German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler.
Among the numerous controversies that have swirled around the National Socialist experience in Germany, few have been as persistent, political, or polemical as the debate concerning the role of big business in Hitler's rise to power Through the years historians, particularly but by no means exclusively on the Left, have attributed a major share of the responsibility for the triumph of National Socialism to the great magnates of German industry Afraid of the Marxist Left, contemptuous of Weimar's extensive welfare programs, and hostile to the democratic regime that had limited their influence, Germany's big capitalists are often said to have contributed directly to Adolf Hitler's success by bankrolling the NSDAP's electoral campaigns after 1928 and by exerting pressure on Reich President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor in 1933. This hypothesis has been developed in a wide variety of forms and with wildly varying degrees of sophistication. In its crudest version, the Nazis are held to be little more than agents of monopoly capital, manipulated by "wirepullers" of industry to mobilize elements of the downwardly mobile lower middle class against the inevitable working-class revolution. The agent theory has few adherents today, but the linkages between big business and National Socialism, or more broadly between capitalism and fascism, continue to be fiercely disputed. For almost two decades Henry Ashby Turner, Jr, has been a prominent participant in this often acrimonious debate, arguing in a number of important and provocative articles that big business simply did not play the central role in the Nazi victory so often attributed to it. German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler is the culmination of his extensive researches, and it is a revisionist work of considerable significance.
Turner launches his assault on the traditional wisdom along three interpretative fronts. First, he contends that business contributions to the NSDAP were never as substantial as is often asserted, nor can they in any sense be considered a crucial factor in the party's remarkably successful electoral campaigns. In a compelling article several years ago, Turner demonstrated that the NSDAP was largely self-financing, raising phenomenal amounts for its unprecedented propaganda operations from internal sources-membership dues, ticket sales from its rallies and mass meetings, and contributions, for example-and he expands on this important point very effectively here. Nazi propaganda activities were intended to be self-supporting, and the party's national headquarters in Munich never tired of emphasizing this essential point to its regional and local branches. Joseph Goebbels and his propaganda staff certainly encouraged local party affiliates to establish their own campaign funds and an apparatus to solicit contributions from local notables, but the resulting organizations (the so-called Freiheitsbunde) were hardly the sort of vehicle for raising or handling the large sums traditionally assumed to have flowed from the coffers of big business. Indeed, all indications suggest that these funding organizations probably drew on local figures from the professions, the civil service, and from small or middle level business circles, not from the captains of industry It was from just such small and middling businesses that the NSDAP received its greatest financial support, Turner argues convincingly These businessmen were far more vulnerable to the economic vicissitudes of the period than the great industrial giants, and they were extremely resentful of what they considered to be the preferential treatment accorded the great corporations by the Weimar government. indeed, it was to these elements of the German Mittelstand that the Nazis directed so much of their propaganda in 1930-32, hoping to capitalize on precisely such anger
The barons of German industry, on the other hand, Turner argues, were baffled by the "forked tongue" of the NSDAP encouraged by the party's virulent anti-Marxism but unsettled by the NSDAP's equally prominent "socialist" rhetoric and anticapitalist propaganda. As Turner's investigations in the corporate archives reveal, the leading figures of German business-with some prominent exceptions-were profoundly disturbed by the party's relentless condemnation of "big business:' "international high finance:' and "stockmarket capital." Indeed, anticapitalist-or more accurately anti-big business-agitation constituted a major component of the Nazi electoral campaigns of 1930-32, a point too often ignored or dismissed in the literature; as Turner is at pains to demonstrate, such agitation produced a chilling impact on most cortorate leaders. At various junctures individual Nazi chieftans, including, of course, Hitler himself sought to reassure the Wirtschaft, but these efforts, as Turner convincingly shows, were consistently undermined by the party's public antibusiness posturing. Moreover, most industrialists found Nazi pronouncements on economic policy bewildering or dangerously naive, and at best remained deeply ambivalent about the party, even after its dramatic electoral breakthrough in the fall of 1930.
