S. Jonathan Wiesen

 

On his book Creating the Nazi Marketplace: Commerce and Consumption in the Third Reich

Cover Interview of March 21, 2011

The wide angle

I came to this subject through an earlier project concerning business complicity under National Socialism.

Companies such as Siemens (electronics), Krupp (steel), and the automotive firms BMW, Volkswagen, and Daimler Benz, had been deeply involved in Nazi policies—whether through the employment of slave labor, the production of armaments, or the takeover and “aryanization” of Jewish businesses and property.  My previous book traced the ways these West German companies, after 1945, remade their reputations that had been damaged through the revelations of their deep involvement in National Socialist crimes.

As I researched that project, I was reminded again and again that these manufacturers did not primarily work with the Nazis for ideological reasons.  Rather, they did so in order to maximize business opportunities—to sell more tanks, cars, aspirin, and detergent.

It struck me that any study of business under National Socialism would have to focus not only on the highly visible examples of cooperation but also on the mundane acts of selling. The impetus behind this current book is the realization that brutal acts of industrial exploitation existed alongside (and were entwined with) the daily ritual of selling mass goods to the German consumer.

Next to my interest in the broader theme of corporate complicity, Creating the Nazi Marketplace is also informed in part by the explosion of literature on “consumer society” and “consumption” over the last two decades.

Scholars have explored such themes as the political power of consumer boycotts, the function of gender in the purchasing act, and the relationship between notions of citizenship and the seemingly mundane act of shopping.

In the context of German history, there has been some focus on how the Nazi state created visions of the “good life” in Nazi Germany.  For example, it promoted the Volkswagen, the “people’s car.”  But there has not been much work on those who had the greatest stake in the market—producers, advertisers, salespeople, and consumers.


rorotoko.com Window shopping in war-torn Cologne.  (Photo Erich Behnke; courtesy of Landesarchiv Nordrhein-Westfalen)

There is a final, perhaps unusual impetus behind this book—George W. Bush.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, President Bush encouraged Americans to maintain a sense of continuity in their lives—to do their shopping and go about their daily business.  In effect, he suggested that consumption constituted a form of patriotism.  Buying food, clothing, houses, and Christmas presents was not only about fulfilling one’s personal needs and desires; it was as a virtuous gesture on behalf of national health and a defiant statement against this who would disrupt the American way of life.

This presidential plea, which was much commented on at the time, struck me as, in some respects, paralleling aspects of the Nazi years.  For in the 1930s and early 1940s, the Nazi regime also lent consumption a nationalist urgency.  The way to maintain a uniquely “German” way of life was to support the economy—to, in effect, “go shopping.”  Bush’s statement reminded me of how important consumption was to a nation’s economic and psychic well-being.  It didn’t matter whether this nation was a democracy or a dictatorship.

This book should be read, ultimately, as a cultural history of business—though it is not about sales figures or profit margins.

I pose questions such as “How did earlier discussions about mass consumption change under National Socialism, when consumers were recoded along racial lines?”  Or, “How did business discourses feed into debates among policy makers and the architects of war and persecution?”  What did consumers buy in a state defined by violence?

Creating the Nazi Marketplace is about Nazi party theorists’ and business leaders’ attempts to imbue a violent economy with cultural meaning.