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The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps

Author(s):Allen, Michael Thad
Reviewer(s):Gispen, Kees

Published by EH.Net (March 2003)

Michael Thad Allen, The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the

Concentration Camps. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North

Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 377, $39.95. ISBN: 0-8078-2677-4

Reviewed for EH.Net by Kees Gispen, Department of History, University of


In recent years historians of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust have begun to

emphasize once again the importance of ideology as one of the principal causes

of mass murder and genocide. Scholarship from the 1970s to the 1990s tended to

concentrate more on non-ideological factors, such as the internal dynamics of

modern bureaucracy, the division of labor, peer pressure, the “banality of

evil,” “polycracy,” “cumulative radicalization,” “modernization,” “working

towards the F?hrer,” or “doubling” to explain how the Holocaust could happen.

The publication in 1996 of both Ulrich Herbert’s superb biography of Werner

Best, a high-ranking SS/Gestapo official and influential Nazi ideologue, and

Daniel Goldhagen’s much criticized Hitler’s Willing Executioners

signaled a turning of the tide. Both studies, although they could hardly be

more different in other regards, put ideology center stage.

Growing numbers of historians have now embraced this same perspective, and

Michael Allen is one of them. His study of the SS’s business and administrative

operations brings ideology back in with a vengeance. Allen follows Herbert and

Goldhagen in two other regards as well. Like the former, he zeroes in on the

crucial problem of how rational bureaucratic management and fanatical Nazi

ideology intertwined and became two sides of the same coin. Like the latter, he

is an iconoclast hurling bolts at the ranks of preceding scholars who got it

wrong, heaping scorn on the SS engineers and administrators who are his

principal characters, and writing in a tone that is often sarcastic or


Allen, whose special expertise is the history of technology, focuses on the

managerial elite of the SS’s Business Administration Main Office (WVHA). A

hitherto neglected part of Heinrich Himmler’s SS empire, the WVHA was led by

relative obscurities such as the accountant Oswald Pohl, the civil engineer

Hans Kammler, and the office manager Gerhard Maurer. These were the men who

supervised the SS slave labor empire, ran its murderous construction brigades,

and operated its commercial and industrial enterprises, from furniture and

gloves to bricks and rockets. While some of them were incompetent and venal and

others talented and incorruptible, virtually all of them were fanatical

believers. Managers and bureaucrats with expertise in engineering, bookkeeping,

and statistics, the rational men of the WVHA, were also ideologically committed

Nazis who fervently believed in the larger mission of the organization they had

joined. Their tasks were often banal and mundane, but they invested those tasks

with great ideological meaning. In so doing, contends the author, they

constituted themselves as a crucial but insufficiently recognized sociological

and historical phenomenon — the type of the heroic bureaucrat.

This is the first and most important of three closely related theses that Allen

argues in this book. His SS’s managers and their allies in business and

industry were not apolitical and opportunistic technocratic experts doing their

jobs for the Nazi regime as they might have for any other political system.

They were not exponents of the “banality of evil,” which Hannah Arendt detected

in Eichmann in Jerusalem as one of the principal factors in the Holocaust. They

were not trapped in the kind of endogenous bureaucratic dynamism that,

according to historians such as Hans Mommsen, explains the “realization of the

unthinkable.” They were not agents of some inherent dynamic in modernity that

made possible the Holocaust, as scholars such as John Ralston Saul and Zygmunt

Bauman have argued. Nor were they trapped in Max Weber’s “iron cage” of

mindless subservience to bureaucratic rationality. Rather, they were men who

animated their offices with the spirit of their ideology; and it was this

combination of ideology and organization, this blend of heroic fanaticism and

the modern, quantitative mindset, which ultimately made them so deadly.

The author’s second argument concerns the substance of his subjects’ ideology.

As SS men they espoused, of course, the usual Nazi fare of “Aryan” racial

superiority, antisemitism, “people’s community,” and Lebensraum. What set the

managers of the WVHA apart from ordinary Nazis, however, was their belief in

the myth of “productivism.” Productivism, according to Allen, was “the belief

that industrial and economic activity should be bent to the service of national

identity rather than sordid profit gains.” For the SS, the highest purpose of

the factory was the “forging of spirit” rather than economic utility or

prosperity (both citations, p. 32). Anti-capitalism (mainly hostility to the

primacy of profits), celebration of the creative genius of the “Aryan”

inventor, fascination with modern technology, infatuation with production and

creation as moral qualities in their own right, and building a “New Order” in

the East were among the basic tenets of productivism.