Although the NSDAP had much to recommend it to big business, especially its hostility to Marxism and organized Labor, the Wirtschaft nevertheless continued to prefer the older, more established bourgeois parties, especially the right-wing liberal DVP and the conservative DNVE and consistently favored them with campaign contributions. As the depression deepened, however, and the NSDAP emerged as a major factor in German domestic polities, contacts between the Nazis and business spokesmen intensified. Indeed, during 1931 and into the summer of 1932, as the Nazis marched from one electoral triumph to another, the NSDAP did at last receive subsidies from both individual business leaders and industrial organizations, but these subventions, Turner argues,were neither as extensive as traditionally believed nor were they intended to catapult Hitler into power Instead, they were viewed by the Wirtschaft a"insurance premiums" or "protection money" paid to a party that seemed on the verge of power Moreover, much of this funding was directed to individual Nazis, especially to Hermann Goering, Walter Funk, and Gregor Strasser, who were considered "moderates" within the National Socialist power structure. ,Although the NSDAP had its advocates within the corporate world, most notably Fritz Thyssen, Emil Kirdorf and Hjalmar Schacht, they continued to represent a distinct minority in Germany's boardrooms. Most corporate executives, Turner asserts, remained wary of Hitler, even at the high-water mark of business contributions to the party in the summer of 1932.
Never genuinely close, the relationship between big business and the NSDAE Turner argues, deteriorated rapidly during the last half of 1932. In Franz von Papen, the Wirtschaft had at last found its champion, a chancellor apparently determined to dismantle the welfare state, smash Social Democracy, and undo the virtually moribund democratic constitution. When, however, the Nazis refused to cooperate with Papen and even escalated their radical anticapitalist rhetoric during the fall Reichstag campaign, business leaders withdrew their contributions from the NSDAP and, in a remarkably coordinated effort, channeled them to the pro-Papen parties. As a consequence, relations between big business and the party, Turner concludes, were at a low ebb in late 1932 and did not improve before Hitler's appointment as chancellor on 30
If financial contributions from big business were not critical for Nazi electoral success, neither, Turner contends, did corporate leaders play a major role in the secret negotiations that led to the installation of Hitler as chancellor In a second line of assault on the conventional wisdom, Turner challenges the oft- repeated assertions that "big business played a vital role in effecting the reconciliation between Papen and Hitler," that it "rescued the NSDAP from financial ruin" after this reconcitiation, and that it "helped to turn Hindenburg against [Kurt von] Schleicher and to overcome his resistance to making Hitler chancellor" (p. 314). Despite the meeting between Hitler and Papen at the home of banker Kurt von Schroeder in early January, a clandestine rendezvous frequently cited as proof of Nazi-big business collusion, business leaders actually played a passive role in these critical days. "Money," Turner argues, had "very limited significance during January 1933. The key to power lay in influence with Hindenburg" (p. 318). For all its financial muscle, the Wirtschaft did not possess such influence, but big agriculture, especially the leaders of the Reichslandbund, and the military did. Moreover, relations between the big agrarians and business leaders "had sunk to an all-time low" by the close of 1932, Turner argues, and even the best-informed corporate executives, such as Paul Reusah, therefore appear "to have remained ignorant of the machinations in Berlin that would install Hitler at the head of the government on the thirtieth" (p. 325).
The picture, then, of business's attitude toward National Socialism that emerges from Turner's study is one of deep-seated ambivalence, In contrast to most of the existing literature, Turner's book stresses the negative side of that ambivalence, so strongly, in fact, that at times the author's tone and argumentation seem more like those of an attorney for the defense than those of a dispassionate observer. This is reflected at times in a tendency to stretch a point or overstate a strong case-as for example when the author, in seeking to minimize the significance of Hitler's famous Dusseldorf Industrial Club speech, tells us that "two well-informed eyewitnesses independently reported that the applause came mainly from the young and the obscure, whereas the important senior industrial leaders remained reserved" (p. 213). Yet, if not always convincing, this emphasis on business reset-vations about the NSDAP does in the end serve to redress an imbalance in the conventional view of corporate attitudes toward Hitler and his party. Moreover, though some will dispute the details of Turner's account and challenge his interpretation of certain events-his treatment of business involvement in the famous Harzburg meeting, for example-he has certainly buried the 'agent theory and has carried his major points- that big business harbored few committed Nazi sympathizers, that corporate contributions to the party were far less significant than traditionally assumed, and that the Wirtschaft did not play a direct role in thrusting the party into power in 1933. These are revisionist arguments of the first order, and Turner has built a very strong case.
