The Wages of Destruction by Adam Tooze

There are few books which completely change your way of thinking about a historical episode, especially one that has received as much attention as Word War 2, but Adam Tooze’s history of the Third Reich’s economy is one of them. I had always thought it was completely irrational for Hitler to invade Poland in 1939, given that it was clear that both France and the UK would go to war if he did. Similarly, before I read his book, I always thought France and the UK’s decision not to attack on the Western front immediately after they declared war on Germany made no sense. But Tooze explains that, in both cases, the economic logic dictated the decisions of the major players during that period.

Indeed, one of the most important contribution Tooze makes in that book is to show that, once you understand and take seriously Hitler’s goals, his actions are instrumentally rational. Hitler’s ambition was to create a self-sufficient economy in Europe that could rival the United States, but this required territorial expansion to acquire the natural resources and the foodstuffs that Germany lacked. The After the Munich Agreement, Hitler knew France and the UK would no longer cut him any more slack, which given his ambitions meant that war was inevitable. Tooze points out that both France and the UK had started to rearm after 1938 and that, in the long-run, their combined industrial capacities would doom Germany in the event of a war. So Hitler made the huge bet of invading Poland in 1939, thereby starting the war before the industrial superiority of France and the UK could kick in.

Many things could have gone wrong with this bet, but it was rewarded a year later, when Germany defeated France in less than a month. People usually don’t realize how much luck was involved in this victory, but even Hitler’s generals could still not believe it as they were parading on the Champs-Élysées. After France was out of the war, Hitler hoped that he would be able to force the British to make peace with Germany. Given the situation, this wasn’t crazy at all (we often forget how not obvious it was for the UK to stay in the war after France had been defeated), but instead the British decided to stay in the war and eventually sacrificed their Empire to defeat Germany. 

Once it had become clear that the UK would stay in the war, Hitler knew that he was essentially fighting a war by proxy with the US, which through lend-lease was providing the materiel London needed. Given the amazing superiority of the US in terms of industrial capacity and natural resources, he had no choice but to invade the Soviet Union. His plan was to defeat it quickly, thanks to the same kind of Blitzkrieg that had defeated France a year earlier. This would have given Germany the resources it needed to fight a long, drawn-out war against both the UK and the United States. This almost worked, but the Wehrmacht was stopped a few kilometers before Moscow. Thus, by looking at the economic logic behind Hitler’s strategy, Tooze also explains why he decided to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, even though Germany was still at war with the UK in the West. This is usually interpreted as a proof of Hitler’s irrationality, but Tooze argues that it made sense once you understand his goals.

After the Wehrmacht was stopped in front of Moscow, Germany was doomed to lose the war, but the extraordinary mobilization of the German economy to support the war effort was able to prolong the war for several years, which resulted in the death of countless more people. In explaining how Germany pulled that off, Tooze destroys the myth built about Albert Speer after the war, by showing that the so-called miracles he accomplished weren’t so miraculous and that, far from being just a technocrat who had no involvement with the murderous aspects of the regime, he had no qualms using the huge slave workforce put at his disposal by Himmler and working scores of war prisoners, Jews and other victims of nazism to death. This brief summary can’t even begin to do justice to the book, which deals with a lot of other issues, such as Germany’s interwar economy (Tooze shows that Germany’s policies, both domestic and international, during the 1930’s were to a significant extent constrained by a severe and recurrent balance of payments problem), but I hope it will make you want to read it.

5 thoughts

  1. I don’t understand why Hitler had to invade the Soviet Union, since Stalin was his ally and willing to provide Hitler with the resources he needed to defeat the U.K. and the U.S.

    1. He invadeded the USSR for ideological reasons mainly. The nationalists in Germany always saw Marxism as enemy propagated by international Jewish intellectual elites against the West, and the USSR was seen as the driving force for this ….

      They also sought to destroy the USSR because it was a Slavic land – and German nationalists believed they were waging a race war against the Slavic peoples on behalf of the Teutonic-Nordic peoples.

      Strategically the caucus mountains ere an important resource for oil.

      In addition, the Germans sought extra living space for settlement in the Rast, which was a central theme in German nationalism since the 19th century. It was also a crucial theme throughout much of the history of Germans over the course of over a millennium – the march to the East and the assimilation – and ultimately displacement – of Slavic peoples.

    2. I don’t remember exactly what Tooze says about this, but the problem is that, while the Soviet Union was indeed supplying Germany with vital raw materials, it wasn’t doing it for free. In exchange, Germany had to supply the Soviet Union capital goods of equal value, which it needed for the war effort.

  2. You should read John Toldand’s biography of Hitler. It’s massive, but definitive. It completely changed my thinking about Hitler. He does a brilliant job of laying out his rise to power, goals and ambitions, etc. all from original sources like diaries, journals, and eyewitness accounts. Hitler was a debonair gentleman, yet evil. Emotionally ensitive, yet utterly rational. Extremely fascinating person.

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