Book review

German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler

Reviewed by John M. Ries

A good portion of the the accepted legacy of German big business and its alleged role in the establishment of the Third Reich rests on the authenticity of the memoirs of certain key individuals who either participated in or witnessed the rise to power of Adolf Hitler from close proximity. Perhaps the two most important were Ruhr industrialist Fritz Thyssen and Hitler's press secretary Otto Dietrich. Thyssen, whose contempt for the Weimar Republic led him to support Hitler's NSDAP as early as the fall of 1923, was long considered to be one of its most important sources of funds. His memoirs, which Turner points out were ghostwritten, have been used by historians to substantiate the close connection between big business and the Nazi movement from its earliest days.

Questions arise, however, concerning the memoirs' authenticity, one particularly interesting example being a passage where Thyssen claims that he “donated 100,000 gold marks to the NSDAP in October 1923.” This was a critical period not only in the life of the NSDAP but in that of the Republic as well. Separatist movements were rampant throughout the Rhineland and Bavaria, and the Communists were threatening to take over the governments of Saxonv and Thuringia. Moreover, the French occupation of the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, continued to exert demoralizing effects, perhaps chief of which was the incredible hyper-inflation which threatened to wipe out what was left of the German middle class.

Given the dire situation at that time, one can well appreciate the uplifting effect a sum of 100,000 gold marks would have had on the morale of the NSDAP, then just one of many right-wing extremist groups plotting the overthrows of the tottering Weimar Republic. Yet Turner states flatly that “in light of the available evidence, it seems unlikely that Thyssen gave any such sum to the Nazis.” In the same paragraph of his memoirs, Thyssen claims that he did not make the payment to Hitler himself but to General Erich Ludendorff, perhaps the most important figure in anti-Republican circles at that time, “to use it as best he could.” Whether Ludendorff would have favored the NSDAP more than any of the other groups operating in Bavaria at that time remains doubtful.

Otto Dietrich's 1934 memoirs of the Kampfzeit are likewise considered by Turner to be more propagandistic than substantial. Their self-serving nature is revealed by the contradictions between them and a later version published in 1955. Over that span of time it appears that Dietrich tempered his revolutionary ardor with a more realistic assessment of the events. This is evident when one compares the two accounts he provides of the reactions to Hitler's speech to the Düsseldorf Industry Club on January 26, 1932. In the 1934 version, Dietrich gives the following description of the impression Hitler made with the “elite of die Wirtschaft” who came to hear him speak on the remedies he would propose to heal the ailing German economy:

The effect on the businessmen [of the speech], so far as they deserved the name, was profound and became evident in the ensuing difficult months of struggle.

According to Turner, this remark has been accepted by historians as proof that big business increased its subsidies to the NSDAP as a result of the speech. However, in the 1955 version, Dietrich presents a quite different picture, saying that beyond some:

well-meaning but insignificant sums [collected at the door] … one would not speak of any support worthy of mention, much less of financing Hitless political struggle by die Wirtschaft or heavy industry.

An “equally embellished” account in Thyssen's memoirs has served, along with Dietrich's earlier version, as a “seminal source on the Industry Club speech and its aftermath.”

What to make of this contradiction? Which version is closer to the truth?

Turner compares both to outside references and decides in favor of the 1955 version. “From all indications,” he says, “neither Hitler nor any other Nazis mounted any sustained follow-up from those who had been present at his Industry Club speech or otherwise to enlist them for their purposes.”

He goes on to add:

that Hitlers failure to follow up vigorously on the entree he had gained to the business community through his Industry Club speech tends to substantiate the hypothesis that he sought merely to neutralize big business, not to bring its leaders actively behind the NSDAP or to exploit its financial resources for his party.

From the preceding examples one can readily agree with the assessment Turner made of the task he faced in the preparation of this study when he said that it became “of necessity, a book that deals not only with the past but with myths about the past.” These “myths” were found to be present not only in contemporary memoirs, but in press releases, the post-war testimony of witnesses at Nuremberg, — and even from Hitler himself. They all contributed to the creation of a legend involving an important yet misunderstood aspect of the origins of the Third Reich; namely, from which sources the NSDAP received its funding.

The picture of the relationship between German big business and the Nazi party which Turner provides us is one that reveals how little big business had to do with the party's success. In Republican Germany, the big business community was a loosely organized, politically ineffective interest group that was held together primarily by its opposition to the growing menace of Sozialpolitik, that is, the modern welfare state. Its political dealings were mainly with the so- called bourgeois parties of the center and right the DVP (Deutsche Volkspartei), the DDP (Deutsche Demokratische Partei), and the DNVP (Deutsche Nationale Volkspartei). However, the general disdain big business had for the republican form of government, a government that jeopardized the privileged position it once held under the defunct Imperial order, precluded any serious attempt to use the system to its advantage, a system where “votes, not money” were the determining factor in political success.

In this milieu the NSDAP was only one of many political parties big business considered funding. However, because of the party's anti-capitalist economic policies, evident since the proclamation of the twenty-five point program of February 1920, the big business community was never able to reconcile itself to lending more than half-hearted support, and this was invariably of a tactical, rather than an ideological, nature. This distrust of a party that seemed more often than not ready to side with the radical left on important social and economic issues became so pervasive that not even the partrs strident anti-Marxism and its desire to inculcate support for national values could overcome it.

It may be true that contributions of various sorts came from big businessmen like Fritz Thyssen, the Berlin manufacturer Ernst von Borsig, and the retired coal executive Emil Kirdorf, but despite statements to the contrary, they were never a critical source of funding. Most of the NSDAP funds were derived from membership dues, interest-free loans, and the gate receipts from the many mass rallies the party held. After the parliamentary breakthrough in September 1930, sales from Mein Kampf skyrocketed, providing Hitler himself with a steady source of income. And during the depression the volunteer labor given by party activists helped ease the effects of the increasingly austere economic conditions.

In sum, the NSDAP was a prototypical “grass-roots” political organization able to expand and prosper during a period when most of the bourgeois parties suffered a serious loss of support. Only the Communist Party could compare in this regard, and it never attracted the mass following the NSDAP did.

Turner's book provides us with a new perspective on the origins of the rise of Hitler, one based on a critical look at the role played by German big business based on the examination of all the relevant documents rather than the rather eclectic surveys currently before the public today. This will contribute, hopefully, to the encouragement of closer reading of historical accounts dealing with essential aspects of contemporary history, as well as the development of a more discriminating attitude toward the sensationalized distortions of the truth which confront us on a daily basis.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 369-372.