Tim Schanetzky’s Regierungsunternehmer: Henry J. Kaiser, Friedrich Flick und die Staatskonjunkturen in den USA und Deutschland demonstrates that it is possible to study quite well-explored territories, in this case corporate history and, specifically, the very well-trafficked but equally slippery subject of similarities between the New Deal and National Socialism, all while applying the traditional methodology of comparative history, and nevertheless produce a meaningful, original volume destined to become a reference work for future studies in this sphere. Based on substantial research using primary sources from state and private archives, Schanetzky’s book makes a parallel examination of the personal and professional history of two businessmen: an American of German origin, Henry J. Kaiser, and a German, Friedrich Flick. Kaiser progressed rapidly from constructing roads for local and national government authorities to the symbolic and material success of building the famous Hoover Dam. Flick was involved in the expansion of traditional heavy industry and reached his peak with the creation of a genuine economic empire in central Germany. Both these entrepreneurs proved very capable in exploiting their political contexts, displaying lobbying skills that extended their range of action well beyond their original areas of competence. The reason for choosing these two actors is the almost perfect temporal parallel in their professional evolutions, starting before the economic crisis of 1929–1932 and extending into the period immediately following World War II, when they were both involved in rehabilitating their public images, which had been called into question on political and moral grounds. Between these two temporal limits there was a fifteen-year period when they both enjoyed the status of Regierungsunternehmer, or businessmen symbiotically involved in the growing activism of their respective governments in the two post-crisis economies, the high speed “modernization” of the two countries, and finally in the war effort. Their similarities even extend to both businessmen being considered outsiders due to the unusual nature of their companies in the eyes of their contemporaries, and their predominant characteristic of being owner-managers, which had a determining effect on the development of the company organizations. Starting from this basis, right from the detailed introduction, Schanetzky probes the extensive literature available in order to establish five areas of comparison, which in turn become five interpretative keys for the volume: the relationship between business success and state regulation, during a period in which the state increasingly intervened in the national economy, irrespective of the political regime; the definition of company strategies and implementation methods for these emerging newcomers, destined to maintain close contacts with political-bureaucratic circles; the internal organization of the two companies, including the need for the two men at the top to personally manage relations with central political power and therefore delegate everyday decisions to a reliable structure; changes in business behavior in response to changes in political regime and to the necessities of war mobilization, and the consequent questioning of previous legal and moral limits; and finally, strategies for reintegration in the post–World War II period, in the face of criticisms of the advantages the two companies enjoyed in previous years, but also “as part of a normalization process made … easier by the Cold War” (18). It is easy to understand how such a detailed analysis ends up transcending the two cases under examination. These comparisons lead Schanetzky to new and interesting interpretative approaches for an in-depth understanding of the development of capitalism from the period leading up to the terrible crisis of the 1920s, through the Second World War, to the threshold of the “Glorious Thirty” years that characterized the second half of the twentieth century. Schanetzky underlines how the numerous previous attempts to compare the New Deal with National Socialism had neglected this microeconomic approach, which instead assumes a central role in his book. He also notes how, in the German case specifically, an international comparison on this level finally makes it possible to establish a business historiography under National Socialism that goes beyond the “‘forensic historiography’ of business companies under the Nazi regime” (19). Schanetzky is also, unlike other authors who preceded him, skilled in confirming at each stage how “comparison” is methodologically and substantially a very different concept from “equation.” On the contrary, Schanetzky’s affirmation of universal elements in business logic and the evidence of a general reinforcement of the state’s role in the economy as a common response to the crisis requires observers to shift their attention to the social contexts in which the actions occurred, to the specific mechanisms of firms’ methods of production, and to the administrative control exerted by the state. In this way, the comparison does not risk appearing apologetic, and instead offers an improved understanding of the National Socialist economic system, right down to the details of its operation. Schanetzky’s book is thus recommended reading not only for specialists in economic history, but for anyone who wants to benefit from an original, well-documented discussion that will extend their understanding of the dynamics of the Atlantic zone during a key period of the twentieth century. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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