Less convincing and certain to come under fire is the author's contention that "only through gross distortion can big business be accorded a crucial or even major role in the downfall of the Republic" (p. 340). This is certainly a secondary concern for Turner, but his conclusion is surprising since so much of his own evidence points to a rather different interpretation. It is important to remember that Turner does not deny that industrial leaders made substantial contributions to the NSDAP and one might note that the high water mark of those contributions coincided with the apex of Nazi electoral fortunes in the summer of 1932. Indeed, the impact of those contributions may have been even greater, since business was at that time reducing its financial support for the traditional bourgeois parties. The financial records of the NSDAP were destroyed during the war, so we are unlikely ever to know for certain either the exact magnitude of those contributions or the role they played in Nazi campaign activities. Although one might accept Turner's arguments concerning corporate misgivings about National Socialsm and the relative weight of industrial contributions to the party, the fact that business leaders-for all their reservations-were willing to extend financial assistance to the NSDAP in the summer of 1932 is both significant and suggestive of their attitudes toward the Weimar Republic.
In his remarkable conclusion, Turner mounts an assault on theoretical constructs of all sorts that have posited a causal relationship between capitalism and the triumph of fascism. All too frequently these theoretically oriented works have, in Turner's view,"long on thesis and short on evidence" (p. 353), and he argues forcefully that unless some "proximate form of causation can be convincingly demonstrated, the invocation of more remote levels of causation remains empty speculation, bereft of any foundation in the realities of history" (p. 358). This is a valid point, and Turner is certainly justified in insisting upon it. Yet, historical analysis can legitimately pursue multiple levels of causation, examining both direct and indirect factors in the assessment of complex political, economic, and social phenomena, and the author's determination to examine only immediate influences does not serve him well. For -although industrial leaders, as Turner's researches convincingly show, did not participate directly in the discussions that led to Hitler's appointment, their opposition to the republican government, their contributions to its right-wing opponents, their attacks on its social legislation, and their willingness to entertain possible coalition schemes that would include the NSDAP (but not the Social Democrats) did most certainly contribute to the crisis atmosphere that shrouded the Republic during its last profoundly troubled years.
But if big business grew increasingly intolerant of Weimar democracy as the depression deepened and remained criminally short-sighted, selfish, and naive in its dealings with the NSDAP, as Turner suggests, it was by no means alone. Responsibility for the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of National Socialism extends far beyond the corporate boardrooms of Germany to the leaders of organized agriculture, small business, the military, and finally to the millions who cast their ballots for Adolf Hitler between 1930 and 1932. One might dispute one aspect or another of Turner's analysis, but it seems abundantly clear from his work that corporate money could not buy votes in Weimar Germany, as business leaders repeatedly discovered to their great dismay. If it could have, the DNVP and DVP might well have become electoral juggernauts rather than the Nazis. To understand the National Socialist phenomenon, one must, therefore, move beyond conspiracy theories, beyond even more sophisticated notions about the influence of powerful organized interests and confront the terrible ability of the NSDAP to mobilize a remarkably broad-based constituency from across social classes, religious confessions, and regions to forge Germany's, indeed Europe's, first catch-'all party of protest. Its ability to do so may not reflect "the primacy of politics:' as Turner believes, but his work has shed new and revealing light on an important and controversial sphere of that mobilization effort. Turner's work is unlikely to be the final word in a controversy that is now decades old-indeed, it seems certain to provoke renewed debate; but he has constructed a powerful case that cannot be ignored in any attempt to comprehend the relationship between capitalism and National Socialism before 1933.
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|Publication:||Business History Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1988|
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