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War and the Economy

2. War Socialism

So-called war socialism has been regarded as sufficiently argued for and justified with reference mostly to the emergency created by the war. In war, the inadequate free economy supposedly cannot be allowed to exist any longer; into its place must step something more perfect, the administered economy. Whether or not one should return after the war to the "un-German" system of individualism was said to be another question that could be answered in different ways.

This argumentation for war socialism is just as inadequate as it is characteristic of the political thinking of a people that was hampered in every free expression of views by the despotism of the war party. It is inadequate because it could really be a powerful argument only if it had been established that the organized economy is capable of yielding higher outputs than the free economy; that, however, would first have to be proved. For the socialists, who advocate the socialization of the means of production anyway and want to abolish the anarchy of production thereby, a state of war is not first required to justify socializing measures. For the opponents of socialism, however, the reference to the war and its economic consequences is also no circumstance that could recommend such measures. For anyone of the opinion that the free economy is the superior form of economic activity, precisely the need created by the war had to be a new reason demanding that all obstacles standing in the way of free competition be set aside. War as such does not demand a [centrally] organized economy, even though it may set certain limits in several directions to the pursuit of economic interests. In the age of liberalism, even a war of the extent of the World War (so far as such a war would have been thinkable at all in a liberal and therefore pacifistic age) would in no way have furthered tendencies toward socialization.

The most usual argument for the necessity of socialist measures was the argument about being besieged. Germany and its allies were said to be in the position of a besieged fortress that the enemy was trying to conquer by starving it out. Against such a danger, all measures usual in a besieged city had to be applied. All stocks had to be regarded as a mass under the control of a unified administration that could be drawn on for equally meeting the needs of all, and so consumption had to be rationed.

This line of argument starts from indisputable facts. It is clear that starving out (in the broadest sense of the term), which in the history of warfare had generally been used only as a tactical means, was used in this war as a strategic means.6 But the conclusions drawn from the facts were mistaken. Once one thought that the position of the Central Powers was comparable to that of a besieged fortress, one would have had to draw the only conclusions that could be drawn from the military point of view. One would have had to remember that a besieged place, by all experience of military history, was bound to be starved out and that its fall could be prevented only by help from outside. The program of "hanging on" would then have made sense only if one could count on time's working for the besieged side. Since, however, help from outside could not be expected, one should not have shut one's eyes to the knowledge that the position of the Central Powers was becoming worse from day to day and that it was therefore necessary to make peace, even if making peace would have imposed sacrifices that did not seem justified by the tactical position of the moment. For the opponents would still have been ready to make concessions if they, for their part, had received something in return for the shortening of the war.

It cannot be assumed that the German General Staff had overlooked this. If it nevertheless clung to the slogan about "hanging on," that reflected not so much a misunderstanding of the military position as the hope for a particular psychic disposition of the opponent. The Anglo-Saxon nation of shopkeepers would get tired sooner than the peoples of the Central Powers, who were used to war. Once the English, also, felt the war, once they felt the satisfaction of their needs being limited, they would turn out to be much more sensitive than the Central Europeans. This grave error, this misunderstanding of the psyche of the English people, also led to adoption first of limited and then of unlimited submarine warfare. The submarine war rested on still other false calculations, on an overestimation of one's own effectiveness and on an underestimation of the opponent's defense measures, and finally on a complete misunderstanding of the political preconditions of waging war and of what is permitted in war. But it is not the task of this book to discuss these questions. Settling accounts with the forces that pushed the German people into this suicidal adventure may be left to more qualified persons.

But quite apart from these deficiencies, which more concern the generally military side of the question, the theory of siege socialism also suffers from serious defects concerning economic policy.

