Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht
By John Weitz
Little, Brown 361pp $29.95
Could any German have slowed the rise of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s? During Germany's long slouch toward war, the Holocaust, and disastrous defeat, why didn't more business and financial leaders oppose Hitler and work to undermine him? Hitler's Banker, John Weitz's new biography of Hjalmar Schacht, the head of the Reichsbank during Germany's rapid arms buildup under the Nazis, offers no definitive answers to such questions. But Weitz, the well-known men's fashion designer and author of such books as Hitler's Diplomat, a biography of Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, does tell a fascinating tale of the interplay of ambition, pride, and politics that prevented one powerful man from opposing Hitler until it was too late.
If ever there was a financier who might have helped change the course of German politics in the 1930s, it was Schacht. He was born in straitened circumstances in 1877, the son of a Danish baroness and a German schoolteacher she had married for love. Yet by the early 1920s, by dint of personal brilliance and shrewd career politicking, he was one of the world's most famous men. As Germany's currency commissioner, and later head of the Reichsbank, Schacht was the prototype for today's tough and principled central bankers--the Alan Greenspans and Hans Tietmeyers of the world.
By halting the printing of worthless money, repeatedly slamming speculators, and pegging the mark at 4.2 to the dollar (one new mark was worth 1 trillion old ones) and eventually to gold, he tamed the runaway inflation that crippled Germany after World War I. By the mid-1920s, Schacht had a worldwide reputation as "the banker who saved his country."
But Schacht was an enigmatic man whose motivations often are hard to unravel. He was a conservative who never borrowed money or owned stock and affected old-fashioned pince-nez and high starched collars. Yet Schacht had a streak of daring, which at one point led him--without any backing from his government--to attempt to bluff Germany's way out of paying World War I reparations. (The effort failed.) A public apologist for Nazi atrocities, Schacht also attended the church of a well-known anti-Nazi cleric while in Hitler's government and took Hitler to task over his harsh treatment of Jews. Weitz paints this complex man as driven by a sense of duty that was all too often warped by ambition and hubris.
That certainly was the case when Schacht faced what in retrospect was his greatest test: the Nazis' rise in the 1930s. Schacht, who had resigned from the Reichsbank over the reparations issue in 1930, knew Hitler was a dangerous rabble-rouser who had served jail time for trying to overthrow the Bavarian government. Yet Schacht, disastrously, tried to exploit him. In October, 1931, he gave Hitler much-needed legitimacy by attending a fascist rally, where he sharply attacked the Weimar regime then in power. Dozens of industrialists attended, too, because they hoped for an authoritarian regime that could restore order to Germany. But Schacht, a committed democrat, seemed driven by ambition. "The Nazis cannot rule," he told a reporter, "but I can rule through them." The next year, Schacht declared Hitler the best candidate for Germany's chancellorship.
By 1933, after Hitler had become Chancellor and asked him to run the Reichsbank again, and later to become Economics Minister, Schacht quickly agreed. He rationalized his decision by declaring that only he could help Germany's 6.5 million unemployed. Weitz makes it clear that what Schacht really did--however reluctantly at times--was to throw his prestige and financial acumen behind Hitler's rearmament drive. And, at least in the beginning, Schacht shut his eyes to Nazi violence. "What atrocities? All lies," he once snapped at reporters' queries about Hitler's increasingly violent attacks on Jews and others.
Schacht's behavior was deeply inconsistent. Through most of the 1930s, he worked tirelessly to stabilize Germany's finances in the face of wild Nazi spending. But he also intervened to save Jewish friends. And by 1938, Schacht was publicly calling the Nazis "criminals" and attacking the persecution of Jews in a Christmas speech to employees of the Reichsbank. Hitler tolerated this defiance because of Schacht's importance to the economy, but Schacht still was running a huge personal risk. By 1943, when Hitler formally dismissed him from the government, Schacht was brazenly anti-Nazi and had ties to groups plotting the Fuhrer's assassination; he was eventually sent to Ravensbruck and Dachau. But one still has the feeling that Schacht's disaffection stemmed largely from his own waning influence--from what Weitz calls his feeling of devastation "that a man of his proven superiority could be discarded by Hitler, a creature he had helped launch and form."
Weitz--himself a German-Jewish emigre and a onetime U.S. Office of Strategic Services officer--prefers to lay out the facts of Schacht's life and let the reader make the judgments. But it's hard not to agree with Schacht's prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials after the war, who said: "Schacht always fought for his position in a regime he now affects to despise....When he did break with [the Nazis] in the twilight of the regime, it was over tactics, not principle." Then again, Schacht's record was so ambiguous that he was one of the few defendants acquitted at the trials. He died in Munich in 1970, at 93, having spent his old age building a new life out of the rubble of the old one. Whatever else you can say about Hjalmar Schacht, he defied easy categorization to the end.