Abstract: The Room for Maneuver for Firms in the Third Reich

Ralf Banken


Since the mid-1990s, the question of the role private firms played during the ''Third Reich,'' why they supported armament, exploitation, and crimes by the Nazis until 1945, is a central focus of German economic and business history. Numerous case studies have demonstrated that, despite the increasing impact of political and ideological factors, private firms never ceased to pursue their economic self-interest. Even under the extreme ideological circumstances of the Third Reich, their strategic decisions remained geared to economic criteria. A broad consensus has evolved that the state control of firms took place more by changes of framework requirements than by using direct coercion. Actually, the regime was especially able to establish a successful control of the economy when it operated with economic incentives and left some room for maneuver, even if the latter became increasingly smaller toward the end of the war as a result of increasing state intervention and government control. This scope may explain the considerable differences in the behavior of firms, especially in respect to their involvement in Nazi crimes. The contribution will present a general overview on the current state of discussion, strengthening the view that, although case studies will never allow us to identify the exact extent of entrepreneurial freedom of action during the Third Reich, they comprise the only methodological way that enables sound conclusions about the general evaluation of state-business- relations during the Nazi period.