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The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2006)

by Adam Tooze

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6281129,338 (4.52)16
In this groundbreaking history, Tooze provides the clearest picture to date of the Nazi war machine and its undoing. There was no aspect of Nazi power untouched by economics--it was Hitler's obsession and the reason the Nazis came to power in the first place. The Second World War was fought, in Hitler's view, to create a European empire strong enough to take on the United States. But as this book makes clear, Hitler's armies were never powerful enough to beat either Britain or the Soviet Union--and Hitler never had a serious plan as to how he might defeat the United States. An eye-opening and controversial account that will challenge conventional interpretations of the period.--From publisher description.… (more)
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» See also 16 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
The author is auditioning for the minister of economy in the next dictator's bid for world power. I would give him the job. ( )
  Paul_S | Nov 8, 2021 |
I think that Adam Tooze may be my favorite economics writer. He somehow is able to wade through a massive amount of data and draw out a coherent, insightful, and innovative narrative.

I came across this book because it just recently became available as an audiobook. It is an overview of the German economy of the Third Reich. I've read some other histories of WWII, including one from the Japanese perspective, but this may be the most in-depth book I've read about WWII thus far.

The topic might sound dry, but I found the pacing and engagement of the book quite strong. Did you know that Germany started preparations for WWII in 1932? Or that England turned down a German truce in the beginning of the war? Or that Hitler's moral foundations were sourced directly from the US' frontier colonialism, to the degree that he even referred to Russians as Red Indians?

Tooze maintains an attitude of mourning the tragedy of the war through ample investigations into genocide and slavery. Apparently Hitler planned not only to exterminate the Jews, but most of continental Europe and Russia as well, to make room for his back-to-the-land Aryans.

One of the things in the back of my mind when reading this book (and when Tooze was writing it) has been the mobilization that organizers like Bill McKibben have been calling for, likening climate change mobilization to WWIII. What are economies really capable when they set their mind to it? In Tooze's latest book, on the COVID pandemic and the economy, he cited Keynes, to the effect of, "anything we can do, we can afford" (a sentiment that MMT economist Stephanie Kelton also enjoys).

If you'd like to hear the play-by-play of what enables and disables total war (or similarly grand works), you'll enjoy this book! ( )
  willszal | Sep 21, 2021 |
For all its horrors, World War 2 is undeniably a really cool war to look at from a military perspective. However, anyone who plays the Could Germany Have Won game (or even a few rounds of Axis & Allies) is confronted sooner or later by the fact that a lot of Germany's military decisions seem a bit... eccentric, to put it mildly. Taking over Austria, yes; seizing the Sudetenland, sure; closing off the Polish Corridor, of course; but why go to war barely 6 years after taking power, way before your own rearmament timetable is done? Why fight Britain and France first off, when you don't even want their land? Why open up another front with Russia when Britain hasn't been beaten yet? In fact, why start a war at all with the countries around you, when every single one has an economy that's at least a match for your own? The traditional answer for questions like these is that Hitler simply wasn't a very good military commander, but while this is perfectly true, Tooze looks deeply into the economic background of Nazi Germany and finds that a lot of the wackier-seeming choices the Nazi leadership made do make a bit more sense given the economic options available to them, and even some of the more appalling facets of the Holocaust were driven as much by industrial considerations as by ideology. Tooze's decision to look at the war from an economic viewpoint is very refreshing, and allows him to bust a truly impressive number of myths, most notably for me the idea that Germany had any chance at all to win the war.

Though it's hard to appreciate now, Germany in the 1930s was not a very rich or developed country at all. The deprivation of World War 1, followed by Weimar hyperinflation, followed by Great Depression deflation, all overlaid on the fact that Germany had been a single unified country for barely a half-century, meant that though individual German firms were very competitive and productive, as a whole Germany was quite backwards in many ways (one graph on page 146 shows Germany in 1933 as having only 70% the income per capita as it had before 1914). The single goal of the Nazi Party was to transform Germany from the hemmed-in, middle-weight power it was into a true competitor to Britain, with its world empire, and America, with its continental resources. This primarily meant acquiring land, and Tooze assembles masses of agricultural statistics to show that the goal of Lebensraum, which strikes the modern reader as a bit weird (21st century Germany is much denser than even the most claustrophobic nightmares of Nazi planners), made a lot more sense in what was almost literally a peasant society in many regions. Expanding to the east would also have the benefit of allowing Germany to gather enough resources to be closer to self-sufficiency, a major concern for a country almost totally lacking in vital strategic materials like oil or steel. Removing the need to import important resources would have reduced the need to acquire foreign currency through export, as well as lessening the tension between production for domestic use and production for rearmament.

