Did the Nazis invent modern management culture?

In his essay ‘Free to Obey,’ the French historian Johann Chapoutot highlights the parallels between business administration and the methods of Hitler’s Germany

Adolf Hitlers visited a Siemens factory in Berlin, 1933, after his final rally before winning the parliamentary elections
Adolf Hitlers visited a Siemens factory in Berlin, 1933, after his final rally before winning the parliamentary electionsKeystone (Getty Images)

Is there a link between how modern companies are managed… and Nazi Germany? In his groundbreaking essay, Free to Obey, historian Johann Chapoutot – professor of Contemporary History at the Sorbonne – describes how Hitler’s regime launched a model of hierarchical organization based on individual initiative and the delegation of responsibilities.

According to Chapoutot, the Nazis defended a non-authoritarian conception of work, where the worker was no longer a subordinate, but rather a “collaborator” – a notion that may seem to contradict the restrictive character of the Third Reich.

This strategy of assigning tasks and defining competencies – opposed to the verticality of British or French capitalism at the end of the 19th century – was at the service of the German war economy and the extermination of millions of people. However, it ended up surviving the end of the Second World War in 1945, and was left as an inheritance to post-war Europe.

The essay caused astonishment and some controversy when it was published in France in 2020, where it became a small publishing phenomenon.

“I discovered the similarities between the Nazi and neoliberal models by studying the work of German jurists, who theorized about a new normative framework for the regime: they needed a new moral law, a new right that would authorize them to exterminate part of the population,” explains Chapoutot in a restaurant attached to the Sorbonne. Among these theorists was Reinhard Höhn, who, after World War II, became the father of modern management in Germany.

Höhn believed that the state should disappear and give way to new government agencies that were less bureaucratic and more dynamic, in which autonomous and happy workers would thrive. For Chapoutot, studying the labor organization of the Nazi regime allows us to delve into another, even more thorny question: that of the historical status of Nazism in Europe.

“The Nazis are fully integrated into Western history. Hitler’s legacy is inscribed in our modernity. In reality, the Nazis did not invent anything. They [simply] took logics that existed before their rise to power and took them to the extreme… they then remained after the disappearance of the regime.”

The essay dismantles many myths about Nazism. For instance, Hitler was actually opposed to the idea of a strong state – revered in Prussian times – as he considered it to be to the detriment of the German people. In 1934, he declared, “it is not the state that gives us orders, but we who give orders to the state.”

In opposition to Marxism, the Nazis promoted a kind of voluntary alienation of the worker. “They promoted a new concept of subordination that would be accepted by the subordinate himself. Nazism’s projects were gigantic: they had to produce, expand, reproduce and prepare for war in record time. Repression did not work. It was necessary to obtain the consent, or even the enthusiasm, of those subjected,” Chapoutot points out. This ambition gave rise to an organization of work that highlighted its pleasant character, ventilation and hygiene measures, ergonomics and leisure activities.

 The historian Johann Chapoutot, author of 'Free to Obey,' in Paris, September 2022
The historian Johann Chapoutot, author of 'Free to Obey,' in Paris, September 2022Bruno Arbesú

In Nazi Germany, the phrase “strength through joy” was popularized by the Ministry of Propaganda, with the rulers convinced that production could only be sustained through an illusory sense of joy and well-being. The state organized vacations for workers, concerts in factories, sports activities, special diets and courses to manage stressful workloads. The parallels to the “happiness managers” that have emerged in Silicon Valley – offering yoga courses and installing foosball tables for employees – are eerie.

The goal of Hitler and Propaganda Minister Goebbels – as they made clear in two speeches delivered on May 1, 1933 – was to end the class struggle and eliminate conflict in the workplace, so as not to harm productivity.

“In contrast to what they labeled as ‘Jewish Marxism’ – which opposed work and capital – Nazi propaganda launched another image: the engineer and the worker shaking hands. In the First World War, they had fought together in the trenches, because they were part of the same nation and the same race. Marxism threatened to destroy that unity,” explains Chapoutot. “Hitler told the workers that he was one of them.”

Above all, the Nazis advocated social Darwinism: a society of winners and losers, where the latter could only blame themselves for their failure. To be an acceptable citizen, you had to not only belong to the right race, but also produce beyond your means.

“When this was not the case, the individual became a dead weight for society, which opened the door to their extermination. The Nazis represent a kind of dehumanization that is still valid today. We are no longer people, but human material… an omnipresent expression in the language of the Nazi regime, which was later renamed ‘human resources.’”

Chapoutot thinks that the massive layoffs taking place in the post-industrial era are tied to the dehumanization pushed in the 1930s and 40s. He recalls the privatization of France Télécom, which resulted in 35 worker suicides in 2009.

“Two years earlier, its CEO had stated that the 22,000 laid off employees – useless for a public company in the process of privatization – should leave ‘by the door or by the window.’ And that’s what happened,” the historian laments.

He admits that his essay has a deeply political dimension. “With respect to the current climate, we need to remember where that dangerous vocabulary comes from.”

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