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 Concepts series. Economic autarky

  By Gilbert Pleuger. new perspective [ISSN 1352-6359] Vol 6,  No 3


Autarky means self-sufficiency, in other words non dependence on others. It is a policy particularly but not exclusively associated with Nazi economic organisation from the mid 1930s, part of the political and economic preparation for Hitler’s deep-laid plans for the Nazi domination of Europe and living space. Sanctioned-ringed apartheid South Africa in which, for example, petrol was produced from coal, is another example.

The autarkic idea in Germany

In Nazi Germany autarky was especially relevant for industries that were associated with armament production, notably iron and steel, and while some industries were more receptive to the regime’s autarkic drive, such as the chemical industry, the iron and steel industry fell in less easily with Nazi plans. The origin of autarkic thought among the military and politicians predated the Nazi era. Reflecting on their defeat in 1918, some Germans put much blame on the failure of economic preparation. Their conclusion was that in future war would be conflict not between armies but between economies as well. In consequence, in the 1920s, the concept of Wehrwirtshaft (defence-led economy) gained increasingly wide acceptance and the Army established an Economics Staff in 1924. With a network of ex-officers working in business which fostered close links between industry and the military, secret rearmament began, gaining pace after 1928.

Needless to say, Hitler was a supporter of Wehrwirtschaft, and gave it impetus after 1933. Richard Overy in War and Economy in the Third Reich has traced how the implementation of autarkic policies was not open and the result of Reich Government debate and decision but by crafty subordination of existing economic organisations. This strategy will be no surprise to those who followed the TV series The Nazis: A Warning from History or read the book by Laurence Rees that accompanied the series.

Following German economic improvement, 1934-6, under the stewardship of Halmar Schacht, and mindful of the expected needs of the armed forces in the years ahead, the Second Four Year Plan was started in 1936 under the command of Hermann Göring. Whereas, in 1913, 66 per cent of iron and steel was produced from German ore, in 1936 the percentage was only 26 per cent. Despite a subsidy to the industry in the 1920s to develop processes to use low-grade German ore little was done. Paul Pleiger, an official working for Göring and the Four Year Plan, brought information of Stewart and Lloyds’ use of low-grade ore in Corby, England, but the industry association, the Vereinigte Stahlwerke, keen to protect profits and prevent overproduction, resisted urgings to increase output. The opposition of private enterprise was circumvented in two ways. First, in July 1937, the Reichswerke AG Hermann Göring, in effect a Nazi-owned steel company, was set up as an iron producer. Second, in anticipation of opposition from the industry, Göring tapped phones and lobbied the leaders of the private companies separately so that when they met with the intention of issuing the Dusseldorf memorandum in support of slowly increasing production by the use of private capital, the industry leaders were disunited and the memorandum in opposition to Nazi policy was not issued. Such indirect, sometimes underhand, methods were used later to bring iron and steel working in Austria and the conquered states to the south and east of Germany under Nazi control. Thyssen, who had initially welcomed the Nazis in the belief that a paternalist corporate state would be established, encapsulated the implication of Nazi autarkic policies for German business when, after fleeing Germany, he explained: ‘Soon Germany will not be any different from Bolshevik Russia … the heads of enterprises who do not fulfill the conditions which the [Second Four Year] Plan prescribes will be accused of treason against the German people and shot’.

A reorientation of Germany’s trading partners was complementary to autarkic policy. Whereas trade with the major powers, who were soon to be at war with Germany - Britain, the USSR and the United States - declined, in the 1930s trade, especially for the import of raw materials and food, with the Balkans and the Central/South American states, sometimes on a barter basis, increased. The importance of Germany as a trading partner to the smaller states to the East of Germany became great.
Within a few years many were under the control of the Reich.

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