Buying Genocide, Part 2


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.

Share This

Total Regime, Total Propaganda


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.

Share This

The Most Decisive Battle of World War II?


World War II was a messy affair. In spite of its perception as “the good war,” for some prospective combatants picking a side before all hell broke loose required intense political calculation. Alliances just before, during, and immediately after the war were fluidly tenuous.

The decade before the war’s outbreak presaged the muddle. The Spanish Civil War pitted — by proxy — the recently established Italo-German coalition against Russia in a classic ideological struggle. Italy’s incursions into Africa, on the other hand, were purely hegemonic grabs for colonial territory. In the Far East the situation was more complicated. In 1931, Japan grabbed Manchuria for its natural resources. In 1937, when Japan invaded the rest of China, both Germany and Russia squared off against it by supplying arms and essentials to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. The United States, which supplied 80% of Japan’s oil imports and most of its steel, continued to do so.

Hitler considered Britain a natural ally, while Britain despised the Bolsheviks. Stalin despised the western democracies and the fascists equally, negotiating for an alliance with both camps right up to the day of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 — which was only three days before Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland (delayed for six days by the signing of the Anglo-Polish mutual defense pact).

The muddle continued even after Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, when Russia invaded Poland,Edward Raczyński, Polish ambassador to Britain — citing their mutual defense pact — appealed to Britain to declare war on the Soviet Union. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax responded with hostility, stating that it was Britain's decision whether to declare war (a moot point, as a secret protocol of the pact identified only Germany as a prospective aggressor). Six weeks later, when Russia invaded Finland and the latter — out of necessity — allied itself with Germany, being unable to muster aid from the western democracies, Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

As to Japan and Germany, their alliance was more a marriage of convenience than a pairing of soulmates. For one, Germany resented having to cede its New Guinea colony to Japan after World War I and besides Berlin’s aid to China, the Japanese rejected Hitler’s racial policies, going so far as to declare publicly that Jews were not a problem. The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilization to which we belong. Indeed, I believe the more steadfast the Chinese and the Japanese remain in their pride of race, the easier I shall find it to get on with them.”It wasn’t until November of 1939 — three months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland — that the two signed a cooperation pact, and nearly a year later before Japan joined the Italo-German Axis in the Tripartite Pact.

Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

Russo-Japanese relations were awful and getting worse. Immediately following the Russian Revolution, Japan had unsuccessfully contributed 70,000 troops to the Anglo-American effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Then, in 1905, the Japanese decisively defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. By 1937, Japan was eyeing Siberia as a natural extension of its Manchurian and Chinese incursions. Stalin treated the island kingdom gingerly.

With Europe on the brink of war, his worst nightmare was the prospect of a two-front conflict. Japan did not reciprocate: it hated the Bolsheviks. Much of its contempt was caused by Stalin’s purges, which had castrated the Red Army. On June 12, 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, the guiding spirit behind the modernized Soviet army, together with seven other high-ranking generals, was shot. Stuart Goldman, author of Nomonhan, 1939, elaborates,

Of the five marshals of the Red Army, three were shot, as were all eleven deputy commissars for defense. Seventy-eight of the eighty members of the Military Collegium perished. Every military district commander was liquidated, as were the heads of the Army Political Administration and the Frunze Military Academy. Of the fifteen army commanders, only two survived. Fifty-seven out of eighty-five corps commanders were shot, as were 110 of the 195 division commanders. At the brigade level, only 220 of the 406 colonels survived. In the Soviet Far Eastern forces the attrition rate was even higher, with 80% of the staff being removed in one way or another. According to some sources, between one-fourth and one-third of the entire officer corps was executed, or discharged within a period of eighteen months.

To the Japanese government, by now controlled by the military, the annihilation of the Soviet professional officer corps was heretical — and an open invitation to invade Siberia.

* * *

While the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are well known and understood, Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance, without any one charismatic character leading the way.

During the last half of the 19th century, Japan had developed a parliamentary democracy under an emperor — revered to the point of veneration — as head of state. The Great Depression, which hit Japan early, in 1927, strained operations of government, already in disrepute because of widespread corruption, nearly to the breaking point. Frustrated by the Diet’s ineffectiveness, the military’s officer class dove into politics and pushed for decisive action — despite both an imperial prohibition and traditional samuraicustom. They held a trump card. As Goldman recounts, “An Imperial Ordinance dating back to 1900 stipulated that the army and navy ministers must be active-duty generals and admirals. Either service could thus cause the government to fall simply by withdrawing its service minister and refusing to put forward a replacement. By the late 1930’s, this expedient effectively brought civilian government under military control. Before long, generals and admirals themselves headed the government.”