When Germany was compared with a besieged city, it was overlooked that this comparison was applicable only with regard to those goods that were not produced at home and also could not be replaced by goods producible at home. For these goods, apart from luxury articles, the rationing of consumption was in any case indicated at the moment when, with the tightening of the blockade and with the entry of Italy and Rumania into the war, all import possibilities were cut off. Until then it would have been better, of course, to allow full free trade, at least for the quantities imported from abroad, in order not to reduce the incentive to obtain them in indirect ways. It was mistaken in any case, as happened at the beginning of the war, especially in Austria, to resist price rises of these goods by penal measures. If the traders had held the goods back with speculative intent to achieve price increases, this would have limited consumption effectively right at the beginning of the war. The limitation of price increases was bound, therefore, to have downright harmful consequences. For those goods that could in no way be produced at home and also could not be replaced by substitutes producible at home, the state would better have set minimum rather than maximum prices to limit consumption as much as possible.

Speculation anticipates future price changes; its economic function consists in evening out price differences between different places and different points in time and, through the pressure which prices exert on production and consumption, in adapting stocks and demands to each other. If speculation began to exact higher prices at the beginning of the war, then it did indeed temporarily bring about a rise of prices beyond the level that would have been established in its absence. Indeed, since consumption would also thus be limited, the stock of goods available for use later in the war was bound to rise and thus would have led to a moderation of prices at that later time in relation to the level that was bound to have been established in the absence of speculation. If this indispensable economic function of speculation was to be excluded, something else should have immediately been put in its place, perhaps confiscation of all stocks and state management and rationing. In no way, however, was it suitable simply to be content with penal intervention.

When the war broke out, citizens expected a war lasting about three to six months. The merchant arranged his speculation accordingly. If the state had known better, it would have had the duty of intervening. If it thought that the war would already be ended in four weeks, then it could have intervened to keep price increases from being larger than seemed necessary for bringing stocks into harmony with demand. For that, too, fixing maximum prices would not have sufficed. If, however, the state thought that the war would last far longer than civilians thought, then it should have intervened, either by fixing minimum prices or by purchase of goods for the purpose of state stockpiling. For there was a danger that speculative traders, not familiar with the secret intentions and plans of the General Staff, would not immediately drive up prices to the extent necessary to assure the distribution of the small stocks on hand over the entire duration of the war. That would have been a case in which the intervention of the state in prices would have been thoroughly necessary and justified. That that did not happen is easy to explain. The military and political authorities were informed least of all about the prospective duration of the war. For that reason all their preparations failed, military as well as political and economic ones.

With regard to all those goods that even despite the war could be produced in territory of the Central Powers free of the enemy, the siege argument was already totally inapplicable. It was dilettantism of the worst sort to set maximum prices for these goods. Production could have been stimulated only by high prices; the limitation of price increases throttled it. It is hardly astonishing that state compulsion for cultivation and production failed.

It will be the task of economic history to describe in detail the stupidities of the economic policy of the Central Powers during the war. At one time, for example, the word was given to reduce the livestock by increased slaughtering because of a shortage of fodder; then prohibitions of slaughtering were issued and measures taken to promote the raising of livestock. Similar planlessness reigned in all sectors. Measures and countermeasures crossed each other until the whole structure of economic activity was in ruins.

The most harmful effect of the policy of siege socialism was the cutting off of districts with surpluses of agricultural production from territories in which consumption exceeded production. It is easy to understand why the Czech district leaders in the Sudetenland, whose hearts were on the side of the Entente, sought as much as possible to limit the export of foodstuff's out of the districts under their leadership to the German parts of Austria and, above all, to Vienna. It is less understandable that the Vienna government put up with this and that it also put up with its imitation by the German districts and also with the fact that Hungary shut itself off from Austria, so that famine was already prevailing in Vienna while abundant stocks were still on hand in the countryside and in Hungary. Quite incomprehensible, however, is the fact that the same policy of regional segmentation took hold in the German Reich also and that the agrarian districts there were permitted to cut themselves off from the industrial ones. That the population of the big cities did not rebel against this policy can be explained only by its being caught up in statist conceptions of economic life, by its blind belief in the omnipotence of official intervention, and by its decades-long ingrained mistrust of all freedom.

While statism sought to avoid the inevitable collapse, it only hastened it.


  • 6. One war in which starving the opponent out was used as a strategic means was the Herero uprising in German Southwest Africa in 1904; in a certain sense the Civil War in North America and the last Boer War can also count here.