Buying Genocide, Part 2

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In the first installment of this series, I discussed two major explanations for the extensive support the Nazis received from virtually the entire German population. One is the view that the majority of ordinary Germans supported the genocide of the Jews because of the historically peculiar breadth and depth of their pre-existing cultural anti-Semitism — it was a virulent “eliminationist” strain (to use Goldhagen’s term) expressing a desire to eliminate Jews from the world. The other view (elaborated forcefully by Groth and others) is that a better explanation lies in the formidable police state that oppressed the German people, as well as the cradle-to-grave propaganda machine that worked on German opinion ceaselessly.

Only a couple of years after Groth’s article, an eminent German historian published a fine book that explored a new theory for German support for the Nazi regime. This book — Aly’s Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State — “set the cat among the pigeons,” as Tom Palmerhas put it. Really, I would suggest to Palmer that the book set a lynx among the pigeons.

The systematic plunder of others (especially Jews) and the flow of this plunder into households of average Germans was precisely what made the populace generally compliant and content.

In his preface, Aly recounts that one of the inspirations for his book was Stuart Eizenstat’s efforts to recover damages from the German and Swiss governments for Jews who had their bank accounts and other assets stolen by the Nazis. His only worry about such efforts is that they reinforce a false narrative — that only German industrialists, financiers, and other elites of the German bourgeoisie were responsible for the Holocaust. This wrongly shifts the blame from the German people generally to a relatively few “bad actors.”

On the contrary, Aly’s research has discovered that the systematic plunder of others (especially of course the Jews) and the flow of this plunder into households of average Germans was precisely what made the populace generally compliant and content. The Nazis bought the support of the people. Aly strikes a personal note by saying that when he asked relatives who lived through the regime, they cheerfully admitted that they were well-provisioned with clothes, food, jewelry, shoes, and other goods by family members serving in the German military abroad, and that the antique furniture he had inherited was undoubtedly pelf purloined from Dutch Jews. Aly holds that “Hitler was able to maintain general morale by transforming Germany’s military offenses into an increasingly coordinated series of destructive raids aimed at plundering other peoples” (4). Here he quotes Göring’s cynical words, “If someone has to go hungry, let it be someone other than a German.”

More broadly, Aly adds, his work is aimed at helping to explain why the Germans so often tolerated “unprecedented crimes against humanity.” He is admirably accepting of a multicausal (or compound causal) approach. He rightly observes that the powerful racist and anti-Semitic ideology of the regime. But ideology is only a partial explanation, in the sense that traditional German anti-Semitism was no more virulent, nor German nationalism more intense, than those that other nations experienced antecedently — or contemporaneously. And while the regime relied on a powerful propaganda machine to promulgate its general ideology and specific policies, that is only a partial cause of the people’s tacit or overt support. Aly notes (5–6) that even in the medieval pogroms, religious hatred was conjoined with overt plunder, and gives several historical examples. He sums up this point by saying, “While anti-Semitism was a necessary precondition for the Nazi attack on European Jews, it was not a sufficient one. The material interests of millions of individuals first had to be brought together with anti-Semitic ideology before the great crime we now know as the Holocaust could take on its genocidal momentum” (6).

Survivors cheerfully admitted that they were well-provisioned with clothes, food, jewelry, shoes, and other goods by family members serving in the German military abroad.

But this raises the larger question: how could the “obviously deceitful, megalomaniacal, and criminal” Nazi ideology win over the majority of Germans? Here Aly lays out his plan of attack. Part I of his bookexplores the notion that the first reason Nazi ideology had broad appeal was that while it targeted Jews (and some other groups, such as the disabled and the Roma), it was broadly inclusive, redistributing much wealth to underprivileged Aryans. Part II explores an anomaly: while the Nazis waged an unprecedentedly costly war, they managed to arrange it so that their own soldiers and citizens were well fed. Aly examines the financial tricks the regime used to transfer the wealth of the conquered countries to its own armed forces and citizenry. Part III explores the systematic and historically unparalleled plundering of the Jews. Finally, Part IV explores how internal policies (leveling wealth) and external policies (looting the Jews and conquered people) worked to cement widespread popular support, which lasted to the end of its reign.

Aly’s analysis focuses on the socialistic (i.e., redistributionist) aspects of the regime’s policies, because the common explanations — involving a demonic but charismatic Führer, or some conspiratorial clique of racist ideologues, ultra-wealthy elites, high-ranking military, or major industrialists who seduced the German public — are all unsatisfactory. Such explanations shift blame away from the vast number of Germans who supported the regime. And these “explanations” — really, just excuses — cannot account for that popular support, which manifested itself as lack of widespread opposition to the regime and a refusal to accept blame for it after its demise.

Part I begins with an exploration of the National Socialist ideal state. The ideology was hypernationalistic in that it held that nations (in the broad sense of “peoples,” or extended ethnic groups) were unequal — the German people alone being superior. But the socialist side of the ideology was important as well — all “Aryan” Germans are equal, regardless of economic class. As I suggested in an essay on The Triumph of the Will, one of the earliest and most successful of the regime’s propaganda movies explicitly pushed the theme of German unity across class. The dream of a Volksstaat was one of a “socially just state” in Hitler’s phraseology, or what Aly rightly calls a “welfare state for Germans of the proper racial pedigree” (13).

Prior “explanations” of Nazism cannot account for its popular support, which manifested itself as lack of widespread opposition to the regime and a refusal to accept blame for it after its demise.

When Hitler achieved power in 1933, he was only 43, and most of the other high-level party members were in their late 20s or early 30s; even to the end of the war, the rank and file of the Party viewed it as an extension of the youth movement. Young people rallied to support the regime — for example, university coeds would volunteer to spend their summers staffing daycare centers in Poland so that the German “settlers” could harvest crops. As Aly notes, people in their 20s often desire independence and challenging work, but also the chance to change the world, and the regime seemed to offer that.

Adding to the National Socialist appeal was a conspicuous imitation of leftist sentiments — remember, the Nazis fought the international socialist parties for the support of the German working and agricultural classes. Not surprisingly, the Nazis borrowed some of their opponents’ ideologies. The converse was also true — leftist parties started to borrow Nazi tropes.

Aly adds a point I find fascinating but paradoxical: the regime got its greatest support when it pushed seemingly contradictory policies, such as preserving tradition while embracing technological advance, or indulging the anti-authoritarian desire to topple the old elites with a desire for an authoritarian, rigid new order, or — most contradictory of all — harmonizing the social classes with committing racial genocide.

Another matter Aly explores is the large degree to which the German bureaucracy — especially civil servants in the Ministry of Economics — was transformed and used by the regime for its own purposes. For example, Göring demanded that German Jews pay an “atonement payment” of a billion reichsmarks in 1938 (about $14.5 billion in today’s money — quite a fine for the 214,000 Jews remaining in Germany at the time). The Finance Ministry immediately instituted a 20% tax on all personal assets of Jews, paid in four installments. The Ministry collected much more than Göring’s original goal.

Young people rallied to support the regime — for example, university coeds would volunteer to spend their summers staffing daycare centers in Poland so that the German “settlers” could harvest crops.

Aly argues that the willingness of the populace and the bureaucracy to support the Nazi regime resulted from the fact that the regime gave people much of what they wanted. It delivered many needed reforms (such as reforms on debt collection), as well as consumer goods (such as cars and vacations) and a number of popular policies (from increasing pension plans to environmental conservation). The regime took care to favor families in tax policy and redistribute wealth to poorer workers and farmers. It especially rewarded the families of military personnel, using such means as freezing their rents.

Aly reports, surprisingly, that the regime did not compel public employees to show absolute devotion to the Party. “Instead, it called for closeness to the common man — an anti-elitist stance that held considerable appeal for twentieth-century European intellectuals” (24).

But all of these popular programs needed funding. In 1935, the Nazis’ finance minister held a meeting in which he asked his staff to devise ways to change the tax system so as to extract maximum resources from the Jews. Proposals focused on denying Jews tax exemptions of various kinds — such as exemptions from the tax on dogs to those for people blinded in military service.

Fascinating as well is Aly’s discussion of the average non-Jewish German’s view of the Nazis as “unifiers.” Of course the Party was intolerant of “socialists [i.e., Marxists], Jews, and nonconformists.” But the post-WWI peace treaties that forbade Austria and Germany from unifying were highly unpopular: if nations of similar culture and language wanted to unite, why should other nations be able to stop them? Indeed, “Hitler always defined himself not just as German chancellor, but as leader of the entire German people, including ethnic Germans living outside the boundaries of the state he ruled” (27).

The willingness of the populace and the bureaucracy to support the Nazi regime resulted from the fact that the regime gave people much of what they wanted.

So Hitler’s early victories — the retaking of the Ruhr, the unification with Austria, and the annexation of the Sudetenland (and later the remainder of Czechoslovakia) — all “cheap” in the sense that Germany did not have to go to war to achieve them — together with the appearance of economic recovery, decisively weakened opposition to Hitler on the home front” (28). Aly adds that the regime was not maintained by force but by popular support, and it accordingly worried about the mood of the people and monitored that mood carefully. He notes that while Communist East Germany employed 190,000 secret police to control 17 million citizens, the Gestapo had in 1937 around 7,000 total staff, to keep tabs on 60 million citizens. In 1936, after an initial spasm of violence and terror against their opponents, the Nazis held only about 5,000 people in concentration camps — many just common criminals and vagrants. Aly notes, “Most Germans simply did not need to be subjected to surveillance or detention” (29).

Again, a big reason for this support was the Nazi focus on uniting the 96% of Germans it held to be racially German by smoothing out class and other social differences. Aly points out that a major tool in leveling differences within the “Aryan tribe” was the various uniformed services — the Hitler Youth, the National Labor Service, and the Wehrmacht. As I observed in my earlier review, wearing a uniform does indeed foster uniformity.

Another tool the regime used to level social differences among ethnic Germans was its move in 1939–1942 — a period when Germany seemed likely to assimilate much of Eastern Europe — to relocate Slavs farther to the East and give their land and other property to Germans. Racial ideology again justified the purchase of support: the Slavs, held to be an inferior race, must be forced to vacate their lands so that the “Aryans” would have “living space.” (The official plans called for 50 million Slavs to be relocated to Siberia, or to be slaughtered outright.) The intention was to give poor German farmers small plots of land, and poor German coal-miners access to vast new lands. As a result, “hundreds of soldiers’ wives dreamed of owning country estates in Ukraine” (31). Again, the idea was to purchase popular support with property stolen from non-Germans.

The recession hit bottom in 1933, when Hitler took power, so he got credit for the recovery.

All this was in marked contrast with WWI, during which 400,000 Germans starved to death, and the period of civil unrest and hyperinflation that followed. Between 1914 and 1918, the German average standard of living dropped by two-thirds. The regime was aware of the privation experienced in WWI, and how it undermined support for the war, and it was not going to repeat the mistake.

Aly’s second chapter has the intriguing title, “The Accommodating Dictatorship.” It explains the domestic side of the regime’s purchase of support. When Hitler took power in 1933, 6 million Germans were unemployed, and Hitler promised to put them all back to work. He appeared to accomplish this ambitious goal in just five years. Aly argues, however, that this victory was apparent, not real. He cites figures indicating that while the public came to believe that economic recovery was real, wages were falling. But the recession hit bottom in 1933, when Hitler took power, so he got credit for the recovery. Furthermore, by 1935, the regime had reinstated the draft, remilitarized the Rhineland, officially abrogated the Treaty of Versailles, and withdrawn from the League of Nations: “The early years of Hitler’s rule gave a desperate, belligerent and self-destructive people satisfaction for perceived past affronts.” (37).

But the apparent economic success of the regime was built upon massive borrowing. During the first two years, public debt ballooned by 10.3 billion reichsmarks, or about $144 billion in current dollars. The only taxes raised were those on corporations and the wealthy,and revenues were far below what was needed to fund just the military. Between 1933 and 1939, the regime dumped over 45 billion marks into the military — more than three times the total state revenues for the year 1937. The national debt expanded to 37.7 billion marks. The regime turned increasingly to extracting the money from the Jews. From the time it took power until late 1937, it pursued a campaign of harassment, including forcing Jews to sell their businesses to “Aryans,” aimed at pressuring Jews to emigrate, while it placed increasing restrictions on the ability of emigrating Jews to take assets abroad.

While the regime thus increasingly stole from Jews in a piecemeal fashion, it didn’t pursue a total looting of the Jews as such. But with the takeover of Austria in early 1938, Hitler’s personal economics advisor Wilhelm Keppler was appointed Reich commissioner for Austrian affairs and tasked by Göring with exploiting Austrian natural resources, keeping prices and wages stable, and, more importantly, “Aryanizing” Jewish-owned businesses. The debt caused by the military buildup began to threaten the economy as a whole, so the regime enacted laws requiring native-born Jews to declare all assets worth over 5,000 reichsmarks to the government, creating conditions for the complete confiscation of the assets of Jews fleeing the country, with nothing but state bonds as compensation. In April 1938, Göring met with all Reich ministers to plan “the definitive removal of Jews from economic life” (44). In the face of a worsening financial crisis, the regime sped up its annexation of Czechoslovakia and the war against the Jews. Göring told his assistants that all tangible Jewish assets were to be converted into government bonds, and the proceeds used to fund the regime’s war machine. After the outbreak of war in 1939, this 1938 model of Aryanizing Jewish assets would be applied all over the conquered lands (as Aly shows in deep detail).

But the apparent economic success of the regime was built upon massive borrowing. During the first two years, public debt ballooned.

While the Jews (and later others) were having their assets confiscated, the regime increased its taxes on the wealthiest Germans and the biggest corporations. During all this, middle and lower classes were, by deliberate design, only lightly taxed. The regime was sensitive to its base of support. This led to a long struggle between the regime’s economic realists — who felt that the lower and middle classes needed to shoulder part of the burden of the war — and what I would call the regime’s political realists (especially Hitler and Göring), who wanted to be sure that the regime’s base of support was contented enough to not rebel. Aly documents this strategy. For example, he shows that in 1941, the regime instituted tax breaks for farmers, and actually raised pensions. The latter move was intended to combat the widespread suspicion that “the National Socialists had no time for the elderly and physically weak and wanted them to die off quickly” (56). Aly understands the strategy, observing that when the regime’s ally Mussolini was kicked out by his own countrymen in the summer of 1943, Goebbels called for a renewal of National Socialism to make sure that the lower and middle classes had no material cause for complaint, so no reason to rebel. The focus was now (in 1943) to be on owners of rental property and stocks.

The battle between the economic and the political realists continued even into 1945, as the regime’s demise was clearly and universally apparent. The political realists — who included the Party members at the top of the hierarchy — prevailed. In fact, during the war, “family members of German soldiers had 72.8% of peace-time household income at their disposal. That [was] nearly double what families of American (36.7%) and British soldiers (38.1%) received” (72).

In part II, Aly takes up the subjugation and subsequent exploitation of first Western and then Eastern Europe by the Wehrmacht. Here Aly richly documents the various tricks the regime used to covertly loot lands it conquered. This was a radical form of imperialism, indeed: force the conquered lands to pay for the conquering army that oppressed it. And it was quite a financial trick, indeed.

Aly explores the foreign “contributions” that came to Germany. He notes that at the outset of war, despite wage and price controls, the profits of companies and the wages of workers increased, as did the pay awarded to soldiers. But with production more and more focused on the military, there was a gap between purchasing power and what was available to the public. This led to black markets, inflation, and a flight to tangible assets, such as durable goods. The problem grew acute by late 1939, and as the gap widened through 1941, the regime finally decided to export inflation to conquered lands. As one Finance Ministry bureaucrat put it (echoing Göring), “If there has to be inflation, better there than in Germany” (76). Aly notes that pillaging foreign economies thus served two purposes: it kept the regime’s base relatively well-provisioned, and it was a major source of funding for the war machine. Regarding the latter, the regime had the explicit goal of getting any conquered territory to pay for all the costs of military occupation. Aly documents how the regime was able to do this “with unwavering efficiency.”

