Exclusive online content

The Economists and the Death Camps

By: Nasser Behnegar
February 21, 2005

A review of Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction, by Götz Aly and Susanne Heim

Finite, relative problems can be solved; infinite, absolute problems cannot be solved. In other words, human beings will never create a society which is free from contradictions. From every point of view it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people, at least in the sense that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem insofar as it is a social or political problem.

—Leo Strauss

Three days after the night of broken glass Goering called a meeting on the general line of policy to be pursued in the future against the Jewish population, one that gives some hints of the eventual fate of European Jews. Goering began the meeting by characterizing the Jewish problem as "essentially a complex economic problem." How could the Jewish question be conceived as an essentially economic question? In a work originally published in 1991 and now available in English, Götz Aly, a Fellow at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, and Susanne Heim, an investigative journalist and historian based in Berlin, answer this question and in doing so they give new force to the thesis that not ancient prejudice but modern ideas are the root of Nazi crimes.

Although much of the attraction of Nazis stemmed from the longing of Germans for their roots, a longing that indeed fostered racial hatred, the authors argue that neither this longing nor the Nazi ideology was the fundamental cause of the policy of mass annihilation. Rather, that policy was fostered by a peculiarly modern belief: the belief that it is our duty to establish a rational society here on earth. Its architects were young economists holding high positions in German bureaucracy, men who were initially "distinctly cool toward the new regime" but who embraced it because it offered them "maximum freedom of action" to implement a "modernizing project that would transform society."

These economists were in some respect the teachers of their masters, who had great respect for scientific expertise and who in the words of Goering recognized that they were "not sufficiently versed" in economic matters. In short, the fundamental cause of the holocaust was not a fanatical racial hatred that ignored considerations of national interest but the naked pursuit of that very interest. More precisely, the holocaust was caused by a synergy between Nazi racism and economic thinking.

It is best to begin with a general summary of this counter-intuitive thesis. Having been given the responsibility of coordinating the preparation of the German economy for the coming war, Goering in 1936 set up the Four-Year Plan Authority, which oversaw the individual economic departments such as the Reich board for Industrial Rationaliziation (RKW). The preparation of Germany for war meant rapid rationalization of the German economy.

The first part of rationalization was central planning. As the economist who wrote the infamous plan for the East put it, National Socialism had abandoned laissez-faire "in favor of the call for individual powers to be conjoined, to be rationally deployed in concert." The elimination of Jews from the German economy was an element of a general restructuring of society to eliminate useless or small and inefficient businesses. The elimination of Jewish businesses was not principally a way of handing them over to "Aryans": Only 345 of nearly six thousand Jewish workshops in Germany were transferred to new owners. The rest were closed down. The status of Jews as a hated minority made them a convenient first target of this rationalization. Accordingly, Walter Rafelsburger, the man in charge of removing Jews from Vienna, expressed some regret that "the Aryan sector of the economy could not be included in the present restructuring program."

The second part of the rationalizing project concerned the question of population. The Lockean assumptions that nature is almost worthless and that labor is practically the only source of value were questioned by many economists. Hence, unlike early modern philosophers who encouraged increase in population, many economists in the first half of the 20th century regarded over-population as a major economic anxiety. The economic worry became a political one insofar as colonies were believed to be necessary as outlets for excess population. In his widely read book on the economic consequences of peace, Keynes listed over-population as one of the causes of the first world war. Now, the question of over-population became crucial for the economists who were in charge of preparing Germany for the Second World War. They concluded that in the event Germany on account of its reliance on grain imports would not be able to feed itself adequately merely by increasing the productivity of its labor. They took recourse to a formula for an optimum population according to which the feeding capacity of a nation equals its population multiplied by its standard of living. One can meet the feeding capacity by decreasing either the standard of living or by decreasing the population. The first was ruled out because it would undermine the loyalty of the population to the regime, which was necessary for the success of the war. As a result, the logic of the economists pushed them in the direction of a policy of selective annihilation, employing discrimination against minorities as a deliberate instrument of population policy.

Aly and Heim argue that there are reasons to believe that the Four-Year Plan Authority was the driving force behind the first Nazi mass murder—that of the mentally ill. Certainly, the favorite argument for this policy was an economic one—"the need to save on costs, hospital beds, nursing staff, and food in time of war." The program targeted those patients who were judged incurable, but the chief criterion for making this judgment concerned the subject's fitness for work. The number of patients to be killed was determined in advance through a mathematical formula that maintained that 10 of 1000 Germans are mentally ill, that five out of ten require psychiatric treatment, and that one out of five is incurable. The acceptance by the public of this first mass murder vindicated the policy of selective annihilation and paved the way for its more massive implementations. As the authors put it, if Germans made little protest when their own relatives were murdered, it was hardly to be expected that they would protest against the murder of Jews, gypsies, Russians, and "Polacks."

The story of the murder of Jews is a more complex one due to the contradiction between Hitler's vision for Poland and that of the economists. The action against Jews began with their elimination from the German economy. The hope was that this move would force Jews to migrate; yet despite the Nazi effort to encourage the migration of poor Jews it turned out that generally only well-to-do Jews left. The elimination of Jews from German economy then led to a new problem, the emergence of a large Jewish population deprived of their means of living. In response to this difficulty, the idea of labor camps emerged. Upon acquiring Poland, Hitler conceived of it as a place to be plundered and as a dumping ground for West European Jews. But the German officials in charge of Poland had an entirely different idea. They wanted to modernize it and make it a satellite of the Reich. They believed that the fundamental problem of Poland was rural over-population. How over-populated? They judged over-population not by the capacity of land to provide subsistence but by how much manpower could be productively employed in a given land. As their aim was to create a rational economy they measured this manpower by German or ideal standards of productivity, not Polish ones. This way of reasoning led them to the conclusion that every second person "in Polish agriculture was a dead ballast." Now, part of their solution to this problem was to send Polish farmers to the cities, but it was judged that Jews monopolized much of the business in the cities.

To make room for the new migrants, the German authorities forced Jews into ghettoes. Originally, the hope was to deport Jews to Magadascar, but for political-military reasons this became impossible. While Hitler was dumping West European Jews into Poland, the economists were isolating Poland's Jewish population into ghettoes which even under starvation rations were believed to be an economic liability. A temporary solution was found by placing part of the Jewish population in forced labor camps to support the population in ghettoes. But the economists judged that forced labor was not cost-effective since the laborers had to be under guard. The other "solution" was to eliminate the Jews. At first this elimination was restricted to Jews who could not work. Accordingly, in a letter from Hoeppner, an SS Sturmbannfuehrer, to Eichmann we read: "This winter there is a risk that there will not be enough food to feed all the Jews. Serious consideration should be given to the possibility that the most humane solution might be to dispatch the Jews who are unfit for work by some fast-acting agent." Ultimately, the policy of annihilation was extended to all Jews. Since the cost of transporting Jews to death camps was less than of transporting food to the ghettoes, the Germans chose the former.

Of course, the removal of Jews was to provide only part of the solution of Poland's economic problem. In order to rationalize Poland, a substantial portion of Poles had to be "evacuated" and replaced by Germans who would be forced to leave their homes. Nothing shows more clearly the contrast between the Nazi appeal to roots and the vision of the economists than the attempt by RKF to restructure occupied territory so that it would fit a mathematical schema based on the paradigm of central places. According to this theory, each region should have a number of central places equidistant from each other "so that they form an equilateral triangle. The triangles will in turn form regular hexagons, with the central place in the middle of the hexagon assuming a greater importance." This meant some towns had to be downgraded to appropriate size while others were to be made from scratch.

Moreover, the Polish population had to be reduced beyond the elimination of Jews. The plan that the Nazis adopted was to divide the Polish population into various categories. A part of the population would be sent as laborers to Germany, replacing Jewish laborers who would in turned be killed; the families of these laborers were sent to Auschwitz. Most of the very young and the old were to be sent to retirement villages where, being cut off form those who could feed them, they would be "subject to an accelerated process of dying off;" And some were to be Germanized so that Polish people would be deprived of potential leaders. Whereas Hitler in accordance to National Socialist ideology wanted clear ethnic lines, the economic experts in Eastern Europe were proposing to turn Poles into Germans. And their criteria for Germanization were free to a remarkable degree from racial ideology. The first criterion was "whether or not the persons concerned can be brought up to German levels of productivity and achievement." In one report, we even read "'the racial selection of Letts for assimilation must not be based on one-sided anthropological considerations.' Instead, a 'selection based on the achievement principle' must be carried out."

The question of population was also very much at the heart of the campaign against Soviet Union. The short term intention of that campaign was to provide food, especially meat, for the German population, and this could only be done by taking away the food that nourished existing Russians. The high rate of death—for instance, six thousand dead Russian prisoners of war every day—was not merely a consequence of a great struggle but rather the intention of the war. As Himmler puts it, "the purpose of the Russian campaign [is] to decimate the Slavic population by 30 millions." In the long term, Russia was to provide Germany with its food. Despite Stalin's infamous efforts, which the German experts admired and imitated, these experts found that Russia was over-populated. Whereas Stalin wanted to turn Russia into an industrial country, the Germans wanted to turn it into purely agricultural country, which as such required a lower population. So the German intention was to depopulate Soviet Union's major cities and destroy its industrial base. This aim seemed to have affected the actual military strategy. As Goering put it, "for economic reasons it is not advisable to take large cities by storm. It is better to encircle and besiege them." Given the military failure of this strategy of starvation (notably in Leningrad), one wonders if this is an instance in which economic reasoning corrupted military strategy.

* * *

After the defeat of the Nazis, there was a conscientious attempt—at least in the West—to purge public speech from all sorts of racial theories. But if Aly and Heim's account is correct, this effort is inadequate for preventing future errors. Far from coming to terms with the full causes of the Nazi crimes, post-war Germany bestowed positions of honor on many of the economists who were responsible for these crimes.

According to the authors of this text, the general cause of these crimes was "the calculating, expediency-driven thinking," a kind of thinking which remains very much of the present. Yet it is unlikely that one can avoid evil by giving up calculation and considerations of expediency. Every responsible statesman or general must make calculations with place human lives in balance.

If one wants to indict modernity for these crimes, it is only just to admit that modernity is also responsible for increased sensitivity to our common humanity and human rights. It is then not modernity itself but a decapitated modernity, modernity divorced from its guiding principles, that is responsible for these crimes. Yet there seems to be a connection between Nazi brutality and the sentimental worship of humanity. Modern political philosophy does not begin with the obligations that we owe to God, to our parents, and to other human beings but with the individual's concern for self-preservation. To be sure, it connects in an impressive manner the self interest of the individual with that of others, including members of other nations. But once this connection is questioned modern politics can take a most nasty turn, for modern political philosophy offers no moral restraints that prevent individuals from pursuing their own interest at the expense of others.

But one misunderstands the economists, the passion with which they carried their work, if one believes that all their efforts were in the service of self-preservation. What moved them was the idea of a rational society. Their planning was "for the sake of the future generation." It was this passion—unchecked by natural moral restraints—that led to their positions which were almost as foolish as they were wicked: the tendency to reduce all economic problems to a question of population, their recommendation of policies that led to the creation of masses of people who could not feed themselves or policies that could only stiffen the enemies resistence to the German conquest. To address a problem one must first understand it, but the modern belief that the task of scientists is to create a rational society free from contradiction is not conducive to a frame of mind that is attentive to the full dimension of social problems. As Aly and Heim put it,

[T]hese young technocrats made it their ambition to 'resolve' every social contradiction and every conflict of aims in their own way—and as 'completely' and 'definitively' as possible. Whether the analysis that underlay these plans was correct or not was of secondary importance, as long as they persisted in their deluded belief, encouraged by military successes and euphoric visions of the future, that all things were possible. The mere assumption that these analyses reflected reality was sufficient for them to start planning practical action on that basis.

When one tries to solve a problem that is insoluble, one is apt to make the problem worse or to confuse the elimination of a problem with its solution as Himmler did when he said that "the only way to solve the social problem is for one lot to kill the others and take their land." In contrast, analysts who begin with Biblical-Platonic doubts of the possibility of genuine happiness in this world or more precisely begin with the question of the possibility of a rational society are more apt to help us find that measure of happiness that is possible for us.

Let me conclude with one additional reservation about Aly and Heim's thesis. The anti-Jewish policy of the Nazis cannot simply be understood in economic terms, for as their account of the meeting called by Goering indicates, the economic consequences of the elimination of Jews was a mixed bag. The problem of dealing with a large Jewish population without economic means seems to have been dismissed by Goering's comment that in the case of war we can settle "scores in a big way." Throughout their study Aly and Heim argue that the economists in question were not moved by Nazi racism. But the evidence they present leads us to the conclusion that while the economists may have been relatively free from racial prejudice against Poles and Russians, they seemed to share the Nazi hatred of Jews. The economic experts did consider treating the Polish nation the same way they treated Jews, including that of liquidating the Polish population, but they rejected it because it "would blacken the reputation of the German people for many years to come."

But this reservation does not undermine the authors general thesis, for hatred of Jews has many roots. In Christendom and in dar-al-Islam, that hatred was and is based on the Jewish rejection of Jesus and Mohammed. To the economist, Peter-Heinz Seraphim, Jews were deplorable because they were not genuine citizens of a modern state, because their women showed an aversion to physical labor and to the "rationalization of their reproductive behavior," and because they showed "an almost insuperable aversion to any form of government survey." Today, we see in Europe the transformation of what used to be a respectable opposition to some policies of the state of Israel into a new form of Jew hatred—complete with conspiracy theories. What is remarkable is that this new hatred has emerged in the Left, by those who regard themselves as enemies of racism. They seem to believe if Israeli and American Jews were not so obsessed with the security of the state of Israel, the tension between the West and the Islamic world would subside. Jews are loathed today in the West at least partly because they seem to stand in the way of the hope for a multicultural world order. While this hope is based on the rejection of the universal principles insisted on by modern rationalism, it itself surreptitiously insists on universalism insofar as it assumes that peaceful relations can be spontaneously or non-violently maintained among human beings without a common culture. As such, it is the most irrational form of the modern longing for a rational society.