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Buying silence: theft and the Third Reich

The "beneficiaries" of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime that come to mind are the industrialists and the bankers, the military suppliers, and the contractors who reaped a dozen years of profits from the Reich's war machine.

But German historian Götz Aly lays out a much broader field of people in his provocative study, "Hitler's Beneficiaries" -- the "ordinary Germans" whose complicity in Hitler's war, right up to its death throes, and acquiescence in the Holocaust, is still mystifying.

In analyzing the economic benefits received by those middle- and working-class Germans, Aly suggests an answer to why they supported the regime and its war, tacitly, if not ardently.

"The unshakable alliance" between the regime and the German people, Aly writes, "was not primarily the result of cleverly conceived party propaganda. It was created by means of theft, with the spoils being redistributed according to egalitarian principles among the members of the ethnically defined Volk."

And this "redistribution" quite frequently came in the form of food products and luxury goods that German soldiers serving in occupied countries were encouraged to purchase -- with wages paid from liquidated Jewish assets -- and send home, or carry back when returning on leave.

Aly, who was born in 1947, interviewed numerous relatives who lived through the war years, including his mother, who recalled that an older sister "got a package every few days from her husband in Romania, which contained everything she could possibly want. . . . But she never shared anything."

Aly bases his conclusions on a probing analysis of Nazi economic policies. He estimates that the "German contribution" to the costs of waging war were "at most one-third" -- income taxes, he notes, were kept at pre-war levels -- with the remainder coming from foreign sources -- seizure of bank deposits in occupied countries and their conversion into German bonds, as well as the liquidation of Jewish assets.

Civil servants in the Reichsbank and Finance Ministry were essential to the success of these policies. "The cooption of civil servants," Aly writes, "allowed for the peculiar combination of populist opportunism, selective government manipulation, and premeditated genocide that characterized the Third Reich."

The economic factors that ultimately proved the undoing of Hitler's Reich are explored with a broad sweep and sharp detail by British historian Adam Tooze in "Wages of Destruction," scheduled for American publication this spring by Viking .

Readers who recall Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners," which argued that a historic and widespread anti-Semitism accounted for the willingness of ordinary soldiers to carry out the atrocities of the Holocaust , will be curious whether Aly is pursuing yet another narrowly focused explanation for the seemingly inexplicable.

Instead, Aly's argument is that "the Holocaust will never be properly understood until it is seen as the most single-mindedly pursued campaign of murderous larceny in modern history."

The proceeds "from the sale of purloined Jewish assets," Aly writes, "almost always found their way, directly or indirectly, into the German war chest." But more significant for Aly's thesis regarding the political loyalty of German citizens is his contention that "[they] benefited from the increased availability of capital, real estate, and goods ranging from precious stones and jewels all the way down to the cheap wares sold at flea markets."

And that economic analysis had a grim personal dimension.

As he was writing "Hitler's Beneficiaries," Aly writes, "I found that I could no longer take pleasure in several pieces of beautiful antique furniture in my home. My wife and I had inherited them from my in-laws in Bremen, whose house had been bombed during the war. As I now know, Germans bombed out by Allied air raids on Bremen were resupplied with furniture taken from Dutch Jews who had been deported and murdered."

Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, By Götz Aly, Metropolitan Books, 431 pp., illustrated $32.50

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