Tuesday, June 14, 2005

BOOK: Albert Speer, "The Slave State"

Albert Speer: The Slave State: Heinrich Himmler's Masterplan for SS Supremacy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981. 0297780131. (US edition: Infiltration, 0026128004.) xvi + 384 pp.

This is Speer's last book. I found it very dull, but I shouldn't complain as I have been warned about it both by a review on amazon.com as well as by several passages in Gitta Sereny's biography of Speer (see esp. the last section of that book, titled “Postscript”). (Another proof of its dulness is that, as far as I have been able to determine, this English translation of it has only been issued in hardcover, but not in paperback.) Despite these warnings, I decided to try reading the book because of its fascinating topic: the efforts of the SS to infiltrate other institutions and organize a state within the state, preparing to run its own independent economic empire in the post-war period. Despite its dulness, the book contains several interesting passages; however, to truly enjoy it one would have to have the sort of fondness for WW2-era German bureaucratic intrigue and the technicalities of running a war economy that I simply cannot imagine anybody truly possessing rather than merely affecting (this reminds me somewhat of the anecdote about Diana Mosley in her seventies, reading “two dusty tomes in German Schrift of the life of the Kaiser” why? “Oh, darling, the jokes!” — as related by Selina Hastings in a preface to Diana's autobiography). Anyway, the “masterplan” promised by the subtitle of the book turns out to be, predictably enough, nothing very exciting: it simply consists of many small steps to increase the influence of Himmler and the SS, and none of these small steps is particularly interesting by itself. Despite all this, many passages in the book are quite interesting, as will be seen below, and in the end I don't really regret having read this book. (I must also admit that the first half of the book is on average considerably more dull than the second half. Alternatively, perhaps I simply got used to the dulness and went into shallow-reading mode, effortlessly disregarding most of the boring stuff.)

There is an interesting observation on p. 4 that most of the economic successes of Germany in the years after Hitler's rise to power were due to the officials and technocrats that had already been employed in those positions during the Weimar period, or even before WW1. The Nazi party at the time of its rise to power included few people with skills and leadership abilities necessary to administer the economy; those Nazi “old fighters” who were given responsible positions in the administration were often more likely to block progress than to encourage it.

Himmler tried to employ concentration camp prisoners for armament production, but the SS was not very good at organizing the work or interacting with the rest of the economy (ch. 3). Productivity of the prisoners was very low (p. 35). Later prisoners were employed in ordinary factories, and the SS tried to use this as an excuse to demand that SS officers be installed as managers wherever prisoners work (p. 227).

One of the ways in which Himmler tried to spread his influence was to offer people in influential positions “honorary” SS ranks. This put him (being the supreme leader of the SS) in a good position to try issuing commands or requests to them, requiring them to follow his advice or keep him informed about developments in their area. See e.g. pp. 17-18, 63, 177-8.

After pages and pages of dry, technical writing about various bureaucratic intrigues, there comes a description of a dinner in the office of Walther Funk, the Reich Bank president. The contrast with the boring pages before and after it could hardly be greater. Speer is as thrilled as Ali Baba in the robbers' cave and goes into a fair amount of detail concerning the extremely luxurious furniture and the ridiculously opulent dishes (“soup of pressed pheasant meat”). Pp. 69-70.

