The Business of Genocide: The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps / Edition 1

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During World War II, hundreds of thousands of prisoners were worked to death by the Nazis under a brutal system of slave labor in the concentration camps. By 1942, this vast network of slavery extended across all of German-occupied Europe, but the whole operation was run by a surprisingly small staff of bureaucrats—no more than 200 engineers and managers who worked in the Business Administration Main Office of the SS. Their projects included designing and constructing the concentration camps and gas chambers, building secret underground weapons factories, and brokering slave laborers to private companies such as Volkswagen and IG Farben.

The Business of Genocide powerfully contradicts the assumption that the SS forced slavery upon the German economy, demonstrating that instead industrialists actively sought out the Business Administration Main Office as a valued partner in the war economy. Moreover, while the bureaucrats who oversaw Holocaust operations have often been seen as technocrats or simple "cogs in the machinery," the book reveals their ideological dedication, even fanatical devotion, to slavery and genocide in the name of National Socialism.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Well-researched. . . . Should contribute to better understanding of Nazi Germany and its crimes. (Los Angeles Times Book Review)

Opens up a new realm for anyone interested in how professional expertise helps implement political policies. (Choice)

"Allen's study, presenting crucial aspects of the history of the WVHA, proves to be a major contribution. . . . Well-researched and well-written . . . Adds significantly to the ongoing discussion about the motives of those men who actually ran the numerous bureaucracies in Nazi Germany. (American Historical Review)"

Well-researched and convincing. . . . Present[s] a new picture which is emerging of the history of the Third Reich and its crimes. (Times Literary Supplement)

Peter Hayes
Allen's study is a major contribution to the histories of Nazi criminality and the German economy in wartime and deserves a wide and attentive readership.
Christopher Browning
[Allen] convincingly exposes as entirely false the alleged dichotomy between apolitical, naive, task-absorbed technocrats and ideologically driven, highly politicized Nazi fanatics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807856154
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Thad Allen is associate professor of modern German history and the history of technology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

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Read an Excerpt

The Business of Genocide

The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps
By Michael Thad Allen

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2002 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-2677-5


Before January 1944 less than a fifth of all Allied bombs dropped throughout the entire course of the war had fallen on Axis targets, but in just the next six months, between January and July, the total tonnage increased by almost half again as much. The pace and ferocity of bombing only increased from that point onward, leaving the famous "rubble mountains" in every major German city. The previous summer the Red Army had lured the Germans into a trap at Kursk, after which Hitler's armies never again mounted any major offensive against the Red Army. And yet in the spring of 1944, to the Allies' great consternation, German war production continued to rise. Moreover, the Allies were yet to land at Normandy; the Soviets had yet to launch the major offensives that would lead them on to Berlin; Wehrmacht officers had yet to stage their abortive assassination of Adolf Hitler; and Hitler and his leading paladins were increasingly enthusiastic about "wonder weapons" like the V-2 rockets and the V-1 cruise missile. These proved vain hopes, but especially for those who wished to remain blind, obvious signs of utter collapse were still several months away.

German engineers and midlevel managers were chief among those who refused to give up. Not the least of their contributions was the oversight of millions of forced laborers who had come to make up one-fourth of Germany's total work force. To German management fell the daily task of reconfiguring modern production around these laborers in a last-ditch effort to match the Allies tank for tank and plane for plane. Foreign civilians made up the majority of this compulsory labor force. Limited recruitment campaigns for foreign workers had started as early as 1940, but after March 1942 a special "General Plenipotentiary for the Labor Action" began large roundups of "Eastern Workers" to ship west to German factories. Over 700,000 concentration camp prisoners labored under the most brutal conditions, and even if they formed only a small part of the overall German war economy, by 1944 hardly a single locale with any factory of note lacked a contingent of prisoners. Every morning columns of somber workers, starving and bruised, could be seen marching from fenced enclosures down the streets of ordinary German towns. By 1944 Heinrich Himmler's SS (Schutzstaffel) was parceling out these inmates by the thousands for everything from aircraft factories to chain-gang-style construction.

