Thursday, April 19, 2012

Another Casualty of the Hitler-Did-It-Too Gambit

Others, like Brad DeLong and Mark Thoma, have gone after Acemoglu and Robinson for their “argument” that, because Hitler used massive stimulus to extricate Germany from the Depression, there is nothing intrinsically progressive about Keynesianism.  I want to make a different point.

Hitler and his minions were evil and did unspeakably awful things on a massive scale.  Are we clear?  Now, let’s talk about the complications of real history.

The Nazis did not descend on Germany sprouting horns and hooves.  True, reasonable people knew from the start they were very bad news, but there were aspects of the Nazi program that were attractive as well.  High on the list was a realistic program to restore economic growth, including large-scale stimulus, capital controls and renunciation of the Versailles debt.  Remember that, before Hitler, there was Brüning.  It should also be mentioned that the Nazis had an exceptionally progressive environmental and public health agenda, including restrictions on smoking, pesticide-free agriculture, workplace safety and improvements in diet.  If you doubt this, read The Nazi War on Cancer, an extraordinary, mind-bending book by Robert Proctor.

Again, none of this justifies a regime that committed such colossal crimes—but that’s not the issue.  Hitler was not an incarnation of pure evil, just an exceptionally destructive but in some ways normal political leader.  He rose to power by addressing real needs of real people.  You don’t prove that vegetarianism or organic agricultural are reactionary by showing that they were sponsored by the Third Reich, and the same goes for Keynesian stimulus.  Repeat: it’s about seeing Hitler not as a slogan or comic book villain, but as a real life historical figure with layers of complexity.

And once again, since I will probably be misunderstood: yes, the racism, militarism, totalitarianism and genocide were unspeakably horrible.


spencer said...

Have you seen Tyler Cowen's argument that Keynesian policy did not really work in thee 1930s Germany because real average hourly earnings did not rise?

Peter Dorman said...

No, but we are talking about a regime that seized control of the unions and turned them into instruments of the state. In any case, there is nothing in Keynes that says wages must rise, only that cutting them is not expansionary.

But massive public works and rearmament was Keynesian in some sense anyway. They paid people to put explosives in bottles, bury them under other countries, and blow them up.

Xenus said...

Some fact checking, you suggest Hitler succeeded Bruning, not correct, Von Papen and von Schleicher were appointed Chancellor before Hitler.
The stimulus had already started, before Hitler was appointed, by Schleicher but the delayed effects Hitler took credit for.
Further stimulus was based on infrastructure and rearmament activity creating alarming deficits.
Given that racial purity was top of the Nazi public health agenda, I'd not describe it as "exceptionally progressive" as a whole. The Nazis needed healthy stormtroopers.

marketfowl said...

Hitler was a meat eating vegetarian. And the right always seems to forget that American plutocrats were selling to and assisting the Nazis. And that Hitler was a partner with German industrialists.

Xenus said...

I have to take issue with your description of the Nazi economic program which seems to be just a view of what happened in hindsight and not what the Nazis actually proposed.

Hitler addressed 650 businessmen in Dusseldorf in Jan. 1932 to build bridges with industrialists. He appealed to his audience by denouncing Marxism as the source of Germany's ills...and by emphasising his belief in private property, hard work and proper rewards for the able and enterprising. However the solution to the economic woes of the moment, he said, were mainly political, idealism, patriotism and national unity would create the basis for economic revival.
Ref: The Coming of Third Reich, Richard J Evans pp245

Nothing in there that was on your list. I'll accept that the Nazis were always against any and all parts of the Treaty of Versailles, but that was primarily for Nationalistic reasons not economic.

If you want to get a real idea about what that period was like I'd strongly recommend the trilogy of books by Richard J Evans.

Peter Dorman said...

I seem to be accused of having made arguments I didn't make -- exactly what I was afraid of. No Hitler didn't *immediately* follow Brüning, nor did he single-handedly pull Germany away from austerity, nor did he take on the German ruling class in a proletarian crusade. I am making a simple but obviously difficult-to-accept point: the Third Reich existed within history, not outside it. There is continuity as well as rupture, progressive advance as well as nightmares. There was genuine fiscal stimulus in the 1930s that did some good, as well as vast harm, considering what much of the money was spent for. (But the autobahn was not all bad, etc.) And I am not making out Hitler to be Rachel Carson, although if you read Proctor's book (and please read it) you will see a connection between the these two moments in 20th century history you would never have imagined. (And, to anticipate the next round of attacks, I think I'm pretty damn green, and Rachel Carson is one of my goddesses.)

veteran novice said...

Hitler supported deficit spending, therefore people who support deficit spending are like Hitler.

Hitler wore a coat in cold weather, therefore people who wear coats in cold weather are like Hitler.

Makes perfect sense.

Xenus said...

Let's stick with the complications of real history as you asked.

I've given evidence that Hitler was completely ignorant of economics. Thus any resemblance to a Keynesian stimulus is purely accidental. In fact, the policy pursued was political, rearmament, which only really got started once Schacht became Reich Economic Minister in August 1934. It quickly ran into balance of payments difficulties. Rearmament also explains the emphasis in finding substitutes for crucial imported raw materials such as synthetic oil, despite the economic disadvantages of this policy.
So, is a stimulus in a depression intrinsically good or bad? In itself, it can be argued that a stimulus by increasing GNP and employment, increases overall utility and uses idle resources. Thus it is a good thing. However the purpose of such a stimulus may be good or bad. Many observers at the time considered a politically and militarily strong Germany a good thing. The view in hindsight is different.
I think we agree that just because the Nazis did something that improves social welfare, it doesn't automatically make that policy bad even if they did it for the wrong reasons. Where I differ is the historical complications that you appear to have missed. I still haven't got to your sweeping generalisation "he rose to power by addressing the real needs of real people", you could write a book trying to address this (and many historians have).