“Earn it if you would own it!” National Socialist economic theoretician Dr. Otto Wagener and the ‘third way’ between nationalization and socialization
A common misconception I see about National Socialism is that the movement “had no theory,” that it comprised at best a set of mindless slogans and aesthetics which had no solid intellectual footing. The swaggering remarks made by some NSDAP leaders admittedly have not helped allay this perception, as they were often overly keen to define their movement as one of “action” in order to set it apart from the staid, dogma-laden, bourgeois respectability of more mainstream competitors. Yet the claim that National Socialism was bereft of ideas or principles cannot have been particularly convincing to anyone alive when it was at its most active, at least to those with eyes. The movement in its heyday produced massive quantities of publications examining political, economic, scientific, and philosophical issues from the perspective of the “nationalsozialistische Weltanschauung,” including a number of theoretical journals. Particularly central to National Socialist ideology was its economic theory, which had deep roots by way of Social-Democracy and the Kathedersozialisten, and which the Party’s Economic Policy Department (Wirtschaftspolitische Abteilung, WPA) worked into a variety of draft policy proposals in the early 1930s. The head of the WPA was Dr. Otto Wagener (b.1888 – d.1971), a man who for several years was a senior figure in the NS leadership as well as the NSDAP’s chief economic theoretician. One of the potential models for a National Socialist economic order explored by Wagener was that of the “social economy” (Sozialwirtschaft), a system in which the principles of natural selection and worker participation would merge to form a new alternative to both nationalization and socialization. Property rights in Wagener’s “social economy” would not be absolute, with the system instead being characterized by a gradual and continuous transfer of business and industry ownership into the hands of the most capable workers. Wagener’s idea, like many of the draft proposals researched and debated by the WPA, never actually became official policy, but it nonetheless still serves as a perfect example of the theoretical credentials of a movement so often painted as crudely anti-intellectual. The text below is an excerpted chapter from Wagener’s post-War memoirs, in which the author gives an account of the informal economic policy conferences he held with Hitler in 1930 where the idea of the “social economy” was first discussed. The majority of the text is taken verbatim from Ruth Hein’s English translation of Wagener’s memoirs, although I have edited it slightly to add in several sections from the German original which Hein cut from her translation.
Plans for a “Social Economy”
An Informal Economic Policy Conference, Summer, 1930
From the memoirs of Dr. Otto Wagener
In the early summer of 1930, Hess asked me on behalf of Hitler whether I had time at a certain hour the next day for an economic policy conference. Strasser and Dr. Wagner,1 at that time Gauleiter of Munich, would be present.
The next day the four of us sat around the round table in Hitler’s office.
Hitler raised the issue of my position on the problem of nationalization and socialization. I had the feeling that he wanted to familiarize himself for the first time with my attitude towards economic policy.
I began by stating something like the following:
“Of course, I am naturally well-acquainted with what the points of the NSDAP programme say regarding this topic. But since you are asking how I feel about these problems, I shall now neither take these into account nor refer to them.”
In wide-ranging remarks on the problem between “capital and labor” in industry, Wagener in the following pages of his memoir then rejects as a solution both nationalization and a “direct socialization” through the takeover of enterprises by workers.2 A “direct socialization” is impractical in the long term, especially with regard to future investment. Nationalization merely replaces the private entrepreneur with the state, while leaving the worker in a service relationship with capital. This entangles the state in the conflict between capital and labor, a development which could have dangerous political consequences. Nationalization also leaves unanswered the question: Who is the state? Its final result would be domination by those groups which control the state, the consequence being the spread of the “spirit of the feeding-trough.” In addition, the “automatic self-healing mechanisms” inherent within “healthy competitive struggle” would also be lost. Wagener therefore warned against the nationalization of those enterprises which the state did not absolutely need to possess. “Completely different methods” would be necessary in order to achieve the transition from individualism to socialism.