider picture. His archival work seems to be incredibly thorough and meticulous and the passion and joy he demonstrates when he uncovers a gem of information that has not been revealed in print to date is something which carries the reader along. Such enthusiasm is something that one cannot help but be infected by.

As one reaches the break of war, one cannot but admire how Tooze marries his research with that of other historians to present a contiguous picture of a Germany that has reached the point where war is almost inevitable. Germany seems to have been almost fully prepared for a war in 1938, but the western allies’ refusal to enter into one seems to have pulled the carpet from under Germany’s armaments production. The resulting problems in 1939 shaped the strategic dilemma that led to ‘blitzkrieg’.

Whilst I am a keen reader of most of the modern research into ‘blitzkrieg’ upon which I can lay my hands, it was something of an eye-opener to me to read of the full extent of Hitler’s ammunition production drives of autumn/winter 1939. It adds to the already weighty convergence of evidence which points to ‘blitzkrieg’ being an accident caused by a large number of factors occurring under the proverbial blue moon rather than a pre-meditated new form of warfare.

Tooze next moves to the problems of Germany’s war economy. Short of manpower and with a food crisis always upon the horizon, Tooze paints a picture of a Nazi leadership marrying a vile ideology with economic practicalities. Millions of Soviet prisoners of war were starved to death when food was scarce, but when manpower became the priority of the German war economy they were then worked to death. Rather than presenting a monocausal view of the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime, Tooze instead endeavours to shed light on the ‘mad logic’ of the Third Reich as it struggled to keep its war machine going. The Holocaust is never minimised but it is placed within the context of the atrocities also carried out on the communities of Eastern Europe as a whole.

Tooze points to how the lack of growth in the German war economy is actually very excellent testimony to the effectiveness of Bomber Command, even if the results were obtained by somewhat fortuitously hitting the transport infrastructure which connected the Ruhr industries with the rest of Germany. Tooze also takes issue with the conventional view that the economic blockade of Germany was not without substantial results; Tooze questions how losing 80% of the imported raw materials, let alone the matter of imported foodstuffs, could not have a substantial effect on German economic policy and conduct of the war.

For most readers, the new research Tooze presents on Speer and his ‘armaments’ miracle will be the real shock contained in the book. Tooze forensically dissects the effects of Speer’s efforts and presents the conclusion that not only was the ‘miracle’ something rather less than that, but also that the ‘genial apolitical artist’ of the Third Reich was extremely lucky not to join the rest of the surviving Nazi leadership in being hung for crimes against humanity.

As it would be very unfashionable for me not to present at least one extremely minor quibble, I have with some effort decided that I believe that Tooze is perhaps a little too keen to present the Mark XXI submarine as an excellent weapon of war when he uses it to highlight the problems of Speer’s armaments programmes. Whilst I do not have access to the German work upon which Tooze bases his figures for the Mark XXI’s performance, I’m sure that it would have put its caveat a little more strongly on the designs to point out that the performance was somewhat different in reality as attested to by the submarine commanders who actually tested the new submarines.

In summary, this is not a work that makes for light reading. It is at times complex and demanding of the reader. This is a good thing; rather than patronising the reader, Tooze assumes that he is writing for a reader who is both an adult and one who is approaching the subject with an open mind. The Wages of Destruction is a key work in our understanding of the economy and war industry of Hitler’s regime and it is squarely aimed at an audience who are willing to follow the author into the perverse decisions of what Tooze calls ‘the last great colonial land grab’. It is without doubt a massive accomplishment that leaves me anticipating Tooze’s next work. He is an author who has a clear talent for taking on complex subject matter, marshalling the best of reference material, pursuing his own archival research and then engaging the reader. The Wages of Destruction is a work which demands attention and should be viewed as one of the most outstanding achievements in modern studies of the Nazi regime.

(Reviewed by Simon Williams)

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