How the Nazis pioneered modern management theory

Agility is a management buzzword of our time. But the concept was already used by the National Socialists. A conversation with historian Johann Chapoutot.

German women on the deck of the Wilhelm Gustloff cruise ship in 1938.
German women on the deck of the Wilhelm Gustloff cruise ship in 1938.WikiCommons

Berlin-Flat hierarchies, inner leadership, efficiency - all principles we know from modern management theory. Such principles have a tradition - they already served the Prussians as a method to make their military and administration more agile in the early 19th century. German executives still proudly speak of this style of management. What's often ignored, though, is its prevalence during another period of German history: the Nazi dictatorship. Hitler employed many of the same methods that companies use today.

French historian Johann Chapoutot focuses on the connection in Free to Obey: Management, from Nazism to Today. He traces modern management methods back to their roots in National Socialism. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung, he explained why Hitler's leadership principle was essentially not authoritarian and how former members of the SS shaped management schools after World War II.

Berliner Zeitung: Mr Chapoutot, you write in your book that reading the historical documents you felt there was something very comtemporary about them: "You read a word or a sentence and the past is suddenly very present." What did you mean?

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Johann Chapoutot: Following Bertolt Brecht, we're familiar with alienation as a literary, stylistic device in the theatre. In documents of the so-called Third Reich, it's different. What is written in them does not seem strange to the reader. Where we encounter racism, antisemitism and violence - in other words, everything we associate with National Socialism - the documents are of course alien to us. But there are also many other passages that seem familiar.

For example?

Well, these people didn't come from another planet. They didn't come from Oceania in the Middle Ages. They are the product of the 20th century and Europe. National Socialism is a phenomenon of the modern age. In Europe, in the first half of the 20th century, we were dealing with a highly developed economy, science and technology. I believe that we historians have to remember this when we talk about National Socialism. The latter is often discussed as an exception. On the one hand, you had BASF, Nobel Prizes, a highly developed culture. On the other hand, National Socialism, as if it were a phenomenon that cannot be explained at all. As if National Socialism was an exception that ran counter to western 20th century history.

It is often said that the National Socialists were totalitarian - that they had a strong state. But that's not true at all.

Johann Chapoutot

In your book you explain how the Nazis viewed work and the individual. But also how they related to the state and civil service. What kind of ideas were these, exactly?

For the National Socialists, terms such as "individual", as invoked in the French Revolution, for example, or "state" were outdated and had very negative connotations. It is often said that the National Socialists were totalitarian - that they had a strong state. But that's not true at all. Rather, the National Socialists spoke of wanting to destroy the state. They understood the state as "alien to the race". The state was necessary for "racially mixed" peoples like the French. The National Socialists thought that, in order to comport themselves, peoples like the French needed norms and a state that supervised the execution of norms. The Jews were the people of the law.

We Germanic people, thought the National Socialists, didn't need that. Germanic peoples didn't need a state as an exoskeleton to support them. Germanic peoples had an instinct. They thought they contained in their blood what was right and what was not, for themselves, their children, and so on. The state, the National Socialists thought, was not needed by us Germanic peoples because it was Judeo-Christian heritage that stood in the way of the freedom of the Germanic peoples. Instead, the National Socialists organised through institutions. They liked them. They were dynamic and temporary - whereas the state was by definition static and eternal.

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Francesca Mantovani/Gallimard
Johann Chapoutot is a professor at the Sorbonne University in Paris and researches political and cultural history, with a focus on Germany and European modernity. In 2015, he received the Yad Vashem International Book Prize for Holocaust Studies for his book The Law of Blood. 

In your book, you introduce protagonists of the Nazi regime who continued to play quite an important role in various functions after the Second World War. For example Reinhard Höhn, a lawyer and SS-Oberführer ...

A little anecdote: In my office at the Sorbonne, I have a library left over from my predecessor. In it is a book by Höhn, which he wrote about Gerhard von Scharnhorst and his role in the Prussian administrative reforms. The request for a review is noted in the book. The Revue historique (a respected history journal, editor's note) had asked one of my predecessors to write a review. This shows that Höhn was taken very seriously at the time. He was recognised as a military historian after the Second World War.

Why did Höhn write about Scharnhorst?

Höhn was enthusiastic about the Prussians. For him, there is a clear parallel between the great collapse in 1806/1807 in the war against Napoleon and 1945. It is no wonder that he wrote a book about Scharnhorst in 1952. Höhn's diagnosis in this book is that the National Socialists were too rigid in their system, not flexible and not mobile enough. The order of battle was too rigid, as it had been in the days of Frederick II. This, Höhn thought, was where the Third Reich had failed, like Prussia against Napoleon. The Prussians responded to their defeat at the hands of France at the beginning of the 19th century with a military reform centred on so-called mission-focused tactics (Auftragstaktik). This is the basis for what Höhn became known for: in 1956 he founded the Academy for Business Leaders in Bad Harzburg.

The so-called Harzburg Model was taught there - a model that aimed to promote efficient management and to develop and teach contemporary forms of people management in times of high economic growth, you write in your book. You also write that all these concepts already existed under the Nazis to cope with a growing empire with limited resources. What role did ideas like flexibility, creativity and efficiency play in the Nazi regime?

