At the point Hitler came to power, Germany’s economy had begun to improve following the chaos of the Great Depression. Hitler took full credit. Gearing the economy for war, Hitler did not want Germany to be dependent on imports, and his first economics minister, Hjalmar Schacht, advanced Hitler’s objective of trying to secure autarky (economic self-sufficiency). Schacht also introduced public work schemes, such as the building of motorways, schools and hospitals, thereby greatly reducing unemployment, which fell from 6 million in 1933 to 1 million in 1938.
But Schacht began questioning Hitler’s war economy, believing it to be too costly and too quick for the country to cope with. However, Hitler believed that Germany’s expansion to the east and the eviction of the indigenous Slavic population would cause conflict with Britain and France. The economy, therefore, needed to be ready for war within four years. Schacht’s recommendations of a slowdown did not fit in with Hitler’s plans, so in 1936 Hitler replaced him with Göring. In 1944 Schacht was implicated in the July Bomb Plot on Hitler’s life. However, he managed to avoid execution and, having spent time in a concentration camp, survived the war.
Göring’s grasp of economics was questionable but, with Hitler’s prompting, he introduced the Four-Year Plan, a more aggressive policy towards obtaining autarky. The economy continued to improve, but it was less to do with economic efficiency and more to do with rapid rearmament: ‘Guns will make us strong; butter will make us fat,’ said Göring, a fine example of one who had overindulged in butter perhaps too often. By the time war came in 1939 Germany was still heavily reliant on the import of foodstuffs and raw materials. Autarky was never achieved.
Hermann Göring inspecting a troop of Hitler Youth, 12 January 1935, his forty-second birthday
Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-16515 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA