The Myth of Nazi “Efficiency”

Patterns of Force (Star Trek: The Original Series)

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy investigate a planet that has turned into Nazi Germany by another name. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the classic Star Trek episode “Patterns of Force”, the starship Enterprise arrives at a planet gone mad. An historian named John Gill, who had been observing the citizens of the planet Ekos, had decided to break Starfleet’s policy of non-interference – the Prime Directive – and directly intervene in the political and societal development of the Ekosian people. In doing so, Gill decided to pattern the new Ekosian society on the “most efficient” state Earth had ever known, Nazi Germany. However, his attempts to achieve this efficiency and unity of will, without the state resorting to the horrors of Hitler’s regime, ultimately failed; Gill, now the self-styled Führer, was drugged by his deputy, who then waged a racial war of genocide against the neighbouring Zeons. Happily, this interstellar Third Reich is defeated by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, just before Ekos launches its “Final Decision” against the Zeon people. Predictably, as he died, Gill apologised to Kirk, admitting that his breach of the Prime Directive was wrong. With the crisis resolved, the Enterprise thus leaves Ekos.

Of course, the episode dispensed with any attempt at metaphor. John Gill is referred to as the Führer. There is an SS and a Gestapo, and it is no coincidence that the “race enemies” of the Ekosians, the Zeons, have names that so closely resemble Jewish ones (Isak, Abrom, and Davod, are all Zeons encountered by Kirk and Spock during the adventure, and “Zeon” is close enough to “Zion”, the Hebrew word for ancient Israel). In doing so, the episode’s moral was aimed at the legacy of Nazi racial policies. Yet there is a deeper historical concept at play here. Gill contends that a Nazi-like regime is the preferable form of government because of the efficiency of the Nazi state, only to discover that this efficiency goes hand-in-hand with the horrors of the Holocaust. Gill, however, is portrayed as an historian who admires the overall achievements of National Socialism while abhorring the methods.

The idea that Nazi Germany was a remarkably efficient state used to be taken as a given. Those (like the fictitious Gill) who argued this contended that the Germans were possessed by a unifying goal, that the German economy outstripped anything else in its class, and that the proof of this efficiency can be found in the fact that Germany was able to wage war against the combined weights of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union for many years, before finally buckling and collapsing under the overwhelming force of these states. That it held out for so long, and even looked set to win, these commentators argued, demonstrated Germany’s superior management and organisation.

In order to evaluate Germany’s economic performance under the Nazis, it is important to understand  the context that came before. There is no doubt that, in the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the German economy had been subjected to disastrous forces. Germany had, at the end of the First World War, been required to pay severe reparations to the victorious Allies. In the event, these reparations were not ever fully paid, but it is important to note that the amount that was demanded of the Germans was well beyond that which Germany could feasibly ever pay. Throughout the mid-1920s, however, the German foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, appealed to the Americans to have the terms of reparations payments changed. This was achieved through a remarkable series of circumstances.

Owen D. Young in 1924

Owen Young, Dawes Committee economist, and chairman of General Electric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Firstly, the so-called Dawes Committee was convened, with its chief economist, Owen Young, tasked with coming up with a plan to calculate German repayments without endangering the German economy itself. Young was a brilliant financial mind, as he was the chairman of General Electric. But Young had reasons to ensure Germany’s economic recovery, beyond merely ensuring that reparations could be met. General Electric had entered into a tight commercial alliance with the German electrical giant AEG; improving the health of the German domestic market, then, could only improve AEG’s bottom line, which in turn would benefit GE and Young. Moreover, American industry relied on a series of capital investments by American merchant banks, ensuring a close relationship between companies and banks. The banks, in turn, had looked to Germany hungrily. Since savings in German banks had been all but wiped out after the First World War and during the German economic slump, those banks could not afford to extend loans that would be necessary to recover the economy without hard currency backing. On the other hand, American financiers, such as J.P. Morgan, had monetary reserves, and saw a lucrative opportunity in providing German banks and companies with large, high interest loans. Thus, American banks were encouraged to sink capital into Germany’s recovery. This suited the Americans, since they foresaw massive returns on these investments. For a time, this also suited the Germans, who were able to secure such enormous loans that they quickly began making their reparations payments, not with their own money, but with American cash. Effectively, then, the Germans borrowed American money, which they then used to pay their required reparations to the British and the French, who were then obliged to pay installments on their war debt to the Americans (using American money that had been borrowed by the Germans).

A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Excha...

Horrified crowds outside the New York Stock Exchange, October 1929. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This arrangement may have suited all parties in the short term, but it is astonishing that neither Young nor Stresemann saw the dangers of the system they had encouraged. By 1925, the German economy was almost entirely dependent on American money, secured through loans. But what would happen if the Germans were unable to make their repayments? Or, more worryingly, what would happen if, for some reason, the American banks were forced to recall their loans? As it was, the world was about to find out. In October 1929, after years of heavy speculative trading, the Wall Street Stock Exchange crashed. The results were catastrophic. Banks that had invested on the exchange suddenly lost millions, and their first impulse – to squeeze borrowers – was met with panic by those who kept savings accounts. The subsequent run on currency placed the banks in a position in which they no longer had either public confidence or monetary backing in order to continue trading. The obvious response was to recall the massive loans to Germany.

The banks could do little other than demand German payment. But this brought about its own repercussions. German banks, trading houses, and even government budgets had been largely dependent on American capital for several years. The impressive recovery of the German economy since the immediate postwar days had been largely a fiction, since the risk had been shouldered not by the Germans but by over-keen US investors. In any case, the German balance of payments, especially with regards the enormous reparations debt, was kept afloat by the greenback rather than the Reichsmark. So, by suddenly recalling their loans, the American banks were not simply trimming Germany of a luxury it had enjoyed. They were undermining the entire foundation of the new German economy.

As one might reasonably expect, the sudden withdrawal of American capital smashed the German economy. Virtually overnight, banks and other companies collapsed, personal savings accounts that had only just begun to recover from the postwar downturn were once again wiped out, and the government found itself insolvent. This change of fortunes reversed the growth that the country had been experiencing; in the months immediately before the crash, some 20 million Germans had held paid employment, but by 1933 that number had fallen precipitously, to just 11.5 million, though this figure hardly does justice to the situation, since workers who remained employed usually had to accept pay cuts and a decline of their working conditions. Not only did employment problems rob Germany of revenue, but it also added millions of families to an already overstretched and inadequate social welfare programme that simply could not keep up with the huge numbers of those who could no longer support themselves independently.

stamp series Winterhilfswerk with additional s...

The Autobahn was such a feted achievement of the Nazi economic policies that it was even celebrated on postage stamps. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was in this context that Hitler would eventually rise to power and, certainly, the logic of the conclusions drawn (as much by the fictitious John Gill as by real, established names in the field) seems impressive. In 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, official unemployment stood at six million. Within a year it had been halved, and by 1937 fewer than one million Germans were without jobs. In order to raise the employment figures, the regime had begun a number of public works schemes, including the famed Autobahn motorways. Several thousand kilometres of road were built in a few short years, and the Autobahnen alone had employed over 150,000 Germans in gainful work. The number of welfare recipients soon fell by more than 60 percent in large cities. Indeed, by 1936, Germany was in such a strong economic position that Berlin was able to host a triumphant Olympic Games, complete with all the pageantry expected of the situation, and German Zeppelin airships criss-crossed the Atlantic as symbols of renewed German might. The design of the so-called “People’s Car” (Volkswagen), which would open motoring to the masses, was another crowning achievement of the regime’s economic policies. Away from industry, too, the economy had improved. Agricultural production gained from strength to strength throughout the 1930s, and by 1939 output was some 71 percent higher than it had been in 1933 – no doubt an amazing achievement. In short, Germany’s economic recovery, it is claimed, was a miracle, a Wirtschaftswunder before the term had been coined, and at the heart of this were Hitler and his ministers.

This logic is seductive, but it is based on faulty assumptions. Let us first address the question of the motorways. The Autobahn project certainly employed over 100,000 people, and the country was soon festooned with bitumen and bridges. These projects, however, were not entirely of the Nazis’ making. The first Autobahn – Hamburg to Basel – was begun in September 1933, but it had been in the works for years; only the more pressing matters of combatting the hyperinflation of the early 1920s had prevented the successive Weimar governments from implementing the plans. It is also worth noting that, though it was begun in 1933, the Hamburg-Basel corridor was not completed by the time construction work was suspended due to the outbreak of war in 1939. It would not be finished until the 1960s. In any event, while the Autobahnen were successful insofar that they were built, and that they employed more than 100,000 otherwise unemployed Germans, the plan had been for the projects to employ over four times as many people as they actually did. On their own terms, then, the Autobahn projects were, at best, only qualified successes.

