A new book of history is provoking heated debate here in Germany, and I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce my readers to it. It’s by a left-wing historian named Goetz Aly, and it’s called Hitler’s Peoples’ State: Robbery, Race-War, and National Socialism (my translation). The main theses of the book are the following:
(1) The Holocaust was "the most conscientious mass robbery-murder in modern history," and served to enrich Germans and foreign collaborators.
(2) The exploitation of occupied territories actually contributed much more to the financing of the war than the German Reich itself;
(3) Inside the German Reich, the regime bought itself the support of a majority of the population by following an intentional "Robin Hood" policy of providing benefits to the lower classes at the expense of the rich; and
(4) The aggressive dynamics of national socialism sprang from a social-political promise ("A State for the People," "National Socialism") that could only be financially realized by Nazi seizure of the entire continent.
You can read an English translation of an essay on the subject by Aly here, at the invaluable Sign and Sight website: "Anyone trying to understand the destructive success of National Socialism should look at the public face of the annihilation policy — the modern, cosy and obliging welfare state."
Aly is a well-known figure in Germany, some of whose previous books on the Nazi regime have been translated into English. He’s a former students radical and Maoist who has, in the meantime, diverted his appetite for controversy into more scholarly channels. When asked by a reporter for Die Zeit what the Goetz Aly of 1972 would think about the Goetz Aly of 2005, he responded: "You reporters sure do ask a lot of questions!"
Aly’s book is provoking some chagrin on the German left, because it points out that some of the structures of Germany’s current social welfare state were originally introduced by Hitler. It also drives yet another stake in the oversimplified Daniel Jonah Goldhagen thesis that fanatical anti-Semitism turned ordinary Germans into "Hitler’s Willing Executioners."
According to what I have read concerning the book (final judgment will have to wait until I’ve read it myself), its main argument is that most ordinary Germans probably were only vaguely aware of many aspects of Hitler’s rule; they were delighted that someone had miraculously solved the country’s grave economic crisis, and were content to enjoy a state of relatively lavish material comfort in a world still suffering from economic depression. There was no free press to tell them that this material comfort was being bought at the expense of systematic mass murder and robbery of German Jews and occupied countries. Any troubling reminders to this effect that intruded on their consciousness could be, and were, safely ignored.
I find this thesis plausible, and generalizable to plenty of other cultures and situations. And for that reason, much more disturbing than the idea that the Holocaust and the devastation of occupied territories was driven by the population’s allegiance to the National Socialist ideology.