In the economic field Hitler’s obsession was oil. Oil to him was the element of progress, the driving force of the machine age. He had read everything that had ever been written about oil. He was acquainted with the history of the Arabian and American oilfields, and knew about oil extraction and refining. Anyone turning the conversation to oil could be sure of Hitler’s attention. Goering was put in charge of the economic four-year plan because he was playing Hitler’s favourite card: oil.
Typical of Hitler’s attitude is an attested remark he made about an efficient civil servant in the Trade Policy Department of the German Foreign Office: “I can’t bear the man – but he does understand about oil.” Hitler’s Balkan policy was based entirely on Rumania’s oil. He had built into the Barbarossa directive a special campaign against the Crimea, merely because he was worried about the Rumanian oilfields, which he believed could be threatened by the Soviet Air Force from the Crimea.
Every one of Hitler’s idées fixes played its fatal part in the war against Russia – but most decisive of all was his obsession with oil.
From a lengthy secret report produced in 1946 by the British Defence Ministry, titled ‘Oil as a Factor in the German War Effort, 1933-1945’:
Bent upon the total mobilisation of all domestic resources, the National Socialists, from the moment of their seizure of power, did everything possible to expand crude oil production.
The Mining Laws were immediately altered to permit large-scale exploration and a comprehensive geophysical survey was set on foot. A large programme was worked out for increased drilling and exploration with public funds and, in addition, industry was compelled to spend large sums of its own for the same purpose.
As a result of these measures total drilling increased from 62,000 metres in 1932 to 220,000 metres in 1938, the exploration drilling in virgin areas increasing from 13,000 to 100,000 metres. The effect was a 150 per cent, growth in crude oil output.
Addendum to Hitler’s Directive No. 34, addressed to the Army’s High Command (OKH) on 15 August 1941:
The most important missions before the onset of winter are to seize the Crimea and the industrial and coal regions of the Don, deprive the Russians of the opportunity to obtain oil from the Caucasus… rather than capture Moscow.
Hitler to Friedrich Paulus and other members of the OKH, 1 June 1942, at the Ukrainian headquarters of Army Group South: ‘If I do not get the the oil of Maykop and Grozny, then I must end this war.’
Hitler’s table talk from August 1942, speaking from his new HQ Werwolf:
We must at all costs advance into the plains of Mesopotamia and take the Mosul oil-fields from the British. If we succeed here, the whole war will come to an end, for the British have now only Haifa as their sole loading port for oil.
As regards oil, statistics show that the Russians until quite recently obtained 92 per cent of their oil from the Caucasus.
[Hitler] had decided to try something entirely new after the unfortunate experiences on the Central Front in the previous year, and to seek the decision in the south by depriving Stalin of his Caucasian oil and by thrusting into Persia. Rommel’s Africa Army played a part in this plan.
The “desert fox,” who was just then preparing his offensive from Cyrenaica against the British positions at Gazala and against Tobruk, the heart of the British defence of North Africa, was to advance right across Egypt and the Arabian Desert to the Persian Gulf.
In this way Persia, the only point of contact between Britain and Russia, and after Murmansk the greatest supply base of US help for Russia, would be eliminated. Moreover, in addition to the Russian oilfields the very much richer Arabian oilfields would fall into German hands.
German military intervention in Iraq had commenced the previous year, threatening what Time magazine called ‘the carotid artery of the British Empire, the Mosul-Haifa oil pipeline.’
Hitler’s Directive No, 30 announced support for ‘forces hostile to England in the Middle East’, while Rommel undertook ‘an offensive against the Suez Canal, finally to break the British position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.’
Directive No. 32 then envisaged the ‘despatch of a motorized expeditionary force from Transcaucasia against Iraq’.
Hitler in August 1942, after Maykop was taken: ‘In the East it will be all over once we have cut their communications to the south and to Murmansk. Without oil they are finished!’
The opportunities for plunder offered by the Ukraine and Caspian oil excited particular giddiness and dreams of autarky:
There are here a million tons of wheat in reserve from last year’s harvest. Just think what it will be like when we get things properly organised, and the oil-wells are in our possession! …
When the war ends, the German people need not bother its head about what it is going to do during the next fifty years!