This book is about the managers of that process. They worked in a special division of the SS called the SS Business Administration Main Office (Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt, or WVHA). This office spread a network of slavery across German-occupied Europe. From its pool of prisoners came the bulk of the work force for the V-2 rockets as well as other "wonder weapons." Most concentration camp prisoners, however, worked under the WVHA's elite corps of civil engineers, which specialized in breakneck construction projects, among them the conversion of underground tunnels into factories such as the eerie caverns where V-2 rocket assembly took place.

By the spring of 1944, these efforts were reaching a climax. At the time, a relatively obscure midlevel manager, Kurt Wisselinck, like so many other officers of the WVHA, was working longer and harder hours trying to squeeze production out of desperate and expiring prisoners in this system of slavery and murder. Introducing Wisselinck is perhaps a good way to introduce the WVHA as a whole, for he was a compulsive doodler and left a clear image of how the WVHA viewed itself and its mission. Amid his work Wisselinck took the time to sketch a handsome, square-jawed man on office stationery. The man gazes sidelong down a string of telephone poles with focused intensity. Rings around his eyes betray fatigue, but his determination is undimmed. He holds a telephone to his ear, and it is impossible to say whether he is giving or receiving orders, but the pose - ready for action - portrays virtues that the SS's industrial managers wished to see in themselves. The man is dynamic, the master of modern technology, and, with his high forehead and perfectly straight nose, he is a model of Teutonic racial fortitude. At the margin of this sketch Wisselinck also scribbled an almost unreadable note about some kind of reimbursement for petty cash. Taken as a whole, this curious artifact bears witness to both a heroic ambience in managerial tasks imagined by SS officers like Wisselinck as well as the trivial paper pushing that filled their days, even as they presided over the life and death of human beings. The latter, the inane details of administration that made the Nazi genocide possible, has preoccupied historians since Hannah Arendt first published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in 1963; yet Wisselinck's steady-eyed, vigorous Nordic hero hardly squares with the image of Adolf Eichmann, who had become a vacuous, middle-aged man with thick spectacles when he was put on trial in Israel.

When Arendt wrote her biography of Eichmann, she created much more than a portrait of one desperate ex-Nazi indicted for his crimes. She fixed, for the next forty years and likely more, popular conceptions of the Nazi bureaucrat. Here was a failed vacuum oil salesman who had become one of civilization's all-time greatest killers. Indeed, it was almost as if the foolish Willy Loman of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, by some horrible accident, had escaped fiction and become the engineer of the Holocaust. Although Arendt by no means trivialized Eichmann or his crimes, she brought out his pathetic bathos in the same way that Miller, the playwright, had made the empty life of the Western "organization man" the subject of his drama. The major difference, of course, is that Eichmann killed other people while Loman killed himself.

Arendt's portrayal of Eichmann tapped into a widespread tendency to view midlevel managers in modern society as the twentieth century's numb and inane one-dimensional men. Eichmann was, in other words, the classic, atomized "organization man" or what Lewis Mumford called the "penny-in-the-slot automaton, this creature of bare rationalism." Arendt's famous book asks us to see an utter emptiness in Eichmann's conscience and, worse, a complaisance in that emptiness. That is, she did not condemn Eichmann for having stupid, inconsistent, or condemnable ideals but for having no ideals whatsoever. In consequence, SS men like Eichmann are not, as Arendt falsely promises, condemned for enacting evil but for being amoral; for being "perfectly incapable of telling right from wrong"; for being afflicted by an "inability to think." Thus the human engagement of Nazis in bureaucratic function-the kind that emanates from the shrewd eyes of Wisselinck's sketch-has receded from view.

A paradox has always rested at the center of Arendt's judgment, a contrast between the Kafkaesque torpor of bureaucracy and frenetic genius. First there is the miserably stupid Eichmann, afflicted by an "utter ignorance of everything that was not directly, technically and bureaucratically, connected with his job." Yet simultaneously Eichmann has been accorded a perverse intelligence as vast as his worldly conscience was small. In Vienna in 1939, as he confronted the monumental task of cataloging all the Jews of Austria for deportation, he proved so innovative that contemporaries and historians alike have marveled. "This is like an automatic factory. ... At one end you put in a Jew ... and he goes through the building from counter to counter, from office to office, and comes out at the other end without any money, without any rights." The paradox is resolved by attributing managerial creativity to the very source of its banality: "This use of human beings," as James Beniger notes about modern organization, "not for their strength or agility, nor for their knowledge or intelligence, but for the more objective capacity of their brains to store and process information." Max Weber is perhaps most renowned for casting this enduring image of administrators in the famous metaphor of the iron cage. Bureaucracy supposedly constrains because it imposes cultural meaninglessness and renders the individual impotent to resist its imperatives. Thus rationality generates power precisely by driving humane sensitivity to the margins. In Nazi Germany this meant the failure to oppose the genocide.

