Monday, December 13, 2010

The Wages of Destruction!

Our book today is Adam Tooze's 2006 The Wages of Destruction. It's subtitled "The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy," and it's an astounding work that's rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that it should have bored me cross-eyed. Tooze has delved deep into the financial records and business accords of Germany in the first half of the 20th century, and his book is replete with tables and graphs, nor is he a man afraid to raise the unholy specter of tariff revisions. Fortunately, he's got an ear for serious historical narrative (this book is, blessedly, about as far away from the '102 Amazing Things You Thought You Knew About WWII - But Didn't!!!' school of history-writing as it's possible to be) and a compelling way with marshaling and presenting all that research he did, or I'd have been stonewalled after about two pages.

He also has a curiosity about bigger questions, including the biggest question of 'em all when it comes to Nazi Germany: how was it possible? How was it possible that a country known for its culture and hospitality could become the nest of one of the most evil states in history? Like virtually every other major historian of the time, Tooze refuses to state (or perhaps even to believe) the glaringly obvious explanation - but that serves his purposes anyway, since he's mainly concerned with the very practical side of that question: not how was it possible, spiritually and philosophically, but how was in possible, practically and financially? How did the Nazis pay for it all, and what can that tell us about their history? Tooze is convinced the question of money holds the key to many other questions besides:
For it is only by re-examining the economic underpinnings of the Third Reich, by focusing on questions of land, food and labour that we can fully get to grips with the breathtaking process of cumulative radicalization that found its most extraordinary manifestation in the Holocaust.

And he's not only convinced of this - he's convincing. Reading this fantastic book is like inhaling a gust of cold fresh air, clarifying so much and making you realize just how many WWII histories you've read that ended up being mainly one more colossal re-run of tanks, marching troops, the fog of war, Churchill's bulldog tenacity, and the race for Berlin. It's always invigorating when a really talented historian shakes up some comfortable narrative by looking at it from a new perspective, and Tooze does that throughout his book. He wants to know how the Great Depression fits into it all, how the economic policies of the National Socialists were received in all levels of German society, and abroad - along the way providing a much-needed reminder that the early 1930s were very tricky years for anybody to assume control of a nation, even if that 'anybody' was a gang of ruthless, evil thugs:
It was this contrast between domestic authoritarianism and international 'liberalism' that defined the ambiguous position in which German business found itself in 1933. On the one hand, Hitler's government brought German businessmen closer towards realizing their domestic agenda than ever before. By the end of 1934 the Third Reich had imposed a state of popular pacification that had not existed in Germany since the beginning of the industrial era in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the disintegration of the world economy and the increasingly protectionist drift of German politics was profoundly at odds with the commercial interests of much of the German business community.

Naturally, Hitler steps onto the stage almost immediately and never leaves it, and you'd think that might hamper Tooze in the pursuit of his subject. But to the extent that he agrees with some big names in the field by insinuating that economics relies more on personalities than most people think, it turns out to be no hindrance at all. Hitler was no economist, but until he completely lost his mind, he had some pretty uncanny instincts for survival - and Tooze charts these shifts and twists very adroitly:
If Hitler had wanted war on 1 October 1938, he could have had it. The French and the British had reached the point at which they could make no further concessions. The armies of France and the Soviet Union had mobilized. The Royal Navy stood at full alert. On 29 September 1938 it was Hitler who stepped back not his opponents, and there is no better explanation for this abrupt change of course than the sheer weight of evidence, argument and pressure that had been brought to bear on him over the previous weeks ... Nobody could accuse either Goering or Mussolini of opposing war on principle. But neither wanted to risk a war against Britain and France in 1938. Furthermore, if Hitler abstained from open military aggression, the British and the French were clearly willing to give him virtually anything he might ask for. Reluctantly, Hitler backed down and accepted the extraordinarily generous settlement on offer at the hastily convened conference in Munich. In doing so, he almost certainly saved his regime from disaster.

Tooze naturally comes to some epic conclusions in the course of his book - one of the most bracingly fascinating things about The Wages of Destruction is how brave it is in making those big statements, and yet how shrewd (WWII wunderkind Niall Ferguson knows all about the big statement part, for instance, but he could learn a thing or two from this book about the shrewdness). Our author isn't willing to say that World War II was the war to end all wars, but he makes an interesting case that one of its aftermaths was "its demonstration of the futility of war as a means of great power politics." I read that first with outraged denial, but it stuck with me, and I like it when challenging ideas stick with me. Plenty of historians declare that the Second World War changed the very nature of the world, but I've never read the particularly limiting nature of that change put better:
The apocalyptic temptation of militarism was largely exorcized from Europe. Its dying embers flared up only occasionally in the rearguard actions of empire. but with it also went any aspiration to the 'freedom' once implied by great power status. As early as the autumn of 1943, after the Battle of Kursk, the United States ha realized that the dominant power over Europe for the foreseeable future would be the Soviet Union, not Britain, let alone France.

It's a mark of how good this book is that the above quote - and many more gems just like it - are actually far afield from its central topic; that prodigality of insight is the mark of a master at work, and it's one of the main reasons I so regularly re-read this book. There's a shelf of truly landmark WWII histories - it's about 55 books long, and The Wages of Destruction belongs on it.


Chuck Darwin said...

Very nice review. I've long considered purchasing this book, and am now on the cusp.

So, is there space on that 55-long bookshelf for Weinberg's "World at Arms"? I'm thinking of tackling it over the holidays, but wouldn't mind a little encouragement if warranted :D.

Steve Donoghue said...

"World at Arms" is very, very good and is indeed on that shelf! Tackle away - you'll love it!

Mike said...

Accd to your categories list, you've only written about 3 World War One books. (Is this possible???) The way that war ended the 19th century makes it particularly haunting to me. Maybe you could recommend a few books on that topic sometime?

Steve Donoghue said...

THREE??? Can that possibly be? I could swear I've written about more than three books on WWI! I agree it's a haunting and incredibly important subject, and yes, I will certainly work up an entry listing the Top 10!