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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.

In June 1937 the American military attaché 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 attaché, described an economy made hostage to war preparation were deceived by a facade of propaganda and shop-window armaments. Who was right?

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