Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has flung the international order into crisis. Understanding the causes of such cataclysms requires understanding not only the interests of states, but also the shape of society—its internal tensions, as well as its material and cultural transformations. The birth of Nazi Germany is informative in this respect. Within the scholarly literature, the fascist victory has been commonly analyzed through the lens of economic interest. Through this lens, domestic industrialists were seen as reacting to the rise of Hitler in various ways but doing so as an undifferentiated bloc, while a salaried middle class was thought to have formed a major foundation of fascist support. The following reflections weigh these analyses against the existing evidence. In doing so, they highlight the importance of political mobilization in illuminating the intricate dynamics underlying historical shifts.
Divisions within German Capital: Hilferding and Sohn-Rethel
In 1926, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) finance minister Rudolf Hilferding published an article in Die Gesellschaft which considered the significance of industrialist Paul Silverberg’s speech to the Dresden meeting of the country’s leading business association—the Reichsverband.1 Silverberg was the first industrialist to suggest that German capital could reconcile itself to the Weimar Republic instead of seeking its overthrow. (He was also, as it happens, the only Jewish industrialist of any note in the 1920s, at least after Rathenau’s assassination in 1922, and would leave Germany for Switzerland at the end of 1933.) Hilferding argues that this was the first time since Bismarck’s days that the alliance between the big landowners and heavy industry had come under severe strain. Thanks to the territorial losses imposed on Germany, the Versailles Treaty had “reduced the weight of heavy industry.” Coal and iron had been worst affected by the economic crisis and the occupation of the Ruhr, and this had completely reversed the relation between capital and the state as the barons of coal and steel became critically dependent on bank finance. This weakening of heavy industry went along with a qualitative change in the structure of German industry. He writes:
To a much greater degree, the leadership of industry passes to industrial groups of a different kind from the heavy industry of Rhineland-Westphalia. In the very years that the raw materials sector suffered so badly, the German electricity industry, for example, consolidated its position through technical renovation and financial consolidation. Above all, however, it was the chemical industry that conquered the preeminence it enjoys today above all other sectors. With its capital of 1.1 billion marks it is the biggest industry in Germany and one of the biggest in the world. Far from being dependent on heavy industry, its processes for the liquefaction of coal could well make the coal industry dependent on it.
Hilferding points to Carl Duisberg’s position as Chairman of IG Farben’s Supervisory Board and, simultaneously, head of the Reichsbverband as a clear expression of the leading position of the chemical industry. But this industry, like so many of the finishing industries, is not in such immediate and unmediated conflict with the working class as heavy industry is. In the latter, wages form the major portion of industrial costs. Every demand for higher wages or shorter working hours encounters the fiercest opposition there. The lords of coal and iron were the most determined enemies of the unions and of wage contracts. But in the finishing industries, wages are much less important than the other elements of cost. Their profits are so extraordinary that wage increases are of declining importance, the continuity of the plant becomes vastly more important. Their attitude to the workers’ organizations is also quite different and more inclined to compromise. Before the war, heavy industry was the bearer of an aggressive German imperialism. Germany’s defeat in the war broke its military might, yet Germany remained an economic powerhouse of the first order. Therefore, German capitalism’s external drive had to take a different form, which it found in international business partnerships (Interessengemeinschaften). German industry has gradually emancipated itself from the political leadership of heavy industry. With the country becoming dependent on international loans, the Reichsverband became a supporter of the Dawes Plan. It wants no part of any struggle over the form of state, it recognizes that social power-relations have changed. The utopia of destroying the unions and Social Democracy is now finished. The German National People’s Party’s (DNVP) monarchism and aggressive nationalism are rejected by German industry. The only supporters of such a politics are sections of the intelligentsia and of the declassed elements who include former army officers. But these are layers on which no party can build a lasting future. Against this background, Hilferding concludes that Silverberg’s speech will only strengthen that party’s will to join the government.