But even if the motorways were built, they were useless without traffic. Here we have an illustration of the strange nature of Nazi economics, or the difference between image and reality. In 1939, the prototype of the Volkswagen was demonstrated by Hitler himself in Berlin, but the car did not enter production at all under the Third Reich, in spite of the Führer’s pledge to have a million of them built every year. Without this “People’s Car”, the Reich had begun building a system of roads that were inaccessible to most Germans, since motoring was an unaffordable luxury. At the height of the Autobahn building phase, in 1935, for every sixty people in Germany there was just one automobile, compared to one for every twenty in France, or one for every twenty-five in Denmark; in the United States, one person out of every five owned a car of their own.

As impressive as the rises in agriculture were, the figures here are misleading as well. In 1936, Hitler had launched a campaign of economic improvement – the Four-Year Plan – which was overseen not by economists, such as Hjalmar Schacht, but by the chief of the air force and minister-president of Prussia, Hermann Göring. Hitler declared that “Germany must be wholly independent” in its production of the necessities of modern economies, foodstuffs being chief among them. Yet this never happened; by 1938, Germany was still reliant on the importation of fodder for draught animals, fats and eggs were so hard to come by that butter and lard were both heavily rationed well before the war, and fruits and coffee became increasingly difficult to source. The latter was due to heavy importation duties, since coffee crops were not native to Germany. The former, however, was for the most part due to massive inefficiencies in the German countryside. Though production on farms had increased between 1933 and 1939, this was not the full story. The German agrarian sector had been severely depressed since 1914, when the farming manpower was conscripted and left for war. After the war, hyperinflation and uncontrolled recession, coupled with the fact that many of the labourers had never returned from the war, left the agricultural markets in a parlous state. Farmers turned to subsistence production – that is, focusing on providing enough only for themselves – since there was no longer any benefit to boosting production for a market economy that could not pay them for their labours. So, it is true that, in the six years between Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of the Second World War, agricultural production was increased, but this increase in production only returned the agrarian sector to pre-First World War levels. In short, by 1939, Hitler and Göring’s Four-Year Plan had perhaps improved some areas of farm production, but only in the sense that Germany was back to the levels of a quarter-century earlier. In absolute terms, then, Germany was twenty-five years behind. Moreover, the countryside lost a large number of labourers (approximately 1.4 million) in these National Socialist prewar years, as urbanisation increased and more and more farmhands moved to the growing cities and towns to try and find their fortunes among the urban classes. Apples, which had been a staple of German fruit diets, were planted and grown, but in many cases orchards were understaffed by the time the apples were ripe for picking. The contraction of the import market also meant that fruits that were not native to Germany, such as bananas and oranges, became heavily restricted commodities. It is no coincidence that, in the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, one of the subplots revolves around a fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz, who woos his paramour, Fräulein Schneider, by presenting her with a pineapple. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, such fruits were so rare as to only be vaguely remembered, dreamt-of commodities, luxurious and a product of a bygone age. Elsewhere, while meats were more available, they were still subject to stringent rationing, as were all legumes except lentils. Again, it should be emphasised here that, at this point in time, Germany is not at war, and is supposedly in the midst of a miraculous economic recovery.

Members of the Sicherheitsdienst during a Łapa...

