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The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War against the Jews: The Expropriation of Jewish-Owned Property (review)
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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 361-363

The Deutsche Bank and the Nazi Economic War against the Jews: The Expropriation of Jewish-Owned Property, Harold James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 280 pp., $25.00.

In April 1933, Georg Solmssen, chairman of the managing board of the Deutsche Bank, wrote to the chairman of the bank's supervisory board:

The total passivity of those classes not belonging to the National Socialist Party, the manifest lack of any feeling of solidarity on the part of everyone who, in the firms concerned, formerly worked side by side with Jewish colleagues, the ever-clearer readiness to take personal advantage of the fact that jobs are now falling vacant, and the dead silence that greets the ignominy and shame irremediably inflicted on those who, albeit innocent, find the foundations of their honor and livelihood undermined from one day to the next—all point to a situation so hopeless that it would be wrong not to look matters in the face without applying any makeup, as it were (pp. 34-5).

This was shortly before Solmssen "assisted" several Jewish board members to depart (not without some prompting by the Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht). The banker's statement of helplessness is all the more dismaying because of his compassion and disgust with those who seemed so eager to use antisemitism as a means of personal gain. Five years later, younger managers of the same bank would write about "Aryanizations" in Czechoslovakia, "[Within] the partially transferred Czech banking industry, various institutions will need to disappear for racial reasons" (p. 152). By March 1939 the Deutsche Bank had become a predatory institution. What had happened in this relatively short period of time, and why?

Harold James posed this question and others in his earlier work on the Deutsche Bank, a study that appeared in Lothar Gall et al., The Deutsche Bank, 1870-1995 (1995), which consisted of more than 1000 pages. This latest book is very accessible and meant for a broader audience than its predecessor. It also grew out of a specific charge. James was one of a specially selected commission of five historians (the others were Gerald Feldman, Jonathan Steinberg, Avraham Barkai, and Lothar Gall) responsible for addressing the probing questions that confronted the Deutsche Bank because of restitution suits.

One of the great monocausal explanations of the Holocaust (nearly equal in rank to antisemitism) is that everything bad happened because of capitalist cupidity. James dismisses this quickly. Bankers were hardly foremost among the ranks of rabid Nazis and often found themselves, especially in big, international institutions such as the Deutsche Bank, the target of Nazi anticapitalist campaigns. In sharp contrast to the ranks of professors or students—in highbrow culture—or small shopkeepers—in lowbrow culture—antisemitism was not a currency of common parlance among elite businessmen. And, as Solmssen's candid statement suggests, many were not especially eager for the new kinds of business that National Socialism would lead their way. But take it they did. The Deutsche Bank was jealous of its business, especially when Nazi industrial organizations such as the Hermann Göring Works or the SS-owned German Commercial Enterprises came to rely increasingly on the Dresdner Bank. The Deutsche Bank arranged to get its managers appointed to Göring's Main Trustee Office for the East (Haupttreuhandstelle-Ost), responsible for liquidating Polish and Jewish businesses or selling them to German "settlers."

Still, no one ever invented the kind of jingle for the Deutsche Bank's executives that was used for the Dresdner Bank: "Who's this, marching behind the first tank? That's Dr. Rasche of the Dresdner Bank!" Nor did Deutsche Bank executives show any enthusiasm comparable to Austrian, Czech, or Polish bankers' frenzy of anti-Jewish opportunism. After the German occupation of these countries there was a veritable stampede.

In the end, if one wishes to insist on a sterile, bottom-line audit of the Holocaust, sterile moral judgment is most likely to result: The Deutsche Bank did not profit extraordinarily from Aryanization either at home or abroad. Yes, the Deutsche Bank drew profits and transaction fees from the expropriation of Jewish assets but it also...