Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Write about destruction

Oh my, Adam Tooze's Wages of Destruction is quite a book. It an economic history of Nazi Germany and it provides economic reasons for Nazi policy making. This alone should raise interest (or potentially hackles). The discussion of lebensraum is illuminating. Most texts write this off as sheer propaganda or delusion, but Tooze shows that the German economy of the early 20th century was actually quite behind a number of competitors and that the very large agricultural work force was difficult to employ, hence the interest in stealing others land.

Tooze argues that there were other economic choices available to the Germans including taking a classically liberal export oriented approach, but that ideologically and politically this was a non-starter thanks in part to the inward turn of the United States in the early 30s. The Germans saw their future as that of an economic satellite of the United States or as the leader of a united Europe. They chose the later course, to the world's great dismay.

Too often analysis of political choices, at least in American writing, ignores economic influences. If they are identified, it is usually on the basis of nefarious special interests hoping to get their narrow agendas satisfied. It is much more rare to see an analysis of the economic situation facing leaders and how this constrains their behavior. Tooze explores how the balance of payments in Germany greatly influenced its foreign policy throughout the 30s. Today, you can't examine the US-China relationship without looking at the economic aspect. We need more books like Tooze's that examine these things.

The horrors of the Holocaust and the other other German atrocities also have economic underpinings. Most importantly, there was not enough food for everyone in Europe, at least with all the resources going to war making. Couple this with the extreme racism of the regime and the wholesale slaughter of Eastern Europeans and Jews by starvation and then mass murder becomes a policy choice rather than a fit of insanity.

This is a very large book that takes close reading. The subject range is massive, including an assessment of Albert Speer's economic wizardry, technology investments by the German military, relative economic strengths of the various powers and average farm size in 1930s Germany. For many readers it will be too much. For those of whom that is too much, consider picking it up and reading the introduction and the conclusion, which is easy enough. If you think you have read all you need about World War 2, think again.

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