Weber introduced his metaphor of the iron cage by comparing the disenchanted but efficient bureaucrat to the universal humanity embodied in Goethe's Faust, and the comparison is instructive. At the end of Goethe's play, Faust takes part in a kind of Holocaust. We find him embarked upon the construction of a perfectly ordered society, and he directs Mephisto to remove an elderly husband and wife who have settled in the path of one of his massive social engineering projects. Unbeknownst to Faust, Mephisto murders the couple and provokes the protagonist's final grief. By contrast, the genocide was hardly such an absentminded distraction and could not have issued from any isolated individual decision. At every stage institutions, especially the SS, mediated the horror. Furthermore, the SS did not need Mephisto's supernatural smoke and mirrors. It could rely upon midlevel managers, and these, unlike Faust, rarely repented their deeds.

Historians have documented the willing and energetic identification of individuals with the new organizational milieus of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Wisselinck's sketch confirms that he did not feel imprisoned in an iron cage but empowered. Therefore, as this book examines the management of slave labor and murder, it will question not how modern structures divested Nazi "technocrats" of moral agency but rather how perpetrators endowed their institutions with personal significance. Much scholarship that seeks to understand the barbarity of the SS begins by asking the question, Why were those involved not repulsed by their actions? or, to quote Hans Mommsen, "Why did so many who participated in the series of events that led directly and indirectly to the extermination of the Jews fail to withdraw their contribution either through passive resistance or any form of resistance whatsoever?" Entire books are dedicated to explaining how Nazi perpetrators were able to overcome repugnance for their deeds, which presupposes that they indeed found them repugnant. Historians essentially ask why SS men did not have the good sense to act as we hope we would have acted in their position, that is, as moral, upstanding citizens who would have saved fellow human beings. But the SS confronts us with a world of murderers, not good citizens; more precisely, SS men were the model citizens of a murderous regime. Instead of asking why SS men did not feel what they did not feel or why they failed to act as they might, should, or could have done, this book poses the question, Why did they believe it was the right thing to do?

We may use Arendt's biography of Eichmann as a point of departure. First, historians have long overturned her portrait of the miserably blinkered Eichmann. Hans Safrian, with much broader access to evidence than that available to Arendt, has documented the conscious moral dedication-anything but a banal "inability to think"-of Eichmann and the officers gathered around him. The slave-labor moguls of the WVHA were dedicated in equal measure. Second, Arendt's picture of the perversely brilliant Eichmann, the manager of industrial genocide, invites further inquiry on one smaller point: namely, Eichmann never managed a factory in his life but made his career as a police administrator (in the SS Reich Security Main Office, or Reichssicherheitshauptamt). Unlike Eichmann, our sketch artist Wisselinck worked in real rather than metaphorical "factories of extermination." He and his co-workers shifted prisoners to labor sites across the breadth of Europe and collected their broken bodies for liquidation when this "human material" (as WVHA correspondence put it) had been used up. Looking back upon the twentieth century, in which genocide now seems more likely to recur than it did to Arendt in the 1960s, some have claimed that the bureaucratic and technological nature of the Nazi genocide is the sole feature that distinguishes it from Bosnia, from Stalin's collectivization campaigns, from Rwanda, or from Pol Pot. WVHA engineers arranged for the "stationary crematoria, incineration stations, and execution installations of various kinds" built in the camps after 1942. Yet while Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich have become common names of infamy, who recognizes the leaders of the WVHA: Oswald Pohl, Wilhelm Burböck, Gerhard Maurer, or Hans Kammler, let alone the obscure Kurt Wisselinck?

