The Clare Spark Blog

May 26, 2015

Economic history vs. cultural history: the case of Nazi Germany and its informal empire in Spain

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 5:56 pm
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Hitler and Schacht 1934

Hitler and Schacht 1934

One of the least attractive features of popular culture is its fixation on the lurid and demonic.  I need not belabor this point, for it is possible to study political history (including military history) while entirely ignoring the everyday, less glamorous factors such as trade policy and its impact on everything else, including the rise and fall of dictators, of empires, and jazzy generals.

This point is particularly relevant after a long weekend celebrating the fallen heroes of recent wars—with zero attention to the fundamental causes of these slaughters, all of which were probably preventable.

While television audiences were shedding tears (real and crocodile), I was reading a new book that has turned my head around regarding the importance of trade policy and economic history to the conflicts (and villains) we abhor and would like to prevent. It is Pierpaolo Barbieri’s Hitler’s Shadow Empire: Nazi Economics and the Spanish Civil War (Harvard UP, 2015).

Instead of foregrounding a relatively weak Adolf Hitler as the boss of the world starting in 1933, the author traces the career of Hjalmar Schacht, the economic star whose career got underway during the Weimar Republic, and who was instrumental in creating an “informal empire” in Spain that decisively elevated Franco. With one book, Barbieri has changed the focus of preceding work on the Spanish Civil War (widely considered as the crucial event that opened WW2).

Franco as personality cult leader

Franco as personality cult leader

The author summarizes his argument here: “…the German intervention in the Spanish Civil War constituted a project of informal imperialism inspired by Hjalmar Schacht, the lead economic architect of the Nazi recovery. Schacht’s was an alternative vision of German hegemony in Europe, one that favored Weltpolitik [the Wilhelmine acquisition of colonies: over Lebensraum [the racist expansionism entailing dislocation of peoples, detailed in Mein Kampf].

“The opportunity for Germany was born out of Iberian decline. Spain’s decades-long duel with itself led to a nasty, brutish, protracted civil war. The Nationalist rebellion that ignited it was not only uncoordinated but also largely unsuccessful; the generals sparked the social revolution they had sought to prevent. Broke and divided, their rebellion seemed doomed. In order to prevail against Spain’s legitimate government, they needed the tools of modern warfare the country had not been able to afford for decades. The diplomatic decisions of July 25, 1936 made fascist intervention the primary determinant of the war’s outcome. In what has rightly been called “a world war in miniature” it was fascist intervention that allowed for Nationalist victory. …For all its poverty, Spain remained resource rich—-and a resource-starved Third Reich seized its chance.” (250-251). (For Barbieri’s own selection see

In other words, underdeveloped Spain became an informal colony of Germany, shipping its abundant raw materials (foodstuffs, iron ore, pyrite, wolfram) in order to get armaments from industrialized Germany. That is, until Schacht lost his influence to Goering’s feckless drive for power and a formal empire (Schacht was losing power after 1937, and was finally released at Nuremberg).

As I write this summary of Barbieri’s argument, I remind the reader that the Obama administration’s trade plans (TPP) are mostly ignored by journalists and social media, with the exceptional observation that the details are being kept secret from Congress. Why aren’t we all jumping up and down over this clearly sneaky and illegal development? Indeed, why do we not expect our schools to teach the elements of finance and economics, let alone world geography and the distribution of resources so that we can understand the deep, usually hidden, causes of conflicts and mass death?

Why? Because our “betters” would rather focus on the lurid and sensational, the sentimental and the Great Man theory of history (i.e., cults of personality). In so doing, we are playing to the mob that we are creating with our intellectual laziness.


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