This was a radical form of imperialism, indeed: force the conquered lands to pay for the conquering army that oppressed it.

In occupied Serbia, for example, the Nazis set up a new Serbian national bank with a new currency and outlawed most currency exchanges, thus forcing people to cash in their real currency for a new one. This temporarily halted inflation — and allowed the Serbs to pay their “contribution for military protection” (as the regime called it, in all the countries it occupied). During the war the regime exacted unprecedented financial tributes from the countries it conquered — tributes that “soon exceeded the total peacetime budgets of the countries in question, usually by 100% and in the second half of the war by more than 200%” (77). Aly shows in detail how this affected Poland, France, Denmark and Norway. By 1943, most of the revenues funding the Nazi war machine came from “contributions” from conquered countries, and from the regime’s “allies” (Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania), as well as from foreign slave labor in Germany and the complete dispossession of the Jews.

The regime, as Aly shows, was successful in its clever manipulation of official exchange rates in occupied countries. He documents this in the case of occupied France, Bohemia, and Moravia. This currency manipulation, along with the establishment of “clearing accounts,” helped German consumers and Wehrmacht soldiers as well as the war regime. Soldiers “bought” massive amounts of food and other goods in the countries in which they were stationed and shipped them home to help their families.

Aly explores the use of another financial gimmick the regime employed — “Reich Credit Bank” certificates, which looked like paper money and could be traded by troops for local goods. As one German minister put it, these were really “requisition receipts disguised as money.” The regime had devised a way to take what it needed without incurring the direct wrath of those being relieved of their goods.

When the customs border between Germany and the Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia was eliminated, German soldiers went on a “purchasing frenzy."

The regime forced allies and conquered countries alike to buy its bonds, and by July of 1944 it owed roughly 29 billion marks (or about $421 billion in today’s dollars) to the bondholders. An internal Nazi report estimated the total value of goods and services taken from the occupied territories from 1939 to 1944 at as much as 100 billion reichsmarks ($1.4 trillion in today’s dollars).

In a chapter called “Profits for the People,” Aly explores other mechanisms of plunder. One of them was direct soldier purchases. For example, German soldiers in the Netherlands were allowed to receive up to $15,000 per month (in today’s dollars) to buy local goods and ship them home. And German soldiers could take as much cash as they wanted when leaving Germany to return to the conquered lands. This led, predictably, to German soldiers buying so many local supplies that shortages ensued, much to the distress of the German occupying authorities. When the customs border between Germany and the Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia was eliminated, German soldiers went on a “purchasing frenzy,” buying all the Czech goods they could, furniture included.

As Aly puts it, “German soldiers literally emptied the shelves of Europe. They sent millions of packages home from the front. The recipients were mainly women. When one [i.e., an historian such as Aly] asks the now elderly witnesses about this period in history, their eyes still gleam at the memory of the shoes from North Africa, the velvet, silk, liqueurs, and coffee from France, the tobacco from Russia, and the tons of herring from Norway — not to mention the various gifts that poured from Germany’s allies Romania, Hungary, and Italy” (97). Aly quotes numerous letters of German civilians saying in essence that they suffered no privations during the war years.

Aly gives another example: in the words of a French historian, these contrived purchases for the people back home “did significant damage to the French national economy, playing a significant role in the development of the black market and inflation. They were the reason it was increasingly difficult for everyday French people to procure the basic necessities” (99). Aly shows that the same phenomenon occurred in the Baltic States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Poland.

In the Wannsee Conference the next year, Heydrich emphasized the need for apartments in driving the decision to exterminate the Jews.

This pervasive pillaging fostered a climate of corruption and crime. Aly quotes extensively from an internal regime report on corrupt conditions in the Ukraine. The report reviews letters written home by German soldiers, and alleges that the Ukraine has become “the Reich’s flea market,” with soldiers writing their families to send cheap jewelry, cosmetics, used clothes, and other junk to be traded with the locals for the best food and produce. All this “sharp trading” was done by the Aryans, the very people who targeted the Jews for annihilation because they were allegedly — sharp traders! Vicious irony, indeed.

The crucial year for the outright dispossession of the Jews was 1941. In that year, “while people in the East were dreaming of a black market El Dorado,” civilians in Germany’s northwestern cities were really hurting from the British bombing. The Gauleiter of Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann, requested of Hitler that the Jews be removed so their apartments could be given to non-Jewish citizens made homeless by the Allied bombs. Hitler immediately made this an order. In the Wannsee Conference the next year, Heydrich emphasized the need for apartments in driving the decision to exterminate the Jews, and in late 1941, the first Jews rounded up were in the cities most bombed.

Not only were the Jews’ apartments confiscated, but so were their household effects, from their furniture down to their clothes. This policy was extended shortly thereafter to cover fine art, which was confiscated and sold. From France alone, the regime extracted about a million cubic meters of household goods from more than a quarter million Jewish homes. There are similar figures for goods taken from Jews in Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, and for the wholesale confiscation of containers filled with the household effects of Jews who had emigrated earlier (129). By 1942, the regime was confiscating the containers of household effects of Jews now being sent to the death camps. And the regime bragged about what it was doing — one poster Aly that reproduces has a headline proclaiming that 1,362,945 books were seized, “enough to fully equip 2,600 local libraries” (128). Aly adds that the recipients of these handouts were grateful to the regime, as shown by an outpouring of thank-you notes.

Aly provides a revealing discussion of the regime’s systematic looting of the areas of Western Europe under its control from their fall in 1940 to their liberation in 1945. He describes the various mechanisms the regime used for surreptitious transfer of assets from the occupied population to the regime’s home base, via the hands of occupying German troops, who bought goods to send home. The burden was heavy. Belgium, a nation of about 8.3 million people, whose pre-war state budget was 11 billion francs, was pressed to pay 18 billion francs to the regime for occupation costs. With stolen Belgian money, the regime was able to buy in that country 18,500 motor vehicles, 1,100 locomotives, and 22,000 freight cars — in 1941 alone! That same year the regime was able to steal 41 tons of Belgium’s gold. All this the regime itself carefully documented. During the period in which Belgium was under occupation (1940–1944), its government spent 83.3 billion francs on providing for its own citizens, but had 133.6 billion francs worth of goods and currency taken for occupation costs — not counting the stolen Belgian gold or the loot grabbed from Belgium’s Jews.

By 1942, the regime was redistributing the household effects of Jews sent to the death camps. Recipients of these handouts were grateful to the regime, as shown by an outpouring of thank-you notes.

Statistics are equally striking for the other occupied counties. By 1944, the Netherlands had paid 8.3 billion reichsmarks (about $120 billion today), quite a sum for a nation of 8.8 million citizens to bear. 60% of that money was used to buy goods for the German citizenry. France during the occupation surrendered a staggering 40 billion reichsmarks to the regime (or about $580 billion dollars). Although Germany occupied its erstwhile ally Italy only from 1943 to 1945, it managed to extract the equivalent of 10 billion reichsmarks ($145 billion current dollars) from the hapless country.

Aly does not neglect the role that the Eastern European occupied territories played in the regime’s program of purchased support. He suggests that a huge component was the use of forced — truly, slave — labor. The regime made between 8 and 12 million people work for it, essentially for free and under harsh and dangerous conditions. Most of these forced laborers were from Eastern Europe. They were housed in shabby conditions (for which they were charged), and were paid 15% to 40% lower than German workers. And the regime managed by various schemes to divert much of that pay for the war effort. The workers’ pay was taxed, of course. Also, the regime officially set aside the money for the workers’ families, back in their home countries, paying these families in local currency out of the “occupation charges.” In other words, the home countries were forced to support the workers’ families. The essence of the regime’s con was clearly identified in 1944, by eminent jurist Raphael Lemkin: “The occupied countries not only finance exports to Germany but also pay their own people working in Germany.”[1]

Workers from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia received the worst treatment. Men and women taken prisoner and shipped to Germany to work in the labor camps would have their property liquidated and the money theoretically held in trust for their return, but in practice it was merely confiscated. The conscripted workers were paid low wages, and the Poles in particular had to pay a 15% “supplemental social compensation fee” in addition to an income tax. Poles in agricultural work got as little as 8.5 reichsmarks ($125 in current dollars) to 26.5 reichsmarks ($348) per month. In addition to the special fee, they were assigned to the highest income tax rates (paid by the wealthiest Germans).

Generally, Aly notes, “the amounts deducted from the wages of Jews — as well as of Gypsies and forced laborers from Eastern Europe — were thus more than triple those demanded of German workers. The Reich was able to double its wage tax revenues during the latter half of World War II on the backs of involuntary workers assigned to German industry” (160). There was some internal opposition — that of some people within the regime who feared that exploitation of the forced laborers would lessen their will to work hard and encourage resistance at home. But one economist estimated that, among Polish and Russian workers earning 40 reichsmarks per week, only 10 were left after the various taxes, fees, and charges for room and board in the labor camps.

But even leaving those meager wages in the hands of the forced workers threatened to reduce the availability and increase the prices of consumer goods for the “Aryan” Germans. So the regime devised another scheme: paying the forced laborers in part by special “savings bonds,” which supposedly offered a 2% interest rate but in the end were virtually unredeemable.

Among Polish and Russian workers earning 40 reichsmarks per week, only 10 were left after the various taxes, fees, and charges for room and board in the labor camps.

By these various artifices, the regime was able to pocket 60% to 70% of the forced laborers’ wages, which allowed for stable prices and no shortages and — as Aly shows in detail — in great measure paid for the social welfare programs that benefited “Aryan” workers. Behold National Socialism: it delivered the goods for the national workers in great measure by exploiting the international ones!

Reviewing the specific measures — including wholesale currency manipulation and food confiscation disguised as food purchases — by which the regime was able to pillage Ukraine and Russia, Aly trenchantly observes, “Even with food rationing, and wartime changes in people’s eating habits, shortfalls occurred. But as it had not done in World War I, the German leadership transferred the burdens of those shortages to people in occupied countries, to disadvantaged minorities, and to Soviet prisoners. The result was famine in Poland, Greece, and especially the Soviet Union; in psychiatric hospitals, ghettos, concentration camps, and POW camps, people starved to death” ( 170). The result, as Aly notes, was also a savage exploitation of Soviet POWs. By 1942, 2 million of the 3.3 million Red Army prisoners had died in the camps or in transit to the camps.

The regime stole a staggering amount from the Soviet territories. In one telling chart, Aly shows that the regime was able to transfer about 106 million Gus (grain units, with 2.5 Gus being what it takes to keep one person alive for a year) from Soviet lands to the Reich in the years 1941–43. Before the invasion, the Soviets produced 101% of the food needed to feed their public. This means that the Germans deprived about 21.2 million Soviet citizens of the food necessary for survival. Aly contrasts reports by German civilians that, until February 1945, no women complained that their children lacked whole milk, with reports of about 4,000 people starving to death a day in Leningrad.

In Part III, Aly focuses on the dispossession of the Jews. Chapter 7 — aptly entitled “Larceny as a State Principle” — tackles the common view that the “Aryanization” of Jewish property benefited German businessmen and bank directors the most. Aly argues that this is a false narrative. He describes in detail how the process took place.

Behold National Socialism: it delivered the goods for the national workers in great measure by exploiting the international ones!

Typically, first in Germany and then throughout occupied Europe, Jewish assets were first nationalized (i.e., seized by the state or occupation forces), then privatized (i.e., sold atbargain prices to non-Jewish individuals). Even selling these goods at bargain prices, however, brought substantial revenues to the state treasuries. In this regard, the 1938 seizure and sale of Jewish assets, which helped the regime to spend like mad building up its war machine without inducing hyperinflation, served as a model for how it would run its conquered territories.

The model proved useful indeed. As the regime imposed onerous “occupation costs” on its conquered territories — costs that in just the first year, according to one Reichsbank study, represented 211% of regular state revenues in France, 200% in Belgium, 180% in Holland, and 242% in Norway — it used the expropriation of Jewish assets to hold off hyperinflation in those countries.It pursued the policy under tight secrecy. Since the liquidation of civilian assets was a complete violation of international law, the regime employed small cadres of trained senior officials to do the actual seizures. Aly notes that in Serbia, where enough documentation remains to reconstruct the process, within one year after the invasion a Wehrmacht administrator reported that he had all the Jewish men rounded up and shot, and all the Jewish women and children suffocated to death by truck exhaust fumes. With Serbia’s 22,000 Jews dead, administrators from the department responsible for implementing Göring’s Four-Year Plan began the seizure and liquidation of their assets. The money flowed first to the Serbian treasury, then to the Nazi treasury as payment for occupation costs. The amount seized was able to cover more than six months of occupation costs, which dramatically lowered inflationary pressures in Serbia for an even longer period.

Aly notes that while ordinarily the expropriation of Jewish assets was done without any cover of law, in 1941 the regime did pass a law — the Reich Citizenship Law — that in one stroke seized the assets of Jews, which in great measure had earlier been forcibly converted into bonds, so it was easy to do. The debts were simply nullified. In 1942, Himmler and Reichsbank President Walther Funk worked out a deal by which all gold, gemstones, and cash taken from the death camp inmates would be given to the Reichsbank, which would then pay the market rate for this loot into a special treasury account (under a fictitious owner, ironically named “Max Heiliger” or “Holyman”). While gold watches were sold domestically, the regime sold jewelry in Switzerland.

Aly describes exactly how in 1941 one Jewish couple (the Uhlmanns) were dispossessed of more than 47,000 reichsmarks, between the emigration tax, the tax on Jewish wealth, and the confiscation of bonds when they fled to Luxembourg. When the regime conquered Luxembourg, they were killed. The money extracted from them “allowed the state to avoid tax increases — equivalent to a 50% hike for eight hundred workers with two children each — that otherwise would have been necessary,” as well as to “absorb some excess spending power in the middle of the war by selling off the Uhlmanns’ possessions” (200).

With Serbia’s 22,000 Jews dead, administrators from the department responsible for implementing Göring’s Four-Year Plan began the seizure and liquidation of their assets.

Aly devotes another chapter to various ways the regime used to launder the money it stole from Jews. He starts by describing how the regime used the puppet it installed in Norway, Vidkun Quisling, to strip Norway’s 2,100 Jews of their possessions. He did this in stages, and was able to put 11 million reichsmarks from the liquidated property into the Norwegian treasury, which then passed to the regime as part of the occupation costs, which then passed into the hands of German soldiers and regime procurement officers. Watches stolen from Jews were given out to German generals, who sometimes gave them away as Christmas gifts to staff and families.

The Belgian campaign to steal Jewish assets was carried out by the German military administration, rather than a collaborationist regime. As early as October 1940, the Wehrmacht required its approval for every ordinance concerning Jewish business, the registration of all Jews and all businesses “in which Jews had influence,” and the wholesale removal of Jews from the government. The next month the Wehrmacht ordered the removal of Jews from the economy and the liquidation of their businesses. But throughout the process, the regime managed by various subterfuges to keep a public “façade of legitimacy” over this asset seizure.

In Holland, the regime followed its common course after conquest: the removal of Jews from the economy. By 1941, Dutch Jews had to register their various assets. Shortly thereafter, the liquidation of Jewish assets began, under the color of legitimate governance. Dutch stockholders helped the regime sell about 80% of confiscated Jewish stocks, the proceeds going into state and industrial bonds — which made it appear as a transfer rather than a seizure. But the bonds were soon converted into Dutch government securities and used to cover the costs of occupation. Of the 14.5 billion reichsmarks (or about $210 billion in current dollars) extracted from the Netherlands during its occupation, about 10% came from the country’s tiny Jewish population of 140,000 souls.

Watches stolen from Jews were given out to German generals, who sometimes gave them away as Christmas gifts to staff and families.