The beginning sections outlined Germany's struggles to emerge from the Great Depression with both a strong military and a robust consumer economy. They got fairly technical (it helps to know basic macroeconomic concepts like current account deficits, currency revaluation, or the relationships between deficit spending, taxation, and inflation), but they were necessary to understand why Germany chose to start the war in 1939, even though their own plans showed that they weren't ready. Putting yourself in the shoes of a Nazi economic planner, once you've taken the goal of Germany conquering all of Europe as a given, now you just have to figure out some way to implement it, and it would seem that waiting until you have a strong advantage would be the most prudent course. Unfortunately for Germany, despite their massive military spending at the expense of the civilian economy (much touted public works like the autobahn or the Volkswagen made surprisingly negligible contributions to Germany's recovery from the Depression), and even after years of treaty-defying rearmament, they were barely at parity with Britain or France. The reason for war beginning in 1939 was simply that waiting would have put Germany farther and farther behind those two powers, who were also beginning to accelerate their own military preparations.

Germany's stunning victory over Britain and France was both good and bad for them. Good, in that Germany at a stroke disabled the entire military of one of its enemies and most of the military of another. Bad, in that in a real way they were no closer to victory. Over the course of the war, though Germany helped itself to French tanks and military hardware, in an absolute sense captured French industry did not contribute very much materially to Germany's war effort, and Germany found itself in the position of having to expend its own resources on administering conquered territories. Tooze didn't use this metaphor, but I found myself reminded of a sort of military Ponzi scheme, where Germany kept having to conquer new territories to make up for the losses incurred in acquiring its last conquests. To make matters worse, different military initiatives required completely different production, so Nazi war planners found themselves jumping from priority to priority as targets shifted. There's a fascinating graph on page 148 of armament production from September 1939 to November 1941 that shows the sudden production surges and reversals, as well as the overwhelming focus on aircraft and ammunition. I had never realized that tanks were such a small percentage of the overall military budget, but as Tooze points out, aircraft gave by far the biggest bang for the buck.

Speaking of production shifts, I had always been under the impression that German war production had been dominated by political hacks, but Tooze makes a fairly convincing case that, aside from a few ill-advised late-stage "experiments" like the V2 rocket and the Type XXI U-boat, Germany's war economy ran about as well as could be expected, second only to the Soviet war economy, which he should definitely write another book about. More myths busted: that German women did not participate in the economy to the degree that their counterparts did for ideological reasons (false, German women were actually more involved), or that Germany did not have a total war economy until late in the war, also for ideological/propaganda reasons (false, Germany had been gradually letting its military cannibalize the civilian economy since day 1 of Nazi rule), or that people like Speer were miracle workers (false, production surges Speer took credit for were often statistical illusions or were due to other people). The main problem for German planners was that there was simply not enough of everything to go around; a precious resource like steel could be used for a gun, ammo for that gun, a railroad to transport that ammo, or a million other things, and there were just too many needs. By the end of the war Germany was being outproduced at least 4:1 in every single category, and even if every battle had been a crushing victory they still wouldn't have been able to last.

The most depressing parts of the book were where he discussed slave labor and Germany's economic relationship to its conquests. Here's how the logic went: Germany took basically all of its able-bodied men off the farm, and required huge food imports to avoid the mass starvation of World War 1. Those imports came from territories like Poland and Ukraine, directly at the expense of the Polish and Ukrainians, which meant that the Polish and Ukrainians had a direct incentive to help kill Jews, who were merely extra mouths to feed out of the leftover food. "... By comparison with a German ration of 2,600 calories in early 1940, the 'ration' for the inhabitants of Poland's major cities was set at 609 calories. Jews were provided with 503 calories per day." Of course, German factories also required extra labor for the same reason, and so there was a continuous stream of captive workers coming into concentration camps to be worked on substandard rations until they dropped dead, to be replaced by others. Even with millions of free disposable workers, by the end of the war Germany's economy was on its last legs and could no longer be sustained. While Tooze raised my opinion of the quality of German wartime economic planning, he really brought home what a stupid idea it was to try to conquer all of Europe. While individual military goals made more sense (even still-questionable ones like Barbarossa), from a practical standpoint Germany might as well have been trying to conquer the solar system. After having read this book, I don't think Germany ever could have won, but they could have failed even more spectacularly than they did in real life. ( )
  aaronarnold | May 11, 2021 |
Just an absolutely tremendous, breathtaking work of economic history. Tooze does an incredible job of demonstrating the dire straits the Nazi economy was in by 1939 and the even more unfavorable balance compared with the western powers, all of which made Hitler's "irrational" strategic decisions far more comprehensible (and never divorced from the ideology behind them, either). The book also performs a valuable public service in finally exposing Speer as a true-believer Nazi through and through, and shows the increasingly vicious and murderous ends the economic conductors would go to in order to try and squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of a fundamentally limited economic base.

