New York University


What was Hitler's idea of consumption?

Dr. Julia Keefer

Ben Dovrat

August 4, 2000

The soaring economic devastation presented Hitler, in late1932, with a great opportunity to win the hearts and the minds of the German people. Hitler's promise of economic recovery - " work and bread" to the mass, raises some fundamental questions: what was Hitler's idea of consumption? What did Hitler think of the American methods of production and its emerging consumerist society? How did Hitler manage to boost the German Economy? Although Hitler improved the lives of many Germans, his aim was not public consumption but increased industrial production of non- consumer goods.

For over one hundred years, Americans had placed individual liberty at the top of their value scales. Individuals come into life with certain talent and abilities. They used this talent to get the food, clothing and shelter necessary to sustain their lives. In order to improve their own well being they entered into trades with others, trades in which both sides mutually benefited. Through this process, they began to accumulate wealth and property. John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher (1806-1873) writes On Liberty (1859):

"...Nothing is more absolute than the inviolable right of all adults to think and live as they pleased so long they respect the rights of others."

It is, then, the inherent right of the individual to keep the fruits of his work and to decide what to do with the wealth.

In a society that dictates such personal freedom and encourages individualism, government policies are drawn to satisfy the wants and needs of the consumer. That is, as the Chairman of President Eisenhower's council of economic adviser canonized the new economic gospel in 1953: the American economies "ultimate purpose," he proclaimed, was " to produce more consumer goods." This declaration of principles aimed to boost the economy by mass production and consumption of consumer goods.

The German people, on the other hand, were not as lucky. When Hitler took power in 1933 Germany was suffering from the depression and effects of WWI. Their industrial base had been shattered; thousands of young men were killed; they were still paying reparation to France and their unemployment rate was at record high. The collapse of the German democracy in late 1932 and the rise of Nazism ended not only the free market policy but also personal liberty and production of consumer goods.

The Nazi economy can be characterized as a combination of both economic systems: capitalism and socialism. The Nazi economy was not socialism because most big businesses remained untouched, that largely meant encouraging big businesses, supporting powerful entrepreneurs such as Siemens, borisig, kropp, Thyssen, advocating enforced cartelization, elimination of inefficient small businesses and subsidizing industries. At the same time it was not capitalist because the state increasingly usurped the means of production. The Nazi economy was really a war economy in peacetime, which was directed by the need for the highest possible efficiency and productivity required for the conducting of war.

Hitler, who regarded mass-production and mass consumption as a crucial block of his new society, showed contradictory feelings toward the American growing consumerist society and its technology in 1930's. Although Hitler openly described the United States as "Deeply lazy country full of racial problems and social inequities..." states that "his feeling for America are full of hatred and antipathy..." was able to appreciate the American methods of mass production. The best example that can demonstrate the "love- hate" attitude of Hitler toward America can be seen in the case of Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola's modern means of producing a uniform product in mass numbers appealed to the German leader. In a ten-year span 1929 and 1939, the company's annual sales of cases soared from zero to four million. Since Coca-Cola represented the American way of life, and the capitalist consumerist society, how can we explain the profitable growth of Coca-Cola Company during the Nazi years? The answer to that is rather simple: Hitler welcomed America's efficient methods of production. Hitler was a proponent of mass consumption as shown by his statement from 1941: " Frugality is the enemy of progress. Therein we are similar to the Americans, that we are fastidious." Hitler, it seems, aimed to represent the dawning of the achievement- orientated consumer society based on upward mobility, mass media, leisure and interventionist welfare state.

In that sense Coca-Cola played straight into the hands of Hitler. He was "hungry" for modern technology, not only because it needed it as part of armament for conquering Lebensraum, but also because the toughness, frictionless functionality and efficiency of the machine matched the ideal of the fighter and the solider, the new German. Of course, I am aware to Martin Heidegger's argument, which claims "National Socialism opposes the rule of technology; but in virtue of its supposed incapacity to think, Nazism is unable to break away from it"(206). Does Heidegger means that Hitler and his associates were too limited in their thinking and that is why they could not break away from the need for modern technology? Is that the reason why the Nazis integrated new technologies to further Nazi genocide? Heidegger's idea unfortunately, failed in the test of reality. Simply because the fact that he ignores the economical, social and political parameters that can influence the interpretation of ideas, due to the needs and wants of societies. As we have seeing throughout history, it takes one men and one idea to change the course of history. As an example we can examine Karl Marx's communist manifesto and Lenin's revolutions in 1917.

