German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler
Standard wisdom and many history textbooks state that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in large part because of the influence of big business. The captains of industry, disliking the democratic social welfare state of the Weimar Republic and fearing the rise of Communism, one is generally told, put their money and their political influence behind Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), the Nazis. Specific instances are sometimes cited. Hjalmar Schacht, the banker who was once a major figure in the German Democratic Party, turned to the Nazis and eventually became Hitler’s appointee as head of the Reich bank. Fritz Thyssen, the steel magnate, was a firm advocate of the Nazis until the late 1930’s, when he defected and wrote a book entitled I Paid Hitler. Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach backed the Nazis because of his generally antiunion authoritarianism and his hopes for big armament contracts. “Everybody knows” that big business donated heavily to the Nazi coffers. All one has to do is read the newspapers of the Weimar years to learn the details or read the books exposing the connections.
These are myths, according to Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., a professor of history at Yale University. They are myths based on fragmentary evidence, unsubstantiated allegations, unreliable sources, ideological bias, and sloppy scholarship. The fact that the left-wing press during the Nazi rise to power charged that big business was bankrolling the NSDAP, he argues, proves nothing. Marxist theory assumes that capitalism will seek out fascist politicians and their street armies to fight against the inevitable rising of the virtuous proletariat. Yet such a “structural” approach is long on theory and short on evidence; recent books by Americans as well as by Europeans, he charges, use anecdotes and even faulty documentation selectively to support preconceived conclusions.
A careful study of the big businessmen’s archives, Turner maintains, shows that few of them favored the NSDAP, that generally they supported non-Nazi forces, and that when support did come it was usually a grudging and naïve purchase of political “insurance,” just in case Hitler and his minions did emerge at the top of the political heap.
This thickly packed volume sums up solidly the research of two decades. Turner found that most of the archives of the major industrialists and their trade associations survived the war and fitting together his story from innumerable memos, letters, directives, and private commentaries, he has reconstituted the political activities of dozens of major business figures in pre-Nazi Germany. It is true, he notes, that Fritz Thyssen supported Hitler, but he was the only major figure to do so. Thyssen’s often cited memoirs were ghostwritten and are unreliable. Men such as Schacht and Krupp feared the Nazis before 1933 and believed that they might eventually have no choice but to do business with them, but they were hardly enthusiastic about the prospect. In the chaotic politics of the time, many major business figures took seriously the “socialistic” anticapitalist rhetoric of the National “Socialist” German Workers Party. Many in the upper-middle class were offended at the crude anti-Semitism of Hitler and his followers; they often did business with German Jews, and some had Jewish ancestry themselves. When they did donate money to the Nazis, Turner shows from the documents, they were usually distributing contributions along a wide spectrum of parties from the moderates in the political center, through the traditional nationalists, to the NSDAP on the extreme right. Hitler’s party received only a small portion. Sometimes these men of great wealth would subsidize an individual “moderate” Nazi, hoping to turn the party away from its apparent radicalism.
Hitler realized this, and when he had the opportunity he presented himself to the businessmen in moderate tones. In January 1932, Hitler gave his famous speech at the Industry Club in Düsseldorf. The swank hotel ballroom was packed, as Turner’s illustrations (unearthed from the United States National Archives) show. Yet Hitler’s didactic lecture on the primacy of politics over economics did not necessarily convert the assembled businessmen to his cause. He carefully avoided anti-Semitic remarks and raised the specter of Bolshevism, against which he promised his Brownshirts would protect the Fatherland and the private property of business interests. Hitler was applauded, but there was no flood of businessmen into the NSDAP, nor was there a demonstrable improvement in party finances. Indeed, on this occasion many major industrialists were conspicuous by their absence. Thyssen was there, giving a Heil Hitler, but Krupp and most other major figures were not. Indeed, suggests Turner, many in attendance were not really big businessmen at all but men in middle management of major concerns or the leaders of the many...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)