The Reich didn’t simply enrich itself; it subsidized its allies. Even in 1940, in the puppet state of Slovakia, laws were passed to “Aryanize” the economy, with the goal of shipping all Jews to Madagascar (Adolf Eichmann’s personal plan). In just the first two years, the Slovakian government liquidated or “Aryanized” nearly all the 2,000 registered Jewish businesses — to the evident advantage of the non-Jewish population. In late 1941, when it went to war with Russia, the Slovakian government decreed a compulsory “contribution” of 20% of the total Jewish wealth under its control. During 1941 to 1942 the Slovakian government deported most of the country’s 89,000 Jews — with 53,000 sent directly to Auschwitz in just the first 13 weeks. Of the 7 billion crowns that Germany stole from tiny Slovakia during the war, 40% came from liquidated Jewish wealth — amazing, considering that Jews constituted only about 3% of the population. The story was the same in the Nazi puppet state of Croatia.

Bulgaria, which had joined the Axis Powers before they began their war with Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941, had to “loan” the Reichsbank nearly 62 million reichsmarks in 1941. It received parts of Thrace and Macedonia in compensation. It then had to cover the total costs of the German forces within its territory. It passed an anti-Semitic law in early 1941 that declared Jews to be foreigners and required them to register all their assets. Over the next two years these assets were pillaged. The Jews in Thrace and Macedonia were shipped to extermination camps in 1943.

Similarly, in Romania, even by 1940 Jewish-owned properties were being confiscated. This accelerated during the next year. By the end of 1942, surviving Romanian Jews were sent to Treblinka and murdered. Himmler was able to boast of settling half a million ethnic Germans in Romania in property once owned by Jews. In the end, the Jews were forced to cover 25% to 33% of the total costs of Romania’s part in the war.

Even the ancient Jewish cemetery in Salonika was cleared of headstones and the land auctioned off for real estate development.

Aly has been able to uncover the fate of the Jews of Salonika, Greece, once a center of Jewish population.This is a story that many Greeks would rather not confront. Crucial to the story is the “Aryanization” of Jewish assets — including twelve tons of gold (worth perhaps $5 billion today). Suffice it to say that the Nazis, along with their Italian and Bulgarian allies, rapidly conquered Greece and divided it into three occupation zones. As the Germans (and Bulgarians) took the produce of the land, the Greek currency started to lose its value. Stories surfaced about Greek children starving. Even Hitler was concerned enough to raise the issue with Mussolini. The Nazis sent in a special emissary to stabilize the situation. His measures “accelerated the ghettoization, dispossession, and deportation of Jews” (250). In October 1942, the Germans were pressing for Greece’s Jewish population, mainly concentrated in Salonika, to be dispossessed. In January 1943, Eichmann’s deputy Gunther flew to Salonika to help the process. Within two months, Jews were forced to declare their assets to the newly created Greek Office for the Management of Jewish Assets. Shortly thereafter — starting March 15, 1943 — deportations of Salonika’s 44,000 Jews began (along with 2,000 additional Jews from nearby), and were completed in a matter of months.

Jewish properties were seized and sold. Even the ancient Jewish cemetery in Salonika was cleared of headstones and the land auctioned off for real estate development. The proceeds were used, as elsewhere, to fund the Wehrmacht. But because of the rapid inflation of Greek currency and the relative poverty of the land, the Nazis focused on wringing as much gold out of the victims. The gold, Aly suggests, was sold by Greek brokers in Athens, and the cash that was raised flowed to the Wehrmacht, which used it to purchase local supplies to feed the troops and to pay the troops themselves. This stabilized the currency. The 46,000 Jews sent for Salonika to Auschwitz yielded 12 tons of gold, which was between two-thirds and three-fourths of the occupation costs. This gold stayed in Greece.

Part IV of Aly’s book, called “Crimes for the Benefit of the People,” draws his themes together and adds a great deal of information on the motives of Nazi minions.

For instance, he says, “Before the victims of Nazi looting could be deported from the occupied territories, the German military officers had to agree on and in most cases provide the means of transport. They did this without the slightest objection — and not simply because they hated Jews or were willing to sacrifice the last vestige of their consciences out of a supposedly innate German need for obedience. The officers helped carry out the deportations because the deportations served their own interests” (280). That is, besides the standard explanations for the expulsion and dispossession of the Jews — i.e., widespread German racialist anti-Semitism and the regime’s propaganda “ceaselessly” portraying Jews as a dangerous enemy “fifth column” — the driving motivation for the Wehrmacht’s complicity was the desire to keep troop morale up and keep pushing ahead with the military strategy. This military imperative to seize Jewish and other assets was intensified by the resolve of Nazi economists not to fund more than half the war’s costs by debt.

Aly notes that the various deceitful and opaque means of confiscating Jewish and conquered people’s assets succeeded only too well in hiding the massive dispossession from the notice of humanity. And in setting it up so that Jews had their assets first converted to German asset vehicles, the actual extermination of the Jews was made economically tempting: simply liquidate the creditors! Aly suggests concisely that the Holocaust will never be properly understood “until it is seen as the most single-mindedly pursued campaign of murderous larceny in modern history” (285).

To the reply that the resources seizedcould not have cost more than about 5% of the total wealth in the “German war chest” between 1939 and 1945, Aly observes that this was itself a large amount. I would add that during the period from 1933 to 1939, huge amounts were seized from Germans and Austrians. And seizures could be timed to fund major new offensives, such as the battle of Kursk in 1943.

In setting it up so that Jews had their assets first converted to German asset vehicles, the actual extermination of the Jews was made economically tempting: simply liquidate the creditors!

In the years 1939 to 1945, the regime brought in from occupied lands an astounding 170 billion reichsmarks — about 2.4 trillion euros. Of the total amount of money collected by the regime during this period, about 10% came from taxes on lower and middle class Germans, another 20% from taxes on wealthy Germans, and the remaining 70% from the proceeds of theft. It is precisely this that guaranteed that the regime retained substantial support until the very end.

In a chapter called “Speculative Politics,” Aly explores how the regime was able to render more or less invisible the massive borrowing it carried out, and again how this was done to make the load of the war light on the shoulders of non-Jewish Germans. Then, in the final Chapter, Aly summarizes his view of Nazi socialism as a socialism that radically confiscated assets from targeted groups and used them to fund the war, while enabling the population to live well. He puts the total amount of Nazi wartime revenues stolen from dispossessed Jews, occupied countries, and forced labor at a remarkable 70% of its total war costs (327). His book — all 334 pages of exposition, 59 pages of notes, and 17 pages of references — makes this estimate credible.

Much of the socialized pelf was funneled directly to German civilians in the form of fine food, produce, wine and liqueurs, jewelry, household goods, clothes, toys, books, and candies, making it clear that the regime’s support was based on purchase, as opposed to power or persuasion. “Nothing less than massive popular greed made it possible for the regime to tame the majority of Germans with a combination of low taxes, ample supplies of consumer goods, and targeted acts of terror against social outsiders” (324).

In sum, Aly’s suggestion is that the Germans were not exactly Hitler’s willing executioners, nor were they his unwilling victims; they were instead his willing beneficiaries. From the start, the regime’s elimination of unemployment by massive infrastructure and military spending was financed by the confiscation of the wealth and labor of the Jews. When war got underway, the regime exploited to the ultimate degree the people of conquered countries. It was a regime that pursued a radical racist redistributionism from the first.

The regime’s support was based on purchase, as opposed to power or persuasion.

One of the matters that Aly does not consider is the important role that early computer technology played in the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Henry Hollerith, an employee in the US Census Bureau in the early 1880s, first conceived of using punched cards to record census data. “Hollerith Machines” sorted and counted the millions of cards. The Hollerith Machine Corporation was sold to a conglomerate that eventually became IBM. The German industrialist Willy Heidinger established a subsidiary of the corporation called Dehomag (an acronym for the German Hollerith Machine Corporation) in 1911. Heidinger became an enthusiastic Nazi supporter, and the Nazis appreciated his machines. They used IBM machinery to implement the 1933 census and were thus able to catalogue citizens with partial Jewish ancestry, expanding the count of Jews to 2,000,000. The Nuremberg Laws specified the number of grandparents of Jewish ancestry necessary to be counted as a Jew, and those could now be identified.

At any rate, it was the seizure of wealth that bought the support of the Germans for the regime, rather than the Germans’ pre-existing anti-Semitism. It was this kind of socialism that really won the day. But the thesis requires some additional analytical work, which will be presented in the final installment of this series.


[1]Lemkin is the man who coined the neologism “genocide,” which he did in 1943 or 1944.


Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 2 of a three-part series.



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Buying Genocide

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“Socialists always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite characteristic of them.”       
—Baroness Thatcher

How are totalitarian regimes able to control the populace and gain its support for even the vilest programs?

In an earlier piece, I suggested that there are three basic methods employed by compliance agents — the people who try to get a targeted group to comply with their wishes — to get what they want. These I termed power, purchase, and persuasion.

The Tools of Compliance

By power I mean force, threat of force, or theft. Of course, the attempt at force may not succeed, if the agent has insufficient strength to overpower — or insufficient guile to successfully steal from — the target.

By purchase I mean trading something that the agent and the target both value — money, labor, physical objects. Again, the attempt may fail — the agent may not have enough of what the target values to pay the target’s price, or they may be unable to agree upon a price. By persuasion (or promotion), I mean offering reasons (other than threats of force or attempted bargaining) to the target. If Fred’s doctor urges Fred to stop smoking or face an increased chance of cancer, the doctor is not threatening Fred — after all, the doctor won’t inflict the cancer on Fred; the cigarettes will.[1] Nor is the doctor bargaining with Fred. He is “arguing from consequences”; that is, he is arguing that Fred’s behavior will objectively hurt Fred, so Fred ought to stop that behavior. Even if Fred’s doctor chose not to argue rationally but decided to manipulate Fred emotionally — say, by showing Fred pictures of his kids crying out “Daddy, please don’t die!” — the doctor is neither threatening nor bargaining.

For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.”

An interesting point from cognitive psychology that I’ve heard Matt Ridley[2] make is that while nonhuman animals often use force and theft to get what they want from other animals, they don’t, strictly speaking, trade with others, in the sense of giving something they value to get something they value more. As Adam Smith put it, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”[3] Applying the point about persuasion to animals: I have never seen a dog offer an argument to get another dog to do something — though a dog does seem to know how to appear or sound pitiable to its owners when it wants something.

Of course, power, purchase, and persuasion are not perfectly distinct categories, as I noted earlier. But they allow us to pursue an interesting discussion — one going back for seven decades in the search for explanations of Nazi totalitarianism. A critical review of this discussion, especially as it appears in a number of distinguished works of the 21st century, provides a framework in which key concepts and controversies can be seen.

The Goldhagen Dispute: Why Did Germans Support the Nazi regime?

Let’s start with an insightful paper by Alexander Groth, called “Demonizing the Germans.” In this paper, the estimable Professor Groth — himself a Holocaust survivor — takes up the issue of the culpability of the German public for the crimes of the Nazis. He reviews two books: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) and Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (2001). Both these books, Groth says, put forward the view that Hitler’s policies during the 12 years of his regime were based on the “spontaneous preferences” of the German public, not the regime’s “coercion and manipulation.” the regime’s use of the power delivered by its police state and the persuasion delivered by its propaganda machine (118).

Groth concedes that the regime’s policies required the collusion and cooperation of millions of Germans. But he criticizes the authors for pushing their cases beyond logic and evidence. Indeed, Groth holds that Goldhagen’s view of Germans is “almost racist in its sweeping character” (119). He takes Goldhagen to mean that “the Germans let Hitler and his minions, soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats, kill the Jews because they fundamentally agreed with Hitler that this was a good idea” (119).

While the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out.

Groth has many problems with this view. For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.” And he points to a logical gap. Everyone, Goldhagen included, recognizes that the Germans involved in the execution of the Holocaust — the men involved in designing the scheme, arresting and transporting the victims, and running the death camps — could at most amount to 5% of the population of 80 million. The other Germans, while not active, did nothing to stop the killings, but passively accepted them. But Groth points out that while the rest of the Germans did not publicly mourn or protest the mass murder of the Jews, the most reasonable conclusion from that absence of protest would be that they just didn’t care, not that they supported it. I would sharpen the point by adding that while there were no massive protests against the Final Solution, there were no massive rallies in support of it either.

Here Groth rightly notes that Goldhagen fails to distinguish among the German non-genocidaires:

. . . those who could not care less; those who rejoiced in Hitler’s policies; those who were appalled by those policies but feared the risks of speaking out; those who had a variety of doubts and reservations about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but who also were not willing to jeopardize their lives, their careers, and their families to voice them; and, finally, the many Germans confused and misled by Nazi propaganda and information controls. After all, the Nazis never admitted publicly that they were exterminating the Jews. They were just resettling them in the East. (120)

And Groth adds to this point the observation that while the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out, far more informed, and far more protected from reprisals. Were FDR and Churchill “eliminationist anti-Semites” as well?[4]

Groth also criticizes Goldhagen’s claim that the vitriolic German anti-Semitic literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries was unmatched in Europe or elsewhere. Groth observes that Goldhagen adduces no evidence for this claim, and mentions similar anti-Semitic literature in Poland and Rumania. (I will suggest later in this piece that Groth is overlooking something about German anti-Semitism that was unique.)

To Goldhagen’s point that whatever anti-Semitism existed elsewhere in Europe, it was only in Germany that an openly anti-Semitic party was elected to power, Groth replies by noting that in the three Reichstag elections prior to April 1933, the Nazis received only 37%, 33%, and 44% — that last vote coming with the full aid of SA thugs in the streets, intimidating voters. Furthermore, while Hitler’s anti-Semitism is blatant in Mein Kampf, how many voters had read the book? How many dismissed much of it as exaggerated? How many who shared the Nazi antipathy towards Jews favored not merely mass murder, but, say, encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity or emigrate? Remember: from 1933 until the outset of the war or later, the Nazis focused on pressuring Jews to leave. Groth rightly notes that there were no exit polls at the time, so we cannot say why those who voted Nazi did so. Moreover, Theodore Abel’s sociological study of essays by 600 Nazi Party members in the period shortly after Hitler achieved power, describing why they joined the party, showed that only about 36% stated anti-Semitic motives.

From 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — and there were no pogroms in Germany.

Groth cites two scholars in support of his view. First he quotes Sarah Gordon[5] saying that even among Party members, there was considerable diversity of opinion on the “Jewish question,” and only a “small percentage” shared Hitler’s “paranoid” anti-Semitism. She claims that more Germans disapproved of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies than supported them. And, she adds, Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust should never be underestimated. She further points out that Germans faced a (minimum) of two years in a concentration camp for aiding Jews or publicly supporting their cause — a fate much worse than regular jail.

Groth then quotes William Sheridan Allen,[6] who focused his research on the Nazi takeover of the town of Thalburg. Allen reported that most of the townspeople were relatively unsympathetic to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology. Jews at all class levels were well integrated into the town’s society. Though there was “abstract” anti-Semitism — a general dislike of Jewishness that showed up in jokes or expressions of distaste, many people just ignored the anti-Semitic aspect of the Party when voting for it. Indeed, “Thalburgers were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around” (127).

And Groth quotes from Saul Friedlander[7] the idea that during the 1930s the German population didn’t demand anti-Jewish measures; in fact, those who supported eliminationist anti-Semitism were only a segment of the Party.

Groth next makes the point that if there were a native German eliminationist anti-Semitism, why didn’t it show up prior to 1933? Indeed, from 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — access to education, participation in social and political institutions, or rate of intermarriage — and there were no pogroms in Germany as there were in Russia and Eastern Europe.

He also cites a survey of 500 German POWs done in 1944. Among men below 30, 33% said anti-Semitism was “helpful” to Germany, while 44% said it was “harmful.” Among men over 30, only 17% agreed it was “helpful” while 60% saw it as “harmful.” (Twenty-three percent of both groups did not reply to the question.) And he notes that when the violence started, be it Kristallnacht in 1938 or the killing camps and Einsatzgruppen later, it was the police, the SS, the SA, and (less often) the regular military who did the killing, not “frenzied, out-of-control German civilian mobs” (130).

Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Groth adds that post-WWII, while Germany has seen some Skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, there has been no mass violence against the Jews, but only “scattered” attacks against synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and individual Jews. And political parties espousing anti-Semitism have done poorly in German elections.

Here are some points to ponder.