SD officers leap from a car to conduct an arrest. Though the SD was theoretically in charge of domestic intelligence, it also controlled the German police, which caused problems between it, its parent organisation (the SS), the secret police (Gestapo), and military intelligence. Once Germany began to expand, it also ignored that its mandate was only for Germany; this picture is taken in occupied Poland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The planning for the Four-Year Plan also reveals another hindrance to German recovery. Far from being the model of order and productivity, the German bureaucracy was, in fact, labyrinthine and combative, frequently at odds with itself, and incapable of rapid and decisive reaction to circumstances. Many roles were decided on personal favour – hence how a First World War fighter pilot with no financial experience would be selected to run Germany’s attempt at centralised economy, rather than the accomplished and experienced banker Hjalmar Schacht. Within the existing apparatus, too, delineations of power were confusing. Take, for example, the security organisations. The Schutzstaffel (SS) had been conceived of as an elite, paramilitary unit, providing personal security for Nazi Party leaders and meetings. However, once Hitler came to power, the role of the SS was expanded, in order to provide national security; in effect, its role was to ensure that Nazi power was not threatened from within. As a result, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), or “Security Service”, was created, which was to act as a domestic intelligence outfit. In order to give this new organisation teeth, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered the integration of the municipal police forces – the Kriminalpolizei, the Ordnungspolizei, and the Sicherheitspolizei – into the SD. This meant that detectives and uniformed policemen alike were now members of the Nazi domestic intelligence service, which was itself part of the Party bodyguard organisation. This also put the SD and SS in competition with both the infamous Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or “Secret State Police”), whose brief it was to also operate as a domestic security police force with a purview over criminal intelligence, and the Abwehr, or German military intelligence, which resented the encroachment on the Party’s paramilitary wing on its turf. Later, though the SS was technically limited to domestic duties, it would form its own regiments (termed Waffen-SS, or “Armed SS”), which would place it in competition with the army. In no case were the competences of these forces clearly defined; it was not uncommon for Kripo detectives to be investigating a case that was already being investigated by the Gestapo, or for the umbrella organisation of the SS to become involved, without any of these branches recognising that they were, in effect, stepping on one another’s toes.

English: NSDAP dues revenue stamp, 1 RM, 1942 ...

The Nazi Party soon began to meddle in the affairs of state, attempting to circumvent the organs of state authorities. Party paraphernalia became de facto symbols of the German state itself; here, a postage stamp, supposedly controlled by federal postal authorities, bears the Party insignia and initials. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps more crucially, there was a severe disconnect between the defined roles of the Party and the state. The German state had already possessed institutions – the foreign ministry, the treasury, and so on – but upon seizing power, Hitler clearly felt that the state had become irrelevant. The departments of the state apparatus, he felt, could be replaced by those of the Party (hence, the police were absorbed into the Party bodyguard). This was not always the case, however. The Four-Year Plan, for example, may have been headed by Göring, but it was impossible to implement without a large body of civil servants, trained in economics at a state level. This, the Party did not possess. Yet the insistence that the state civil servants suborn themselves to the Nazi Party was met with some resistance and, as the actions of Party functionaries diluted the perks and allure of working in the civil service, numbers of professional bureaucrats dwindled. Pay and prestige were both low commodities. The number of students at German universities declined precipitously, both as a halo result of the Great Depression, as well as a Party emphasis on militarisation rather than education. Of those who were well-educated and well placed to enter the state bureaucracy, the fact that competing bureaucracies were being set up within the Party – better paid positions with significantly more prestige – lured them away from working for ministries in favour of Nazi divisions and departments. Of the civil servants who remained, many were weeded out by the Gestapo, either for political reasons (i.e. having been supporters of the old Weimar Republic, or of the Social Democratic Party), or for racial reasons; there had been a not inconsiderable number of Jewish German civil servants when Hitler came to power, but they were quickly removed. Nonetheless, in spite of these severe problems, the civil service limped through the 1930s, for the simple reason that, even though its members were effectively discriminated against, the service itself was invaluable. Put another way, while the Nazis were suspicious of state organs, they could not immediately do without them. At the same time, however, the Party manoeuvred to create its own apparatus that could supersede the state’s role in statecraft, meaning that, for much of the 1930s, Germany became heavily and confusingly bureaucratised, with an unclear sense of direction and a near-complete lack of efficiency that alienated the very people who were needed to make the National Socialist socioeconomic policies a success.

So, the National Socialist regime in Germany was not the efficient megalith that has been supposed. There is more, however, to attack than merely the myth of recovery. Let us return to our first premise. Our fictitious historian, John Gill, purports that he wished to model a whole planet on Nazi Germany, in order to make it more efficient, and to unite it in will, all without the horrendous persecution and violence of the Earth equivalent. Let us, for the sake of argument, ignore what we have previously argued. Let us presume that Germany was highly efficient. Gill’s argument to Captain Kirk maintains that this can be achieved without the bloodshed that accompanied Hitler’s rule. To suggest this, however, is to misunderstand the nature of Nazism itself.