For Japan, many factors, including both gekokujo — literally, “rule from below” — and bushido — “the way of the warrior” — produced a perfect storm. The government’s inability to deal effectively with the deteriorating economic situation was aggravated by Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi’s ratification of the London Naval Treaty of 1930. By this treaty, Japan accepted a ratio of 10:10:6 for American, British and Japanese heavy cruisers respectively — in spite of vehement opposition by the Navy General Staff, the Supreme War Council, the major opposition party, the Privy Council, countless nationalist societies, and much of the popular press. Six weeks afterward, Hamaguchi was assassinated. This was the first of a series of murderous assaults and coup attempts that prompted an American journalist to characterize the situation as “government by assassination.”

The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves.”

Gekokujo is a Japanese concept that encourages action, initiative, and even principled disobedience in the application of moral ideals — especially if those ideals derive from bushido, Shinto, or Buddhism. It became the driving motivation for the political upheavals of 1930’s Japan. Coupled with another Japanese custom, that of considering direct orders an impropriety — a practice to which even commanding officers adhered — it became a justification for subordinates to ignore superiors’ “orders” (which, grammatically, were structured as “suggestions”), and act as they saw fit. While the top brass controlled the government, gekokujo controlled the lower ranks in a negative feedback loop that aggravated every contingency beyond anyone’s control.

* * *

The battle of Khalkhin Gol (Khalkhin River) — known in Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident — was a direct consequence of gekokujo. It wasone of the largest battles of World War II, and perhaps the most decisive one — except that it technically did not take place during World War II, or between declared combatants. It is the subject of Stuart D. Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II. Though based on a PhD. dissertation, it is a splendid book, gripping and well researched. It anticipates every question a reader might have, and answers it with context — a quality not uniformly present in historical narration.

Goldman sets the stage with an analysis of the global geopolitical calculus before the war, explores each country’s constantly adjusting foreign policy, then zeroes in on why Soviet-Japanese relations led to the conflict at Khalkhin River. The undeclared war — a series of confrontations spread over two years, involving nearly 150,000 personnel, and culminating in a massive battle near the village of Nomonhan — is brilliantly laid out, from the diplomatic to-and-fros, to battlefield minutiae, to individual soldier’s anecdotes, to follow-ups of the principal and minor characters during WWII and afterward (with Georgy Zhukov, later to become Marshal of the Soviet Union, Chief of the General Staff and Supreme Commander of Soviet forces, to the fore).

By 1937, Japan’s Kwantung Army, which in 1932 had conquered and occupied Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo), was bored and feeling its oats. In the interim, Japan’s Army General Staff (AGS) had been contemplating whether to extend the Manchukuo salient into Siberia, conquer the rest of China, or move south into Indochina. In June 1937, Kwantung took the initiative. Without notifying the AGS, it undertook a series of provocations along the Soviet-Manchukuoan border in an attempt to settle by force previously unsettled minor border alignment issues, with an eye to testing Soviet military resolve and gaining honor. The AGS had decided on a full-scale invasion of China proper, which it duly launched the following month. Faced with Kwantung’s provocation, the AGS was of two minds, and temporized. The result was a two-front war. Japan didn’t want that war, but still thought it could contain it if it played its diplomatic cards with the USSR adroitly.

Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance.

But Kwantung Army thought it knew better. Instead of heeding the AGS’s orders for restraint — phrased as suggestions — it escalated its thrusts into Soviet-dominated Mongolia. The deck was stacked against Stalin. Though the Soviet Far Eastern forces numbered half a million men, they were spread over a remote area two-thirds the size of the continental US, and hobbled by poor support and transport, including more than 400 miles of trackless terrain between Nomonhan and the nearest railhead (at Borzya in Siberia). Worst of all, the purges had demoralized the Soviet army. Kwantung Army, on the other hand, though numbering only 220,000 men, was bursting with pride and martial spirit from its recent victories, and was concentrated nearby, well-supplied by the South Manchurian Railway’s salient, which reached almost all the way to Nomonhan, yet was close enough to Japan to be reinforced quickly.

On June 1, 1939, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, a young deputy commander in Minsk, received an urgent phone call summoning him to a meeting with Kliment Voroshilov, Commissar for Defense. Zhukov betrayed no sign of apprehension at the possibility of joining the ranks of the disappeared. He was a bull: stout, blunt, crude, and short-tempered; given to drink, accordion playing, and convivial singing; overbearing but exceptionally brave. He was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done. He was also — before the German blitzkrieg — an early proponent of tank warfare, a technique first used during the Spanish Civil War but discontinued because of its ineffectiveness in that conflict’s urban and guerrilla theaters. Khalkin Gol, on the open plains of Mongolia, was a better laboratory. Voroshilov ordered Zhukov to take command of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group and contain the Japanese incursions.