Chapter 7, “SS Economic Ideology” (pp. 76-84), is extremely interesting. (However, this chapter is really more about Nazi economic ideology than specifically SS ideology.) These opinions about economy were widely supported by the early Nazis, but Hitler eventually realized they aren't practicable and didn't insist on pursuing them any further (he probably also realized that unless he gave up these opinions, the leaders of big business wouldn't support him, without which his party's rise to power would be impossible); however, they apparently still had many supporters (e.g. in SS circles) even in the WW2 years. These opinions are opposed to capitalism with its emphasis on efficiency and mass production, with the argument that this crushes individuality and widens the gap between rich and poor. Socialism or communism of the Soviet type is of course not seen as a solution for this, since it after all is also obsessed by efficiency and mass production. Instead the Nazi economic ideology calls for a greater individualism in work, and a tighter integration of the work and the worker's life: their ideal is the romantic vision of a farmer connected with his soil rather than the industrial worker alienated from his work. (I guess something along the lines of the arts and crafts movement would be more to their liking.) There are several problems with this vision, however. In particular, mass production and efficiency mean that fewer workers are needed to produce a certain amount of items than if the same had been produced by medieval-style artisans. Nor is it necessary that the mass-produced items be of poorer quality than those produced by master craftsmen (see Speer's remark on p. 80). Of course mass production and efficiency in industry lead to depersonalization, dehumanization, alienation and other horrible effects, but in my opinion the real tragedy of mass production is that, without proper guidance (and sadly no such guidance exists in a typical capitalist society), humankind is unable to use mass production to its fullest advantage. If some technological development leads to an increase of efficiency which allows five times as many items to be produced with the same amount of effort as before, the proper thing to do would be to keep on living in the same way as before but to reduce working hours from eight to 1.6 per day; or perhaps to 2 per day, with the extra 0.4 hours producing a surplus that could be used to improve the standard of living or be invested in further technological progress. Instead, what happens is that people are still made to work eight hours a day, but only a fifth as many of them are needed, so the rest lose their jobs and must find employment somewhere else (if they are lucky); or possibly all the people will be kept in employment but five times as many items will be produced, and efforts will have to be made to persuade the consumers to actually consume five times as much as before even though this is much more than they really need. (Needless to say, having to do five times less work would make people not five, but fifty times happier, whereas having to work as much as before but having five times as much worthless junk as before will not make them five times happier, but probably rather five times more miserable.) This leads to the lamentable state of the economy that we can observe nowadays, when people, despite all the technological progress of the last century or two, are still working as busily as ever, and the only advantage in comparison with the past is that we now produce more stuff with the same amount of work. Thus the current economy is producing huge amounts of completely unnecessary goods and services — instead of wasting people's time on the production of these things, they should be given more spare time and their quality of life would be vastly improved. Technological progress might slow down a bit because of this but this wouldn't really be a problem because most technological progress nowadays is illusory anyway and doesn't really solve any of the important problems in life. Thus, the solution for the present deplorable state of the economy is not in a return to the romantic artisan's approach to work (for the artisan was busily working all the time just as well as the workers of today) but in employing the technology of mass production to liberate people from work, rather than merely to shower them with worthless trinkets that they don't really need (until the advertisers dupe them into thinking they need them) and that they could in fact quite happily do without.

(Incidentally, as Speer comments on pp. 82-83, it is really bizarre to find these humanitarian concerns about the fate of workers in the age of mass-production among people who at the same time cheerfully organized and carried out the murder of millions.)

Speer often encountered this sort of romantic opposition to mass production and technology, even during the WW2 years when it was clear that efforts like his to increase efficiency were in fact quite successful at increasing the production of various important branches of the war economy (and these increases in production were vital for the German war effort: “if it hadn't been for Speer, Hitler would have had to give up at least a year earlier than he did”, Gitta Sereny in The German Trauma, p 266). A typical example is the opposition of Hitler and several other leading Nazis to the idea of alleviating the labour shortage by employing women (p. 83; there had been no such opposition in e.g. Britain or the U.S.).

Another problem with this Nazi romantic ideology of the economy is that they couldn't help defending it with ridiculously nebulous and biologistic verbiage. Instead of saying that mass production and efficiency are simply bad because nobody in their right mind wants to slave away at a conveyor belt amidst the din of a huge factory all day long, they had to go on and on about the need to “preserve and develop the substance of our biological values” and “achieve that order which, deep down, allows the development of human strength to be identical with man's mission towards his God” (both quotes are from p. 77, by Otto Ohlendorf, an SS Brigade Commander who worked at the economic ministry in 1942). This second quote is, as far as I'm concerned, completely devoid of content; I have no idea what it is trying to say, and I doubt that the author had any idea either. The first quote seems to stem from a kind of silly Lamarckian understanding of evolution: work in a factory sucks, therefore our genes will get corrupted if we let our people work in factories for a few generations. This makes about as much sense as the Victorian concerns that masturbation leads to hereditary defects. They both stem from a very naive understanding of genetics and heredity.