What is Nazism? Or rather, what are the ideas that govern Nazism? These are rather complex questions, but the essential character of the ideology can be found through Hitler’s semi-autobiographical ramblings in Mein Kampf, as well as his later actions. This character is perhaps best summed up by Sir Richard Evans:

Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of antisemitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism, which had been floating around for some time but had not so far been integrated into a coherent whole.

At its fundamental core, Nazism was a political ideology based around difference and hostility towards difference. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party did not come to power in 1933 as just another legitimate political movement. Its success at the polls – for it did, indeed, become a party with a reasonable measure of public support – was conditional, based largely on divisive rhetoric, and this rhetoric became the driving force behind the attempts to modernise the economy. Indeed, Hitler’s immediate economic measures – approving an increase of rearmament spending to some ten percent of Germany’s total gross domestic product (GDP), proportionately three times higher than the armament spending levels of any of the western democracies – demonstrate the belligerent nature of German recovery. The vaunted reduction of unemployment was achieved through a combination of statistical chicanery (such as counting seasonal workers as fully employed), but more importantly through a massive recruitment drive for both the army and for military-industrial labour. In addition to Hitler’s immediate moratorium on reparations payments, which placed Germany in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, these measures can only be seen as preparations for war.

Bismarck left Hamburg for the first time on 15...

The battleship Bismarck was a product of the Four-Year Plan, and Hitler’s plans for massive rearmament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, the Four-Year Plan was devised as a means to rapidly rearm a now-ballooning army (the Nazis’ army policy, devised in December 1933, called for a standing army of some 300,000 men, or 200 percent larger than what international treaty stipulations permitted). It was not just the army that expanded; though Germany was denied an air force by the Treaty of Versailles, the government began to invest heavily in new “passenger aircraft” for the national airline, Lufthansa. These would eventually include the Dornier 17, the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 86 – aircraft whose design was wholly unsuitable for passenger and mail flights, but perfect as medium bombers. In the sphere of naval power, rearmament increased work for shipbuilders and boosted employment figures, but the projects themselves were highly illegal. Orders were placed in 1934 for a huge number of vessels: eight battleships (when the Treaty permitted six), three aircraft carriers (none permitted), eight cruisers (six allowed), 48 destroyers (12 permitted), and no fewer than 72 U-Boats, when the Treaty of Versailles had expressly forbidden Germany from having any at all.

None of this should come as a surprise. Indeed, Hitler had long been agitating for a rejection of the “unjust” Treaty of Versailles. Moreover, he had insisted that, in order to become fully self-sufficient, Germany would have to expand, to take “living space” (Lebensraum) from the east (here meaning Poland and the USSR). This would never be agreed to by those powers, and so could only be achieved through force of arms – hence the massive programme of German rearmament. Infamously, while the Autobahnen had long been projected, the Nazis saw them principally as means to easily transport men and materiel in wartime conditions, so while scenic driving was certainly a factor in their construction, they were also a military project.

English: A Jewish shop in Berlin during the bo...

“Germans! Defend yourselves!” Crucial to Nazi ideology was the demonisation of “enemies”, of whom the Jews were the most prominent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the brutality of the regime, I wish only to say a small amount, since this analysis cannot do it justice. Yet it is ludicrous to suggest that the regime could have existed without brutality. Its emphasis on social darwinism and the “inferiority” of races, creeds and so on, lay at the very heart of the National Socialist ideology. Systematic violence against Jews, for example, had been a staple of the Party even before it came to power; Jewish shops were smashed and looted, and people identified as Jews were assaulted in the streets. Now, with access to the state apparatus of policing and security, the Party naturally intensified its campaign of terror. One Berlin square, Hausvogteiplatz, had been liberally populated with Jewish sweet shops and high street fashion, but within a few years, most of the shopowners had been driven out or arrested. This was a common theme throughout Germany. It would be several years before the “Final Solution” was formulated, several years before Jews were murdered en masse, but the origins of genocide can be seen in the organised, fanatical antisemitic campaigns and pogroms immediately launched by the Party leadership upon coming to power.