Zhukov amassed a fleet of 4,200 vehicles to ferry troops and materiel from the railhead at Borzya to Tamsag Bulak, a small village within striking distance of the battlefield. The trucks moved only at night, with their lights blacked out. Meanwhile, to ensure tactical surprise for the Soviet attack, Zhukov concocted an elaborate ruse, setting up a sophisticated sound system between Tamsag Bulak and the battlefield to simulate the noises of tank and aircraft engines and of heavy construction. This long, loud nightly performance was meant to give credence to the false messages (in easily decipherable code, and meant to be intercepted) referring to the construction of defensive positions in preparation for a prolonged autumn and winter ground-holding campaign.

At first, the Japanese were fooled, and fired in the general direction of the loudspeakers. After a few nights, however, they realized it was only sound effects, became accustomed to the nightly “serenade,” and tried to ignore it. On the eve of the Soviet offensive, the sounds of actual pre-attack staging — which included bridges across the Halha River (Khalkhin Gol), deceptively built about 10 inches underwater, so they couldn’t be seen — went largely unnoticed by the Japanese.

Zhukov’s attack was preceded by an artillery and bombing barrage that no one, anywhere, at any time, had ever experienced. At one point — for three solid hours — an average of two heavy artillery rounds per second rained continuously on the Japanese positions. By the third day of this saturating fire, Japanese soldiers, who already had a reputation for superhuman endurance and never surrendering, were going insane. On August 20, Zhukov’s cavalry — tanks and infantry — charged. By August 31, Zhukov had declared the disputed territory cleared of enemy troops.

Zhukov was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done.

The Soviet victory was absolute. Japanese casualties totaled 48,000; Soviet casualties, 26,000 — a very reasonable ratio. Nevertheless, the Red Army was gaining a reputation for troop attrition. Zhukov did not flinch from incurring heavy casualties to achieve his objectives. After the war, he told General Eisenhower, “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten . . . if the (enemy) had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of mine fields.” In the Winter War against Finland — a scant three months later — Russian techniques for crossing mined territory had been refined. Lacking, or eschewing, conventional sappers, Soviet commanders would deploy a single line of infantrymen, elbows interlocked, backed by NKVD snipers, across the mined field — singing patriotic songs to steel their courage.

* * *

Goldman argues that the consequences of the Soviet victory at Nomonhan reached far beyond Mongolia: from Tokyo to the Battle of Moscow and to Pearl Harbor. The timing of the Khalkhin Gol defeat coincided with the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Japanese felt betrayed and diplomatically isolated. Defeated by the Red Army and deserted by Hitler, the government of Premier Hiranuma Kiichiro abruptly resigned.

In spite of Zhukov’s decisive victory, Stalin didn’t trust the Japanese — and with good reason. Like the Black Night in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Kwantung Army was dismembered but foamingly rabid, raring to mount a full invasion of Siberia to regain lost face and honor. It went so far as to notify AGS to “kindly be prepared to mobilize the entire Japanese Army to engage in the decisive struggle against the USSR in the spring.” So Stalin reinforced Soviet Far Eastern Forces with 1.6 million men.

But the top brass at AGS had learned their lesson. They not only decapitated Kwantung’s command; they decided to phrase orders as “orders,” instructing Kwantung to assume a strictly defensive posture. And they reassessed imperial objectives. The thrust north into Siberia was shelved; instead, they set their sights on Indochina as a possible venue for breaking the increasingly stalemated China war by opening up a southern front against Chiang Kai-shek. This decision, logical in the short term, proved the Axis’ ultimate undoing.

It took nearly a year for all the contributing factors to fall into place. For one, Japan hadn’t yet joined the Axis (and wouldn’t for another year). Additionally, it took some time to convince Stalin that Japan was no longer a threat — in spite of his having a spy, Richard Sorge, in the highest levels of the Japanese government. How a Caucasian infiltrated the extremely ethnocentric Japanese high command is another story; but he did, and his intelligence was of the highest caliber. Very slowly, Stalin came to realize that Japan would not be a threat to his eastern flank.

His first move came two weeks after Zhukov’s victory, with the signing of the Molotov-Togo truce, terminating hostilities at Nomonhan. The reason Stalin didn’t invade Poland in conjunction with German forces was that he was waiting for a resolution at Khalkhin Gol. It wasn’t until the day after the cease-fire went into effect at that location that he gave the Red Army the go-ahead to grab eastern Poland. Finally, a year and eight months later, in April of 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact.