We shall become the most self-supporting State, in every respect, including cotton, in the world. The only thing we shall not have will be a coffee plantation — but we’ll find a coffee-growing colony somewhere or other! Timber we shall have in abundance, iron in limitless quantity, the greatest manganese-ore mines in the world, oil — we shall swim in it!
And to handle it all, the whole strength of the entire German man-power!
The German chancellor, dazzled by cornucopian visions, anticipated the realization of Generalplan Ost, the most ruthless of 1930s imperial projects, which had succeeded the earlier visions of the Pan-German League and the September Program.
The fertile and mineral-rich East would supply German enterprises with raw materials, and German farmers would populate a soon-to-be denuded steppe:
The river of the future is the Danube. We’ll connect it to the Dnieper and the Don by the Black Sea. The petroleum and grain will come flowing towards us.
The canal from the Danube to the Main can never be built too big.
Add to this the canal from the Danube to the Oder, and we’ll have an economic circuit of unheard-of dimensions.
Europe will gain in importance, of herself. Europe, and no longer America, will be the country of boundless possibilities. If the Americans are intelligent, they’ll realise how much it will be to their interest to take part in this work.
There is no country that can be to a larger extent autarkic than Europe will be. Where is there a region capable of supplying iron of the quality of Ukrainian iron? Where can one find more nickel, more coal, more manganese, more molybdenum? The Ukraine is the source of manganese to which even America goes for its supplies.
And, on top of that, so many other possibilities! The vegetable oils, the hevea plantations to be organised. With 100,000 acres devoted to the growing of rubber, our needs are covered.
Through the Black Sea and up the Danube will come iron, manganese ore, coal, oil, wheat — all in an unending stream.
In 26 July 1942 one could find Hitler daydreaming over lunch about the discovery of vast new oil deposits:
The presence of oil in the Caucasus, in the vicinity of Vienna and in the Harz leads one to suspect the existence of an oilfield of whose magnitude and importance one had not the least idea. This is not in the least surprising. As in the case of mineral wealth, the trusts would immediately buy up any newly discovered oil-bearing territories, with the intention of restricting their development to a degree compatible with their other interests; in this, their primary object would be to prevent exploitation by others.
One must give the Russians their due and admit that, in this respect, they have succeeded in limiting the power of monopolies and eliminating private interests. As a result, they are now in a position to prospect throughout their territory for oil, whose position and probable extension are studied by experts with the assistance of very large-scale maps. In this way, they have not only been able to trace the course of the oil-veins, but have also verified their facts and extended their knowledge by test borings carried out at the expense of the State. There is a lot we can learn from them.
There is no limit to what we could have extracted from the sources in the vicinity of Vienna, if the State had undertaken the necessary exploitation in time. This, added to the oil-wells of the Caucasus and Rumania, would have saved us from all anxiety for the future. One must not, however, forget that oil-wells are not inexhaustible; and that is why I am still in favour of gas-driven public vehicles, and particularly of gas-driven vehicles for the Party.
Yet these lofty goals were prompted not by grandiose delusion but by simple exigency.
Hitler’s private fixation on oil wasn’t simply a matter of his personal idiosyncracies or predilections. It met the most remorseless, pressing imperative facing the German elite: to secure oil for the Wehrmacht and deny it to the Red Army and British Empire.
Oil lay at the root of Hitler’s notorious difficulties with the Army’s High Command (OKH), whom he said ‘know nothing about the economic aspects of war.’
Germany had abundant supplies of coal in the Ruhr and Silesia, but other strategic materials were less plentiful. For their ongoing supply to be assured against interruption or blockade, it was vital to assert military control over these sources and transport routes, both maritime and overland.
Thus Berlin’s attempt to annex the iron ore of France’s Lorraine basin during the First World War, and the last-ditch lunge for Caspian oil by General Ludendorff in 1918.