A Gestapo telex about arranging preventive det...

A Gestapo telex about arranging preventive detention of an “incorrigible homosexual.” Gay people, much like Jews and the mentally ill, were targeted by the regime as an integral part of its ideological convictions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nor were the Jews the only ones to be singled out for harsh treatment. Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and the mentally ill were also subjected to barbarous treatment. In July 1933, just half a year after assuming government, the Nazis instituted compulsory and forcible sterilisation for people judged to be “unworthy” of reproducing, including schizophrenics, epileptics, and those who were termed “imbeciles”; this policy resulted in the sterilisation of close to 400,000 German citizens.

The NSDAP came to power on a wave of popular discontent, and it managed to make itself popular by exploiting the politics of difference. For example, Jews were to blame for Germany’s economic hardships because they were disloyal, money-grubbing communists (the fact that this is a contradictory positions seems not to have occurred to the proponents of the view). The disabled were a drain on society’s resources, and were “life unworthy of life” – it should come as little surprise that the sterilisation programmes would eventually evolve to become “euthanasia” programmes, in which the mentally infirm were gassed. Domestically, brutality was a staple of the Party. Why else were the SS, Gestapo, and SD such pressing priorities upon the seizure of power? Internationally, we should be under no illusions. Hitler meant war. The cornerstones of his economic recovery policies revolved almost totally around preparing Germany for war, either in terms of providing for itself, or in order to smash its opponents. The desire for Lebensraum could be justified by Germany’s need for the space, and for the fact that the space was presently occupied by Slavic peoples – Untermenschen, or “subhumans”, according to the racialised principles of the Party. Thus, it is nonsense to conceive of Nazi Germany without brutality, without warlike tendencies, without plans for extermination, because these concepts were at the very heart of what it meant to be a Nazi.

From all this, we can come to several conclusions. Firstly, that Nazi Germany, contrary to popular belief, was actually startlingly inefficient. While it did enjoy economic recovery from the Great Depression, this recovery had already been set in motion by the preceding Weimar governments. Of the Nazi work creation policies, some, such as the Autobahn projects, were qualified successes, while others did not succeed at all. Nazi meddling in economic policy also led to some declines, to the extent that previously healthy economic sectors suffered further recession. In many cases, by the mid-1930s production and revenue had not yet returned to prewar levels, let alone the heights promised by Hitler and presumed by a good many historians.

Secondly, while we may find some redeeming qualities in the economy, in terms of bureaucracy the National Socialist regime had a profoundly chaotic impact. The once-powerful German civil service was treated as a bastard child of the Party administration, though the Party could not afford to totally dissolve it. Thus, umpteen competing bureaucracies were established, making an adequate division of work all but impossible.

Thirdly, the idea of National Socialism as being a reasonable political alternative, had the brutality of the regime been avoided, is nothing more than fiction. Far from inequality, prejudice, and violence being unfortunate, tangential characteristics, they were from the outset at the very heart of the concept of Nazism. Of the Nazis’ few economic successes, most were achieved only because they had an aggressive ulterior motive. Yes, employment increased, but only because these people were newly employed as soldiers, or else building the very weapons of war that were forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles. Aircraft carriers, battleships, and U-Boats are not defensive weapons; in fact, the orders placed for them demonstrate the bellicosity of the projected Nazi foreign policy. It is worth noting that none of these aircraft carriers were, in the event, actually built, and that of the eight projected battleships, only two were launched; one, Bismarck, managed to sink the flagship of the Royal Navy one of the greatest symbols of British naval strength, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, before being hunted down by the entire Home Fleet and sent to the bottom, while her sister ship, Tirpitz, spent much of the war holed up in a Norwegian fjord, until bombers from the Royal Air Force sank her too, in 1944. Nevertheless, the intent is clear. Furthermore, since racial “purity” and the vileness of Untermenschen was at the heart of Nazi ideology, it is impossible to strip it from that ideology. (On a side note, if we were to be clinical, it can be argued that the Holocaust itself, launched in 1942, is the ultimate, terrible expression of Nazi economic inefficiency; with a huge, captive population of potential slave labour, the Nazis resorted to extermination instead. That many of these victims were indeed forced to work before their gassing in no way alters the fact that the primary reason for the series of camps housing Jews was for their total and irremediable physical destruction as a people. Work, as the Nazis saw it, was a way to mark time while execution was prepared).

Finally, we must reach the inescapable conclusion that John Gill, fictional as he was, was a fundamentally terrible historian. In attempting to create a benevolent Nazi state, he catastrophically misunderstood the nature of Nazism. In the event, the would-be horror of an interstellar Holocaust was averted by Kirk, Spock, and the USS Enterprise, but such heroes rarely exist in real life. Star Trek saw itself as a parable for society, portraying the Federation as a liberal, anti-imperialist big government, and the extension of full rights to everyone as a necessary outcome of human development; this is, after all, the show that presented the first interracial kiss on television. If there is a lesson to be learned from this episode, it is this: to ignore, or misunderstand, our own past mistakes, is to endanger our future.

Further reading

  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Consequences of National Socialism. Harmondsworth. Penguin. 1978.
  • Burleigh, Michael. Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda. London. Harper Perennial. 2006.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. London. Allen Lane. 2003.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939. New York. Penguin. 2005.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster. London. Allen Lane. 2008.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1937-1945: Nemesis. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
  • Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. New York. Penguin. 2006.


Filed under Ideologies

15 responses to “The Myth of Nazi “Efficiency”

  1. Er… wasn’t the whole point of the episode to demonstrate that Nazi ‘efficiency’ was inseparable from its brutality? Gene Roddenberry clearly agreed with much of what you say and it’s a mistake to take the character John Gill, an intentionally flawed dramatic foil, as a representative of Federation or Star Trek’s thinking on the matter.

    • It is true that the episode demonstrates that brutality goes hand-in-hand with Nazism. My point here is not that the Federation, or the Star Trek production staff, or Gene Roddenberry himself, saw anything praiseworthy in Nazism. Yet the thinking demonstrated by the fictitious John Gill is representative of a not insignificant stream of historical thought (both academic and popular) at the time. It is always tempting to look at a “what-if” scenario (i.e. “what if the Nazis weren’t as brutal and tyrannical, but still maintained their efficiency?”) The argument of this post, merely using the episode “Patterns of Force” as a literary device, is that this hypothetical is useless. Firstly, the Nazis were not efficient. Secondly, Nazism is tyranny. I’m not about to suggest that the Great Bird of the Galaxy was a closet Nazi sympathiser…!

  2. R

    I can strongly reccomend Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s ‘Economy and class structure of German fascism’ on this topic. It’s not a long book, but Sohn-Rehtel was working at the ‘Mitteleuropäischer Wirtschaftstag’ (exporters association) in the 30s and secretly in contact with the resistance, so you get a critical but insiders view of what the German industrialists were up to. When he fled to Britian he wrote economic analyses for Churchill.

  3. Part of the problem of evaluating the efficiency of Nazism is that the Nazis didn’t wipe the slate clean when they took power. In contrast, the Russian Communists swept away the old state and had to build everything from scratch. The Nazis ruled what was essentially a dual state, sharing Germany with the conservative establishment (military, bureaucratic etc.). This meant that the problems created by totalitarian politics were mediated to some extent by an already functioning state – although this became less true as time went on and Nazi power grew. Unfortunately, the Nazis began the war at just the right moment, when the re-armament had yielded fruit, but before corruption would have undermined the economy and war effort completely. One can look to the Italian fascists (who were in power longer) for comparison.

    About the Autobahn: it is sometimes stated that the building of the Autobahn was a disguised military project. However, most German military transports were by rail or draft horses and not by truck. Both the German and Soviet armed forces were dependent on horses until the end of the war; however the Autobahn provided nice transport venues for the invading American and British forces who both achieved full motorization during the course of the war.