Two months later, in June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR, a move that took Stalin completely by surprise — but which Zhukov had predicted. By late summer, the German army was threatening Moscow. Stalin took a do-or-die stance: he entrenched himself in the capital, declaring that he was “going to hold Moscow at all costs”. As Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, later stated, recalling a conversation with Stalin, if Moscow — the nerve center of the USSR — fell, the Soviet Union would likely have capitulated.

“By early autumn, some Western military experts were predicting the collapse of Soviet military resistance within a matter of weeks,” Goldman states. Then, in September, Sorge reported that Japan would “absolutely” not attack Siberia. Only then did the Soviet High Command transfer the bulk of the 1.6 million men stationed in Siberia from east to west for the defense of Moscow. By December 1, German forces were only 12 miles away. It was then that “the Siberians” came to the rescue.

On December 5, Zhukov, who had been put in charge of the Odessa Military District after Khalkhin Gol and was now in charge of the defense of Moscow, launched a massive counteroffensive, spearheaded by the Far Eastern reinforcements. He threw the Germans back about 100 miles and held them there through the winter. It was the first Soviet success since the German invasion.

One day later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Goldman, these two events — direct consequences of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol — were the turning point of the war, rather than the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943). He connects the dots between Khalkhin Gol and Pearl Harbor in this way: in July 1941, while the Germans were blitzing toward Moscow, Japan invaded Indochina — as per the AGS’s post-Khalkhin Gol plan. In response, the US and Britain cut all oil sales to Japan, over 80% of which came from the Anglo-Americans and their allies. The embargo was meant to stop the Japanese war machine; and it would have gone further, throttling the entire Japanese economy. To the Japanese, this was intolerable. The closest oil source was in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia. But they believed that if they attacked Indonesia, the US would enter the war. So, against the judgment of many of their senior commanders — based on the estimate that US industrial strength dwarfed Japan’s by a factor of 10:1 — AGS decided on a preemptive strike against the US fleet. It was a decision that one Japanese general presciently termed suicidal. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

Josef Stalin was the only major WWII combatant to avoid a two-front war. Throughout the first years of the war he’d badgered his allies to invade Europe, and at the February 1945 Yalta conference he, in turn, was pressured to declare war on Japan. He agreed to do so, but only three months after Germany's capitulation. This would allow him several months to transfer sufficient Red Army forces from Europe to the Far East.

At midnight August 8, exactly three months after VE day, and two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Stalin delivered: the Red Army launched a massive invasion of Manchukuo — against Kwantung Army.

Many perceived Stalin’s move as a cynical grab for spoils. But at Yalta, Stalin had been unaware of the Los Alamos efforts; the war against Japan was nowhere near concluded; and his commitment to open up a Siberian front was a substantial undertaking, made in good faith. After Hiroshima, however, he did take advantage of the situation, trying to reclaim territory lost to Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War — principally, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Though Emperor Hirohito, on August 15, “ordered” (again, phrased in an oblique manner) Japan’s surrender, the Soviet advance continued down Manchuria, into Korea, and across to the off-lying islands. Some 600,000 Japanese troops surrendered and were marched north into the Gulag.

On September 2 Japan formally surrendered. Japan later concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation. Russia’s occupation of the Southern Kuriles continues to poison relations between the two countries.

* * *

The Japanese Army General Staff’s decapitation of Kwantung Army did not dampen gekokujo or bushido. These qualities merely spread and entrenched themselves further. Kwantung’s high command had been punished with only slaps on the wrist: transfers and early retirement — no court martials. Mid-level commanders stayed put or were transferred.

Throughout the war Japanese soldiers gained a reputation for fanaticism, for never surrendering, and for suicide attacks. Even after Hirohito’s “order” of capitulation, a radio announcer tried to clarify: the emperor’s message actually meant that Japan was surrendering. But Imperial General Headquarters did not immediately transmit a cease-fire order. When it did, some thought it was a call for further sacrifice; others did not understand it or ignored it.

Japan concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda exemplified Japanese moral values. (On Onoda, see his No Surrender: My Thirty-year War, Kodansha International Ltd, 1974 — another good book.) He was stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines in 1944. Onoda's orders stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life. So he held out, and held out, and held out. Thirty years later, on February of 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese adventurer on a quest for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order, discovered him, befriended him, and urged him to come home. Onoda refused, citing his orders.

When Suzuki returned to Japan, he contacted Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, Onoda's commanding officer — by then a bookseller. When Taniguchi finally found Onoda, he couldn’t convince him to give up his position until he phrased his mission as an order following strict military protocol. Onoda came in from the heat on March 9, 1974. As of 2012, Hiroo Onoda is still alive and living in Brazil.

Editor's Note: Review of "Nomonhan, 1939," by Stuart D. Goldman. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 226 pages.

Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.