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Paying for Hitler’s War: The Consequences of Nazi Hegemony for Europe

Editor(s):Scherner, Jonas
White, Eugene N.
Reviewer(s):Harrison, Mark

Published by EH.Net (October 2016)

Jonas Scherner and Eugene N. White, editors, Paying for Hitler’s War: The Consequences of Nazi Hegemony for Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2016.  viii + 468 pp. $120 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-04970-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Mark Harrison, Department of Economics, University of Warwick

Paying for Hitler’s War is the outcome of a conference held in Washington, DC, in 2009 under the auspices of the German Historical Institute. Its goal is a deeper understanding of the economics of German occupation during World War II. Eighteen authors, among them the editors, Jonas Scherner (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) and Eugene N. White (Rutgers University), contribute an introduction and three chapters on German war aims for the occupation of Europe and the forms and methods of exploitation of the occupied territories, followed by thirteen more chapters devoted to particular countries or regions of Europe. The latter cover countries that were occupied militarily (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Ukraine), as well as neutral Sweden and belligerent Finland and Bulgaria.

As a topic for research, the economics of occupied Europe is not new (see Dallin 1957; Milward 1970, 1972; Liberman 1996; Kay 2006; and Klemann and Kudriashov 2012), but it is far from exhausted. Scherner, White, and their co-authors go beyond the existing literature in geographical detail and also in considering the impact of the wartime occupation regime or other relations with Germany on postwar developments.

Section I is entitled “Germany’s Wartime Dilemma.” The dilemma is not explicitly defined, and there are at least two candidates. One dilemma was the extent to which Germany planned to rely on external versus internal revenues — a blurry distinction, given that by 1940 Greater Germany already included Austria and parts of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and France. Another dilemma was the extent to which Germany could allow short-term confiscation and enslavement to undermine the medium-term sustainability of economic life under occupation.

Chapter 1 (Carsten Burhop) addresses an aspect of the first dilemma. To what extent did the Hitler regime base its war aims on the plans that the German government entertained in the desperate spring months of 1918, when it seemed that Allied resistance might be broken before the German home front collapsed. Did the Kaiser’s Germany inspire Hitler’s later ambitions for a system of dependent states in Eastern Europe and preferential trade with the West? Burhop argues that there is little evidence for continuity. This negative finding usefully closes off one garden path down which lazy thinkers have wandered from time to time. At the same time, here if not in some other chapter, another legacy of the Great War might have been considered: memories of the Allied blockade. In setting their immediate objectives for conquest, Hitler and his circle were strongly influenced by the recollection of Germany’s economic difficulties in World War I, which they attributed to the blocking of German imports by the Allies. Preparing for World War II, they faced the problem that their economy remained dependent on external sources of food and other materials, and they concluded that conquest would provide the means of war.

As things worked out, Germany’s wartime economic exploitation of its neighbors was of major importance for the war. German military spending reached around 70 percent of nominal national income in the later stages of the war, while net foreign saving accounted for 15 percent (Klein 1959: 256). This alone would put the likely contribution of external resources to Hitler’s war spending above 20 percent. But this is a lower bound, to which should be added the contribution of foreign labor to domestic production. Chapter 3 (Johan Custodis) estimates that by 1944 one fifth of the German workforce was made up by foreign workers, forced and “free,” who added as much as ten percent to German production.

Paying for Hitler’s War confirms some of the patterns suggested by past research. The basic extractive methods that Germany imposed were everywhere similar: if you have the power to crush all resistance and the will to use it, you don’t have to adapt sensitively to national or local differences. Chapter 2 (Scherner) shows that in every country the occupation regime imposed a direct tax (occupation costs), an indirect tax (bilateral trade using an overvalued Reichsmark), forced borrowing (unpaid clearing balances), and a labor draft. The combination of these mechanisms extracted a lot or a little, depending on a few basic conditions. Important factors included the prewar level of economic development of the territory, and the extent to which state capacity survived military defeat. In France (Chapter 4, White), Belgium (Chapter 6, Martijn Lak), and the Netherlands (Chapter 7, Kim Oosterlinck and White), the authorities under occupation were able to manage German demands by mixing fiscal and financial repression. Where the state was destroyed, as in Ukraine (Chapter 15, Kim Christian Priemel), looting was the alternative.

Other factors in the intensity of exploitation included the population’s rank in the National Socialist hierarchy of races, the extent of insurgency, and the distance from the front line. Taking everything into account, much more was extracted from Western Europe than from the East. As Chapters 3 and 4  confirm, by 1943 France was transferring more than half of its national output to Germany and at the same time France was the largest supplier of forced and POW labor to the Reich.

In more detail Chapter 3 examines the role of foreign and especially prisoner-of-war labor in the German war economy. Custodis agrees with Klemann and Kudriashov (2012) that the economic losses imposed on the occupied territories by the “hunt for labor” were much greater than the benefits to Germany. Death rates among Polish and Soviet prisoners-of-war were particularly high, depleting these countries’ postwar prospects. Much of this chapter is devoted to hunting down differences among competing estimates; the activity is useful, but could have been placed in an appendix.

