German Economic Myths

by Don Boudreaux on January 7, 2010

in Great Depression, History, Man of System, Myths and Fallacies

Here’s historian Steve Davies, writing in the current issue of The Freeman:

In the case of the Third Reich, the widely held perception even now is that whatever else may be said about his regime, Hitler managed to bring about a dramatic revival of the German economy. After 1933 Hitler and his finance minister Hjalmar Schacht stabilized the economy and managed to solve the huge unemployment crisis that had destroyed the Weimar Republic’s legitimacy. This was partly due to Schacht’s imaginative monetary policy and partly to massive public works programs, such as the autobahnen. There was a sharp move away from free markets to a much more interventionist economy that worked better than what had gone before. During World War II this economy was able to achieve great success in terms of war production, notably under Hitler’s armaments minister, Albert Speer.

Obviously there is some truth in this account, or else it would not be credible. There was indeed a sharp move in the direction of a more state-controlled economy. In fact few people realize just how interventionist—even socialist—the policies of the Nazi state were (although the full name of the party should give some indication of this). However, the picture overall is mostly wrong. Adam Tooze conclusively debunked this account in his masterful work, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Tooze shows that the public works programs had little effect on unemployment and wasted resources; that the 1930s saw constant financial and foreign-exchange crises for the Reich; that by 1939 the condition of the German economy was desperate and that this was in fact a major factor in Hitler’s increasingly aggressive policy; that the supposed success of Speer simply did not happen; and that overall the regime was so crippled by its economic incompetence that it is nothing short of a miracle that it had as much military success as it did.

Check out the entire issue.  It’s an especially good one, with articles by, among others, David Henderson, John Stossel, and Bruce Yandle.

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