Behemoth or the rule of the dark forces


Franz Neumann: Behemoth. Struktur und Praxis des Nationalsozialismus 1933-1944 (English title: Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1944/Translation by Hedda Wagner and Gert Schäfer) ISBN 978-3-86393-048-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Franz Neumann scientific study of National Socialism, published during World War II, certainly is the most extraordinary and comprehensive work on the issue that I have read. I have been interested in the subject since I was 15 years old and since then I have read a lot about it.

Neumann was a German scholar who fled from the Nazis in 1933, days after Adolf Hitler came to power, to avoid being arrested. He went into exile first in England, later in the Unites States. In 1943 he started to advised the analysis branch of the OSS, that embryonic intelligence cell that would later become the CIA. In this position, Neumann was able to assess information about Germany from a multitude of sources. It explains why by 1944 parts of his study were no longer up to date. The annex takes this into account and provides new material confirming Neumann’s thesis.

Neumann advanced the idea that the Nazi regime rested on four distinct pillars: the administrative apparatus of Germany (the public service), the army, the industry and the National Socialist party. All four organizations are centralized, governed by the principle of one-man-leadership (the Führerprinzip) with the ultimate authority being concentrated in the person of Adolf Hitler. All four function to a large degree independently from each other, resulting in frequent clashes of competencies and a surprising inefficiency. One can only imagine in horror what the Nazi state could have achieved, had it overcome these obstacles.

Observing the Weimar tragedy

Neumann was born in Silesia at the turn of the century. He graduated as a law student, he played an active role during the short-lived working class revolution in 1918/19 on the barricades and developed an expertise in labour law. As such he was well placed to observe first hand the failure of the Weimar Republic and more specifically the failure of Germany’s Social Democratic Party – Neumann was a party member – to prevent the rise of nationalism and later the Nazi party. This subject is the actual introduction to a more detailed study of how the Nazi state came into being, complemented by an analysis of political and philosophical thinking in Germany during the 19th century.

These chapters alone are interesting because Germany is witnessing some 100 years later the rise of nationalism and racism again, in a climate where certain social strata appear to be receptive for such ideas and at a time where the Social Democratic Party seems to have zero vision of what the future of Germany could look like. Will history repeat itself?

The founders of the new German state in 1945 and the occupying powers in what used to be West Germany wanted to anticipate such a repetition, they had drawn the lessons from the failure of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s political system should be strong enough to resist such an evolution, the industry will certainly not embrace nationalist and imperialist thinking in a globalized economy and the Bundeswehr today is very different from the Reichswehr or the Wehrmacht. But recent political events in Brussels and in Berlin also show that democratic parties may be infected by autocratic, nationalist and racist ideas when they have little else to offer. Such is the case of chancellor Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner.

The industry, Hitler’s ally

One of the outstanding features of Neumann’s study is the fact that he highlights the paramount role that Germany’s industry played in the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. While his Marxist background may call into question his neutral assessment of the situation, the many arguments and examples he advances make his point almost unrefutable. Neumann’s obsession with Germany’s monopolistic economy makes the book a tiresome read at times. It should be noted however that Neumann never considered writing a bestseller. This study was meant as Neumann’s personal contribution to help bring the Nazis down.

With Hitler, the industry wanted to conquer through war a dominant position in the world economy, a position that France and Great Britain had denied Germany when they had shared the world among themselves in the context of their respective colonial policy. Industrial policy was also a domestic policy issue. Neumann writes that “democratic planning [under the Weimar Republic] failed because all democratic planning needs to satisfy the needs of the masses.” This however would have meant to expand the production of consumption goods at the expense of the heavy industry, Germany’s strong point and a prerequisite for any military ambition.

Germany’s imperialist war

“The ruling classes refused to hand over the power of the economy to democracy”, Neumann explains, ” National Socialism has coordinated the many and contradicting state interventions [in the economy] with only one goal in mind: getting ready for an imperialist war […] Fascism is the dictatorship of the Fascist (National Socialist) Party, the bureaucracy, the Wehrmacht and high finance over the people.” Political ambitions and economic greed were two facets of Germany’s road into disaster.

Neumann’s sociological analysis is no less compelling than his study of the politico-economic forces behind National Socialism. After World War I Germany was a class society and the Nazis were well aware of that. Their aim was to consolidate the ruling elite and to win them while at the same time suppressing any social group that may try to mediate between the ruling class and the state. It boiled down to the atomization of the individual and the dissolution of all forms of social organisations not affiliated to the Nazi party. In each social stratum the Nazis tried to create a ruling elite controlling the other members of that strata through terror and manipulation. As such National Socialism permeate ever layer of society and every type of activity be it politics, administration, economy, leisure activities or culture.

He emphasizes the role of propaganda “to keep the masses from thinking”. The party held the society constantly under tension, and ideology changed with the prevalent mood among the population. The transformation of culture into propaganda became in this context an extremely important stabilization factor complemented by terror against anyone holding and spreading ideas contrary to the ideology of the day.

The rise of the non-state

What is interesting is Neumann’s conclusion that National Socialism never developed a coherent political theory explaining how a Nazi state should function. It rather was a mix of improvisation and opportunistic behaviour. If an unforseen situation arose, party, public service, army and industry would needed to find an ad hoc compromise that could be reversed quickly if the situation changed again. The absence of the rule of law in the Nazi society gave its leaders maximal flexibility and its citizen zero security. Neumann’s description reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s novel “1984” where today’s enemy is tomorrow’s ally and vice-versa.

This led to a situation where society was not held together by a feeling of loyalty. Neumann concludes that the Nazis actually did not rule a state, governed traditionally by a consistent political theory, the power being concentrated instead of being shared among four large independent organisations. Neumann saw the Nazis at the head of a non-state that could not give birth to a feeling of loyalty of the ruled masses. The loyalty to the Führer could only be guaranteed as long as the Hitler delivered victories. So what held the non-state together? Neumann’s answer: the longing for economic benefits, for power, for prestige and most of all fear.

One pillar fails, the regime fails

In 1942 when Neumann published his monumental study, he wrote that all four groups needed each other. The army needed the party, because war could only be won through the total mobilization of the masses for the war effort. The party needed the army because it concentrated the military expertise and power. Both needed the industry to sustain Germany’s imperialist expansion. And all three needed the public service to keep the different interlocking parts of the Nazi system working.

I read this book with a kind of morbid fascination. If the double biography of Hitler and Stalin that I have presented in an earlier post had already been a challenge to read, this book proved to be even more tough. Neumann has a very clear and concise style of writing, but it is this distanced attitude that makes the book attractive in a strange, eery way. At the same time I found many useful reflections  on how easily masses can be influenced by politicians to promote the most abject policies: the extermination of other human beings.

Selecting a music suggestion wuth a relation to this book necessitated some brain work. I settled for the greatest possible contrast despite the fact that German Romanticism and its emphasis on leading a heroic life certainly contributed to the masses’ receptiveness of National Socialism. At the antipodes of Nazism we find Fanny Mendelssohn’s remarkable Lieder:

Longing for Italy, home of Beauty