Höhn was a professor of public law at Berlin University and was chosen for this post because he was a member of the SS and SD. Such positions were undoubtedly a career booster at the time - especially after the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed in April 1933 following the National Socialists' seizure of power. Posts that had previously been occupied by Jews or Social Democrats were vacant.

Two months after coming to power, Hitler's government passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on 7 April 1933, thus creating the basis for "equalising" the civil service and dismissing opponents of the Nazi regime.
Two months after coming to power, Hitler's government passed the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on 7 April 1933, thus creating the basis for "equalising" the civil service and dismissing opponents of the Nazi regime.WikiCommons

As head of the Institute for State Research, Höhn founded the journal Reich, Volksordnung, Lebensraum (Reich, People's Order, Living Space) in 1941 alongside other influential Nazi figures in order to answer precisely the question you posed: How can you do more with less? The idea was, after all, that the Reich had infinite borders but had less and less "human material" - there were simply a limited number of men in uniform and civil servants. So Höhn was very much concerned with how to solve this impossible equation. The answer of the National Socialists was, and again we know this from management in our own time: work more efficiently, work more effectively, etc.

You write that, paradoxically, the Nazis developed the concept of "work through joy" in response to this question. They assumed that efficiency could not be achieved through authoritarian management. Not orders made people work more efficiently, but intrinsic motivation. Following the Prussian model, they would set goals and leave the implementation to their subordinates. You write that the Third Reich only gave the appearance of being the "power of order par excellence", but in fact it was rather an unstable, chaotic system in which everyone competed with everyone else.

Exactly, in this book I just wanted to write what at first glance appears counterintuitive. A lot of what's in the book doesn't fit with what you think you know about National Socialism. State totalitarianism, rigid command structure, rigid execution. As viewers of documentaries, we regularly fall prey to that image that the National Socialists constructed about themselves. Think of Leni Riefenstahl's films. The Nazi regime is depicted as tightly organised, with people marching everywhere. But in fact it wasn't like that.

The National Socialists ultimately wanted to achieve so much in such a short time that it could only be chaotic. They knew that Germans could not be expected to do so much if they were ruled in an authoritarian manner. Therefore, the National Socialists at least pretended that those people who implemented their ideas were free in their work. Here again we see the image that is essential to Nazi ideology: "We Germans are free. Over in the East, in the USSR - that's Asia - lived subhumans that were ruled by Jews with a whip. We Germanic people are different, we are free." Sub-organisations of the "German Labour Front" like "Strength through Joy" also get in on this. Here "joy through work" means initiative from below. We have a goal, but the subordinates have freedom of means to achieve that goal. But they also shoulder the responsibility if it doesn't work out.

If we look at Reinhard Höhn's career, it speaks volumes that he was able to transition from one era to another so smoothly. That says a lot about our present, because it began after 1945.

Johann Chapoutot

Let's talk about the present day. Your book is subtitled "Management, from Nazism to Today". Ideas like freedom through flat hierarchies and inner leadership are familiar to us in the field of modern management.

If we look at Reinhard Höhn's career, it speaks volumes that he was able to transition from one era to another so smoothly. That says a lot about our present, because it began after 1945. During the Cold War, Nazis were needed and they were needed everywhere - not only in Germany, but also in the United States and in France. Thousands of men from the Waffen SS were accepted into the French Foreign Legion to continue fighting communism in Vietnam.

More than 600,000 managers - from BMW, Aldi, Thyssen-Krupp and so on- went through Höhn's academy. Höhn is sometimes cited as a pioneer of modern management consulting. Why would you say his theories were so successful in the post-war period?

Höhn had the advantage of proposing a management theory with the Harzburg model that was adapted to the spirit of the times. His ideas dominated the German space: "We are free as producers just as we are free as voters or as consumers. We are free, while those over there - under communism - are un-free." But economists like Peter Drucker basically said the same thing with his notion of Management by Objectives, which he discusses in his book The Practice of Management, published in 1954. Bear in mind, he was a Jew of Austrian origins who emigrated to the US in 1939.

Höhn ultimately understood that the German economy, which had traditionally been oriented towards the East, now had to adjust to the West. That is why he founded the Academy of Business Leaders in 1956. In France we also had such an academy in Fontainebleau, which was about re-orienting the economy towards the West.

I'd like to come back to the point that National Socialism is not an exception in modernity, but a phenomenon within it. In your book, you make the link between industrialisation and the Nazi regime: "The transition from its degradation of the human being as material, as a resource or factor of production, to its exploitation, even destruction, does not lack a certain logic," you write. It seems to me that this is almost an eternal question. One could also see Calvinism as a forerunner of this development and so on.

Of course. Max Weber immediately comes to mind: rationalisation and reification. But we also see these principles in Catholicism. Think of René Descartes, who in the 17th century thought that we humans had to rule over nature as masters, and that animals are no more than objects. He speaks of animals as machines. For Descartes, nature is an infinite surface we humans can use to do something with. This is a western logic that is found in print a lot, especially in the 19th century - in colonialism, in Darwinism. There, the complete and ruthless exploitation of women, children, trees, animals - basically everything - as a source of energy, is propagated. Resources that are to be literally "exhausted". The National Socialists took this idea further with people in concentration camps and German industry made vast amounts of money from it.

This can be seen very clearly in terms like "human material", which the National Socialists used. In Germany, people still speak of "human capital", in France of "ressource humaine".