It was this seminal piece that made its way into the general understanding of German capital in the Weimar Republic, for example, in Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s writings on German fascism2 (though nowhere acknowledged there), Reinhard Neebe’s exemplary study of the Reichsverband,3 or David Abraham’s much-maligned study of the collapse of the Republic.4 But if Hilferding’s basic insight into the deep structural rift within German capitalism (between heavy industry and the more capital-intensive, export-oriented modern sectors) captured an essential aspect of Weimar’s politics, he also radically underestimated the power of the heavy industrialists (Hugo Stinnes, Fritz Thyssen, Albert Vögler and others in steel and mining) in being able to organize themselves into the most effective industrial lobby that Weimar governments would have to contend with.5 This was not just a fatal miscalculation but profoundly paradoxical as well, since it was a hallmark of Hilferding’s Marxism that he always assigned pivotal importance to the power of political action. If there was any sector of capital that did more to undermine the Republic, and in this sense pave the way for the Nazis, it was heavy industry.
In a famous lecture he would give in Vienna at the end of May 1928, the managerial economist Eugen Schmalenbach would argue that the extensive “rationalization” of those sectors of German industry in the 1920s had generated massive overcapacities which managements could do little to contain except by enlarging capacity even further to effect cost reductions via economies of scale and of course by manipulating the market through cartels. Sohn-Rethel was hugely impressed by this characterization of modern capitalism and devoted a whole chapter of his fascism book to Schmalenbach’s lecture. Sohn-Rethel’s adoptive father was Ernst Poensgen, one of the country’s biggest steel magnates, and doubtless he knew what was happening in the industry and why Schmalenbach’s explanation was so credible. Vestag (Vereinigte Stahlwerke), the steel trust over which Poensgen presided, was a perfect example of the extraordinary degree of technical integration that German capital had achieved by the late 1920s. Thanks to this integration (e.g. the use of blast furnace gasses as fuel) “massive plants could be supervised and steered from one central switchboard by two or three engineers. Technology and economy became one. But at the same time fixed costs had increased more than ever and had thereby made the whole concern extremely crisis-prone.”6
Harun Farocki’s film Between the Two Wars (Zwischen zwei Kriegen) takes up this image and makes it central to his “materialist” understanding of the rise of fascism. In Fragment einer Autobiografie Farocki tells us that he read and re-read what would become a central argument of Sohn-Rethel’s book on fascism when this was published in Kursbuch in 1970 with the title “A Commentary After 38 Years.”7 The germ of the idea behind the film was a Textmontage with the working title Verbund. Verbund was a state-of-the-art term that Farocki would have picked up when reading a digression in the Kursbuch “Commentary” where Sohn-Rethel used the example of Vestag to illustrate what he saw as the key contradiction at the heart of “monopoly capitalism.” About the steel giant headed by Poensgen, Sohn-Rethel had written:
With 200,000 workers and employees at full employment they were the largest industrial enterprise in Europe at the time. But the absolute dimensions, although not unimportant, are of less interest to us than the structural aspects. Rationalization was based on what was known as “integrated production” [Verbundwirtschaft], whereby, following American models, the blast-furnace gases which had previously been released into the air were captured in large pipelines and directed to all upstream and downstream plant departments as a source of heating and energy. Not a single production department had its own firing system any longer; none could be operated outside the integrated combine.8
Sohn-Rethel returned to this description in the third chapter of the fascism book, published in Germany three years after the Kursbuch articles. Here he wrote, “Not only were the various departments of the concern (viz. Vestag)—production of pig iron, steel casting, strip mills, wire, tube-making, etc.—organized as far as possible in accordance with the principles of flow production (nach Prinzipien der Fließarbeit), but the different works sections were in turn integrated with each other into a single combine (miteinander zu einem Gesamtverbund verkettet) by the economic use of blast furnace gases.”9
In 1974 Farocki and his colleague Hella Jürgens interviewed Sohn-Rethel in Bremen, asking him if the capitalists who put Hitler in the saddle thought they were in charge of things. Sohn-Rethel replied, “They thought that they had control over Hitler. That they could simply use Hitler as an instrument of their power.” (Both Paul Reusch—who ran the coal, steel, and manufacturing combine Gutehoffnungshütte—and Silverberg were perfect examples of this naïve delusion.)10 The East German historians writing about Nazism, he went on to say, had precisely the same “instrumentalist” view of fascism that German capital had in the fateful years after 1930.11 Of course, the irony here is that both individually and as a class Germany’s biggest corporates wielded far more influence in the Republic whose demise they helped to bring about than they were ever destined to under the Nazis.