However, the most pressing issue in January 1933 was how unemployment could be reduced in order to stimulate the economy. Hitler, by embarking governmental deficit spending, allocated over 1 billion marks for various public projects. The most famous project was the construction of network national freeways in which he generated state subsidies to privet construction firms for the renovation of housing and offered tax remission for plant expansion to industrial plants.

The construction of the "Fuherer's Road" created the impression that people as a whole were better off. It provided jobs and revitalized the automobile industry. This sentiment was also reinforced by the government announcement that it would shortly market a "peoples car" (Volkswagen) at a modest cost of 990 Reichmraks (235$ at the time).

Hitler successfully reduced the unemployment (from 6 million in 1933 to 1 million by 1936) and improved the lives of many Germans. Yet, the idea was not to increase the marginal buying power of the citizen; rather to support his long-term goal, which was preparation of the people and the economy for war and germination of Eastern Europe. In that sense what was good for the consumer was bad for Hitler. For example: by 1940 Volkswagen promised to deliver 100,000 cars to prospective buyers. Those cars were never delivered to the consumers because the factory that produced them switched to war production. Clearly, Hitler could tolerate the wellbeing of the consumer as long as it served his party's goal.

Although Hitler achieved almost full employment, it could not have been done without massive rearmament. Germany's lack of natural resources such as base iron, minerals, Indian rubber and oil fuel convinced Hitler that he must aim to self-sufficiency and reduce imports. Hitler and his economic advisor established an agency that would develop substitute synthetic materials like rubber, cheap metal, synthetic gasoline and textile. The development of those synthetic materials was of critical importance to the arm forces.

Rearmament undoubtedly kept unemployment down and helped to boost the economy. After all by 1936 most Germans had jobs and therefore could consume goods and services. Yet, rearmament as a policy had some negative effects as well:

        Consumer goods were not promoted with the same zeal as tanks and planes. What it meant to the consumer was mostly fewer products to choose and consume.

        Rearmament increased the centralization of the economy and its control of the government. That largely meant, like we saw in the example of the "peoples car," less emphasis on the consumer want and more emphasis on the government needs.

        Trade balance deficit- since Germany relied heavily on imports, especially in crucial raw materials, large sums of its capital had to be spent abroad. German export diminished steadily due to economic priorities set by Hitler and his Government and the reluctant of foreigners to buy Nazi goods.

Cutting imports and lacking export, of course, had an impact on the well being of the German consumer. It is not a secret that in traditional classical economy the consumption of say, American goods, by foreigners would be a direct factor that would determine the well being of the American people. If foreigners would not buy American made goods, it would lead to more unemployment and therefore decrease in consumption of goods and services and later to economic recession. Export, therefore, is critical for the well being of the consumer.

Yet, Hitler knew that consumer satisfaction needed to be relatively high. He achieved this by:

1. Keeping the economy under tight government control where prices are fixed, inflation is low, stabilized wages and unemployment is record low.

2. Improving the conditions of the workers by the government through the Kraft Durch Freude program (KDF), that is the strength through joy program and the "beauty of labor." The KDF program aimed at the ordinary laborer like farmers, agriculture workers, production workers and craftsman. This represented the regime's efforts to capture the hearts and the minds of the Germans by offering inexpensive holiday excursion, subsided theater performances, exhibitions, sport and hiking activities, dance and film clubs and weekends trips.

Hitler, I must assume, rejected John Stuart Mill's writing On Liberty:

"No individual or government has a monopoly on truth, for all human beings are fallible. There fore, the government and the majority have no legitimate authority to suppress views, however unpopular; they have no right to interfere with a person's liberty."

Otherwise how can we explain the fact that the government, In 1935, published the "work book" which severely restricted workers in choosing their own jobs and made their movement subject to government control. Without the workbook, which contains the details of the worker's qualification and work history, no German worker could get employment. It is clear than that if the farmer could not get hired in higher paid job, like steel industry, it meant that his consumption level would be limited to his earning and that his or her wants would not be satisfied. The fact that the government had emasculated the independence of the workers did not really matter to the average German. If they could maintain certain level of income and practice their habits of consumption like the KDF program, they were ready to "sale" their personal and economic freedom.