Why did the SS set out to broker hundreds of thousands of prisoners to Hitler's war industries? Many speculate that the SS wanted to gain "control over the economy." To me this answer is unsatisfactory, for it discounts any real motivation. The image of banal careerists immersed in the office work of murder too often dovetails with such an image of institutions in which a purely pragmatic "will to power" supposedly eclipsed decisions about moral right and wrong. Although the Third Reich, like any complex state, played host to numerous conflicts, we should not be too hasty to label it, as did Franz Neumann, as a Behemoth, eaten up from within by a war of all against all in a raw bid for power. Who would ever deny that the Third Reich was exceptionally fragmented? Neumann's great service was to point this out. Two executive organs existed for agricultural policy; there were two justice systems (SS and civilian), two armies (Waffen SS and Wehrmacht), two chancelleries (party and state). Sometimes three or four institutions overlapped, and they fought each other incessantly. But histories of the Third Reich have dwelt too much on struggles for power; likewise, they have too readily attributed inefficiency and conflict to what is commonly known as "polycracy," defined as the "rule of many" and first established by the German historian Peter Hüttenberger. The historian Peter Hayes once remarked that, on one hand, we are led to believe that Hitler's Germany was polycratic and thus incapable of concerted organizational effort because everyone struggled against his fellows; on the other hand, this small country in central Europe kept the entire world at bay well through 1942, even into 1943, while losing about the same number of soldiers in combat (3-4 million) over the course of the whole war as the number of Red Army prisoners the Wehrmacht captured in the first six months of the Soviet invasion.

Beyond the Nazis' startling efficiency at many different tasks, it is in the very nature of multiple, overlapping institutions that they created as many venues for cooperation as for infighting. I would argue that "polycracy" relied on cooperation, and that this followed ideological consensus precisely because-with so many agencies-the historical actors had to constantly exercise their initiative and conscious choice. Motivation mattered more, not less, due to the higgledy-piggledy nature of National Socialist organizations. In fact, the progressive rationalization of the camps could not have proceeded without the help and encouragement of Reich ministries, private industrialists, and civilian managers.

WVHA officers also made their careers in the midst of a curious generational break. They mostly came from a relatively new class, the white-collar workers whose numbers began to swell at the end of the nineteenth century and were beginning to dominate the twentieth. Often they had grown up in old-middle-class families; their fathers had been farmers, shopkeepers, or countless other petty tradesmen. The white-collar workers had deserted these backgrounds to enter the novel work-world of the factories and large urban firms with their branching managerial systems. This new class departed from Weber's (or Arendt's) image of modern managers as much as Wisselinck's determined Aryan at the field telephone departed from Kafka's pusillanimous bureaucrat. For that matter, Kafka's Castle describes a world of traditional administration from which modern management differed just as Ford's factories differed markedly from craft or traditional batch production. For example, as richly described by Reinhart Koselleck, the small cadre of Prussian civil servants and bureaucrats at the beginning of the nineteenth century relied on prose reports; in fact, many disdained statistical shorthands for their duties. Accordingly they sank beneath mountains of paper that recall Kafka's Sordini, whose "every wall is covered with pillars of documents tied together" and whose workroom reverberated with the thunder of falling tomes. By contrast, in 1944 Wisselinck called for the WVHA to rationalize the management of Gross-Rosen and, needless to say, did not call for pillars of ledgers. He used the language of charts and graphs and imposed the terse statistical surveillance of input and output. Indeed, it is little known that scrupulous tables that totted up the "fit," "unfit," and the dead-statistics almost synonymous with the coldly efficient Nazi temperament-appeared in the concentration camps only after 1942, when WVHA officers began to take charge in an effort to serve modern industry.


Excerpted from The Business of Genocide by Michael Thad Allen Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Origins of the SS: The Ideology Is the Modern Organization 19
2 A Political Economy of Misery: The SS "Fuhrer" Corporation 57
3 Manufacturing a New Order 97
4 Engineering a New Order 128
5 My Newly Erected House: Slavery in the Modern War Economy 165
6 The Hour of the Engineer 202
7 Total War and the End in Rubble 240
Epilogue 271
Notes 287
Bibliography 347
Index 367
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2006

    A fantastic description of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust's wide reaching implications

    A brilliantly written book. The author elegantly describes the personal culpability of those involved in German Business during the Holocaust. This is an informative read for anyone interested in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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