Regarding the Abel analysis of 600 essays about why Party members joined the NSDAP: the fact that only 36% said they were anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that the rest weren’t. If you surveyed Republicans and asked why they are in the party, perhaps two-thirds would neglect to mention “lower taxes.” But if you explicitly asked whether they favored lower taxes, probably 98% would say yes. Similarly, if you asked Democrats why they support the party perhaps two-thirds would not mention increasing taxes on the rich. But if you asked whether they favored that policy, again, probably 98% would say they did.

Regarding Sarah Gordon, to the effect that few Germans were paranoid anti-Semites of “Hitler’s ilk”: Gordon seems as data-light as Goldhagen. What Groth might have looked at is data on attendance at the Nazi anti-Semitic movies. For example, Jud Süss (1940), which pushed the most extreme anti-Semitism, was the sixth most popular film made during the Third Reich. 20.3 million Germans paid for tickets, about 40% of the adults in greater Germany. Compare the big Spielberg hit, Saving Private Ryan (1998), which was seen by about 20% of American adults at the time, and you see how attractive the anti-Semitic film was.

Regarding Groth’s and Gordon’s point that Hitler played a “central role” in the Holocaust: just why did Hitler and his myrmidons favor extermination of the Jews (at seemingly great cost towards the end of the war)? Was it just, say, schizophrenic paranoia? Was Hitler ever diagnosed as a paranoid, or hospitalized for psychotic symptoms? Or was it a deep ideological conviction, and, if so, why? Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Regarding Groth’s point — a completely obvious one — that prior to Hitler coming to power, Germany historically had higher levels of integration of Jews into society, and no pogroms: perhaps the German government (for various reasons) did not allow pogroms, whereas the Tsarist government allowed (and even facilitated) them. And Jews were as well integrated in most of the rest of Western Europe (especially England, which had elected a Jew as Prime Minister as early as 1868), and suffered no pogroms either — but only Germany ever freely elected (by a strong plurality) an openly and deeply anti-Semitic party.

The SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. And the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Regarding Groth’s citation (following Gordon) of the survey of 500 German POWs in 1944: the sample size is small (the margin of error is 5%), and its randomness is questionable — maybe German soldiers with attitudes more sympathetic to the Allies surrendered to them more readily. Worse, there is an obvious problem with interviewer error. The Germans were exposing their feelings to — their captors, who the POWs knew were profoundly anti-Nazi. Did those POWs feel free to answer honestly? We need to remember the classic illustration cited by Darrel Huff.[8] During WWII, Gallup interviewed African Americans as to whether they thought they would be treated worse by society if the Japanese won the war, and found that nearly double the number answered in the negative when the interviewer was black compared to those asked by a white interviewer.

Regarding Groth’s point that the actual killers — the genocidaires — of Jews were not civilians, but members of the SS, SA, regular police, and elements of the regular military: the SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. (The SA and SS had their origins in the Freikorps, organized militias that fought revolutionaries in the German streets after WWI.) And again, the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Finally, regarding Groth’s point that after the 1940s, while Germany has seen skinheads and neo-Nazis, and occasionally attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and individuals, there have been no governmental attacks: this is a weak point indeed. By the end of WWII most of Germany had been devastated, with millions of its civilians killed; the world came to know the extent of the Holocaust and condemned Germany accordingly, and the county was dismembered and occupied for decades. Of course even the most devout anti-Semites would be deterred from repeating their crimes. Moreover, post-WWII Germany was virtually devoid of Jewish citizens — even now, at about 120,000, there would be few left for modern eliminationist anti-Semites to eliminate.

In sum, while Groth offers some good criticisms of Goldhagen, they are in my view hardly definitive.

I turn now to Groth’s views on Robert Gellately’s work. Groth accuses Gellately of a flawed analysis of the data and a “lack of familiarity with the literature of totalitarianism.” This seems harsh, especially considering that both Gellately’s books were published not though some obscure press, but through Oxford University Press. But let us consider the rival contentions.

The Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Gellately argued in an early book[9] that the Gestapo was in fact “a terribly undermanned institution, incapable of policing German society on its own,” so it relied heavily on informants (Groth 131).

To this, Groth makes some cogent replies. The first is more of a dig: if contemporary American students and faculty report feeling intimidated on college campuses by political correctness, it is strange to think that the Germans would not have feared the Gestapo. Moreover, the Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Moreover, the Gestapo was interconnected with the SS, a very large organization — Groth doesn’t mention it, but the SS at its peak numbered 850,000, which is roughly the number of all local police in the contemporary US, a nation about four times the population of Nazi Germany. And the Gestapo worked in secret. So even if it had relatively few agents, the public could have no clue about that, or about the number of Gestapo informants among the public.

Groth is correct about the power of the German police state, and that will be the focus of the third in this series of essays for this journal. But he is on shakier ground when he critiques Gellately’s more recent book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.[10] Gellately asks why the German people almost uniformly followed Hitler from 1933 to the bitter end in 1945. Groth notes that while Gellately acknowledges the role of the Nazi propaganda machine, its strict control of communication (read: its silencing of all opposition), and its institutions of coercion and terror, Gellately concludes that the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. And this Groth does not accept.

By the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately argues that besides using coercion and propaganda, Hitler was much more interested in getting and keeping popular support. So, unlike his rival Stalin, Hitler did not target large parts of his country’s population, confining his police state apparatus to the regime’s enemies and its targeted minorities. The regime sought popular backing until the very end of its existence. And Gellately adds that “many Germans went along, not because they were mindless robots, but because they convinced themselves of Hitler’s advantages and the ‘positive’ side of the new dictatorship” (136).

Furthermore, as Gellately points out, certainly from 1933 to 1939, the regime could show apparent successes in reclaiming lost territory, dramatically lowering unemployment, making more consumer goods available, and building out infrastructure. Gellately points to the rise in Nazi Party membership from about 130,000 in 1930 to 850,000 in 1933, and the SA’s growth from 77,000 in 1931 to 3 million in 1934. In the 1932 and 1933 plebiscites, the Nazis won the plurality of the vote. Gellately further argues that by the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately additionally notes that unlike most other totalitarian regimes, the Nazis openly discussed their coercive system — in particular, their concentration camp system. I would add that it is striking that while most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities. Similarly, the Nazis were quite open about their anti-Jewish measures and legislation, discussing these laws and rulings in widely circulated papers. The Nuremberg Laws (passed in 1935) were well discussed and widely publicized — as they would have to be: the populace would have to know that having sexual relations with Jews was now forbidden.

Gellately observes that German propaganda was well-crafted and effective, rather than crude and obvious. Here I would note that Goebbels articulated what is now widely acknowledged by propaganda theorists: effective propaganda is often if not typically an exercise in “confirmation bias”: it works best if it takes preexisting attitudes and beliefs and amplifies them, reconstructs them, and uses them to support something. He adds that the regime received thousands of letters a day, which seems to show that the populace supported or at least felt comfortable with it.

Groth offers a welter of criticisms of Gellately’s claims. He starts by noting that Nazi electoral successes actually dropped from 37.3% to 33.1% in the 1932 elections. Yes, a later election, after Hitler was appointed chancellor, showed a plurality of 43.9%, but that (Groth avers) was likely because of the pressure the SA could bring on voters. And in later plebiscites (in late 1933 and 1934), all opposition had been outlawed. Moreover, Groth points out that Stalin routinely won elections with 99% of the vote.

While most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities.

To the point about the Nazi Party’s membership increasing, Groth replies that the postwar Soviet-backed Polish communist party membership rose from 20,000 to 1 million. As to the Nazis wanting popular backing, Groth replies that Stalin’s regime did as well.

Regarding Gellately’s claim that Hitler didn’t confront large segments of the German population in the way Stalin did the Soviet population, Groth scathingly replies that Hitler abolished trade unions and outlawed strikes — wasn’t that confrontational? To Gellately’s point about the Nazi anti-Semitism having taken root among Germans, Groth cites the reports of two senior British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) to the effect that all the citizens they talked to disapproved of the event completely.

Discussing the Nazis’ willingness to disclose the nature of their concentration camps system, Groth rightly observes that this was far short of full disclosure. The camps were portrayed as benignly reeducating communists, socialists, and criminals, and (later) as relocating Jews to the East for their own protection. The public was never told of the torture, rape, and murder that took place in those camps. Groth makes the telling point that not once did Hitler or his Propaganda Ministry ever acknowledge that they were systematically killing the Jews and other targeted groups.

Groth goes on to criticize Gellately’s account of Nazi propaganda as being sophisticated (not crude brainwashing and manipulation) and appealing to preexisting German beliefs and desires. Groth replies that this is a truism: any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did. In this Groth is touching upon the point made earlier, that propaganda is often an exercise in confirmation bias. But he adds to this point another that is interesting:

Here one needs to take note of the symbiotic relationship between “propaganda” and “terror” in order to appreciate why the balance of these factors would predispose a great many people in Germany to deny and repress knowledge of Nazi crimes. At the top of the political system, Hitler and Goebbels set the norms of what it was that made a “good Nazi” and a “good German.” These norms were constantly replayed by the mass of official media — everything from radio to wall posters. Certainly, an “uncompromising hostility” to the Jews was one of the most important norms; ultimately in Hitler’s view, they were Germany’s most implacable and dangerous enemy. Any conspicuous, publicly, or even privately manifested deviation from the norms could potentially bring significant punishment to those involved. (142)

So if Germans didn’t publically defend Jews, Groth suggests, it is because any who did faced brutal treatment. And — he further suggests — the best way for an ordinary (non-anti-Semitic) German to bow to the authority of the regime but still maintain a favorable self-image would be to deliberately not think about the fate of the Jews. Actually, Groth could have invoked cognitive dissonance theory: faced with his belief in tolerance and his awareness that in not helping Jews he is contributing to their destruction, the tolerant German might simply tune out any new, unpleasant information. (Confirmation bias again . . .)

Groth next criticizes Gellately’s inferring from the fact that the Nazi regime received thousands of letters daily the conclusion that the German public was involved and interested rather than passive or powerless, and that the regime could be manipulated from below. Groth replies that the letters could just be “requests for personal favors, petty complaints, protestations of loyalty, and denunciations of other people” (143). And he criticizes Gellately’s data about citizen voluntary reports to the regime. All Gellately can point to is 403 total reports over a 12-year period — which is statistically insignificant, considering the population of Germany.

Any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did.

Further, Groth notes that when the Gestapo acted, it didn’t wait for letters and other tips. When the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt failed, the Gestapo rapidly arrested the participants and used unrestrained torture, reprisals on families, and so on to get the names of the conspirators and their supporters. One estimate is that the Gestapo rapidly killed 5,000 people, most by simple fiat (no trials), including whole families of the principals.

Finally, Groth wonders whether, even supposing that 60% of the Germans continued to support Hitler even after Stalingrad, coercion wasn’t needed to suppress dissent in the other 40%. He notes that while the Vietnam War still had majority popular support in 1967, the street protests and the support given Senator McCarthy were enough to convince President Johnson not to run for reelection.

Groth agrees with Sarah Gordon that the regime didn’t so much rely on German public opinion as neutralize it, with a propaganda campaign aided by a communication monopoly, and the dictatorial coercion of the police state. And as the conclusion of the war became obvious to the whole population, and the obliteration of German cities more extensive, that coercion became all-important.

Groth concludes with an attack against Goldhagen and Gellately, holding that their view

validates a Nazi or neo-Nazi interpretation of the Fuhrer. He was a great leader of the German people because he carried out, or at least attempted to carry out, the most sincere and universal wishes and aspirations of the whole German nation.

In remembrance of Oskar Schindler, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Monsignor Bernhard Lichtenberg, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Konrad Adenauer, Hitler is not entitled to this presumption. Some facts about German public opinion on the Third Reich may perhaps forever remain in dispute. But holding a pistol to the head of a captive has certain moral . . . consequences for the assailant which cannot be removed by the argument that the pistol was not very large, and that if the captive had only been a little braver and more enterprising, it could have been dislodged. (152–3)

While I deeply respect Groth’s fair-mindedness regarding the question of German anti-Semitism and complicity in Nazi crimes (especially considering his personal story), let me make a few rebuttals to Groth’s attacks on Gellately, before presenting a deeper critique.

Let’s start with Groth’s criticism of Gellately’s general claim that while the regime’s propaganda machine and its coercive institutions helped keep people in line, the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. This claim Groth dismisses as “flawed analysis,” but is it? Hitler’s regime, after achieving power, dramatically delivered on its promises. It lowered unemployment (which dropped from over 30% in 1933 to virtually nothing by 1939), in great measure from a massive buildup in military and in infrastructure spending. This is what Gellately meant when he suggested that the regime’s real and seeming successes from 1933 to 1939 built popular support.

Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution.

Imagine you are a German worker inclined to internationalism, socialism, or communism, and are initially skeptical about National Socialism. But Hitler achieves power, and lo! He apparently fulfills his economic promises. You and your friends have work, bread, sausage! Again, suppose you are a German businessperson, very nationalistic, but skeptical of (in your view) a group of rowdies led by an ex-corporal who don’t seem to represent German Glory, and call openly for socialism. But they achieve power, and behold! They do rebuild the military in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, take back the Ruhr and annex the Sudetenland, and achieve union with Austria. In 1939, war does break out and you see the regime rapidly take half of Poland, and rapidly defeat France — erasing in your mind an historic grievance. You might well now support this regime you initially opposed.

Groth’s argument that Stalin was like Hitler in that Stalin, too, wanted popular support seems dismissive if not downright disingenuous. One obvious and huge difference between the two figures is that the Bolsheviks never once faced fair elections with real opponents. Lenin won a revolution, and Stalin climbed to the top of the resulting Byzantine power structure by adroitly killing off competitors. But Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution — so he would have to appeal for votes. And Hitler and the Party hierarchy crafted an ideology accordingly — based on the identification of an International Jewish Order as the enemy, a stab-in-the-back Nazi Historical Narrative, protectionist economics, and socialist envy of the rich — together with a political platform built on ending unemployment and restoring the national military.

To Groth’s point that Stalin won 99% of the vote, whereas Hitler won only 44% in the last election with other parties allowed, and the 44% is suspect because of the activity of the SA: these points seem contradictory. The fact that the Nazis polled only 44% suggests that the election was fairly free after all. More generally, the elections make it clear that the Nazis were able to win the plurality of votes in free elections in margins between 33% and 40%. Groth needs to ask whether the Bolsheviks could have ever done that well at any point.

Any non-Jewish German couple being given an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property.

Regarding Groth’s comments about those British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht: again, we need to remember the problem of interviewer bias. Would the average German feel comfortable in expressing support for violent anti-Semitic demonstrations to foreign diplomats — especially from England and America, which according to Nazi ideology were bastions of International Jewish financial power? Indeed, did these diplomats talk to any German workers at all, and if so, how free would those workers have felt in answering the foreign diplomats?

To Groth’s point that the regime never admitted to its own people that it was killing the Jews, two replies are in order. First, any non-Jewish German couple being given furniture or (more obviously) an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property, and would surely have known or suspected why. But if the people were so completely cowed by the regime’s police and convinced by propaganda, why wouldn’t it just tell the citizens the truth?

Moreover, I think Groth has the relationship between power (coercion) and propaganda somewhat muddled. The relation is symbiotic, but not as he describes it. The propaganda campaign helped solidify popular support for the regime, and make people compliant to its agenda. However, coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech. Specifically, absent the use of power (coercion, terror) to silence all countervailing views, the propaganda of any regime will not be effective long-term.

Critical voices can expose propaganda for what it is — sunlight disinfects — and this is why the coercive power of any authoritarian regime enables its propaganda to be effective. Imagine the damage the satirical power of a Saturday Night Live show could have inflicted on the Nazi Party and its ideology. Imagine if critics had been allowed to do their own documentary on Judaism and the Jews in reply to The Eternal Jew. Groth himself touches upon this when he says:

As long as the Nazis could maintain a communication monopoly supported by terror, the issue of their Jewish policy could be framed for public consumption in such euphemistic terms as “removal of Jews from Germany” and “resettlement of Jews in the East.” An opposition . . . would have framed the issue as mass murder and state-sponsored criminal mayhem. (150)

Finally, to Groth’s criticism that (Goldhagen’s and) Gellately’s view validates the Nazi idea of Hitler as hero, and that this betrays the memory of people who struggled against the regime, two replies. First, Groth cites six anti-regime fighters. But that was six out of 80 million people over a 12-year period — not much of a resistance. And the attempt on Hitler’s life involved military men who were worried about Hitler’s losing the war, not plagued by desperation to save the Jews. Second, maintaining that the very notion that Hitler delivered the goods to the average (non-Jewish) German validates the view of Hitler as a great leader is absurd. Yes, Hitler gave Germans the goods, but they were goods stolen from murdered people and colonized countries. That hardly “validates” Hitler.

Coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech.

In sum, I agree with Groth that the move to tar all or most Germans of the time with some special murderous kind of anti-Semitism is wrong. However, I don’t think he quite makes the case that there wasn’t anything unique about German anti-Semitic ideology. I will return to this point. But even more questionable is Groth’s feeling that Gellately was wrong to say the regime rested on consensus. To be fair to both Gellately and Groth, they were writing a few years before a more powerful explanation of the general support for the regime among the people: the regime purchased its support. Just how and how much the regime did this was not explained deeply until Götz Aly’s seminal research, to which I now turn.



[1] Doctors don’t typically bargain with patients in the sense of “If you quit smoking, I will lower my fees by 10%.” They may bargain about method of payment, and give discounts for fees paid by cash. But of course insurance companies routinely offer lower fees to patients who avoid risky behaviors.

[2] Listen to the Ridley interview here.

[3] The Wealth of Nations, book I, chapter 2.

[4] Groth doesn’t mention this, but in 1943 Polish underground hero Jan Karski told both leaders in person that the Jews were being exterminated.

[5] From her book: Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984).

[6] From his book: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935, New York: New Viewpoints (1965).

[7] From Friedlander’s book: Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939, New York: Harper Collins (1997).

[8] In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, New York: Norton (1954).

[9] The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing the Racial Policy 1933–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1990).

[10] Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001).


Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 1 of a three-part series.



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Total Regime, Total Propaganda

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Choozoo: We went up and down that pile of dirt for four days. Fixed bayonets, hand to hand. Fought ‘em something fierce. They gave back as good as they got. Lots of men died. We were in the 23rd Infantry. We joined the Corps later. Hell, we were even younger than you.

Corporal “Stitch” Jones: I never heard of no Heartbreak Ridge.

Choozoo: That’s ’cause it ain’t in any of the history books. Just a little piece of war. Place didn’t even have a name, just a number. Stoney Jackson took one look up at it and said, “Ladies, if this hill doesn’t kill us, it’ll surely break our hearts.” — Heartbreak Ridge (1986)

Over the last couple of years I have devoted most of my all-too-limited time for research to the study of propaganda — what it is, how it works, and why it works. How can irrational propaganda persuade people of even high intelligence to believe absurd or silly things, much less do evil things? I have focused on Nazi Germany, because it was arguably the most successful dictatorial regime in modern history at rapidly consolidating political power and maintaining popular support, support that remained fairly widespread even as the country got pummeled in the last two years of the war.

The reason for the Nazi Regime’s large basis of support is, I believe, in great measure the power of its propaganda machine. The book under review is a useful illustration of how comprehensive in scope that machine was.

But a bit of conceptual analysis would be helpful here, for the term “propaganda” has a number of different meanings.

Let’s start with a basic distinction. Suppose I want Smith’s car. How might I try to get Smith to let me have it? Or better: what are the broad methods I might employ to get Smith to comply with my desire? Three, I think.

The first is attempted coercion, or what I will call simply power. This includes force, or the threat of force, or theft. I use the qualifier “attempted” to make it explicitly clear that the coercion may or may not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, my threat to beat Smith up unless he gives me his car will work only if he views me as able to beat him up. If he is bigger, younger, better trained in martial arts, and in better shape than am me, he likely will laugh at my threat.

The reason for the Nazi Regime’s large basis of support is in great measure the power of its propaganda machine.

The second broad method of obtaining compliance is attempted purchase. This includes offering to trade money, physical objects, labor, or whatever else I think the other person may value. Again, I use the qualifier ‘attempted’ to signal that the attempt to purchase might or might not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, if I offer Smith less than his “reservation price” for the car, he will refuse to sell it to me.

The third broad method of compliance is attempted persuasion (or promotion). Persuasion means offering reasons other than the use of force or the offer of goods in trade. Once again, the qualifier “attempted” indicates that the persuasion may or may not succeed, depending on the situation. For example, I may try to persuade Smith that he ought to give me a car by pointing out that he owns two of them and I own none, and appealing to the notion of fairness. But if he doesn’t view me as deserving of help, he will likely dismiss my appeal.

I grant that some might view coercion or purchase or both as types of persuasion, but this view strikes me as doubtful. While someone watching me hold a gun to Smith’s head and demand his car might say that I am trying to “persuade” him that appears to me to be a misuse of the term — really, it would be an ironical use. Similarly, it would be far from a normal use of language to say that when I bought Smith’s car for $30,000 I “persuaded” him by a “monetary argument.”

Some people use the term propaganda to cover the promotion of anything from products to policies to religious beliefs, but it is closer to common usage to use the term marketing (including sales and advertising) for the attempt to persuade people to buy specific products (goods and services) or patronize a brand. (Persuading people to patronize a brand simply means trying to increase the chances that they will buy products with that brand in the future.) I will use the term propaganda more narrowly to refer to the promotion of ideas — specifically political, social, and religious ideas and ideologies.

While someone watching me hold a gun to Smith’s head and demand his car might say that I am trying to “persuade” him that appears to me to be a misuse of the term.

So “marketing” means here messaging intended to persuade a target audience to buy the products the marketer (or his principal) desires them to buy. And “propaganda” means here messaging intended to persuade a target audience to support the ideas, ideology, policies, or political candidates that the propagandist (or his principal) desires them to adopt.

Of course, the distinctions I have drawn are not completely clear-cut demarcations; they are broad categories, and there are borderline cases. So ads for Amtrak (the federally-owned passenger rail system) can be viewed not merely as marketing the service, but also as propaganda for the federal government. Similarly, a regime that runs ads bragging about its new universal healthcare system can be viewed as making propaganda for public support but also as purchasing the support of the majority by giving them services paid for by taxing a minority. But I want to distinguish here between the use of force and the trading of goods, on the one hand, from the messages about them, on the other.

Let us turn to the Nazi propaganda machine. (I will look at both the Nazi power and purchase machines in subsequent reviews.) As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy has accurately observed in a recent article, the Nazi Regime (hereafter just “the Regime”) was based on imagery: “Propaganda was a governing philosophy, not merely a means to an end but an end in itself.” To the Regime, propaganda was foundational, and it exploited every medium it could to push the Nazi brand and its specific policies: film, newspapers, magazines, books (including children’s books), pamphlets, school curricula, art, architecture, music, performance dance, plays, sports events, public festivals and rituals, TV shows, posters, and radio shows. It was a war, a propaganda war that (like World War II) took place in various “theaters.” A theater of war is a place with natural boundaries within which military actions — “campaigns” — take place, more or less independently. The Regime waged its war by various campaigns in all the media — the theaters — of propaganda.

Let’s look at some examples. In the medium of film, the Regime had an anti-British campaign, an anti-Semitic campaign, and so on — each campaign understood as a group of films advancing that message. In the medium of popular art, posters played a big role in the presentation of the Regime’s message. The Regime focused especially on radio, issuing inexpensive radio receivers that could receive broadcasts only from the Regime. (For a detailed study of the role that radio played in the rise of the Regime, see Adena et. al.) Children’s books were made to inculcate the Regime’s message — for instance, Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom, 1938), in which a boy and his mother go picking wild mushrooms. She teaches him the difference between edible ones and poisonous ones and then compares mushrooms with people, likening Jews to poisonous mushrooms. And newspapers such as Der Sturmer (The Attacker) and Volkischer Beobachter (The Peoples’ Observer) were potent propaganda tools.

For the purpose of waging its propaganda war, the Regime created a separate ministry, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, with a staff of over 2,000 people and a budget of nearly 190 million Reichmarks. This ministry had seven divisions, one each for administration and legal matters; mass rallies, public health information, youth, and race; broadcasting; national and foreign press; film and film censorship; art, music, and theater; and defense against foreign and domestic counter-propaganda.

The principal effect of the book is the spectacle of a Regime with a massive presence in even the tiniest areas of life.

It is against this backdrop that we can consider the book under review. It isn’t about the Regime’s propaganda war, or even a major theater of it, but just a little piece — a campaign in a microtheater, so to say. It is about the uniforms and accompanying insignia that the Regime employed, that is, the dress and graphical designs used to distinguish people within an organization by rank or status. Insignia include badges, cockades, coats of arms, medals, military patches, and so on. The Regime had an enormous number of organizations, many of which had distinctive uniforms, and those uniforms and insignia helped reinforce order, discipline, and unity. Uniforms have immense psychological power to create a feeling of unity. Each of the armed forces had its uniform, as did the SA, SS, the Party hierarchy, the Hitler Youth, the Fire Service, the German Red Cross, the Railway Police, and even the Postal Service. The editors (Chris Bishop and Adam Warner) do a thorough job of showing how the insignia looked and explaining their significance. But the principal effect of the book is the spectacle of a Regime with a massive presence in even the tiniest areas of life.

The editors begin by noting that two of the most commonly employed and emotionally potent symbols were the German eagle and the swastika, which were stamped, engraved, printed, or painted on most of the medals and other items the Regime provided to groups.

The editors then take up one of the most infamous of the specific symbols, the Totenkopf or Death’s Head. The Death’s Head has a long history in the German military. It was worn by 18th-century Prussian elite units, and by certain units in World War I, including flamethrower squads and early tank units. As Bishop and Warner note, the Death’s Head was not intended as a ghoulish symbol but one that connoted the utmost devotion, literally the willingness to fight to the death.

Early in their history, the Nazis used the Death’s Head on the caps and collar patches of SS uniforms. The SS (Schutzstaffel) was formed as the elite bodyguard of Hitler, but rapidly grew, first displacing the SA (Assault Division, the Storm Troopers or Brownshirts) and then attaining a size of 800,000 at the height of the war. The SS was divided into the Allgemeine SS (the general SS) which handled police functions of all sorts in the Regime (including the Gestapo), and the Waffen SS (the armed SS), which consisted of elite fighting troops and the Totenkopfverbande (SS-TV, the concentration camp guards). The Death’s Head was on the cap of every concentration camp guard. Also, the Death’s Head was worn by armored units and a few special regular army units. But the Death’s Head worn by SS members was different from the one worn by the regular military units: it was a newer design that featured a jawbone, while the other was the traditional Prussian design (no jawbone).

The editors next discuss the various banners carried at the Nazi Party rallies, as well as the rallies themselves. The earliest rally was held in Munich in 1923 and was fairly modest, with 20,000 Party participants and an unknown number of observers. The second rally (also 1923) was in Nuremberg and featured a parade by 80,000 SA Stormtroopers. In the same year Hitler was imprisoned for the Beer Hall (or Munich) Putsch and his Party was outlawed for a few years, so the next rally was in 1926 (in Weimar). The fourth was in 1927 in Nuremberg, and featured the first torchlight parade. With the onset of the worldwide depression, the Party’s membership grew rapidly. The 1929 rally was the first “major extravaganza,” with 2,000 Party delegates listening to Hitler speak, and men marching in swastika formation. At the Berlin rally celebrating Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, attendance hit a half million. The important architect Albert Speer designed the layout of the field, with massed flags and innovative lighting. The SS and the SA had their own banners (Feldzeichen), and the Party had a special banner (the Blutfahn) that had been displayed at the Beer Hall Putsch and was stained with the blood of a Nazi “martyr.” The 1934 Nuremberg rally, fully planned by Speer, was the one featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willen, 1935). The largest Nuremberg rally was held in 1938. The editors show the various flags and banners that figured so prominently in these rallies.

The Death’s Head was not intended as a ghoulish symbol but one that connoted the utmost devotion, literally the willingness to fight to the death.

The next section of the book is devoted to the uniforms, badges, patches, and ceremonial daggers used by the SA, the Storm Troopers, also called the Brownshirts. Bishop and Warner briefly sketch the history of the SA from its start in 1924 to its peak strength of about two million in 1934. They do not report the killing of its leaders in the “Night of the Long Knives” and its subsequent displacement by the SS.

The editors then show us the uniforms, patches, banners and ceremonial daggers of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), which was formed in 1926 and absorbed all the other German youth groups in 1933. In 1939, all German boys and girls were required to join the Hitlerjugend — which came to have 3.5 million members. Actually, children ages 10–14 first joined the Jungvolk (for boys) and Jungmadel (for girls). At age 14, the girls entered the Bund Deutscher Madel where they focused on training for house or farm work. At age 15, the boys entered the Hitlerjugend proper, where they trained for military service. With the outbreak of war in 1939, a million of them worked in the war effort. When the Regime started losing the war in 1943, they were inducted into the armed forces, where they acquired a reputation for fighting with extreme devotion, suffering enormous losses along the way.

Bishop and Warner move on to the uniforms and insignia uniquely worn by Nazi officials — the NSDAP Leadership Corps. These officials fell into seven, dizzyingly multiplying groups. The first and foremost consisted of the Führer, of course. Then there were the Party Directorate (Reichsleitung); the hierarchy of men employed in monitoring the populace, the “bearers of sovereignty”; the Gauleiters, who controlled territories the size of a county; Kreisleiters, who controlled areas that were large subdivisions of a county; Ortsgruppenleiters, in control of towns, groups of small villages, or city districts of about 1500 to 3000 households; Zellenleiters, in charge of smaller groups of households equal to four to eight city blocks; and finally the Blockleiters, the political controllers of about 40 to 60 households. Each lower level reported to the higher — with the Gauleiters reporting directly to the Führer — and all had the authority to call in the SA, SS, or other organizations to help enforce discipline.

The editors then describe the orders and paraphernalia of the Luftwaffe (the air force). The Luftwaffe was formed in 1933 but kept hidden because it was forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. It was made public in 1935, at which time it had 1,000 aircraft and 20,000 members. It grew rapidly, and by 1939 had about 1.5 million men in uniform — though only about 50,000 of them were airmen. The Luftwaffe formal uniform was similar to that of the RAF — blue, with rank badges and lapels. Returning to the SS, Bishop and Warner take up the SS uniforms. The SS started with a black uniform, but as it grew, the Allgemeine SS and the Totenkopfverbande kept the black uniforms (with the characteristic SS runes and Death’s Head badges), while the remaining Waffen SS members, who fought alongside the regular Army, began to resemble those military service members, though keeping the SS patches and badges.

Next up are the various medals, orders, and honor insignia the Regime issued, which could be found on any of the uniforms. For courage in battle, the Regime kept the two orders of the traditional Iron Cross (the Eisernes Kreuz), but added a new order for conspicuous gallantry, the Knight’s Cross (Ritterkreuz), which could be repeatedly given, and had additional grades: Oakleaves; Oakleaves and Swords; Oakleaves, Swords, and Diamonds; and Golden Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds. Additionally, there were specific combat awards, such as the Luftwaffe Pilot’s Badge (given to pilots upon completion of flight school); the Luftwaffe Flak Badge, awarded on a point basis for bringing down aircraft; the Wound Badge (gold, silver, or black, depending upon how many wounds the soldier received); and the High Seas Fleet badge (for a sailor of the Kriegsmarine serving 12 weeks on a battleship or cruiser).

The Party had a special banner that had been displayed at the Beer Hall Putsch and was stained with the blood of a Nazi “martyr.”

