An Economy Geared to War: Richard Overy Argues That the Lesson Hitler Drew from 1914-18 Was Not That a Major War Should Be Avoided, but That Germany Should Prepare More Systematically So That, Next Time, She Would Win

By Overy, Richard | History Today, November 2001 | Go to article overview

An Economy Geared to War: Richard Overy Argues That the Lesson Hitler Drew from 1914-18 Was Not That a Major War Should Be Avoided, but That Germany Should Prepare More Systematically So That, Next Time, She Would Win


Overy, Richard, History Today


IN JUNE 1937 the American military attache in Berlin wrote back to Washington: `The entire economic life of the German nation is being organised on a war economy basis'. The character of German preparations was, in his view, determined by the idea of `total war'. Germany had learned the lessons of defeat in 1918: only `complete control of national economy' could ensure victory in the wars of the future.

Since the war, doubt has been thrown on this interpretation of the German economy under Hitler. In 1959 the economist Burton Klein, who had worked on the United States Strategic Bombing Survey team in 1945, published a book on German war preparations which attempted to demolish the myth of massive German rearmament. Using the Survey's conclusions, Klein' argued that the military effort was modest in the 1930s, and continued to be so during the first two years of war as the regime attempted to provide both guns and butter. A.J.P. Taylor found in Klein's work support for his idea that Hitler only wanted to launch small opportunistic wars to revise the Versailles Settlement. Taylor believed that he, like so many who had lived through the 1930s, had been tricked by Hitler, who was only `pretending to prepare for a great war'.

These judgements on the German economy under Hitler are impossible to reconcile. The assumption is that German war preparations were a sham, and that those who, like the American military attache, described an economy made hostage to war preparation were deceived by a facade of propaganda and shop-window armaments. Who was right?

Hitler made it clear from the outset that he wanted Germany to become a major military power again, and that the economic revival of the country was vital to its military revival in the long run. Military expenditure, however, remained relatively modest between 1932-33 and 1935-36, constituting no more than 1.3 per cent of Germany's national product. Even by 1936 German forces would have found it difficult to fight any neighbouring state.

There were many reasons for the relatively low level of remilitarisation. The top priority was economic recovery, which the regime saw as the key to political stabilisation and social peace after the chaos of the slump. Rearmament was not an answer to recovery. The problems facing the German economy in 1933 -- an impoverished rural sector, declining trade, balance-of-payments difficulties and a credit system on the brink of collapse -- would have been exacerbated by high levels of military spending. When rearmament reached higher levels in 1936 it began to impose new strains on the recovered economy.

Hitler's new government was aware of the hostility of other powers to German rearmament and was wary of inviting intervention if the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty were torn up too conspicuously. It was not until May 1935 that the regime dared publicly to announce German rearmament.

Finally, the armed forces themselves were anxious to rebuild German military power cautiously, to control its pace and character themselves. The priority here was to rebuild the military infrastructure -- barracks, airfields, training schools -- that had been shut down or destroyed during the period of enforced disarmament. The first air force production programmes were largely devoted to building trainer aircraft. Between 1934 and 1938 some 58 per cent of aircraft production was made up of trainer aircraft and only 18 per cent of combat planes. Tank production was slow to get going and the programme for naval shipbuilding laid down in March 1934 had achieved little before the late 1930s. Remilitarisation on any scale took time to achieve because Germany began in 1933 from a very low base.

The turning point in the development of both the economy and the military build-up came with the announcement of the Second Four-Year Plan in October 1936. The Plan ushered in a quite different phase of military expansion based upon the restructuring of the economy to meet the probable needs of war. …

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