    The German air industry also had some problems. You write that the inter-war planes (disguised as civilian transport) were perfect bombers, but this is not exactly true. The Do 17 “Flying Pencil” was found too fragile during the crucial Battle of Britain. The Germans did not have any heavy bombers to speak of, only medium bombers and light bombers such as the Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber which showed its weaknesses during the BoB (RAF pilots coined the term “Stuka party” to describe what it was like to come upon the defenseless Stukas). Dive bombers had some spectacular successes during the war, but in the end they were too vulnerable and were replaced in the role as light bombers with fighter-bombers that could fend for themselves if attacked. During the BoB, the main fighter was the short-range Bf 109 that could only stay in British airspace for 15 minutes before having to return to base. The intended long range fighter, the Me 110, was a failure and the Germans could not come up with a replacement for the rest of the war. The British built the wood-hulled Mosquito that could serve as both a heavy fighter and light bomber, the Germans never came up with anything similar and tried in vain to come up with a counter.

    As for the navy, Germany had one of the smallest submarine forces of the Great powers in 1939; although they built many during the war they could not come up with a counter to new Allied sub-hunting armaments and tactics. The only major operation of the surface fleet, the invasion of Norway, was typical of the Hitlerian mad gambles that paid of; the British misinterpreted the movement of the German fleet and thought that they were heading to the Atlantic. In the event, the surface fleet lost half of its destroyers.

    The German tank force was greatly augmented by excellent Czech designs captured in 1938, these proved vital in the early war years. They also developed their tanks (competitive designs to be sure) with cooperation with Soviets, making this less of an example of German efficiency. All German tanks were costly to build compared to Allied designs.

    There were never enough of the standard pistol (P 38) so a plethora of models were adopted, with different calibers causing logistical problems.
    The standard SMG, the MP 40, was built in about 500,000 examples, in contrast the British alone manufactured millions of their Sten gun. The Germans wanted to adopt a faster-firing semi-automatic rifle after encountering Soviet semi-automatic rifle in combat. However, the German arms industry did not think to consult publicly available information about the problems the Americans had when they adopted the semi-automatic M1 Garand in 1936 and so wasted two years building a useless rifle. And so on

  4. outside the box

    I believe you are incorrect about the first inter-racial kiss. I believe Sammy David Jr and… hmm, name not coming to my mind, kissed on screen before Uhura and Kirk did. I apologize for not having the reference handy but I just read this recently.

    • Some further reading suggests that it might not have been the first interracial kiss to be screened (though it is usually referenced as such), but was (perhaps?) the first to be deliberately scripted. Without taking the time to research this more depth, I would hazard the suggestion that, while Kirk-Uhura was not the first televised interracial kiss, it became the most enduring example of the early normalisation of televised racial mixing.

  5. Ian

    Just a note about HMS Hood – she wasn’t the flagship of the Royal Navy, only of “Force H”, and she had been relieved of that title at the time she sailed against the Bismarck.

    • I stand corrected. The Hood was arguably the most famous ship in the Royal Navy, and had a huge profile among the British population … but she was not the flag of the fleet. Good spotting! I shall correct the post accordingly!

  6. On what economic basis did Germany build its war machine? Did it have to finance it? If so, who loaned Germany the money? Where did the raw materials (iron, copper, etc) and petrol come from to build their military might?

    • According to Adam Tooze’s excellent The Wages of Destruction, financing for rearmament originally came through a combination of the moratorium on reparations and a system of off-budget fundings packages, as well as government bonds to armament manufacturers with the promise of repayment in the future. Unlike the Soviet Union, in which the economy was centrally planned without the incursion of private enterprise, Nazi Germany maintained a strong private capital sector. This meant that Krupp, Siemens et al. did indeed need to be paid for the products they manufactured, and thus the Wehrmacht was obliged to pay for its orders. A curious system of rearmament “bills” (essentially, IOU notes) was established; these bills were accepted by the Reichsbank as hard currency collateral. Thus, at least early on, arms manufacturers were being paid (to at least some degree) in “virtual money”, insofar that they were not immediately provided with the several billions of Reichsmarks they were supposed to be paid by the Wehrmacht, but rather were issued with notes of credit that acted as such.
      Beyond this, taxation was gradually raised, and since payments of reparations had ceased, any funds earmarked for repaying the Allies were reallocated to the federal budget. As far as raw materials are concerned, Germany had a not inconsiderable supply of its own, and embarked upon trade agreements (for instance, with Sweden) for more.

  7. Excellent article. You’ve done a fantastic job of dissecting the efficiency myth and you’ve highlighted some things that I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned anywhere else — like agriculture returning only to pre-war levels. Very nicely done!

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