In November 1918, the British war cabinet could boast it had ‘floated to victory on a wave of oil’. Later, when describing the actions of Hitler’s government from 1933, the British Defence Ministry would recall this remark of Curzon’s, and the lessons it had imparted to Berlin.
In 1938 Göring’s Reich Office for Economic Development, chaired by the IG Farben’s Carl Krauch, had conducted technical studies into the volumes of raw materials and inputs – oil, rubber, chemicals, tungsten, copper and nickel – that Germany would need for sustained military mobilization.
It estimated that the armed forces would need 485 000 tons of oil products per month, and the entire war and armaments machine would consume almost 700 000 tons.
Yet Germany had limited domestic production and refining capacity (200 000 tons per month) and deficient stocks of strategic reserves: only 2.1 million tons, barely enough to cover a few months of civilian commercial activity.
By contrast, Britain had 6.7 million tons of oil in storage at the outbreak of war. The United States, meanwhile, produced 164 million tons of crude oil in 1938, and the Soviet Union 32 million tons.
For aerial warfare, which consumed vast quantities of fuel, Berlin was dependent on unconventional, high-cost sources of energy. The Luftwaffe depended for its aviation fuel on synthetic oil produced from coal via the Bergius hydrogenation process (an alternative to the Fischer-Tropsch process).
In addition, the diesel-powered and fuel oil-driven ships and submarines of the Kriegsmarine would also need ready supplies of crude oil. So would the petrol-fuelled trucks, tanks and motorized artillery of the army divisions.
The territorial boundaries of the German state did not contain the wells and refineries sufficient to meet these needs. In 1939 Germany’s net imports reached 5.2 million tons.
Moreover, Germany’s weak balance of payments position on the current account, and the legacy of Versailles, meant that it had acquired few net assets abroad during the 1920s.
German energy firms therefore lacked the stock of external oil investments held by their continental rivals in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Given this deficit between its domestic oil production and consumption, and the predictable wartime imposition of naval blockades, interdictions and disruption to overland supply routes (imposed by the British and French from September 1939), German oil stocks would be rapidly depleted.
This meant that the German government’s fuel would have to come from abroad, and would need to be seized.
The Wehrmacht would capture its own oil supplies and deny them to the Red Army and British Empire:
Four days after the [June 1940] signing of the Franco-German Armistice the Office of the Four-Year Plan produced a “Petroleum Plan for Europe.” This plan foresaw a Continental oil deficit, exclusive of the requirements of Great Britain and Russia, of 18 500 000 tons a year. This deficit was to be met by 18 200 000 tons of oil from the Middle East. It is interesting that this plan made no allowance… for any consumption by Great Britain which was presumably envisaged as either standing in unconquerable isolation or as a vassal State no longer worthy of the benefits of oil.
This 1940 plan, drafted by Alfred Bentz, Göring’s plenipotentiary for petroleum, concluded: ‘To keep Europe supplied it is essential to secure the petroleum of the Middle East.’
As it turned out, in 1941 the Luftwaffe consumed about 100 000 tons of oil per month, the Kriegsmarine about 100 000, and the army 200 000, for annual oil consumption of 4.8 million tons.
To meet these needs, in 1940 the Romanian oil interests of recently conquered French, Dutch and Belgian firms were acquired by German firms like Deutsche Bank, and Romanian exports were redirected to supply German industrial needs.
German shareholders had owned 0.2 percent of Romanian oil assets in 1939; by 1941 this figure reached 48 percent. One million tons of Romanian oil went to Germany in 1940 and 2 million in 1941 – by then, being distributed directly to the Wehrmacht on the eastern front.
But this wasn’t nearly enough.
Early in 1941, before the attack on the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht’s chief of war economy Georg Thomas warned Göring that the German armed forces only had enough fuel for a few more months of operations:
It is crucial to seize quickly and exploit the Caucasus oilfields, at least the areas around Maykop and Grozny… If this is not successful, we must expect the most serious repercussions, with unpredictable consequences for military operations after 1 August and for the survival of the economy.