This topic shows us that, while German policies were largely the same everywhere, the local experiences of interaction with Germany were almost infinitely variable. While the war continued, these variations were suppressed by the common straitjacket of occupation. When German power collapsed, the local variation exploded: suddenly, every country was different again.

Section II is entitled “The Occupied West.” Chapter 4 focuses on France. German levies were financed by a mix of fiscal and financial repression. Subject to very high rates of extraction, the French GNP collapsed as the war progressed. The end of the war did not cancel all debts, and in France as elsewhere in Europe elites and electorates had lost much of their faith in the market economy, so the exit from a war economy was complicated by the persistence of heavy taxation and financial controls. Marshall Plan Aid and the Treaty of Rome were two steps on France’s gradual path back to a free market economy.

Chapter 5 (Marcel Boldorf) shows that the German occupation of France led to a huge redistribution of rents. Collaboration with the occupation authorities was widespread in the economy, as in government and society. Most branches of the economy were devastated but war suppliers prospered. French businesses often collaborated with former competitors as well as with government, and anti-competitive business ties persisted after the war. Chapters 6 and 7 tell similar stories for Belgium and Netherlands. The wartime burden on the Belgian economy remains unclear, unlike the French burden which looks well established. The burden on the Dutch population was tempered by its “high” racial status, and also by a thriving underground economy. The Dutch postwar recovery was particularly complicated by its dependence on defeated Germany for a revival of trade.

Chapter 8 (Fabian Lemmes) considers German construction projects in France and Italy, administered by the Todt Organization. These accounted for most French and Italian wartime construction, and were implemented through a compliance system that combined rewards and penalties. Their long term consequences remain unclear.

Section III turns to “Northern Europe.” Chapter 9 (Harald Espeli) evaluates Norway’s wartime burdens. These were heavy, partly because the size of the German occupation army was very large relative to a small national population. Still, the chapter argues that war damages and losses were not as heavy as was claimed after the war. As in Western Europe, there was considerable continuity of fiscal and industrial policy into the postwar period, not all of it necessary. Chapter 11 (Steen Andersen) considers Denmark’s “mild” occupation.

Two chapters are devoted to countries that retained their sovereignty in unlikely circumstances. Chapter 10 (Eric Golson) shows that Sweden, sovereign but surrounded, had to offer incentives to both sides to uphold its neutrality. Over time, as the German threat was increasingly confined by the rise of Allied power, Swedish policy adapted flexibly in favor of the Allies. There is a contrast with Sweden, discussed in Chapter 12 (Jari Eloranta and Ilkka Nummela). Having already been attacked by the Soviet Union, Finland ended up going to war on the same side as Germany, even though with much more limited objectives, and paid a heavy price for doing so.

The most devastating outcomes of the war are discussed in Section IV, “Eastern Europe.” There, military defeat was accompanied by the collapse of states and currencies, the tearing up of national boundaries, and the implementation of plans to starve and murder tens of millions of people.

Did Nazi wartime occupation pave the way for Soviet postwar domination in Eastern Europe? Chapter 13 (Jaromír Balcar and Jaroslav Kučera) argues that in Czechoslovakia the occupation was severe but not a disaster. It did not pave the way for a command system after the war. When the governing elite chose its path towards a regulated economy, they were inspired, not forced, by Moscow. Different emphases appear in two other chapters. In Chapter 14 (Vera Asenova), wartime Bulgaria is described as locked into a protected bilateral trade relationship with Germany. When the war ended, the country moved smoothly to a similar relationship with the Soviet Union. Chapter 16 (Ramona Bräu) argues that the devastation of Poland’s physical and human capital under Nazi occupation made it much easier for the communists to impose a centralized command economy after liberation.

A common theme of this heartbreaking book is that the costs of crime to society are generally greater than the gains to the criminal. This was as true as ever when the thief was a state and the instrument was its army. Chapter 15  is soaked in sadness for Ukraine, which “had the worst of the war. Its suffering did not start in 1941 and did not end in 1944, but peaked in between, with its Jewish population suffering near annihilation” (p. 416).

This is a book for specialists. While students and interested lay readers may struggle to extract the pattern from the details, others will find that Paying for Hitler’s War marks an important new stage of scholarship about that tragic conflict.


Dallin, Alexander. 1957. German Rule in Russia, 1941-1945: A Study of Occupation Policies. London: Macmillan.

Kay, Alex J. 2006. Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder: Political and Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union, 1940-1941. New York: Berghahn Books.

Klemann, Hein, and Sergei Kudriashov. 2012. Occupied Economies: An Economic History of Nazi-Occupied Europe, 1939-1945. London: Bloomsbury.

Klein, Burton H. 1959. Germany’s Economic Preparations for War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Liberman, Peter. 1996. Does Conquest Pay? The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Milward, Alan S. 1970. The New Order and the French Economy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Milward, Alan S. 1972. The Fascist Economy in Norway. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mark Harrison is the author of One Day We Will Live without Fear: Everyday Lives under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII