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The International Writers Magazine: Non-Fiction

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze
Nick Lewandowski review
Adam Tooze’s mammoth dissection of Nazi Germany’s economy, The Wages of Destruction, is not for the faint of heart. It is a thick volume, heavily annotated, and studded with graphs at regular intervals. Fortunately, those willing to take the plunge will be rewarded with a fresh, compelling take on the roots and conduct of the Second WorldWar in Europe.


Tooze charts the German economy from the end of the First World War to the final days of the Second, when Germany was reduced to little more than smoking ruins. His research is organized around the thesis that Adolf Hitler foresaw the rise of the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers, as well as the simultaneous decline of the two major colonial powers, France and the United Kingdom. Hitler, he argues, was convinced American and Soviet potential lay in the size of their respective economies: physical resources, labor forces and consumer markets Germany could never hope to equal. Hence the need for an expansionary war of conquest – one Hitler’s racial ideology and fervent anti-Bolshevism oriented toward eastern Europe.

The war’s exact timing, according to Tooze, was a product of macroeconomic factors, chiefly Germany’s current account deficit, scant foreign reserves and relatively weak industrial capability. He asserts that Hitler went to war in 1939 because his armaments industry
would soon be eclipsed by those of the two emerging superpowers, particularly the United States. Unfortunately for the Nazis (and all the better for the rest of us), their strained, debt-laden economy wasnever in any kind of shape to wage a world war.

The Wages of Destruction is also notable in exploding a number of the most popular myths regarding the rise of Nazism and the Second World War. First, Tooze roundly dismisses the idea that domestic works projects such as the Autobahns helped the German economy recover from the Great Depression. Instead, he attributes the emergence from the Depression to rearmament , a breakneck campaign funded with a crushing level of debt the Nazis could never hope to repay. Well before the end of the war, the Reich’s Finance Ministry began issuing what amounted to government-backed IOUs in lieu of traditional treasury bills and

Tooze also takes careful aim at the reputation of Hitler’s technocratic Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, concluding that much of the economic “miracle” historians usually attribute to Speer was in fact made possible by earlier efforts at rationalizing production.

If The Wages of Destruction has a major fault, it’s that Tooze spends little time discussing the economics of the Holocaust. While this would undoubtedly make for a chilling read, it seems a serious omission in light of the effort he devotes to other Nazi atrocities, notably the deliberate campaign of mass starvation waged in occupied Russia and the horrendous treatment of Nazi Germany’s slave labor force. Whether Tooze felt the Holocaust was too far afield from his
central thesis, or that it would simply push the book well beyond a reasonable length is not entirely clear. Nonetheless, it comes off as a glaring deficiency.

The author’s scholarship is first-rate, however, with detailed endnotes and an extensive bibliography. A perfect fit for anyone interested in an economic view of history, or a less conventional take on the Second World War. One word of caution: those unfamiliar with
basic economic concepts and their implications may prefer to read with web browsers open to Investopedia
© Nicholas Lewandowski Feb 13th 2011

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