Anyway, despite all these concerns, I still feel much sympathy for this romantic opposition to the horrible dehumanizing industry of the modern age. It is, at the same time, an illustration of the fact that (though it seems somewhat surprising at first) romanticism is one of the principal inspirations of Nazi ideology. I shall have to read more about these connections at some point; for now, there are a few relevant chapters in Russell's History of Western Philosophy; there's also an interesting essay about Rudolf Steiner and ecofascism. David Brin also wrote a very interesting essay (several, in fact) about the contrast between backward-looking romanticism and forward-looking enlightenment. My opinions are uncomfortably torn apart between these two opposite poles; like the romantics, I hate the present state of the world and consider it sordid and soulless (well, it isn't quite right for me to say “soulless” since I don't believe in the existence of souls, but you get the point anyway); and I don't feel optimistic about the future the way Brin does in his essay; but at the same time I'm quite clearly aware of the fact that looking back in nostalgia to an imagined romantic golden age of the past is completely silly, as no matter how bad the present is, most of the past was, by and large, considerably worse. Perhaps my problem is not so much an excessive fondness for romanticism but rather mere misanthropy; I wish there was some way I could regain some optimism about people and some hope of a genuine progress in the future... Why o why must democracy always appear so sordid, and despotism so appealing? Why can't I stop despising democracy even though I am rationally quite aware that life in despotism would be even worse?

There are a few amusing typos: “In the curse of time” (p. 94); “as shone by his positive response” (p. 156).

Another very interesting chapter is Ch. 11 (pp. 133-52), which contains many examples of Himmler's meddling in matters of research and technology, matters which he was neither responsible for nor competent in. It is truly a tragedy that the likes of Hitler and Himmler reached such powerful positions; in a luckier world, Himmler would have made a passable provincial schoolmaster, dull and pedantic but essentially harmless in the wider scheme of things, whiling away his spare time by testing out his half-baked ideas a la Bouvard and Pécuchet and writing the occasional letter to the local newspaper. Anyway, here are some of the ridiculous ideas mentioned in chapter 11 (they didn't all originate from Himmler, but he at least took them seriously and used his influence to have experts waste their time evaluating them): switching off electrical devices remotely by “removing the insulating effect of the atmosphere” (p. 146); “manufacture of alcohol” from “the exhaust fumes from bakery chimneys” (p. 147); “obtaining oil from geraniums” (p. 148; Himmler immediately suggested that a hectare of geraniums should be planted for purposes of experimentation); producing high-octane gasoline out of fir tree roots (pp. 148-9; this has been practiced in Japan but the roots had to age under ground for several years); generators for extracting fuel from peat (p. 180); Himmler's brain was “indefatigably preoccupied with new ideas” (p. 220); to protect the factories from allied bombing, he proposed the construction not only of underground but even of underwater facilities (pp. 220-2). Himmler was also meddling in a naval project for a faster kind of boat (p. 140) and trying to set up a “high-frequency research institute [. . .] at the concentration camp of Dachau. [. . .] The institute has exclusively prisoners for its employees [including the director]”, etc., etc. (p. 139).

The SS was also trying to take over as many factories in the occupied East as possible, more than was planned originally, all with a view to securing its own standalone economic empire for the post-war period (p. 155). This idea of securing a standalone industrial and economic basis for the SS was not just a result of the ambitiousness of Himmler or other SS leaders, but was also supported by Hitler who felt that his successors might not be as favourable towards the SS as he was, which means it might not be good for the SS to rely too much on money coming from the state's budget (p. 3).