The editors discuss decorative porcelain and china, much of it made at the Dachau concentration camp — the SS ran various industries staffed by concentration camp labor. The Regime either sold these items to the public or gave them as gifts or mementoes. They then show us some of the large number of awards the Regime gave out for long service, good conduct, bearing children, long-term Party membership, and exemplary service, even for street fighting: the Meritorious Order of the German Eagle (for friendly foreign dignitaries); the Cross of Honor of the German Mother (bronze for four or five children, silver for six or seven, and gold for eight or more); the Faithful Service Cross (for members of the public services who worked continuously for 25 or 40 years); and the Gold Party Badge (for the first 100,000 members of the party).

The use of the Nazi eagle is discussed in a separate section, with illustrations of its appearance on buildings, uniforms, medals, daggers, and so on. The eagle had been used as a German national symbol since AD 800 and was embraced by the Regime as the symbol of the Aryan race.

We next see the uniforms and insignia worn by the Ordnungspolizei (the “Orpo,” the ordinary police, which included inter alia the urban police, the rural police, the water and river police, and the fire service). All of these police and ancillary forces were under the direct control of the SS. It is just to describe the Nazi Regime as a massive police state.

It was also a state that seems to have been endlessly involved in propagating armed services of every kind, as Bishop and Warner illustrate in their consideration of the insignia of the NSKK (the Nationalsocialistisches Kraftfahrkorps, i.e., the National Socialist Motor Corps). The NSKK started life in 1930 as the NSAK (Nazi Automobile Corps), a motor pool for transporting party members that was under the control of the SA. In the ensuring four years it was renamed and became independent. The NSKK acted was a training organization to teach people how to drive, a traffic enforcement force, and a roadside assistance service — rather like the Auto Club combined with traffic cops. But with the start of war, it was militarized and given the duty of providing logistical support for the SS and Wehrmacht.

The editors discuss and illustrate the various symbols put on documents issued by the SS. They also review the wide variety of items that served as mementoes of the Nuremberg mass rallies. Nuremberg had a special significance for Germans; it was the meeting place for the Germanic rulers of the medieval period. The mementoes included pennants, plates, certificates, plaques, postcards, medals, and badges. The dispensing of mementoes — however kitschy — was a way of purchasing support for the Party as well as propagandizing for it.

All of these police and ancillary forces were under the direct control of the SS. It is just to describe the Nazi Regime as a massive police state.

An important part of Nazi ideology is the Führerprinzip — the "leader principle" — formulated by Hitler as early as 1921. It meant that any organization must always be ruled by the strongest individual — the Overman — and that this individual will always rise above the pack. Stripped of the Nietzschean cant, it really meant that Hitler was to be more than just the absolute dictator; he would be the object of worship in a personality cult. Pictures of Hitler were displayed everywhere, and the greeting “Heil Hitler!” accompanied by a Roman salute, was the required greeting during the tenure of his Regime. The editors give the reader a number of examples of Führer mementoes: such as porcelain plaques commemorating his 50th birthday, gold-embossed, leather bound editions of Mein Kampf, and personal invitations from him. Some of this was sold, but much of it was given away — again, propagandizing and purchasing go together.

In the next two sections the editors return to uniforms. They discuss and show the uniforms and insignia for the Panzerwaffe (the tank force, within the Reichsheer, or German regular army). The Regime certainly had very snappy uniform designs across the board; the Panzerwaffe arguably had the snappiest. The Germans had tank units as early as 1917, but the Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from building tanks. Yet the army clearly planned to develop tank units in 1929, years before Hitler took office, for that was when it designed the new tank unit uniforms. The formal uniforms were black, with the Prussian Death’s Head emblems within pink borders, and instead of peaked caps, they had berets. (The field uniforms the tank soldiers wore in the African desert war were of light tan, no doubt for the sake of comfort.) The editors also show us the familiar gray Reichsheer uniforms, together with the officers’ dress daggers and other emblems and patches.

The book discusses SS cuff titles and infantry equipment, before turning to yet another uniform, this for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (the RAD, or the Reich labor service). Before the war, the RAD put men to work on large-scale infrastructure projects, while also training them for military service. In 1935, the Regime ordered all men between 18 and 35 to work in the RAD for a six-month term. With the outbreak of war, the RAD became in effect construction battalions for the Wehrmacht. Again, great care obviously went into the design of the RAD uniform, which had a sort of axe-like knife — a small machete — rather than a dagger, and unique forester caps.

In examining the insignia of foreign legions, which is their next task, Bishop and Warner rightly note that most people are unaware that about two million men from other nations fought with the Nazis, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes because of coercion, and sometimes — as in the case of General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army — sometimes because of rebellion against their own governments. We see insignia from uniforms for Bosnian Muslims, Muslims from Turkestan, Danish volunteers, Latvian volunteers, and others.

The editors examine the use of the swastika on banners and flags. Usually appearing in black within a white circle against a red surround, it became a common ensign in 1933 when the Regime took power and the national flag two years later. The swastika was an Indian symbol; indeed, the word swastika is Sanskrit, the language used by the Aryans, the Indic people.As early as 1910, racists in Germany associated it with the so-called “Aryan” race, and the Nazis adopted it as their own symbol. The book also returns to the design of the Iron Cross.

The book discusses very briefly Nazi art (specifically, statuettes and dishes) before turning to the various daggers carried by uniformed organizations. Not only did fighting units carry symbolic daggers, but so did members of the German Red Cross, the Forestry Service, the National Political Education Institute, and even railway and postal workers. For most services, the dagger was merely part of the uniform, the symbol of the warrior. But for the SS, the dagger was only awarded after someone successfully passed probation, and had to be returned if the person was dismissed from the organization.

Hitler was to be more than just the absolute dictator; he would be the object of worship in a personality cult.

This brings us to the uniforms and insignia associated with elite Party schools, primary and secondary. One group of such schools was the Napolas(the National Political Training Academies), initially run by the SA and SS with the cooperation of the Ministry of Education. The second major group was the Adolf Hitler Schools, run independently of the Ministry of Education, but closely associated with the Hitler Youth.

After a short discussion of Nazi Party printed media (the Party newspaper, books, and magazines), Bishop and Warner return to uniforms and insignia, first of the foreign Nazis (in Slovakia, Moravia, Bohemia, Norway and Holland) — another topic of which most people are unaware — and of the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, the security service, later combined with the Gestapo and Kripo) and a few of the many civilian uniforms. The Germans had well over 60 different uniformed organizations, from the German Red Cross and Customs Service down to the National Stud Farms groups. The prospect of these groups, each with its uniform, cap, dagger, eagle, swastika, and whatnot, is vast and appalling. One is relieved when one comes to the discussion of the Nazi party badge and other tokens, because these are the last items considered.

I have many problems with the Nazis, but only a few with Bishop and Warner’s book. First, they include a section about Nazi art, although (like all the sections of the book) it is quite short. A proper discussion of the Regime’s propaganda campaigns in the realm (or theater of war) of art needs a separate book, and is in any case quite distinct from the topic of uniforms and their symbolic paraphernalia. The same criticism applies to the editors’ brief and out-of-place discussion of Party print media.

Second, the book would have been better structured around the separate uniformed services (SA, SS, NSDAP hierarchy, and so on), with each in a separate chapter. For example, the editors could have collected the four scattered sections of the book on SS uniforms, SS documents, SS cuff titles, and SS personalities into one proper chapter.

Third, the book should have had an introduction discussing the psychological power of uniforms and the different psychological effects of different forms of uniforms. There has been a fair amount of psychological research on this topic, some of which is discussed in an article by Richard Johnson. Consider just the color of uniforms. Psychological surveys of college students show that they associate colors such as white and yellow with weakness, blue with security, and black and brown with strength. Is it a mere coincidence that the preferred colors for the Regime’s numerous uniforms were darker: blue for the Luftwaffe, gray for the army, brown for the SA and NSDAP Party higher-ups, black for the SS and Panzerwaffe?

Perhaps one sign of the power of the design of the extravagant array of Nazi insignia and paraphernalia is the number of websites that sell these items even today, and the prices they typically fetch.

These issues notwithstanding, this slim volume, with numerous color photos, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of Nazi propaganda in particular and propaganda in general — not least because it shows just how much effort the Regime put into even this little piece of the war.


Editor's Note: Review of “German Insignia of World War II,” edited by Chris Bishop and Adam Warner. Chartwell Books, 2013, 144 pages.



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Alice in Merkeland

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The Europeans, brainy people that they are, have always had a problem understanding the concept of liberty.

It’s one of the simplest concepts in the world. It means being left alone to do what you want. For Europeans, however — and, I regret to add, for many millions of Americans as well — it has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good. It didn’t take long for the French Revolution to define liberty as the freedom to destroy Catholicism. It didn’t take long for the German revolution of 1848 to define liberty as freedom for German nationalism. It didn’t take any time at all for the Weimar Republic to define liberty as the government’s taking money from the people and wasting it on social uplift projects.

Now comes Angela Merkel. First she decides, without consulting anyone, to force the German people — and if she had her way, all other Europeans — to liberate the Syrians by taking them in and supporting them all on welfare. Then, mirabile dictu, she discovers that way too many Syrians want to take that deal, and way too many Germans don’t. So to save her face, she decides to bundle up the Germans’ money — again, without anyone’s permission — and give it to Turkey, so that Turkey can keep the would-be immigrants from getting into Germany. Thus her open door policy becomes an invitation for the Syrians to come on in — to Turkey. And stay there, courtesy the Turkish government.

But again she discovers that actions may have consequences. The Turkish president, Recep T. Erdogan, an equally domineering personality, decides that he wants more out of the deal. He wants Merkel to shut up his critics — in Germany.

For Europeans, however — and for many millions of Americans as well — "liberty" has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good.

German TV aired a song satirizing Erdogan. Erdogan’s government demanded that the video be removed from access on the internet. A German comedian, or perhaps would-be comedian, then went on TV and recited a poem ridiculing Erdogan. Erdogan therefore demanded that the comedian be prosecuted under a law saying that you can be sent to jail for five years for insulting a foreign leader. There are plenty of laws in Europe decreeing that you can’t say or publish certain things; this is what Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, whatever, call liberty. Go figure. But while you’re figuring, Merkel has already authorized the prosecution.

You see, this screwy law not only threatens you with imprisonment if you say something that some foreign politician doesn’t like, but it leaves the power to decide on prosecution with your own politicians. So, if we had such a law, Obama would be authorizing pleas for someone to be prosecuted for satirizing Castro, and Cruz, or whoever the Republican president might be, would be authorizing pleas for prosecuting someone who satirized Netanyahu. Not only is it an authoritarian law, but it’s a politically arbitrary one.

The result, right now, is that the Erdoganish Turks are saying, as many Europeans always say under such circumstances, that “this has nothing to do with free speech”; Merkel’s supporters are saying that by authorizing the prosecution she is “standing up for the rule of law”; and she herself is saying that her action does not represent “a decision about the limits of freedom of art, the press, and opinion.” She further opines that “in a constitutional democracy, weighing up personal rights against freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not a matter for governments, but for public prosecutors and courts.”

It’s the old story. You have rights, granted. But these rights have to be “weighed” against other rights. You got your “personal rights,” see; but then, on the other hand, you got your “freedom of expression.” Entirely different! And somebody’s got to “weigh” them. So . . . let’s see here. I know! Let’s have the “public prosecutors and courts” do it. After all, they’re not the “government,” are they?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

The comedian is in hiding. He’s right: this isn’t funny.




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The Olympics and Liberty

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I’m often asked what makes a film “libertarian.” Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority? Many libertarian films do contain those features. But my favorites are those in which a protagonist achieves a goal or overcomes obstacles without turning to the government to fix things.

Two such films are in theaters now, and both are based on true stories about Olympic athletes who achieved their goals in spite of government interference, not because of government aid. Race tells the Jesse Owens story, and Eddie the Eagle tells the Michael Edwards story. Both are worth seeing.

Race is the perfect title for this film that focuses on both racing and racism. Owens was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Historian Richard Crepeau (who spoke at FreedomFest last year) described the 1935 college track meet at Ann Arbor in which Owens, in the space of 45 minutes, set three world records and tied a fourth as “the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.” Nevertheless, Owens (Stephan James) is not welcome at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) intends to use “his” Olympics as a propaganda piece to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan race, and he does not want any blacks or Jews to spoil his plan. He hires filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to document the glorious event.

The film reveals the backstage negotiations between Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and the German organizing committee at which Brundage insisted on assurances that Jews and blacks would be allowed to compete. Brundage’s insistence is somewhat hypocritical, considering the treatment Owens and other black athletes were enduring at home, but he was successful in forestalling a threatened American boycott of the Games.

What makes a film “libertarian”? Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority?

Owens faces similar pressure from the NAACP, as he is warned that he ought to boycott the Games to protest racism in Germany. Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order. This is as it should be. What good would it have done if Owens had stayed home to protest German policy? Would it have made any difference? Would anyone even have noticed? I felt the same way when President Carter made the opposite decision in 1980 and forced American athletes to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. What good did it do to destroy the dreams of hundreds of American athletes who had trained their whole lives to compete in a tournament that comes along only once every four years? Did it help anyone in Afghanistan? Did it hurt all those Russian athletes who took home more medals because the Americans weren’t there? I think not.

In the movie, Owens also faces the pressure of athletic celebrity, and Stephan James skillfully portrays the ambition and the temptations of a small-town boy chasing big-time dreams. He is anchored in his pursuits by his college coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton), who would become his wife and partner until the day he died in 1980. As with most sports films, the outcome of the contest is known from the beginning. The real story is how the hero gets there, and how he conducts himself along the way. Owens was a hero worthy of the title.

Eddie the Eagle tells the story of an Olympic hero of a different sort — one who is remembered for his tenacity rather than his innate skill. Michael Edwards (played by Taron Egerton as an adult and by brothers Tommy Costello, Jr. at 10 years old and Jack Costello at 15) simply dreams of being an Olympian; he doesn’t care what sport. His mother (Jo Hartley) nurtures that dream, giving him a special biscuit tin to hold his medals and praising his accomplishments, even if it’s just holding his breath for 58 seconds. Ironically, Eddie is motivated by a picture of Jesse Owens in a book about the Olympics. By contrast, Eddie’s father (Keith Allen) is a pragmatist, encouraging Eddie to give up his silly dreams and become a plasterer like him. His father isn’t a bad man; he just wants to protect his son from disappointment and financial waste. Fortunately for Eddie, he has the kind of optimistic personality that simply doesn’t hear criticism.

Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order.

Eddie settles on skiing as his sport and manages to qualify for the British Olympic team, but the Committee cuts him because he “isn’t Olympic material.” Read: you don’t dress well or look right and you’re rather clumsy. Undaunted, Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping. If he can compete in an international event and land on his feet, he can qualify for the Calgary Olympics. This is the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team slipped through the same loophole — a loophole that was quickly closed before the following season. Now athletes must compete internationally and place in the top 30% of finishers in order to qualify. But in 1988, if you could find a sport that few people in your country competed in, you could literally “make the team.”

With his father’s van and his mother’s savings, Eddie takes off for the training slopes in Germany. There he tackles the jumps, crashes on his landings, and tackles the jumps again. When he lands the 15-meter jump successfully, he moves on to the 40 and the 70, crashing more than he lands. Low camera angles during the jumps create the sensation of height and speed, providing a rush of adrenaline for the audience. Frequent shots of Eddie tumbling after a crash emphasize just how risky this beautiful sport is. We admire Eddie’s persistence, even as we cringe at his crashes. He believes in himself, no matter what.

Eventually he meets up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a chain-smoking, hard-drinking slope groomer who looks incredibly lean and buff for an alcoholic. Peary turns out to be a former ski jumper who lost his chance for Olympic glory by not taking his training seriously. This, of course, sets us up for the perfect sports metaphor movie: unskilled amateur with indomitable heart meets innately talented athlete who threw it all away, and both find redemption while training for the Games.

Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping.

It’s a great story about overcoming obstacles, sticking with a goal, and ignoring the naysayers. It demonstrates the power of a mother’s encouragement, and the possibility that even a poor, farsighted boy from a working-class neighborhood can achieve his dreams — if he doesn’t kill himself practicing for it.

