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Historian Interview

January 3, 2007

In 2005, Götz Aly landed a bestseller with a study of how ordinary Germans, in addition to bankers and industrialists, benefited under Nazism. Now his book is available in English as "Hitler’s Beneficiaries."

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler gestures during a speech in May 1937
Hitler, says historian Götz Aly, was a "people's dictator"Image: AP

DW-WORLD.DE: The German original of your book, Hitlers Volksstaat, caused a lot of discussion when it was published two years ago. Could you briefly summarize what it is about?

Götz Aly: My book describes one aspect of National Socialism, namely the state’s generous social programs. It tries to answer the question of why most Germans were basically content under Hitler. The explanation is quite simple: Hitler pursued a massive wealth-redistribution program to the benefit of ordinary people. He spared them any of the burdens of World War II by racking up enormous debts and by initiating campaigns of murderous plunder that cost millions of other people their lives. That was his strategy, and it worked.

Götz Aly
Götz Aly is one of Germany's most iconoclastic historiansImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

How did you get the idea for the book?

I’ve been interested in the social policies of the Third Reich for 25 years, but the negotiations and debates [during the 1990s] between the Jewish Claims Conference and the German government about compensation for forced laborers provided an additional impetus. As important as they were, those talks could have given people the impression that the main profiteers from Nazism were Swiss bankers and German industrialists. Ordinary Germans didn’t seem to play a role. I knew that wasn’t true. So I wrote an op-ed piece for the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, pointing out that all Germans directly profited from forced laborers insofar as those laborers’ nominal wages were taxed and the proceeds paid into the state budget. I suggested that, to be fair, German pensioners should forego two percent of their pensions over the span of three years and pay the money into the compensation fund.

If you write something like that, the next day you’ve got an angry German populace standing on your doorstep. That’s when I knew that I was on to something big. When you read the book, you understand a bit better what was going on in the minds of people back then, people who supported the most murderous political system of the twentieth century. You recognize them as people who are like us.

Some left-wing readers felt you were attacking the German social welfare system. Is it a polemic book?

I don’t want to criticize the social welfare state. I believe it’s one of the major European achievements of the twentieth century. But when we talk about our social welfare state, we always pretend that the twelve years of National Socialism never happened. A great many of today’s laws originated in this period, whether we’re talking about legislation protecting the rights of workers and tenants, holiday and overtime pay, or state health insurance for pensioners. That doesn’t mean such things are wrong, but we shouldn't pretend that they were achieved by German workers at the barricades. We should be historically honest. And then perhaps we’ll understand the enormous power the totalitarian regime had to unite people.

Neuengamme concentration camp
Forced laborers and prisoners were worked to death to provide for the ReichImage: dpa

Critics said that you devoted too much attention to statistics and downplayed the importance of anti-Semitism. What role did ideology play in Hitler’s popularity?

This is not a book about the Holocaust per se. It concentrates on how Nazi Germany financed World War II and bribed ordinary Germans into supporting it. It’s not about how Germans became anti-Semites or whether they already were anti-Semitic. I didn’t choose to pose those questions because I think it oversimplifies the situation to reduce the crime of the Holocaust to German anti-Semitism. It’s not that anti-Semitism didn’t play a role. But the question is: what role? This has been the subject of much investigation, and it should continue to be investigated, but I reject the idea that anti-Semitism was the sole motivation that drove the Holocaust. For the Holocaust to happen, there had to be a fusion between the Nazis’ anti-Jewish world view, which degraded most people to inferior status while elevating ordinary Germans into master race, and concrete material interests and advantages. The two aspects are equally important.

Book cover: Hitler's Beneficiaries
Hitler's policies meant German housewives were relatively well-off

You worked for many years as a journalist and don't have a permanent academic post. Does that make you different in your approach from historians with more conventional backgrounds?

Even as a child, I wanted to be a historian. But I got off track because of the revolutionary spirit of the late 1960s. We wanted to do something practical. I attended journalism school in Munich, helped found the left-wing taz newspaper here in Berlin and then went to the Berliner Zeitung. I always did what I thought was fun, namely: writing. And I kept having ideas I thought should write about. I think my distance from the academy is productive because it continually opens up new questions. Historical writing is only as good as the questions you ask about history. 25 years ago I wrote a study of the Nazi euthanasia programs against the mentally ill. If I’d become a normal professor, I’d probably still be organizing workshops, editing academic compendia and advising dissertations on that topic. Or perhaps I would have been suffocated by boredom.

How do you hope English readers will react to your book?

I think readers in the US and post-Thatcher England may have problems understanding the importance of the social welfare state. But I hope it opens up new perspectives. In particular I hope we can get away from the paradigm that the historian’s job is to distinguish between good and evil. Too often we’re supposed to say that everything we value today has its origins in something good. But good and evil, even the most terrible sorts of evil, are inextricably linked. It’s difficult to comprehend that something like Auschwitz could be connected in any way to things we today think are good. But I think that such painful insights are the ones that help us understand the totalitarian systems of the past as people striving for a better world. I hope that the English version of the book will help us get beyond the idea that evil can be reduced to the deeds of isolated individuals.

Wehrmacht in Copenhagen
German troops confiscated huge amounts of goods from occupied countries like DenmarkImage: dpa

What are your next projects?

I’ve just completed two short books. One is a demoscopic study of the public mood in the Third Reich based on empirical indices such as how many Germans opened up long-term savings accounts or named their children Adolf. The other is a book I wrote with a colleague of mine about a Jewish family, the Fromms, and in particular Julius Fromm, who was the inventor of the world’s first brand-name condom. It’s an interesting story. Back then, condoms were only sold under the counter. People would pass the drug store owner notes requesting “hygienic articles.”

I accidentally stumbled across Fromm’s story while researching the Aryanization of Jewish property in the Third Reich. I was invited to give a talk in a gay club, and they told me they didn’t want any “boring hetero stuff.” And so I decided to offer them something about how the Nazis seized the most famous condom factory in the world from a Jewish entrepreneur. It’s a fascinating tale. Before Fromm, condoms were stitched together and were as thick as bicycle tires. And here comes a Jewish immigrant from Russia who experimented with various types of rubber in Berlin courtyards and who worked his way up from poverty to success. His factory was personally confiscated by Göring, who gave it to his godmother, but there were lots of Germans who profited from Fromm. I think it’s a good little book about the rise and fall of an assimilated Jewish family from Eastern Europe that has a lot to say about the culture of National Socialism and the twentieth century in general.

Götz Aly was interviewed by Jefferson Chase, who also translated the book "Hitler's Beneficiaries" into English.