Hitler and the false lure of more is better
Nazi Germany's economy was not a central planning success, it was a disaster. Is there a lesson for today?
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But vast spending on the military brought problems for the Nazi leadership. The German economy was still recovering from the destruction of WWI, the loss of the Ruhr heavy industrial area, the Great Depression and the reparations payments. Germany. While other economies had been forced off the gold standard, Germany held to its strong mark policies. It lacked the raw materials needed to build heavy military equipment and the fuel needed to power a modern economy and modern war machine. Those could only be bought with foreign currencies, which it could earn by trade, or by drawing down its own hard currency reserves of gold.Skip to next paragraph
Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind The Daily Reckoning (dailyreckoning.com).
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By 1936, it was clear that the government would run out of money in just a few months. The Nazi leadership had already ‘fixed’ the farm sector — with various jury rigs and many unintended consequences. The market system had largely been replaced by a system of bureaucratic meddles and price controls which, naturally and predictably, led to shortages that had to be reconciled by rationing.
Now, this same sort of meddling was causing shortages in the manufacturing sector too. If something were not done, the whole rearmament effort could come to a halt. Germany was not rich enough to be able to afford guns and butter — at least not on the scale promised by the Nazi Party. And with their spreading system of bureaucratic management, neither the guns nor butter were likely to last long.
At the time, Mr. Hitler was lucky to have at least one economist with a clearer head than most of his other advisors and henchmen. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler came from a tough, conservative Prussian family. He was smart. He was a good organizer. He was persuasive. Goerdeler seemed like a decent sort, too. After all, in 1933, as mayor of Leipzig, he refused to enforce the national boycott against Jewish businesses and ordered the police to release several Jews who had been taken hostage by the S.A.
Goerdeler may not have been impressed with Adolf Hitler in every respect. Still, as late as 1936 he believed the Fuhrer was an “enlightened dictator” and that if he could only explain to him what was going on, he might be led to make the right choice. He saw readily that you can’t continue to spend more than you earn; Germany would have to adjust its priorities. ‘More’ would no longer work.
While he knew Hitler was dead-set on military expansion, Goerdeler urged the Fuhrer to forget the whole thing. Germany could not afford both guns and butter, he argued, and the German people would be better off with butter. Devalue the mark, he urged. Abandon the program of breakneck re-militarization. Come to terms with England, France and America. Drop the hard-line anti-Jewish claptrap. In short, become a civilized nation with a market economy, rather than a centrally-planned war economy.
He wanted to take this message to Hitler personally, to talk to him, to try to persuade him. But his friends talked him out of it. Hitler had put Hermann Goring into a position as his chief economic advisor. But Goring was very unlike Helmut Schacht at the central bank, who was also calling for a more ‘normal’ free market economy. Goring was a central planner…and a Nazi…through and through. So, Goerdeler prepared a memo for Hitler and passed it to Goring. The latter annotated it before passing it to the Fuhrer, marking critical passages “nonsense!”
Instead of embracing Goerdeler’s plan, Hitler came up with his own 4-Year Plan, released in 1936. It rejected a free-market economy altogether. Instead, Germany would have a war economy, in which all economic and financial decisions were subordinate to the interests of the military.
Like today’s neo-cons, Hitler told his followers that Germany was in a fight for its very survival. Therefore, the laws that applied to normal societies — including the laws of economics — no longer applied to Germany:
“The nation does not live for the economy, for economic leaders, or for economic or financial theories; on the contrary, it is finance and the economy, economic leaders and theories, which all owe unqualified service in this struggle for the self-assertion of our nation.”
In the age-old battle between force and persuasion…civilization and barbarianism…the market and politics…central planning and individual planning…the winner was clear. Germany had gone over to the dark side. Hitler had chosen more military spending…more central planning…and more war.
Politics was triumphant. War was inevitable. And Carl Goedeler was soon history. He began to conspire against Adolph Hitler…including the attempt to kill him in 1944. For his trouble, Goedeler was hung in 1945.
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