When Hitler came to power in 1933 the farmer, as in most countries, was in desperate straits. According to a writer in the Frankfurter Zeitung, his situation was worse than at any time since the disastrous Peasants’ War of 1524–25 devastated the German land. Agricultural income in 1932–33 had fallen to a new low, more than a billion marks below the worst postwar year, 1924–25. The farmers were in debt to the amount of twelve billions, almost all of it incurred in the last eight years. Interest on these debts took some 14 per cent of all farm income, and to this was added a comparable burden in taxes and contributions to social services.
“My party comrades, make yourselves clear about one thing: There is only one last, one final last chance for the German peasantry,” Hitler warned at the outset of his chancellorship, and in October 1933 he declared that “the ruin of the German peasant will be the ruin of the German people.”
For years the Nazi Party had cultivated the backing of the farmers. Point 17 of the “inalterable” party program promised them “land reform … a law for confiscation without compensation of land for common purposes; abolition of interest on farm loans, and prevention of all speculation in land.” Like most of the other points of the program, the promises to the farmers were not kept—with the exception of the last provision against land speculation. In 1938, after five years of Nazi rule, land distribution remained more lopsided than in any other country in the West. Figures published that year in the official Statistical Year Book showed that the smallest two and a half million farms had less land than the top. 1 per cent. The Nazi dictatorship, like the Socialist-bourgeois governments of the Republic, did not dare to break up the immense feudal estates of theJunkers, which lay to the east of the Elbe.
Nevertheless, the Nazi regime did inaugurate a sweeping new farm program accompanied by much sentimental propaganda about “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil) and the peasant’s being the salt of the earth and the chief hope of the Third Reich. To carry it out Hitler appointed Walther Darré, one of the few party leaders who, though he subscribed to most of the Nazi myths, knew his field professionally and well. An outstanding agricultural specialist with suitable academic training, he had served in the Agriculture Ministries of Prussia and the Reich. Forced to leave them because of conflicts with his superiors, he retired to his home in the Rhineland in 1929 and wrote a book entitled The Peasantry as the Life Source of the Nordic Race. Such a title was bound to attract the attention of the Nazis. Rudolf Hess brought Darré to Hitler, who was so impressed with him that he commissioned him to draw up a suitable farm program for the party.
With Hugenberg’s dismissal in June 1933, Darré became Minister of Food and Agriculture. By September he was ready with his plans to make over German agriculture. Two basic laws promulgated in that month reorganized the entire structure of production and marketing, with a view to ensuring higher prices for farmers, and at the same time put the German peasant on a new footing—accomplishing this, paradoxically, by putting him back on a very old footing in which farms were entailed, as in feudal days, and the farmer and successive inheritors compulsorily attached to their particular plot of soil (provided they were Aryan Germans) to the end of time.
The Hereditary Farm Law of September 29, 1933, was a remarkable mixture of pushing back the peasants to medieval days and of protecting them against the abuses of the modern monetary age. All farms up to 308 acres (125 hectares) which were capable of providing a decent living for a family were declared to be hereditary estates subject to the ancient laws of entailment. They could not be sold, divided, mortgaged or foreclosed for debts. Upon the death of the owner they had to be passed on to the oldest or youngest son, in accordance with local customs, or to the nearestmale relative, who was obliged to provide a living and an education for his brothers and sisters until they were of age. Only an Aryan German citizen who could prove the purity of his blood back to 1800 could own such a farm. And only such a man, the law stipulated, could bear the “honored title” Bauer, or Peasant, which he forfeited if he broke the “peasant honor code” or ceased, because of incapacity or otherwise, to actively farm. Thus the heavily indebted German farmer, at the beginning of the Third Reich, was protected from losing his property by foreclosures or from seeing it shrink in size (there being no necessity to sell a piece of it to repay a debt), but at the same time he was bound to the soil as irrevocably as the serfs of feudal times.
And every aspect of his life and work was strictly regulated by the Reich Food Estate, which Darré established by a law of September 13, 1933, a vast organization with authority over every conceivable branch of agricultural production, marketing and processing, and which he himself headed in his capacity of Reich Peasant Leader. Its chief objectives were two: to obtain stable and profitable prices for the farmer and to make Germany self-sufficient in food.
How well did it succeed? In the beginning, certainly, the farmer, who for so long had felt himself neglected in a State which seemed to be preoccupied with the interests of business and labor, was flattered to be singled out for so much attention and proclaimed a national hero and an honored citizen. He was more pleased at the rise in prices which Darré obtained for him by simply arbitrarily fixing them at a profitable level. In the first two years of Nazi rule wholesale agricultural prices increased by 20 per cent (in vegetables, dairy products and cattle the rise was a little more) but this advantage was partially offset by a similar rise in the things which the farmer had to buy—above all in machinery and fertilizer.
As for self-sufficiency in food, which was deemed necessary by the Nazi leaders, who already, as we shall see, were plotting war, the goal was never achieved, nor—given the quality and quantity of German soil in relation to its population—could it ever be. The best the country could do, despite all Nazi efforts in the much-advertised “Battle of Production,” was to reach 83 per cent of self-sufficiency and it. was only by the conquest of foreign lands that the Germans obtained enough food to enable them to hold out during the second war as long as they did.