In sharp contrast to instrumentalist readings that see German capital working hard to bring the Nazis to power and forming a sort of united front to have power transferred to Hitler, Neebe’s study of the subject retains Hilferding’s image of the divisions within German capital but inflects that further. He suggests that within heavy industry itself there were always two distinct wings, on one side Thyssen and Vögler with their unqualified support for Hitler, and on the other the industrialists in control of the Langnam-Verein (a key lobby promoting German heavy industry), Reusch and Springorum, who would much rather have seen Franz von Papen—former Chancellor who later served as Vice-Chancellor under Hitler—ruling Germany with a new (authoritarian) constitution and the possible inclusion of Gregor Strasser as a less volatile, conservative exemplar of the Nazi far Right. Next to them, of course, was the Reichsverband itself, fearful of Hitler’s induction into the cabinet and more strongly in favor of Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher’s regime. Silverberg’s Dresden perspective (that big capital’s best bet lay in working within a parliamentary democracy, even one led by the SPD) survived as the considered view of the top leadership of the Reichsverband down to Duisberg’s retirement in September 1931. Following the disastrous elections of September 1930 when the Nazis increased their vote share to over 18 percent, making them the second largest party after the SPD, the top leadership of the country’s leading association much preferred to see a parliamentary regime based on the Social Democrats to one putatively dominated by the Nazis.12 By the autumn of 1932, however, the choices confronting capital had been starkly redefined, with the two parties of the bourgeois right (DVP, DNVP) failing to achieve any sort of consolidation and being decimated in the elections of July 31, 1932. In business circles there was widespread disgust with Parteiherrschaft (the rule of parties, viz. democracy) and capital welcomed Papen’s ideas of reforming the constitution on a more authoritarian basis. Although conceived initially as an alternative to Hitler and to an outrightly fascist solution to the crisis, by the end of November Papen found himself politically isolated (despite business support) and struggling to survive through a compromise with the Nazis. His meeting with Hitler on January 4, 1933 in the house of the Cologne banker von Schroeder was, as Bracher called it, “the birth hour of the Third Reich.” Yet even as late as the end of January the Reichsverband leadership wanted a Schleicher government that excluded the Nazis. As for Silverberg, he had conspicuously absented himself from Hitler’s speech to the business gathering at the Düsseldorf Industry Club in January 1932, but had (remarkably) abandoned all hesitation by the middle of 1932 when the Nazis replaced the Social-Democrats as his imagined means of integrating the unions in a strategy for the economic revival of German capitalism. Whereas the steel industrialist Otto Wolff, Hermann Bücher of AEG, and the bulk of the chemical industry held aloof from Hitler, by November 1932 Silverberg himself was using his influential corporate newsletter, the Deutsche Führerbriefe, to convince German business to be done with halfway solutions and agree that Hindenburg should let Hitler form the government.13 It was in November, too, that his emissaries met with Hitler at Hotel Kaiserhof, the party’s Berlin headquarters, to discuss economic issues. Given the significance Hilferding had ascribed to Silverberg’s Dresden speech and the perspective outlined there, the irony of this should be lost on no one.14
From Speier to Hamilton, or the myth of the white-collar Nazi
“Hundreds of thousands of salaried employees throng the streets of Berlin daily,” wrote Siegfried Kracauer in his brilliant study of die Angestellten, that is, white-collar workers, which he field-researched in the late 1920s and published in 1930.15 No sector of the German labor force had expanded as rapidly as them, and the early thirties (1930-1933) saw a spate of studies of this group by Geiger, Grünberg, Speier, Dreyfuss and others.16 This was almost certainly when the widely accepted thesis of the special susceptibility of the “new middle class” to fascism first emerged. American political scientists like Lasswell helped propagate the theory across the Atlantic and by the fifties it was a well-established orthodoxy.17 Speier’s study was ready for publication by 1933, but the publisher refused to go ahead and it was only