There are several examples of inefficiency due to silly micromanagement. For example, a number of high-ranking SS officials wasted much time and ink on the question of drafting a few dozen people who had been employed in the Todt construction organization (p. 162).

Machine reporting using the “Hollerith system” is mentioned on pp. 167-8; finally I see somebody else besides Edwin Black (see his fascinating book, IBM and the Holocaust) mention the use of IBM/Hollerith technology (punched cards, etc.) in Nazi Germany.

There are a few instances of splendid sarcasm. Here Speer comments while quoting one of Himmler's letters: “I would under no circumstances wish to do anything illegal. [an astonishing resolution for Himmler.]” (P. 189.) And on p. 191, referring to Hitler: “He asked who was responsible for the planting—a cogent question, given the chaos of jurisdictions.”

An interesting paragraph on p. 190 suggests what sort of plans might have been considered by the SS regarding the colonies in the post-war period: “building gigantic concentration camp factories in the colonies after the war”. European concentration camp inmates would be transferred there to work in mines and construction projects: “This will keep the settlement space in Greater Germany clean. Government plantations will provide work for the colored peoples.”

Himmler was quite successful in infiltrating the rocket program (ch. 15). (Towards the end of the war he eventually achieved control over all armament production, but by then “there was no more armaments industry”, p. 209.) Incidentally, Speer says of the rocket program that “after the war, Western experts confirmed that we had a three-year lead in these areas of technology” (p. 202). However, the A-4 (a.k.a. V-2) rocket wasn't of much use because the Germans had no atomic bomb, and the rocket could therefore only deliver conventional explosives (p. 216). (It is, incidentally, a little bit disconcerting to see Speer mention this so lightly, in passing, as if it was no big deal. This makes it quite clear that if the Nazis had the atomic bomb, they would have made ample use of it. But then it's true that the Allies were planning to use it against Germany as well, and would have probably done it if Germany hadn't been defeated by the time the bomb was ready. And they weren't too hesitant to use it on Japan either, which use could possibly have been avoided. I guess it's due to the “total war” mentality. Total war and nuclear weapons definitely aren't a good combination.) Himmler suggested that the rockets be assembled by concentration camp prisoners, to prevent any information about this project from leaking out to the enemies (p. 205); this work then proceeded in terrible conditions in the infamous Dora camp (p. 212). Incidentally, according to a book about the Dora camp that I read a couple of years ago (I forgot the title), the camp inmates who worked on the rockets often did their best to sabotage the effort, with the result that many rockets failed to take off or, if they did take off, to reach their intended destination.

As the German military and economic situation was becoming more and more desperate towards the end of the war, efforts were sometimes made to speed things up and cut through red tape by the appointment of special “plenipotentiaries”. This led to a proliferation of absurdly pompous official titles whose bearers were in practice often largely impotent as the economy was collapsing all around them and nothing could be done anyway. Thus we hear of a “Plenipotentiary for Special Questions of Chemical Production in the Four-Year Plan” (p. 222) and a “Plenipotentiary of the Führer for Jet Engine Aircraft” (p. 242).

In the last years of the war, some of the factories involved in armament production were transferred to subterranean facilities to protect them from allied bombing. However, it was too late for this to have any significant effects; if little else, the allied bombing also caused heavy damage to the transportation network and moving the factories was useless (p. 237).

The SS policies in occupied Poland (ch. 19) were split between two directions. “There were two trends struggling against one another in the top SS leadership” (p. 275). On the one hand they were killing Jews in large numbers even though all sorts of other agencies (Speer's ministry, the German army, as well as Frank's administration of occupied Poland) were complaining that this deprives the war industry of valuable workers and causes delays in production; on the other hand they used the anti-Jewish policies as an excuse to remove Jewish workers from ordinary factories and set them to work in concentration camps instead, where they were under SS control (pp. 264-5, 274) and would help establish an independent economic basis for the SS in the post-war period.