All this allows us to forgive the fact that the movie mostly isn’t true. Yes, Michael Edwards did compete in the Calgary Olympics. He did set a British record for ski-jumping, despite coming in dead last in both events, simply because, as the only British jumper, his was the only British record. His exuberance and joy just for participating in the Olympics led to his being the only individual athlete referred to specifically in the closing speech that year (“some of us even soared like an eagle”). But Bronson Peary never existed, and Michael Edwards actually trained with US coaches at Lake Placid, albeit with limited funds that caused him to use ill-fitting equipment. But that wouldn’t have given us such a feel-good story.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Race," directed by Stephen Hopkins. Forecast Pictures, 2016, 134 minutes; and "Eddie the Eagle," directed by Dexter Fletcher. Pinewood Studios, 2016, 106 minutes.



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None Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Looking back over the linguistic events of 2015, I wondered whether this column should offer an award for the Most Asinine Remark of the Year. The major difficulty was that there were too many candidates. Another problem was that to ensure fairness, the columnist would need to wade systematically through the reported utterances of the current presidential contenders, an adventure that would result in the columnist’s suicide.

Almost all these people talk like maniacs — and I mean that literally. Who but a maniac would say, as Jeb Bush said to Wolf Blitzer the other day, that Donald Trump disparages him, Jeb Bush, because Trump is afraid of him? Afraid of somebody who for months hasn’t achieved more than 5% in the polls, despite the heaviest possible backing from the Republican establishment, and nearly everyone’s former assumption that he was the inevitable nominee? No, that’s crazy.

What could be crazier than the things that Hillary Clinton says? Who but a crazy person would respond to the question, “Did you wipe your server?” by saying, “What, like with a cloth or something?”, and think that was funny. But then, who except a crazy person would have decided, when she was a college student, that she had to become president, and that she must therefore marry Bill Clinton (admittedly, another person with more than a few screws loose, hence a pretty good match), so that she could make him president, so that he could then make her president? It’s crazy, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Afraid of somebody who for months hasn’t achieved more than 5% in the polls, despite the heaviest possible backing from the Republican establishment? No, that’s crazy.

A less fundamental but nonetheless striking symptom of craziness is Donald Trump’s inability to construct anything like a normally coherent statement on any subject. Crazy people often shout out sentence fragments, expecting their listeners to understand what they mean; and that’s pretty much what Trump does. Like some crazy people, he then becomes upset when he’s “misinterpreted.” I have to admit, however, that the 20-minute rant in which Sarah Palin endorsed Trump for the presidency sounded much crazier than anything Trump himself has come up with. I listened to it for two or three minutes before I looked at the television and saw who was speaking; before then, I thought it was a badly acted, less-funny-than-scary comedy skit. Trump, standing beside her, looked embarrassed, as well he might.

But at least Palin isn’t running for public office. Bernie Sanders is, and he makes Palin look like the straight man in the act — supposing that it’s funny to see an angry old goat hunched over a microphone, spewing hatred of the God-damned rich God-damned bastards that are running the God-damned country. When we were kids, most of us heard that kind of oration from the crazy old bores in the neighborhood, and if you’re like me, you found that their fearless individuality seemed a lot less fearless — not to mention a lot less individual — when you noticed how obsessional it was.

Hundreds of times a day, political contenders such as all of the above compete enthusiastically in the Ass of the Year Pageant. By this time, one of them would have won the crown, if the judges — we, the people — hadn’t kept mandating higher and higher standards of performance. Put it this way: six decades ago, no one had broken the four-minute mile. Then somebody did. Now every professional runner is expected to do it. In the mid-1950s, no one, not even a politician, was required to spend his life violently asserting that the real world is utterly different from the world that other people see. That’s not easy. But today, every person in public life is expected to run up and down telling his neighbors that the planet is about to burn, that America has yet to begin a conversation about race, that guns cause crime, that capitalism creates poverty, that taxation creates wealth, and that government is the people’s only friend. If politicians don’t say such things, they have to find some way of proving that they are not insane.

Under these conditions, it’s rare that a public figure says anything that actually makes people — real people, not political hall monitors, turn and stare. No matter what he says, Donald Trump no longer excites surprise. No one marvels anymore at anything that Hillary Clinton comes out with, despite the fact that much of it is cheap, stupid, obvious lies. But even with such flamboyant competitors in the race, there’s always the possibility that someone will emerge from nowhere and make the voters gape again.

That’s what happened on January 8, when James Francis (“Jim”) Kenney, mayor of Philadelphia, stepped to the microphone and delivered a wakeup call to the national consciousness. The call was not what he intended, which was, “Listen to me! I am the voice of liberty, equality, and fraternity!” No; when it hit the eardrum it sounded more like, “What kind of idiots are we electing to public office?”

Who except a crazy person would have decided, when she was a college student, that she had to become president, and that she must therefore marry Bill Clinton?

It happened at a press conference of police and city officials that followed the attempted murder of a Philadelphia policeman by a man dressed in Islamo-clerical garb who proudly confessed that he had fired 13 shots at a randomly chosen cop because the police were deficient in enforcing sharia law. The city’s police commissioner, Richard Ross — a man with a gift, highly unusual among “police spokesmen,” for clear, perspicuous, and coherent speech — described the event as I just did. Other people associated with the police did the same. But out of the blue, the mayor stepped forward and said, with passionate intensity:

In no way shape or form does anyone in this room believe that Islam or the teaching of Islam has anything to do with what you’ve seen on that screen [presumably a reference to the videocam of the attempted killing]. That is abhorrent, it’s just, it’s terrible, and it does not represent the religion in any way shape or form or any of its teachings. This is a criminal with a stolen gun who tried to kill one of our officers. It has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.

After the mayor said that, the policemen went on discussing the culprit’s religious motivation. It was as if Kenney’s weird outburst had never occurred. But his remarks were so goofy that people all over the country sat up, took notice, and howled with laughter.

Ridicule occasioned yet another outburst from Kenney (January 14). After claiming that the motives of the would-be assassin were mere objects of speculation, which would be shrouded in mystery until investigations were concluded, he launched into a defense of Philadelphia’s Muslim population against otherwise invisible attempts to blame them all for the crime. “He [the shooter] is a criminal and they are not criminals,” the mayor declared. Well, yes; who said anything else? But when people lose their grip, they often start to hear other people saying things they actually didn’t say. Then, if the grip-losers notice that others think they‘re acting sort of crazy, they decide that those people are just projecting their own craziness onto them. Accordingly, Kenney said that the real problem wasn’t his weird remarks; it was the Republicans. Offering another answer to a question no one appears to have asked, Kenney declaimed:

Was I misinterpreted by Republicans? Yes, I think it’s pretty easy for them to do. They misinterpret a lot of things. The FBI and police have not concluded that this is an act of terrorism. They are investigating it as it could be, but I think our FBI and police know more than Rush Limbaugh.

This statement suggests that Kenney isn’t a standout after all. He hasn’t really pulled ahead of the pack; his weirdness is simply one part of the larger weirdness of our political era. Nothing is more common than for Democratic politicians (Kenney is a Democrat) to refer almost any question to the nefarious schemes of the other party. In the president’s imagination, the failures of Obamacare resulted from the Republicans’ reluctance to endorse it. In Mrs. Clinton’s imagination, the email scandal — every scandal — is the fault of Republicans’ inopportune inquiries. If they would stop asking questions and let her be president, as is her right, the problem would go away.

Kenney said that the real problem wasn’t his weird remarks; it was the Republicans.

The perpetually ruling party also has the idea that any embarrassing question can be deflected by a reference to some ongoing investigation. But no investigation is required to make every politician in the country, left, right, or center, an expert on the history and teachings of Islam. These authorities know everything they need to know about the subject, right now. Like President Obama, that renowned Quranic scholar, Mayor Kenney is absolutely certain that Islam has nothing to do with people or organizations (such as the Islamic State) that somehow, for no reason at all, say they are acting to promote Islam.

I am not so expert on the subject. I merely suggest, without the benefit of any comprehensive investigation, that there are qualities in all the great religions, and all the great political and intellectual movements, that are capable of corrupting personalities and inspiring wicked acts. Don’t tell me that if Christianity had never existed, people would have been burned alive for denying the existence of the Trinity. Don’t tell me that atheism had nothing to do with the cruelties of Stalin. And now that I think of it, don’t tell me that a lot of our friends would be so insufferably cocksure and self-righteous if there were no such thing as libertarianism.

William Blake said that the caterpillar lays its eggs on the fairest leaves, and that saying is applicable to every aspect of life. Some people get divorces — some people murder their spouses, for God’s sake — because they cherish high ideals of marriage and find that their companions in marriage lack those ideals. Marriage may be a good thing, but if somebody says that he killed his wife because she didn’t live up to her marriage vows, I’m not going to hurry out and proclaim that her death had nothing to do with marriage itself.

You see what I’m saying, and I doubt there are many Muslims in the world who would disagree with it. I doubt there were many Muslims in Philadelphia who rushed to thank Mr. Kenney for giving them help they did not need. And I doubt there are many people in America who aren’t tired of his kind of obscurantism and the regime of political correctness in which it is embedded.

But the problem isn’t just obscurantism, or the American political circus (which can never have too many clowns); it’s the dominance of a Western official culture that is so wrapped up in obscurantism as to accept it as a fact of nature.

Take Angela Merkel (please!). What leader in history ever responded as she has to a civil war in a distant country — a country whose folkways and social attitudes are radically different from those of the modern industrial West, a country occupying a central position in the region from which anti-Western and anti-Christian terrorism has spread throughout the world? Merkel’s response was to invite unlimited numbers of people, without regard to educational attainment, occupational skills, familial ties, social status, social attitudes, degree of suffering from war, or even citizenship in a war-torn country, to come to Germany — after forcing their way through half a dozen other countries considered less desirable because less replete with welfare — there to be supported by tax money extorted from her constituents, none of whom were consulted about any of this, until such time as the migrants succeed in becoming fully assimilated into and integrated within the society she purports to lead, the society to which they are, notwithstanding their proposed assimilation, expected to contribute their own healthy cultural diversity.

There are many ways of baffling your constituents. Information control is one of them.

What kind of leader would do this, equipped, as she was, with nothing more than a vague plan to muscle neighboring countries into accepting their “fair share” of the migrants (which they refused to do), but with no plan to keep track of who came in, where they came from, where they went, or what their fate might be? What kind of leader would refuse, over and over, even to consider setting any limit on the burdens her countrymen must bear in “welcoming” the increasingly unwelcome visitors?

The answer is: a leader who has lost all contact with reality.

Of course, when you have a job, any kind of job, even that of Chancellor of Germany, you can’t stay out of contact forever, unless something or someone gives protection to your craziness. That’s the function of your “aides,” “supporters,” “spokesmen,” and other flunkies — the Valerie Jarretts of this world, who are smarter than you, and know it, and who also know how to shape an official ideology (political correctness and the other pseudo-moral attitudes emitted by people in power) that maintains an impenetrable barrier between the exalted leadership and everybody else.

There are many ways of baffling your constituents. Information control is one of them. Stall, delay, slow walk the facts; use words with secret definitions (“comprehensive immigration reform”); summon paid employees (crony capitalists, scientists on government payrolls, consultants to commissions appointed by yourself) to vouch for your way of doing things; and, when you feel like it, lie — just outright lie. You can also follow the example of Rahm Emanuel’s regime in Chicago, in its response to the police slaying of Laquan McDonald: bury the incident so deep in bureaucratic processes that nobody will know enough about it to demand the facts. That’s what the politically correct regime of Germany did with the migrant outrages in Cologne: the police blandly declined to report the fact that hundreds of sex offenses had taken place, and the news media blandly declined to publish what they knew. Any woman interested in demanding that something be done would think she was the only one, and go away.

Perhaps the strongest barrier between the people at large and their maniacal rulers is the attitude, now growing like kudzu everywhere in the West, that all of this is normal. Hillary Clinton: sure, she lies. What of it? Barack Obama, a little man with a nasty temper: sure, what do you expect from him? Angela Merkel, sole author of an enormous political blunder: gosh, I wonder what she’ll do next?

A Reuters report from January 19 shows how bad the situation is. After detailing the critiques finally being launched at Merkel from all directions, the author concludes in this way:

There are signs that Merkel, traditionally known for her pragmatic approach, is hearing at least some of the criticism but she has remained firm in resisting a cap [on immigration].

“There are signs,” but no one can be sure about whether Merkel “is hearing at least some of the criticism.” If so, she’s “resisting.” And that’s it. You can shout and scream all you want; maybe something will get through. But the leader gets to decide about what she hears. And it seems that she doesn’t hear much.

Not since the Neanderthals have human systems of communication been so lacking in the ability to communicate. What do we need — semaphores? Esperanto? Bonfires on the mountains? Drums along the Mohawk?

Obviously, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and they’re not giving it back.




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Vanishing Volk

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As readers of this journal may recall, I have argued that immigration has historically been a great net benefit to this country, and continues to be. Two recent articles give me occasion to reflect upon this topic anew.

The first is a piece from the Telegraph of London. It reports that Germany’s birth rate has now dropped to the lowest level in the world, and its workforce will shrink even faster than Japan’s in a few years. Germany’s rate averaged 8.2 births per 1,000 population (or about 1.38 births per woman on average) over the years 2008 to 2013, even lower than that of demographically depressing Japan (with its 8.4 births per 1,000, or an average of 1.41 children per woman) over the same period.

At this rate, Germany’s population will drop from its present 81 million down to 67 million in 45 years. This decline is in spite of the large influx of migrant (i.e., temporary) workers. The prospect of such a heavy drop in population — nearly 20% — has led some small towns in Brandenburg, Pomerania and Saxony to begin formulating plans for eventual closure.

Germany and Japan are likely to drop almost 20% in per capita GDP by 2060, compared to about 10% in Britain and the US.

The report notes that Britain and France are both doing better demographically. Both countries averaged 12.5 births per 1,000 population (or an average 2.01 children per woman), again over the same period. (The US has dropped to an average of 1.88 children per woman, which is below replacement rate. We continue to grow in population only because of our relatively welcoming immigration policy.)

In the crucial working age group (20–65), the percentage of Germany’s population will drop from the current 61% down to 54% by 2030. At that point, there will be only 1.1 workers per retiree, which will likely make the pension system insolvent.

The economic and geopolitical impact of such shrinkages will be profound, to say the least.

Economically, from the young come the gales of creative destruction that cause economic progress. As the author of the piece out it, “While aging societies can enjoy a rise in per capita income for a while, they tend to do so by living off past productivity and intellectual capital. This reserve is exhausted over time. It becomes progressively harder for older countries to remain at the technology frontier.” From the young come also the gales of new purchases — of homes, for growing families, of cars, of diapers, of the newest electronic devices…

This shows up in GDP per capita. Germany (and Japan) are likely to drop almost 20% by 2060, compared to about 10% in Britain and the US. In fact, the IMF calculates that both Britain and France will overtake Germany in total GDP by 2040.

Geopolitically, this means that Germany and Japan will lose their regional dominance.

The cause of all this is compound, that is, has more than one contributory factor. The first factor is one common to all developed nations, including ours: a baby boom followed by a baby bust. After WWII, Canada, Japan, the US, and Western Europe all saw rapid explosions in population, as soldiers returned and started families. But the “baby boomers” had lower rates of childbirth, and their children have lower rates of childbirth. Birth-dearth squared, so to say.

As I mentioned earlier, all developed nations are facing this demographic challenge. But there is a second factor at play, one that I will call “Volkische communitarianism,” folkish communitarianism. This term refers to statist politico-economics wedded to ethnic or racial tribalism. This, I would suggest, is the real problem Germany and Japan face, one that does not afflict — at least to the same degree — Britain, France, Canada, or the US. The fact that Germany and Japan identify national identity in terms of ethnicity, shared blood, rather than shared culture and norms means that while Britain, France, Canada and the US have been able to assimilate immigrants more or less successfully (the Muslims in France and Britain rather more slowly than our immigrants), the Germans and Japanese find that very hard. Their immigrants (and Germany has a fair number of them — 800,000 migrants came in last year) have historically tended to remain apart from the rest of the community.

