wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Goetz Aly

Hitler's Beneficiaries

During World War I, the German government scandalously neglected the welfare of soldiers' families. Indeed, civil servants in Wilhelmine Germany seemed intent on reducing them to poverty. Millions of working-class women and children who had been scraping by on their own suddenly faced deprivation when their breadwinners were called to the front. While the men were shedding their blood on the front lines, their dependents were forced to do without basic necessities at home. The state provided just enough to live on, but not a scrap more. The existing legislation to provide for support for soldiers' families during wartime dated back to 1888, and although it had been amended many times, it utterly failed to meet the requirements of modern mass warfare.

The obliviousness of the Wilhelmine government to the needs of military families was a sign of its inability to empathize with the economic situation of the working classes. Decision makers under Kaiser Wilhelm II had sufficient funds at their disposal, but they lacked the social and political imagination to allocate them properly. The idea that mass warfare, for psychological reasons, required equity in the distribution of resources was alien to Wilhelmine elites. As a result, an outmoded system of class rule condemned itself to extinction, squandering what remained of its popular support through indifference—if not actual malice—toward the welfare of the population at large. It was not until September 1918, far too late, that the press secretary to the Reich chancellor finally realized that 'homelessness, lack of clothing, and above all starvation cannot be overcome with indoctrination.'

The experience of 1914 to 1918 still resonated among the majority of Germans twenty-one years later. When the Nazi leadership drafted the Compensation for Military Deployment Law on August 28, 1939, one key paragraph stipulated: 'Previous standards of living and peacetime income levels are to be taken into account when calculating degrees of family support for members of the Wehrmacht.' The law aimed at 'maintaining [families'] level of personal assets' and 'prior economic standing,' pledging to subscriptions, life insurance policies, payments on goods bought on the installment plan, and mortgages. In general, the state supplements strove 'to maintain fighting spirit and will and to secure home-front morale.'

The vast majority of Germans were much better off than they had been in World War I. The paternal state no longer demeaned ordinary people. It distributed material goods that improved the popular mood. The political leadership unambiguously directed civil servants 'to act, in light of their special responsibility toward all the people, with corresponding understanding of the concerns and needs of family members of frontline soldiers.' 'The greatest possible speed and facility in the delivery of mandatory family support payments' was to be treated as a 'duty and point of honor for every branch of the civil service.' In disputed cases, decisions were to be made to the benefit of claimants. Without exception, the administrative directives that followed the outbreak of military hostilities strengthened the rights of beneficiaries. In October 1939, German newspapers reported that, at Goring's behest, family support measures had been expanded: 'The National Socialist state leadership has freed the frontline German soldier from all worries about the (maintenance of his family.' From then on, rents were paid in full, and extra benefits of all kinds were handed out. The goal of these generous initiatives was to win over 'the heart of the soldier' through demonstrations of 'abiding concern.'

The immediate response was overwhelmingly positive, and in the euphoria following Germany's victory over France, the state combined the various individual benefit payments under the Law on Deployed Family Maintenance, or EFUG (Einsatz-Familienunterhaltsgesetz). Significantly, at the same time, tax exemptions for overtime, night, Sunday, and holiday wages were being introduced. According to EFUG, family maintenance was not considered a kind of welfare payment but rather 'an honor-bound duty of the ethnic community [Volksgemeinschaft] carried out by the state.' There was no suggestion that state supplements and subsidies should be paid back, nor was there any means of testing for eligibility. A major difference for millions of Germans was that, in contrast to normal wages, family maintenance payments were exempt from garnishment to settle unpaid debts. This regulation cost the state nothing; the burden was transferred to creditors.

Supplemental benefit payments for rent, insurance, coal, potatoes, and other daily needs were paid out with minimal bureaucratic delay. The state offered household assistance to families with large numbers of children. It also provided money for special expenditures such as dental bills or children's education costs. In daily practice, civil servants did their best 'to compensate for special circumstances and treat [recipients] as individuals.' As a matter of course, family maintenance payments were tax-free, and recipients were exempt from consultation charges under their health insurance. As a result of these handouts, working-class women could suddenly afford to give up their factory jobs.

In fact, the government soon had to impose a cap to prevent maintenance payments from exceeding the prewar net income levels of family breadwinners called to fight at the front. The limit was set at 15 percent less than what a soldier had earned, after taxes, on his last monthly pay-check, but the cap meant that most women still received 85 percent of their normal household income. For the first time, many of them were able to keep house without being subjected to the moods and whims of their husbands. Thus, although average household income levels were somewhat lower than in peacetime, stable prices, a freeze on rents, and an exemption from asset seizure made it possible to live in material comfort. If one factors into the equation soldiers' wages and their food rations, many German families actually had more disposable income in war than in peacetime.

An academic study of the family maintenance program conducted in 1943 defined its purpose as 'shoring up the popular mood and, in particular, the morale among the broad masses.' The program's generosity sometimes worked against its aims, however, by creating envy among neighbors, an appetite for additional benefits, and the desire to take the state for whatever one could get. Some recipients expressed frustration at the increasing scarcity of goods available for purchase. Nonetheless, by and large, the program achieved its goal of neutralizing potential political opposition on the home front, which consisted primarily of women.

In total, the Third Reich spent 27.5 billion marks, an astonishing sum for the time, on family maintenance benefits during World War II. average, family members of German soldiers had 72.8 percent of peace-time household income at their disposal. That is nearly double what families of American (36.7) and British soldiers (38.1) received.

As part of this massive handout, the government increased subsidise to families under the rubric 'population policy measures' from 250 to 500 million reichsmarks between 1939 and 1941. In 1942, the turning poult of the war, the total doubled again, and by the end of the war, it still hovered around one billion marks annually. These figures reflect increases in child support and family household subsidies of 25 percent in 1939, 28 percent in 1940, 56 percent in 1941, and 96 percent in 1942. The basis for domestic stability in Hitler's Volksstaat was its continual bribery of the populace via the social welfare system.

In 1943, determined to bolster the Third Reich's war chest, Nazi economics minister Walther Funk suggested that 'the current tax exemption for family maintenance payments and other such compensation payments should be abolished.' His proposal was shot down by the triurmvirate of Hitler, Goring, and Goebbels, who saw themselves, together with the party gauleiters, as the ultimate guarantors of popular morale on the home front. 'We've been too lavish in our wartime budgeting,' Funk remarked dryly in a letter to a colleague. 'It will be difficult to break out of the spiral.'