published in a revised version in 1977.18 His key argument revolved around (what he saw as) the conflict between the growing proletarianization of white-collar jobs through most of the 1920s and the “self-esteem” of the employees who typically performed such jobs. That sense of decreasing social esteem for work that was once invariably valued more highly than blue-collar or manufacturing labor, not least in Germany with its stark “status” distinctions, fueled profound anxieties that were reinforced by most white-collar unions, notably the mainly clerical, all-male, right-wing German National Retail Clerks Association (DHV) which saw itself fighting a rearguard action to preserve the social division between manual workers and their “middle class” counterparts and took overtly misogynist stances when it came to white-collar jobs. Those anxieties in turn moved the bulk of the white-collar labor force sharply to the right (so the argument runs) as they closed ranks against the working class and its Republic; Speier even spoke of “their unquestioned readiness for a fascist social order.”19 But years later Speier would clarify, “I found the DHV’s ideology simply dreadful and I made no secret of this. But I never once thought that, because the DHV was so radically rightist, all white collar employees were radically rightist.” And he admitted, “a large part of the middle classes was for the SPD and voted for them.”20
In short, it was easier to describe the movements that were reshaping the economic world of Weimar white-collar labor (the taylorization of office work, growing insecurity of employment, and the changing social backgrounds from which employees were recruited) than to hazard any secure guesses about how all this was being reflected in political behavior. One statistic that seemed to lend credibility to the special susceptibility thesis was that, in 1933, 21 percent of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party’s (NSDAP) members came from the ranks of salaried employees who otherwise formed only 12.5 percent of the actual labor force—in other words, they were strongly overrepresented among card-carrying Nazis of that date. But there are two caveats to any simplistic reading of these figures. First, the term “salaried employee” presents a picture of a homogeneous, undifferentiated group, which is the last thing white-collar employees actually were. In particular, it obscures the all-important distinction between the civil servants who were a major constituency for NSDAP propaganda during the depression and the mass of more modern employees in trade and industry described simply as Angestellten. Secondly, this was 1933 when lower civil servants joined the party “at more than double their percentage in the population at large” and did so “because they felt the need to assure the new administration of their loyalty.”21 In fact, state officials at all levels welcomed the advent of the Nazi regime in 1933, but this can scarcely be generalized to cover the less conservative and more modern sectors of the “new middle class” who were mainly employed in the private sector.
To test the thesis that Weimar’s new middle class had a special affinity for the Nazis, we need a wider scale of evidence and it was this that began to emerge from the late seventies with work done by Thomas Childers and Richard Hamilton.22 Their books, which appeared almost simultaneously, decisively undermined the traditional thesis, which nevertheless survives as dogma in both left-wing circles and more widely. Both grounded their analyses on large-scale voting patterns to see how much support the NSDAP could muster among different classes and occupational categories. In the crucial election of 1930 that saw the Nazis majorly boost their share of the vote, Childers writes, “Instead of rallying to the National Socialist banner, white-collar employees appear to have scattered their votes across the rich and varied spectrum of Weimar politics. Indeed, analysis of the election results offers little evidence to support the traditional thesis that the Angestelltenschaft, radicalized by stabilization and then depression, had turned to the NSDAP in 1930.”23 Moreover, in 1930, although white-collar union densities remained low (Kracauer’s estimate was that only one-third were in unions), the majority of those organized into unions were part of unions that “steadfastly defended the republic.”24 The bulk of the white-collar labor force lived in Germany’s large urban centers (those with populations of over one hundred thousand), which is where the Nazis did least well in 1930. “[T]he onset of the depression simply did not produce the coalescence of white-collar support for the NSDAP so often asserted in the literature.”25 By 1932, when the Nazis “had launched an intensive recruitment drive within the civil service,”26 “Nazi appeals to Angestellten were far fewer in number than to any other major social group. RPL leaflets addressed to civil servants, for example, outnumbered those to white-collar employees by approximately ten to one.”27 Childers concludes, “the Nazi/white-collar relationship remained far weaker than traditionally assumed, even after the onset of the depression.”28 “There is little convincing empirical evidence to support the traditional view that white-collar employees flocked to the NSDAP in 1931-1932.”29
Hamilton’s study of the Nazi vote in fourteen large German cities reinforces these results.30 He argues that “the evidence of general elections and of union affiliations casts much doubt on the assumption that the urban lower middle class gave massive, or even majority support to the NSDAP.”31 Against Speier’s emphasis on the deep rift that divided white-collar employees from the mass of industrial workers,32 Hamilton shows how the differential class backgrounds of white-collar employees would have affected their political ideas and voting behavior in the sense that white-collar workers who came from working-class families were on the whole unlikely to behave in ways completely at odds with the communities they grew up in. “Marginal middle-class populations” (that is, workers at the bottom of the white-collar hierarchy) “came disproportionately from working-class backgrounds,” were likely to be young and more likely to be female than male.33 This precisely is the sort of profile that fits many of the overwhelmingly single young women in Kracauer’s monograph, young females who coped with the monotony and sexual discriminations and harassment of their working lives with the cult of distraction that became a central part of white-collar existence in cities like Berlin, encapsulating Weimar’s American influences as much as Fordism and rationalization did and perpetuating the alienation of the working day in nocturnal after-images of abstract labor.34 Against Speier’s obsession with “self-esteem,” Hamilton insists that these, the most economically marginal segments of the middle class, were unlikely to have any “fetishistic attachment to (their) middle-class status,” any “extraordinary fear of proletarianization” or “status panic” (even Speier was dismissive of this notion of Geiger’s).35 In Berlin close to half the white-collar category (45.8 percent) lived in working-class districts and were “well integrated in the milieu,” sharing the values of their friends, relatives and associates there. These were the lower-level white-collar workers who were the poorest and least secure of the non-manual populations. But they were also the white-collar segment least attracted to National Socialism and who, overwhelmingly, “would have been voting for one or the other of the parties of the left,” certainly in cities like Berlin and Hamburg, where in July 1932 the Nazis attracted approximately only one-quarter of the voters in the working-class districts.36 “[T]hose who shifted to the NSDAP were not previous supporters of the SPD or KPD.” Even in the four mixed districts of Berlin, “the average support (for the Nazis) in the July 1932 election ran at 29.9 percent…The vote for the left in these districts ran at approximately twice the level of the National Socialist vote, the former dividing almost equally between Social Democrats and Communists.” 37 And Hamilton concludes, “There is, in short, a good prima facie case for arguing that the urban lower middle class (as represented by the vote in these districts) voted for the left.”38
Received knowledge about the coalitional support for fascism bears considerable flaws. Though Hilferding accurately identified the fractures haunting German capital towards the end of the Weimar republic, he miscalculated the power of heavy industrialists and the fragility of existing political alliances. In a bid to retain their hold over German society, the owners of heavy industry bet on authoritarianism rather than subject themselves to democratic contestation, even to their own detriment. And among salaried workers, it was civil servants, rather than discontented salaried workers as a whole, who perceived overlapping interests with the dictatorship. In both cases, political traditions, ideas, and mobilizations, rather than pure economic interests, paved the way for the Republic’s fall.