Göring replied that the oil resouces of Baku would soon be seized ‘at all costs.’ His notorious Green Folder, a June 1941 OKW directive setting out priorities for the Soviet operation, read:
To obtain the greatest possible quantity of food and crude oil for Germany – that is the main economic purpose of the campaign.
The same month, Thomas drafted a memo for Göring’s Economic Organization East:
The military leadership has again and again to be reminded that a campaign against Russia has largely economic motives and that in this campaign the demands of the economy must be taken into account more than is usually the case.
When winter fell early, Hitler instructed his armies to secure a position on the lower Don and Donets, and prepare for a spring offensive against the Caucasian oilfields.
Soviet Marshal Timoshenko, charged with protecting the latter, observed in late 1941: ‘The only thing that matters is oil… [We] have to do all we can (a) to make Germany increase her oil consumption and (b) to keep German armies out of the Caucasus.’
Meanwhile the Wehrmacht was attempting to seize the shipment ports and airfields of the Black Sea, to protect the Romanian oilfields on its western shore.
In Tehran in 1943, in one of his pithy wartime toasts, Stalin acknowledged that Moscow and its US and British allies were engaged in ‘a war of engines and octanes’.
In the preparation and conduct of this conflict, the supposedly private fixations of the German leadership – Hitler’s obsession with oil, which he shared with Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – was most propitious for German imperialism.
The interwar years had brought fragmentation of the capitalist world economy. The benevolent, positive-sum game of the Pax Britannica and the Gold Standard had broken apart into rivalrous autarkic blocs, each armed to the teeth and engaged in zero-sum competition for resources, colonial possessions and markets.
Then, as now, in any conflict between territorial states the winner would be the party that could mobilize the greatest volume of economic resources to squander on war: that could tax, requisition, procure, conscript or plunder the largest surplus from its domestic economy or external sources.
In this contest to expand war production, certain commodities, in particular oil, presented a strategic bottleneck for each contending power.
Petrol, lubricants and other oil products and distillates (POL) limited a state’s productive (and military) capacity since they were a necessary input for armament production, chemicals, transport and logistics, and military operations themselves.
A state that would advance its interests through extra-territorial aggression was therefore condemned to stalk the earth with heaving breast and slavering mouth, thirsty for oil, sequestering oil reserves from its rivals, and asserting control over supply routes.
That is why US president Roosevelt, in his April 1939 telegram to Hitler, had asked the German chancellor to ‘give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory or possessions’ of several European states as well as ‘Turkey, Iraq, the Arabias, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iran.’
If Berlin would publicly commit to a ‘a minimum period of assured non-aggression – ten years at the least – a quarter of a century, if we dare look that far ahead’, then:
The Government of the United States would be prepared to take part in discussions looking towards the most practical manner of opening up avenues of international trade to the end that every nation of the earth may be enabled to buy and sell on equal terms in the world market as well as to possess assurance of obtaining the materials and products of peaceful economic life.
After 1945, Washington itself would successfully prise open the European colonial empires and, through the Atlantic Charter and Bretton Woods institutions, secure ‘equal access’ to raw materials.
But I suspect these little asides and brief allusions haven’t been very useful, since the topic is now familiar to few people.
Back in 1973, Martin Van Creveld could write that it was ‘fashionable’ to see oil as the chief motivation behind Germany’s Balkan campaign, as well as in North Africa and the Soviet East.
Who today retains this impression?
General historiography remains more fascinated than ever by the Innenpolitik of Nazi racial doctrine, the microhistory of ‘everyday life’ under Hitler, and, in the (mostly Anglophone) scholarly backwaters, the psychology of political leaders.
For Hans Mommsen, ‘the regime’s foreign policy ambitions were many and varied, without any clear aims’: merely the haphazard outcome of domestic contingencies.
Thus, for the most part, the striving for oil in Hitler’s Drang nach Osten is judiciously left to the narrow and specialized attention of military historians. The recognized scholarly monuments afford oil a passing mention, at most.
Meanwhile, military historians writing for a popular audience (Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad or William Craig’s Enemy at the Gates) deliberately divorce their precise ‘soldier’s-eye view’ descriptions of famous battlefield ‘showdowns’ from any broader historical context, strategy, antecedents or consequences.
Thus the thirst for oil is absent from today’s conventional view of Hitler’s wars of aggression. Such an obvious elision of historical fact was not necessary until recently.
Once again, a desperate and predatory imperial power is trying to sweep through Iraq, Iran, the Caucasus, Central Asia and North Africa.
As this project has proceeded, it has been necessary to obliterate a prior stock of nationalist myths, wartime slogans, popular knowledge and historical interpretations, in order to sustain ‘the Allied victory over Nazi tyranny’ as an enduring ideological symbol supporting the institutions of US hegemony.
Even respectable, mainstream British historians of Nazi Germany have noted this deliberate cleansing of the historical record.
Thus Richard Overy observed, with reference to the US-led invasion of Iraq, how ‘popular ignorance about the nature of oil politics’ had been encouraged via the ‘view that oil is some kind of Marxist red herring’.
Yet, deplorably, such political confusion and historical ignorance has been spread with the help of several self-described Marxists, including the historian Robert Brenner and his epigones like Vivek Chibber.
These academics, linked to the group Solidarity, have derided as un-Marxist the idea that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a ‘war for oil’:
With respect to neo-liberalization, the Bush offensive was, at best, beside the point, an unnecessary distraction. At worst, it could conceivably endanger the globalization project…
Because the Gore administration would have sought both to sustain the post-Cold War status quo and to further the neo-liberal offensive, it would almost certainly have confined itself to attacking Afghanistan, most likely via NATO, but eschewed a military campaign in Iraq. Against this background, the shift in US policy represented by the attack on Iraq was not even conceivable apart from 9/11…
Given the already achieved level of US geo-political hegemony — in the sense of legitimized dominance — there was so little to be gained in terms of standard US geopolitical and pro-capitalist goals, that the risk-adjusted cost — especially taking into account the multiple ways in which things could go disastrously wrong — ruled out any campaign to significantly revise the world political order.
Because the goals of the Bush administration are, in effect, so sweeping, they are not remotely capable of being put into practice. Because, in so far as they are practicable, they speak to such narrow interests, they are not easy to sell to the US elite as a whole (although it must be admitted that they command major support within the Republican Party, precisely because those interests are disproportionately represented there). In the end, in view of its meager foreign policy payoffs, how the program of these adventurers could achieve such a powerful grip upon the US state constitutes a real conundrum, from the standpoint of both theory and history.
The paradoxical conclusion of the foregoing analysis is that very broad sections of US capital support, or at least acquiesce in, a new, and breathtakingly ambitious, imperialist project that, in itself, speaks in no obvious way to their interests.
In terms of the premises that had underpinned US postwar foreign policy, there seemed little requirement, or motivation, for the sort of global campaign that the Bush administration has now unleashed.
Is it really conceivable that world oil, today capitalism’s most globalised and profitable industry, would be subjected – in its production, pricing, distribution, and so forth – to government regulation by the most free-market, oil industry-dominated régime in American history? … On the other hand, any attempt by the US to use control over the oil spigot as a geopolitical weapon, by withholding oil from an opponent to extract concessions, would be considered tantamount to war – as in World War II, when the US sought to close off the supply of oil to Japan. But if the US were willing essentially to declare war by preventing another nation from accessing Middle-East oil, there would be no need to invade the Middle East in order to do so. It could merely use its control of the air and the sea to interdict the flow from that region.
And, repeatedly, from the economist Cyrus Bina:
[Why] do people find it necessary to appeal to anachronistic and misleading phrases, such as “No Blood for Oil”? Would it not be better for the Left, and for the global peace-movement in general, to re-examine the meaning of their actions and slogans? Isn’t it worthwhile for the Left to study the stigma of commodity fetishism behind this phrase?
Such remarks bespeak a view in which imperialist war constitutes an unnecessary, regrettable and messy diversion from the ordinary, clean, peaceful business of capitalism.
Today such a view is even less sustainable than it was in 1938.