The Epilogue contains some of the most fascinating passages in the book. Speer describes Hitler's and Himmler's vision of the post-war SS activities in the occupied East. A vast slave labour programme would be used to simultaneously reduce the Slavic population of those territories and to construct the towns and villages that would be necessary to colonize the area by the Germans. The existing cities, such as Moscow and Leningrad, would be simply destroyed. “This empire of slaves, which was to stretch all the way to the Urals, would be basic energy source of a Europe that had to prepare to conquer the greatest enemy: the United States of America.” (P. 202.) Using planned budget expenditures and various calculations, Speer was able to estimate the size of the programme and the number of people involved. As many as 14.5 million slave labourers might be involved at any time, and due to high mortality the actual number of people involved over the planned 20-year duration of the programme would be at least twice as high (pp. 201-203). Comparing these figures with the numbers of workers that were already successfully managed by the German administration during the war, “we see that this project was not really impossible” (p. 203). (And besides, it certainly affords splendid scope for some fascinating what-if scenarios!)

There is, however, one encouraging thing when it comes to reading these sordid tales of the grandiose Nazi slavery programme: namely that they shock us. This is a sign of progress. When we hear that the Babylonians or the Egyptians enslaved the whole Jewish population, we don't think much of it. When we hear that the Romans completely obliterated Carthage, or that Caesar exterminated rebellious Gallic tribes, we hardly bat an eyelid. When we hear of the Great Wall of China being built by slaves, or by peasants or prisoners who were little better off than slaves, we are impressed by the magnitude of the project, but again fundamentally little perturbed. But when we hear that somebody proposed to perpetrate these same kinds of horrors in our own time, in the twentieth century (and indeed on the vastly larger scale that is now made possible by modern technology and modern bureaucracy), we are shocked. What is shocking about this is not that somebody proposed to hold 14.5 million people in slavery over a territory covering half of Europe (things weren't necessarily all that much better in some parts of history, when feudalism and slavery were commonplace all over Europe and Asia); what is shocking is that somebody proposed to do it now, recently, in the 20th century — to do it with the aid of the railroad, the electric-wire fence and the Hollerith tabulator — and thereby proposed to bring into the world a weird mixture of the modern and the ancient or medieval elements. It is this uncanny mixture which makes the whole proposal so shocking and revolting. Although enslavement and extermination have been a “normal” part of the human condition for most of recorded history, we are shocked to see them occasionally make a reappearance in the modern times. We no longer expect them; we are no longer used to them; we no longer consider them normal. And that is a very encouraging thing.

I bought a second-hand copy of this book but it had practically no signs of damage, except that some previous owner or reader inserted a newspaper clipping about the death of a certain SS general Karl Wolff, who is mentioned in several places in the book. Well, on reaching p. 241, this previous reader must have had an accute attack of pedantry, for he/she added as many as three corrections on this page. The surname of one Kammler was misspelled as Kammer, and the rank of a certain Mataré should apparently be Obersturmbannführer rather than a mere Obersturmführer. I was rather fascinated by this last correction, for the man certainly seems very obscure (and is not even mentioned in the index at the end of the book). Apparently the previous owner of this book had quite a detailed knowledge of these SS bureaucrats. Two further corrections of the same sort appear on pp. 269 and 287. On the other hand, the typo on p. 289 (“expressng”) went uncorrected. Shame.

Incidentally, this book has a curious approach to SS ranks: some of them are translated (e.g. “brigade commander” and “standard commander”) while others are left in the original German (e.g. “Obergruppenführer”).

P.S. Don't make the same mistake I did in buying a copy of the U.K. edition — judging from the entries at ABE, the U.S. edition can be had much more cheaply (e.g. $6-10 instead of $30-50). Nor is there any reason to prefer the U.K. edition on grounds of collectibility, since (as far as I have been able to determine) the U.S. edition is the true first English-language edition of this book anyway.


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