What can be learned from Hitler's 1936 memorandum, "German economy must be fit for war within four years." during the world Olympic games in Berlin, in regards to public interest and consumption of goods? It is only logical to assume that mass consumption and development of consumer society was a secondary to Hitler's main goal. The document was greatly at odds with the Olympic spirit of peace and international good will, and reflected Hitler's impatience with the slow pace of German's rearmament.

What the Olympic games meant to Hitler can be learned from his conversation with Leni Riefenstahl, the director of Triumph of The Will (1933) and Olympia (1936). Leni Riefenstahl who was interviewed by Maarive, the second largest national Israeli newspaper in 1998, confirmed that Hitler told her " I am not interested in the games and I may not come to the stadium." Instead what he was consecrated about was his "God's" mission, as he expressed his thoughts to Leni Riefenstahl, " I feel that I was called to save Germany." That largely meant that the games, consumption of goods and the well being of the consumer were important to him but not nearly as much as the preparation of Germany to his final goal, a war.

Although mass consumption and mass production were important to Hitler, as we have seen in the case of Coca Cola, I cannot escape the notion that he was interested in technology for military purposes and not in the production of consumer goods for his people. By 1937 it was clear that the policy of "guns and butter" had failed. Hitler's need to increase consumption in one hand, and to maintain spending on rearmament, while controlling economic and personal liberty on the second hand seemed somewhat ambitious and contradictory. We know today that massive government intervention is bad for the consumer and bad for the government.

In contrast, in America, after World War II, the democratization of consumption has widened into mass consumption. In 1946 Fortune Magazine herald the arrival of the " dream era... the great American boom is on." The dream era and the great American boom, unfortunately, have transformed itself into a new "religion" called consumerism. Ironically enough, the fact that western democracy allows personal and economic liberty where people can freely produce, consume, work, and gains wealth, forces a social and environmental cost. The tragic irony of this momentous transition is that the historic and the hysteric rise of the consumer society since 1920 have been quit effective harming the environment but not providing people with fulfillment.

Hitler's idea of consumption deferred from the American one. The latest wanted his society to prosper and encouraged production and consumption of public goods, while Hitler, on the other hand, wanted his society to prosper up to a limit. He could tolerate wealth-increased consumption and production of consumer goods as long as it did not interfered with the goals of National Socialism

Hitler's contradictory policies can teach us that his intentions in regards to the well being of the consumers were not honest. We saw those policies in the form of the "love and hate" attitude toward America and its businesses. We saw it in Hitler's policy of "Guns and Butter." We saw it also in the emasculation of the German worker's liberty in one hand, and the KDF programs on the second hand. We saw it in when he provided jobs to millions of unemployed Germans and yet failed to produce consumer goods and finally how he loved Germany and yet led them to war, thinking that war is the best thing for Germany. Hitler, it seems, wanted to win it all; bigger and stronger Germany in the one hand "satisfied" people in the other hand.


Athanasiou, Tom, Divided Planet, (University of Georgia Press, 1998).

Durning, Alan, How Much Is Enough, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1992)

Fischer, Klaus P. Nazi Germany, (the Continuum Publishing Company, 1995).

Kershaw, Ian, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris, (W.W. Norton & Company, co).

Lee, Stephen.J, The European Dictatorship 1918-1945, (Methuen&co.Ldt.- 1987), pp.178-181.

Lieth, Christian, The Third Reich (Blackwell publisher Ltd.- 1999), pp.99-128.

Mill, John Stuart On Liberty, (Boston: Ticknor and field, 1863), pp. 22-36.

Maarive newspaper, interview with Leni Riefenstahl 1998 (published, July 28-2000).

Peokert, Detlev .S.K - Inside Nazi Germany, (Yale university press, 1987), pp. 101-120.

Rockmore, Tom, On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, (university of California press, 1997), pp. 204-244

Schoenbaum, David Hitler's Social Revolution, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1980).

Web sites:

The Coca Cola Company Under the Nazis, http"//

Hitler and Economic Recovery in Germany,