A must-read. ( )
  goliathonline | Jul 7, 2020 |
An enlightening and novel (certainly to me, which is unsurprising given my ignorance -- but I think also in the context of the existing literature) perspective on WWII, answering questions I didn't know I had about why it played out the way it did. Places a much greater emphasis on fundamental material and economic factors than the popular accounts I've casually absorbed over the years, but doesn't neglect ideology, contingency and human decision-making. And somehow the glimpses we get of Nazi brutality (and the way this accelerated and broadened as their desperation increased) are almost more affecting for being set against such a pragmatic and unemotional account of production quotas and raw materials shortages and political-industrial bureaucracy. (I say 'almost' advisedly, though; it's certainly much less painful to read than a book focusing on atrocities and suffering -- but that message still gets through in a pretty effective way.)

Some of the economic/financial explanations (especially with respect to the pre-war situation) didn't click for me; it's hard to know how much right I have to blame the author for that. Throughout the book, the level of detail was sometimes numbing, but probably mostly necessary. I certainly didn't take it all in, but it built up a picture that might have been less compelling if described at a higher level of abstraction. And I think any similar material I read in the future will make more sense to me for having read this. ( )
  matt_ar | Dec 6, 2019 |
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Tooze, AdamAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Dauzat, Pierre-EmmanuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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In this groundbreaking history, Tooze provides the clearest picture to date of the Nazi war machine and its undoing. There was no aspect of Nazi power untouched by economics--it was Hitler's obsession and the reason the Nazis came to power in the first place. The Second World War was fought, in Hitler's view, to create a European empire strong enough to take on the United States. But as this book makes clear, Hitler's armies were never powerful enough to beat either Britain or the Soviet Union--and Hitler never had a serious plan as to how he might defeat the United States. An eye-opening and controversial account that will challenge conventional interpretations of the period.--From publisher description.

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From the Preface:
"The first aim of this book, therefore, is to reposition economics at the centre of our understanding of Hitler's regime, by providing an economic narrative that helps to make sense of and underpin the political histories produced over the last generation. No less urgent, however, is the neet to bring oru understanding of the economic history of the Third Reich into line with the subtle but profound rewriting of the history of the European economy that has been ongoing since the late 1980s buta has gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream historiography."
***
"In 1939, as the war started, the combined GDP of the British and French empires exceeded that of Germany and Italy by 60 per cent. Of course the idea of inherent German economic superiority was not simply a figment of the historical imagination. Germany from the late nineteenth century onwards was the home for a cluster of world-beating industrial companies. Brand names like Krupp, Siemens and IG Farben gave substance to the myth of German industrial invincibility. Viewed in wider terms, however, the German economy differed little from the European average: its national per capita income in the 1930s was middling; in the present-day terms it was comparable to that of Iran or South Africa... Germany under Hitler was still only a partially modernized society, in which upwards of 15 million people depended for their living either on traditional handicrafts or on peasant agriculture."
***
"The basic and possibly most racial contention of this books is that these interrelated shifts in our historical perception require a reframing of the history of the Third Reich, a reframing which has the disturbing effect both of rendering the history of Naziasm more intelligible, indeed eerily conemporary, and the the same time bringing into even sharper relief its fundamental ideological irrationality. Economic history throws new light both on the motives for Hitler's aggression and on the reasons why it failed, why indeed it was bound to fail."

"In both respects, America should provide the pivot for our understanding of the Third Reich. In seeking to explain the urgency of Hitler's aggression, historians have underestimated his acute awareness of the threat posed to Germany, along with the rest of the European powers, by the emergence of the United States as the dominant global superpower.... As in many semi-peripheral economies today, the German population in the 1930s was already thoroughly immersed in the commodity world of Hollywood, but at the same time many millions of people lived three or four to a room, without indoor bathrooms or electricity. The originality of National Socialism was that, rather than meekly accepting a place for Germany within a global economic order dominated by the affluent English-speaking countries, Hitler sought to mobilized the pent-up frustrations of his population to mount an epic challenge to this order. Repeating what Europeans had done across the globe over the previous three centuries, Germany would carve out its own imperial hinterland; by one last land grab in the East it would create the self-sufficient basis both for domestic affluence and the platform necessary to prevail in the coming superpower competition with the United States."

"The aggression of Hitler’s regime can thus be rationalized as an intelligible response to the tensions stirred up by the uneven development of global capitalism, tensions that are of course still with us today.”
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