Rudolf Hilferding, ‘Politische Probleme. Zum Aufruf Wirths und zur Rede Silverbergs’, Die Gesellschaft, 3 (1926), pp.289–302. The Reichsverband der Deutschen Industrie was the country’s leading business association in the twenties. It was effectively dissolved a few months after Hitler came to power.↩
Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Ökonomie und Klassenstruktur des deutschen Faschismus, (eds.) Johannes Agnoli, Bernhard Blanke and Niels Kadritzke (Frankfurt, 1973), pp.53–68; Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism, tr. Martin Sohn-Rethel (London, 1978), Chapters 4 and 5.↩
Reinhard Neebe, Großindustrie, Staat und NSDAP 1930–1933: Paul Silverberg und der Reichsverband der Deutschen Industrie in der Krise der Weimarer Republik (Göttingen, 1981).↩
David Abraham, The Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis, 2nd ed. (New York, 1986). The Historical Materialism Book Series plans to publish a new edition of this classic later this year or early next with appropriate revisions.↩
On this see Bernd Weisbrod, “Economic Power and Political Instability Reconsidered: Heavy Industry in Weimar Germany, ”Social History, 4.2 (1979), pp.241–63.↩
Sohn-Rethel, Ökonomie und Klassenstruktur, pp.45–48; Economy and Class Structure, pp.26–28.↩
Harun Farocki, Zehn, zwanzig, dreißig, vierzig. Fragment einer Autobiografie, eds. Marius Babias and Antje Ehmann (Cologne, 2017), p.165; Alfred Sohn-Rethel, “A Commentary after 38 Years,” Historical Materialism, 28.4 (2020), pp.249–63, esp.253ff.↩
Sohn-Rethel, “Commentary,” p.254; I’ve modified the translation to replace “compound production” with “integrated production” and “compound” with “integrated combine.”↩
Sohn-Rethel, Economy and Class Structure, pp.27–28. Again, I’ve modified the translation to reflect the text of Ökonomie und Klassenstruktur, p.47 more accurately.↩
See Reinhard Neebe, Großkapital, pp.120–21 (Reusch), 159-68 (Silverberg).↩
Farocki’s interview and his discussion of the ideas that inspired his film can be found in Filmkritik, November 1978. Sohn-Rethel’s remarks can be found at pp.580ff.↩
See Neebe, Großkapital, pp.77, 81.↩
Neebe, Großkapital, p.167.↩
H.A. Turner, German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, (New York, 1985) pp.298-300 mounts a strong defence of Silverberg against Neebe’s description of his contacts with various high-ranking Nazis during the last months of 1932.↩
Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany, tr. by Quintin Hoare (Verso, 1998).↩
Emil Lederer’s Die Privatangestellten in der modernen Wirtschaftsentwicklung was an outlier, having been published as early as 1912.↩
There’s a good survey of these various “theories” in Val Burris, “The Discovery of the New Middle Class,” Theory and Society, 15.3 (1986), pp.317–49.↩
Translated by the author himself as Hans Speier, German White-Collar Workers and the Rise of Hitler (Yale University Press, 1986).↩
Hans Speier, “The Salaried Employee in Modern Society,”Social Research, 1.1 (1934), pp.111–133, at 127.↩
Michael Prinz, “German White-Collar Workers before the Rise of National Socialism: An Interview with Hans Speier,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 4.2 (1990), pp.197–207, at 201, 203.↩
Michael H. Kater, The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders 1919-1945 (Harvard University Press, 1983), pp.90-91.↩
Thomas Childers, The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919–1933 (University of North Carolina Press, 1983); Richard F. Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler? (Princeton University Press, 1982).↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, p.172.↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, p.173.↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, p.175.↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, p.230.↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, pp.238-9. RPL was the Reichspropagandaleitung, the directorate that shaped the Nazis’ campaign strategy and the content of their electoral campaigns.↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, p.264.↩
Childers, The Nazi Voter, p.240. In an earlier summary of his argument Childers had noted, “Nazi electoral sympathies within the white collar labour force were marginal before 1930 and surprisingly weak thereafter,” cf. Childers, “The Social Bases of the National Socialist Vote,” Journal of Contemporary History, 11 (1976), pp.17-42, at 30.↩
To be fair, Childers himself was severely critical of Hamilton’s work, cf. Childers, “Who, Indeed, Did Vote for Hitler?,” Central European History, 17.1 (1984), pp.45–53.↩
Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, p.60.↩
Cf. Speier’s views in Prinz, “German White-Collar Workers”—“today one can hardly imagine how deep the rift between workers and salaried white collar employees was then” (p.200), or, “Workers were full of resentment toward the salaried employees” (p.203).↩
Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, p.51.↩
Günter Berghaus, “Girlkultur: Feminism, Americanism, and Popular Entertainment in Weimar Germany,” J. of Design History, 1.3-4 (1988), pp.193–219, who deals with young women in white-collar jobs and the narcotic quality of “mass culture.”↩
Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, pp.55–56.↩
Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, pp.386–7.↩
Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, p.391.By “mixed districts” Hamilton means residential areas where lower- middle and working-class families lived in some proximity.↩
Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler?, p.391.↩