In the past week I’ve read or mostly-read, in the case of The Vampire Economy, two books with a German connection.
The first, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, was by far the most interesting of the two. I read this almost entirely thanks to Marian’s interest in Kafka. The book is more a short story, and opens with a poor man (Gregor Samsa) who during a night’s sleep has turned into a hideous vermin, one with a hard back and lots of sticky little legs. How or why this happened isn’t the point of the novel: instead, it visits how poor Gregor and his family deal with this sudden inexplicable horror. There’s a layer of surrealness here, as once Gregor has realized that yes, his body is not what it once was and that no, staying in bed won’t help, his thoughts fix on how on Earth he can get dressed and go to work as a salesman now. Surprisingly, his employer is just as obsessed with this question as he is: fifteen minutes past the time he was expected at work, someone arrives at his apartment to scold him for playing hooky. Although Gregor looks horrible on the outside, the reader never confuses this with Gregor’s true nature: although he has been caught in the rat race, plowing away at a job he doesn’t especially like, he does it for noble purposes, to support his aging parents and little sister — and it’s the sudden loss of his income, not necessarily his reduced dating prospects or new dietary challenges, that Gregor mourns. The story has a tragic ending, but it’s one worth reading and thinking about.
Far less compelling was The Vampire Economy, an extremely detailed analysis of how Nazi policies deformed the German economy through the Hitler years. When I say extremely detailed, every chapter examines some narrow economic subset — bank managers, industrial planners and the like — and comments in depth on how these businesses were changing as a response to Nazi policies. The book was published in 1939, so its critique of the Nazi state is based on its economic malpractice rather than Hitler’s expansionism or his murder camps. Most interestingly, the author was a Communist resistor to the Nazi state, giving additional heft to his observation that the Nazis’ economic policies were no more market-friendly than Stalin’s; in both cases, the economy was stretched, rearranged, and generally contorted in the hopes of meeting the political authorities’ national goals, with deleterious and sometimes absurd results. (Absurd, like businesses who were unable to obtain rubber because of military directives buying new cars instead, then using the tires and scrapping the vehicles. Imagine how badly deformed an economy is when buying an entire car is more cost-effective than bribing officials to buy the rubber outright!) The general effect is that all else fell to an aristocracy of pull; businesses were forced to hire advisors who were a mix of lawyer and salesman, finessing Nazi authorities and giving businessmen advice on how best to navigate the obstacle course. Although the book clearly demonstrates how Nazi economics was in the same family of economic garbage as Lenin-Stalin-Maoist approaches, it’s so detailed that the casual reader may tire of the repeated lesson.
“When we consider that Hitler himself came not from the ranks of organized labor, but from the ruined middle class or the fifth estate, what guarantee have we that he will not make common cause with the bandits whom he has put into uniforms? The difference between this and the Russian system is much less than you think, despite the fact that officially we are still independent businessmen. […] Some businessmen have even started studying Marxist theories, so that they will have a better understanding of the present economic system.”
“The capitalist under fascism has to be not merely a law-abiding citizen, he must be servile to the representatives of the State. He must not insist on ‘rights’ and must not behave as if his private property rights were still sacred. He should be grateful to the Fuehrer that he still has private property.”
“Under fascism, it is not primarily the power of money which corrupts, but rather does corruption spring from the power of the State. Whereas in democratic countries the businessman may use his money to influence legislation and public opinion and thus operate as a source of power and corruption, in fascist countries he can exist only as the subject upon whom State power operates. The corruption in fascist countries arises inevitably from the reversal of the roles of the capitalist and the State as wielders of economic power.”
“In the old days he decided for himself what he should buy and where he would sell, without asking anybody for a permit—especially not someone residing in Berlin. Today he cannot move hand or foot without a permit or certificate, quota or allowance. He cannot make the smallest purchase abroad without first taking into account a hundred new decrees and laws and filling out a score of application forms and petitions. No longer is his the pleasure and profit of buying raw materials abroad when they are cheap; he can buy only when he can get foreign currency.”
“The skill of the firm’s representative in advertising its patriotism and military fervor is often more important than anything else as a means of impressing a patriotic bureaucrat who makes the decisions of the distribution board.”
I’m really glad you liked The Metamorphosis. Of the few books I try to recommend to most people, that one seems to have the most universal appeal. I guess we are all a little bit like Gregor (and a little bit like his family) sometimes.
The Vampire Economy sounds like an interesting subject, although dry. I’m drawn by its publication date, though I wonder if there’s a slightly more abridged version of the same topic. I once had an acquaintance who claimed the Nazis had a great economy… >_> Of course most totalitarian states look like utopia on paper!
Adam Tooze’s ‘The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy’ might be a much better more modern read for you both…….
I’ll look into that one!
@Marian Yes, veeeeeery dry. It may have been a more technical work intended for a professional audience at the time.