But another report suggests that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to change the national mentality. In a recent talk at a conference on Germany’s current quality of life, she urged her fellow Germans to welcome the diversity of the new migrants, saying Germany is a “country of immigration.” She added, “There is something enriching if someone wants to come to us.” She added that these recent migrants need to feel at home.

At that point, there will be only 1.1 workers per retiree, which will likely make the pension system insolvent.

She is wrestling with some real problems. Past waves of migrant workers — such as the Turkish workers who came years ago — have faced difficulty in getting citizenship. Whether she will succeed in persuading her fellow citizens remains to be seen, of course. The anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland party has been growing lately, as the number of immigrants has grown.

But one has to admire her attempt to deal with the issues, especially given Germany’s not too distant past of tribalist politics.




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The Broken and the Unbroken

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Despite our justifiable concerns regarding domestic surveillance (see my review of Citizenfour), electronic surveillance has served an important purpose during war time. Intercept the enemy’s plan of attack, and you can prevent that attack. During World War II, hundreds of Allied “ears” listened in on Axis radio communications, hoping to decode the embedded messages in time to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

However, this became nearly impossible after the Nazis developed a complex message-scrambling machine called Enigma. A group of genius linguists, logicians, and mathematicians was recruited to break the Enigma code, but the machine was so complex that it could generate an estimated 159 x 1018 possible codes. Making the task even more formidable was the fact that the code changed at midnight every day, giving the team approximately 18 hours from the time the first message was intercepted in the morning until they had to start over, searching for a completely new code. It would be easier for the miller’s daughter to spin flax into gold than for these geniuses to uncover the Enigma code. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians were dying minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Cracking the code could potentially end the war sooner and save hundreds of thousands of lives. They had to keep trying. Their story is told in an outstanding new film called The Imitation Game.

In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle.

The unlikely hero of our story is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially inept, possibly autistic mathematical genius who can break traditional codes in a matter of minutes but can’t interpret ordinary social codes created through facial gestures and tone of voice. “People never say what they really mean,” Turing complains quizzically, “and you’re just supposed to know.” For example, at one point another decoder says, “We’re getting lunch,” and Turing doesn’t respond. What the decoder meant, of course, was “Do you want to come with us?” But Turing can’t crack this simple code on his own.

Turing realizes the folly of trying to break the Nazis’ code in traditional ways; it would take 20 million years to go through all the possibilities, and they have 18 hours a day. So he turns his efforts toward building a machine that can run through all the possibilities automatically, in milliseconds. The other decoders resent Turing’s obsession with the machine, because it takes him away from their traditional decoding. One member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) believes in him. Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself, as she is the only woman on the team, and math is considered a “manly” pursuit. She teaches Turing how to play the social game that will give him the time and support needed to develop his “imitation game” — the computer.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is spot on. Admittedly, he has experience with characters who are emotionally detached — he played, for example, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the title character in the TV series Sherlock (2010), and the forlorn boy whose best friend is a horse in War Horse (2011). In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle. While the other characters lean into each other, eyes aglow, faces expressing sorrow or concern or cheerfulness as they speak, Turing’s face is blank. His eyes focus just in front of the person to whom he is speaking; his face remains placid, his forehead unfurled. He is different, and because he is different he is unliked. We see this especially in flashbacks to his school experience, where all but one of the boys treat him cruelly. He is used to it, but he doesn’t like it. And he struggles to break that social code.

Turing developed his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think.

But there is more to Turing’s “imitation game” than the computer he longs to build. He is hiding a secret that, if discovered, could destroy his career and land him in jail — or worse, as it turns out. Winston Churchill heralded him as the greatest hero of World War II — responsible for ending the war two years early and saving hundreds of thousands of lives — yet because of this secret in his personal life he was arrested, convicted, and punished in the cruelest and most shameful way. For as long as he could, Turing lived an imitation life, hiding his true self and pretending to be someone he was not.

Turing’s story is an important one. He was a genius and a hero, yet he was shunned, bullied, and punished simply for being different, first by his schoolmates, then by his decoding team, and finally by the government he helped to save. Through all of this Turing continued to develop his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think. As Joan Clarke says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do things no one could imagine.” Understanding and assimilating this truth makes this film well worth watching.

Another film set in World War II also focuses on an unlikely hero. In this case his actions did not affect the outcome of the war, but his endurance, strength, and faith became an example to many who heard or read his story. Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, who spent 45 days in a life raft after his plane crashed at sea and then spent the final two years of the war in a Japanese prison camp. His ability to survive both experiences and buoy the courage of his fellow sufferers is an inspiring story of individual heroism.

Zamperini did not start out as a typical hero. He was a hooligan — often in trouble with the law for petty theft and just as likely to end up in a local prison as a Japanese one. The son of Italian immigrants, he, too, was bullied for being different. The local sheriff encouraged him to turn his swiftness at running from the cops to a more productive pursuit, and he joined the high school track team, eventually competing in the Berlin Olympics. Had the war not started, he would likely have gone to Tokyo as an Olympic competitor rather than a prisoner of war. These early experiences helped Zamperini develop survival instincts and endurance that served him well during his those brutal two years.

The film opens with a thrilling dogfight as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his flight crew ward off incoming flak in order to drop bombs on a Japanese target. After some expositional flashbacks to his childhood, it continues with the harrowing crash into the sea and Zamperini’s heroic leadership as he kept the three survivors motivated to stay alive in the life raft for an astounding 45 days. These scenes are the best in the film, capturing the teamwork, loyalty, and danger that are integral to the story.

Zamperini and his flight mates are rescued from certain death at sea, only to land in worse conditions within a Japanese prison camp. There they are isolated, starved, beaten, and threatened with beheading. Pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) is pitifully emaciated, and his ribs and hipbones stick out as though they could poke right through his tissue-paper skin. (Gleeson lost so much weight for the role that even his contact lenses wouldn’t fit.)

As told by Jolie and the Coens, the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import.

Camp Commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, shown by the almost psychotic cunning in his eyes. He is often filmed over the shoulders of an American soldier, staring menacingly into the camera, which gives the audience the eerie sensation of standing within the line of POWs. The actor, composer, and guitarist, known professionally in Japan as Miyavi, has a strangely androgynous look that adds to the unsettling effect of his character. First time director Angelina Jolie has a good eye for composition throughout the film (or perhaps the credit should go to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is known for such outstanding films as Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, A Beautiful Mind, andTrue Grit [2010]).

Unbroken is a good film, but it is not a great film, and it certainly does not live up to the quality of the book on which it is based (but then, few films ever do). The audience suffers the torment of the main character, and we admire his triumphant victory over horrifying circumstances — his ability to take whatever unfair treatment is meted out to him. Jack O’Connell deserves the accolades he has been receiving as most promising new performer. But the film falls strangely flat, especially in comparison to The Imitation Game. The story has no central conflict outside of the beatings and torture, giving it an oddly plodding pace.

Moreover, as told by Jolie and the Coens (who wrote the screenplay), the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import, and stops short of telling the lasting impact his experience had on others. While in the lifeboat, Zamperini made a vow to devote his life to God if he survived the experience, and he did — Zamperini joined Billy Graham’s crusade and told his inspirational story for many years as a way of encouraging people to face obstacles with courage and patience.

Unbroken had all the ingredients of an enduring film — outstanding, dedicated cast; seasoned, talented cinematographer; award-winning screenwriters; beautifully written book; and a heroic, uncompromising central character. It’s good. But it’s broken.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum. Weinstein Company, 2014, 114 minutes; and "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. Universal Pictures, 2014, 137 minutes.



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Their Gamble, Our Win

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A recent news piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my attention. Entitled “Germany’s Expensive Energy Gamble,” it reports on that country’s new grand energy plan, the “Energiewende” (“Energy Revolution”). This is now at the top of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s domestic agenda.

Under this plan, Germany will spend a projected trillion euros — and we all know how government projections tend greatly to understate final costs — laying out a massive new network of high-tension lines to carry power from wind plants in the North Sea to the country’s heavily industrialized southern region. Merkel’s government is gambling that this titanic investment will pay off with cheap, inexhaustible energy.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results.

While the EU has a set of rules requiring its member states to achieve a goal of 35% of their electricity from so-called renewables by 2025, Germany has set its goal to hit 40–45% by then and to exceed 80% by 2050. Again, this is without using nuclear power.

If achieving this does cost the German economy a trillion euros (about $1.4 trillion), that would equal about half the country’s annual GDP.

So far, the dream of renewables replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power has delivered only nightmarish results. Despite Germany’s history of no major problems with nuclear power, Merkel virtually shut down the nation’s nuclear industry after the Fukushima disaster. Today, only nine nukes remain open, and they are due to be shut down in about seven years.

The result is that over the past five years, electricity prices in Germany have skyrocketed 60%, because the subsidies for the highly inefficient wind farms are passed on to the consumer. German electricity is now over twice as expensive as America’s.

Even riskier for the German economy is the strain this is placing on the manufacturing sector, one of its key components.

As Kurt Bock, CEO of BASF — the world’s biggest chemical company and one of Germany’s biggest companies of any kind — put it, “German industry is going to gradually lose its competitiveness if this [energy revolution] isn’t reversed soon.

BASF, by the way, has every right to be frightened by Merkel’s energy scheme. The company’s main plant employs 50,000 people in Germany, and consumes as much power as all of Denmark. And Bock is not alone in his concerns. A recent survey by the Federation of German Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that three-fourths of executives at small- and medium-sized industries feel that the rising energy costs threaten German productivity. A survey by the US Chamber of Commerce showed that a similar percentage of American company executives with operations in Germany felt that the Energiewende made Germany less attractive as a place to do business.

While the unfavorable opinions of the manufacturers, either German-based or with German operations, should worry the German government, even more worrisome are the attendant industry actions.

BASF has announced plans to cut investment in Germany by 8.3% of its world total, shifting it elsewhere. SGL Carbon, another German manufacturer, has decided to triple its $100 million investment in its Washington state plant rather than expand its domestic operations, for the reason that electricity costs only one-third as much in Washington state as it does in Germany. And basi Schöberl GmbH will turn to France rather than Germany as the site of its new plant. (France, note well, has kept its nuclear power plants at full strength.)

As Daniel Yergin has put it, the Germans enthusiastically embraced so-called renewable power, viewing themselves as trailblazers, “But now the Germans look back and see there aren’t many people behind them.”

Meanwhile, as another WSJ piece documents, our own energy revolution continues to flourish — even in the face of an administration downright hostile to it — because ours is based on fossil fuels.

The article notes that while naysayers wrote off our fracking revolution under the theory that shale wells don’t produce for long and must be replaced with ever more wells, the fracking revolution enters its tenth year in fine shape. Shale wells have become far more productive.

For example, in 2013 the most fecund shale well produced, at its peak, 5.9 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. But last year — a mere decade later — the best shale well delivered an amazing 30.3 million cubic feet a day — a fivefold increase! And fracking oil wells have seen similar productivity increases over the last decade.

We have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

In fact, the focus of the American oil and natural gas industry — which has become the world’s largest energy producer — is now on finding ways to get more from existing wells, as opposed to looking for new shale fields. So while the number of wells has remained roughly constant, the production has jumped.

All this has kept American natural gas prices at historic lows.

This would suggest to a shrewd president — if we only had one! — a national strategy for renewing our industrial sector.

The strategy would be to embrace the American energy renaissance. Take back the regulatory agencies, as well as the Department of the Interior, from the environmentalist activists. Return to issuing leases to develop resources, both offshore and on land, leases dramatically curtailed by the Obama administration. Return to selling public lands — the federal government still owns 28% of the 2.27 billion acres that comprise our national territory. And allow our oil and gas to be exported freely. At the same time, reinvigorate our nuclear energy power industry.

In other words, aim explicitly at allowing the market to drive our energy prices, both the price of fuel and the price of electricity. This would create a cornucopia of benefits.

It would add a massive number of new jobs, first in the energy sector, then, as that wealth spread, in every other sector as well. It would drive down the amount of money that vicious dictators such as Putin and terrorists such as ISIS use to maim and murder free people around the world. That would lessen the probability that young Americans will die to protect our interests.

But we have a grotesquely obtuse president, so we will no doubt squander this opportunity to get our manufacturing base to the heights it could reach.

Elections have consequences — alas! But people get the government they deserve.




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They Didn’t Want a War

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Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace gives a fascinating description of the background, stretching back to around 1900, of what she, like people at the time, calls the “Great War.” She relates how the Bosnian crisis of 1908, the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, the crises arising from wars among the Balkan countries in 1912 and 1913, and various minor incidents were successfully muddled through without war among the great powers. The most general source of tension seems to have been fear of being attacked first and concern to make and maintain alliances.

Leading statesmen optimistically expected that tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, exacerbated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, would somehow be resolved like the earlier crises. Even after Austria-Hungary rejected Serbia’s compliant but not total acceptance of its ultimatum and declared war, hope lingered of keeping the war contained.

Few policymakers had wanted war (the main exception perhaps being Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff). The German Kaiser was no exception, although he was addicted to impulsive speeches and interviews, liked to strut in military uniform, and even enjoyed fiddling with the detailed design of uniforms (as did his fellow emperors Franz Joseph and Nicholas II).

World War I was a momentous and enduring tragedy. Germany, for one, had everything to gain from continuing peace.

As those examples suggest, MacMillan goes into revealing detail not only about demographic, economic, political, diplomatic, and military situations and events but also about people — royalty, politicians, foreign ministers, diplomats, generals and admirals, journalists, and influential or well connected socialites — together with their backgrounds, illnesses, deaths, and strengths or quirks of personality.

Much of this is relevant to the role of sheer and even trivial accident in momentous history. MacMillan herself notes several examples. The Russian monk Rasputin, whatever his faults, strongly advocated peace and had great influence with the Imperial family; but he had been stabbed by a madwoman on the very day of the Austrian Archduke’s assassination and was recovering slowly, far from St. Petersburg. The Archduke himself had long realized that Austria-Hungary was too weak to risk an aggressive foreign policy. Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter, German Foreign Minister and in MacMillan’s opinion a force for peace, had died in December 1912. Joseph Caillaux, France’s peace-minded Prime Minister, had had to resign in January 1912, partly in connection with his second wife’s shooting of an editor who had threatened to publish some indiscreet love letters that Caillaux had sent to her while she was still married to someone else. Although MacMillan does not explicitly raise the question, I was set to wondering how events would have evolved if Otto von Bismarck, a realist who was satisfied with Germany’s international position achieved by 1871, had been alive and in office in 1914. Or what if Gavrilo Princip’s bullet had missed the Archduke?

MacMillan ends her book, apart from a 13-page epilogue, with the outbreak of war in July-August 1914. That is fine with a reader more interested in the consequences of particular wars and with how the wars might have been avoided (as many potential wars no doubt were barely avoided) than with the details of the actual fighting. World War I was a momentous and enduring tragedy. Germany, for one, had everything to gain from continuing peace, including its growing leadership in science and industry. MacMillan writes a gripping story. She conveys a feel of the suspense that must have prevailed during the final crisis. My opinion of her book is overwhelmingly favorable.

Or it would be except for one minor but pervasive and annoying defect. The book is erratically punctuated, mainly but not everywhere underpunctuated. Even independent clauses, often even ones with their own internal punctuation, go unseparated by a comma or semicolon. Restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases and clauses are not distinguished, as clarity requires, by absence or presence of punctuation. Such erratic and erroneous punctuation delays understanding, if usually only for a second. Even so, it distracted me from the book’s fascinating story.

Above all, it distracted me with sustained wonder about how so untypically mispunctuated a book could emerge from a major publishing house. Could the copyeditor have given up in the face of a daunting and tedious task? Could an incompetent editor have imposed the damage, which the author then passively left standing? Could the author have committed the errors herself and then, perhaps out of bad experience with previous copyeditors, have insisted on none of their tampering this time? None of these hypotheses seems plausible, but I can’t think of a better one. The author’s including her copyeditor in her long list of Acknowledgments adds to the mystery.

I’d be grateful if someone could relieve my curiosity with the true story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The War that Ended Peace," by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, 784 pages.



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