Productivism caused the WVHA to pursue a variety of utopian schemes, all of

which relied on concentration camp inmates for labor input and most of which

had murderous consequences for the prisoners. There were ideological conflicts

between SS productivists and SS policemen, which transformed productive labor

into labor as “re-education,” punishment, and torture. There was a great deal

of amateurism and romantic infatuation with advanced-technology systems that

were high in symbolic value but unsuited for operation by concentration camp

labor; this made a mockery of rational production and reinforced the tendency

to blame the workers and punish them accordingly. There was — perhaps the most

devilish variation —conscious adaptation of technology to the kind of

indifferent output obtainable from concentration camp labor. This meant the

formation of low-tech systems that produced efficiently (sometimes even

profitably) by working its labor to death. Examples were the brutal sweatshops

at Ravensbr?ck camp for women and, most importantly, Hans Kammler’s

construction gangs, which built among other things the regime’s underground

rocket factories in the Harz Mountains. The Kammler gangs, argues the author

(not unlike the French sociologist of science, Bruno Latour) were therefore an

amalgam of “hard” technology and “soft” spirit, a technological system of death

that was also a marvel of construction efficiency and achievement, even as the

Third Reich disintegrated under the blows of Allied guns and bombers.

The author’s third and final point concerns the issue of how the business

managers of the SS related to the Third Reich’s various other offices and

agencies. Led astray by the seductive concept of “polycracy,” many scholars

have emphasized fragmentation, infighting, and internecine power struggles —

struggles in which the SS allegedly emerged victorious — as a way of

explaining Nazi Germany’s inability to develop consistent policies other than

its murderous and ultimately self-destructive dynamism. Allen turns this view

on its head. Polycracy, he argues, was not merely a recipe for bureaucratic

chaos and inefficiency, but also, and more importantly, a loose and informal

network of like-minded, heroic bureaucrats in different agencies. Fanatical SS

productivists and kindred apostles of efficiency could be found across the

regime’s multiple bureaucracies. They intuitively understood each other and

regardless of conflicting jurisdictions cooperated to realize their common

dream. Polycracy should therefore be viewed, not only as a factor in Nazi

Germany’s eventual downfall, but also as an explanation of why, almost to the

very end of the war, the regime could maintain such astonishingly high

industrial and military output.

All these are important insights, based on an inspired choice of topic,

anchored securely in the sources, and argued with lucidity and persuasiveness.

At the same time, not every one of the author’s main points is entirely new.

The SS has a longstanding association with the idea of fanatically driven,

ideologically motivated bureaucrats. Yehuda Bauer in his 1982 History of the

Holocaust reminds the reader that Adolf Eichmann, archetype of the

“banality of evil,” testified he found it “fascinating” to deport the Jews and

“carried it through with all the fanaticism that an old Nazi would expect of

himself.”2 Herbert’s study of SS general Werner Best develops the theme of the

rational heroic bureaucrat in great depth. Other studies, about the visionary

designers of the Generalplan Ost or the eugenic utopias worked up in various

Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, also center on criminal schemes conceived and

executed by ideologically driven professionals or highly motivated bureaucrats.

The concept of SS anti-capitalist productivism, while certainly articulated

with great energy by the managers of the WVHA, was by no means unique to them.

Rather, it was representative of broad currents in Nazi (and non-Nazi)

socioeconomic thought in general, and as such has received attention from

historians such as Avraham Barkai, Karl-Heinz Ludwig, and others. To draw

attention to this broader historiographical context is not to deny the author’s

considerable scholarly contribution. Rather it is to suggest that, in some

instances, his analysis might have benefited more from building on existing

scholarship than from attacking or ignoring it. Even so, this is an important

book, which students of business history, the history of technology, and Nazi

Germany will read with great profit.

Notes: 1 Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary

Germans and the Holocaust (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1996); Ulrich Herbert, Best:

Biographische Studien ?ber Radikalismus, Weltanschauung und Vernunft, 1903-1989

(Bonn: Verlag J. H. W. Dietz Nachfolger, 1996). 2 Yehuda Bauer, A History of

the Holocaust (New York: Franklin Watts, 1982), 207.

Professor Gispen publishes in the field of German history, especially the

social history of technology and the professions. His recent book is Poems

in Steel: National Socialism and the Politics of Inventing from Weimar to

Bonn (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2001).

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