Bryan Caplan  

Hitler's Argument for Conquest

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What was Hitler's argument for attacking other countries? You might think he didn't have one, but he did. His argument is frankly Malthusian: Our population is growing, and we will run out of food unless we get more land. (My colleague David Levy tells me that Malthus wasn't a Malthusian, but that's a topic for another day!) It's all in chapter four of Mein Kampf:

The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.

Hitler then reviews various policies to deal with the threat of over-population:

1. Artificial birth control. Hitler rejects this because it short-circuits natural selection. Furthermore, there is an international prisoners' dilemma: The one country that lets its numbers rise will outnumber and militarily dominate the rest:

But if that policy be carried out the final results must be that such a nation will eventually terminate its own existence on this earth; for though man may defy the eternal laws of procreation during a certain period, vengeance will follow sooner or later. A stronger race will oust that which has grown weak; for the vital urge, in its ultimate form, will burst asunder all the absurd chains of this so-called humane consideration for the individual and will replace it with the humanity of Nature, which wipes out what is weak in order to give place to the strong.

2. Increasing productivity via "internal colonization." Hitler rejects this on a priori Malthusian grounds - there is no way for productivity to permanently outpace population growth:

It is certainly true that the productivity of the soil can be increased within certain limits; but only within defined limits and not indefinitely. By increasing the productive powers of the soil it will be possible to balance the effect of a surplus birth-rate in Germany for a certain period of time, without running any danger of hunger. But we have to face the fact that the general standard of living is rising more quickly than even the birth rate. The requirements of food and clothing are becoming greater from year to year and are out of proportion to those of our ancestors of, let us say, a hundred years ago. It would, therefore, be a mistaken view that every increase in the productive powers of the soil will supply the requisite conditions for an increase in the population.

3. Acquire new territory outside of Europe. The problem with this plan, says Hitler, is that other European countries have already taken the good non-European land. So you would have to attack European countries to get the land:

In the nineteenth century it was no longer possible to acquire such colonies by peaceful means. Therefore any attempt at such a colonial expansion would have meant an enormous military struggle. Consequently it would have been more practical to undertake that military struggle for new territory in Europe rather than to wage war for the acquisition of possessions abroad.

4. Acquire new territory inside Europe. At last, a solution to the imbalance between people and land that Hitler likes! And of course, he doesn't contemplate buying the land:

Of course people will not voluntarily make that accommodation. At this point the right of self-preservation comes into effect. And when attempts to settle the difficulty in an amicable way are rejected the clenched hand must take by force that which was refused to the open hand of friendship. If in the past our ancestors had based their political decisions on similar pacifist nonsense as our present generation does, we should not possess more than one-third of the national territory that we possess to-day and probably there would be no German nation to worry about its future in Europe.

5. Last, Hitler briefly mentions increasing exports to buy food, but dismisses it almost without consideration.

Linking views you don't like with Hitler is of course the ultimate political cheap shot. But as an economist, I don't mind buying cheap, especially if the quality is good. When someone says "There are too many Jews," we suspect that he wants to kill Jews. Similarly, it turns out that at the root of Hitler's propensity to kill people was his belief that there are too many people.

And if you're tempted to say that Hitler proposed a barbaric solution for a real problem, take a look at how Germany actually did feed its population since 1945: increasing agricultural productivity and increasing exports. The two methods that Hitler dismissed out of hand transformed Germany into one of the richest nations in history.

For more on the history and economics of Nazism, check out my article on fascism, forthcoming in the Encyclopedia of Capitalism.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Deb McAdams writes:

What exactly are you arguing against?

Hitler is dead. Who is making the malthusian argument that you are disproving by using Mein Kampf?

Dave Meleney writes:

Deb doesn't see any Malthusian arguments on the table... guess she hasn't noticed that groups like Zero Population Growth still have more influence than Julian Simon does at the NYTimes and even at USAToday. John Edwards rise in the Democratic primaries was largely in response to a neo-malthusian argument... the fear that all our jobs (200million of them) are going to have to be shared with two billion Chinese and Indians!

Did Hitler's Malthusian concerns precede and produce his taste for empire, as you suggest? If so, why not write a book titled "Hitler's Earliest Errors"? Would be a great platform for you to compare Hitler to Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and modern academic socialists who fashion themselves as more advanced and modern. Spose you'd need more than one museum then, no?

jaimito writes:

Hitler's arguments were lumpen-proletar wisdom of Vienna 1910. It could be argued that except for us Jews, Hitler was not a specially sanguinary dictator. Should have been Madagascar available or Israel established in 1939, probably my family would have survived the war.

Wilson writes:

Who is making the malthusian argument

Evidently Deb has not read Jarred Diamond's most recent best seller _Collapse_.

And Paul Ehrlich's "genius" award yet to be revoked by the MacArthur Foundation.

John F. Opie writes:

Hi -

Actually, Hitler's propensity to kill people was his belief not that there were too many people, but rather there were too many "others" who were denying his glorius Germans their rightful place as the master race.

'cause, shucks, they ain't even human, you know? They're "Untermenschen", a lower form of being.

So in reality it's not that simple: his solutions of taking care of Germans meant nothing less than the physical destruction of those who were non-Germans, or at least non-Aryans. Sort of the ultimate beggar-thy-neighbor policy.


PS: And I don't think it's a good idea to envoke Hitler and german fascism unless you really want to make a heavy, heavy point. Which the vast majority of those doing so fail to.

Lawrance George Lux writes:

Hitler's real reason for War lay in his belief in the natural selection process. He believed Civilization was a weakening process, and rising too far from the animals would sap the strength of a race.

His economic views were slightly more draconian: He believes old economic structures had to be destroyed in warfare, in order for new economic structures to hold the power necessary to produce and survive. This Later view has yet to be disproved, as Europe has been far more productive since he destroyed most of it. lgl

Eric H writes:

No, I think Bryan is right. After outlining the 5 policies in Mein Kampf, Hitler goes on to write at length about autarky and how it is to be accomplished. I thought that perhaps Bryan was overstating his case in the part he boldfaced, but upon reflection I think he may be right.

Hitler believed there were too many Germans to be supported in Germany. Therefore, they had to take over land to the east. The inhabitants there will simply be displaced (Hitler only talks about their fate in a roundabout way, but we need no longer guess). Mein Kampf shows that he clearly believes in the Malthusian problem and in the elimination of people. Obviously, he was going to start by eliminating the people he regarded as the most harmful, followed by those deemed least helpful. Jews and criminals made the first list, Slavs and the diseased made the second list (in his racial hierarchy).

For an extended version of the autarky angle of National Socialism, I recommend Mises' Omnipotent Government. I thought Mises overstated it a bit until I read Mein Kampf. After reading The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts, it became obvious that Hitler wasn't a lone voice on the subject. Various socialists had been pounding the antisemitic and the autarky drums for some time before Hitler came to power. And on that point, it is worth reviewing how Hitler came to power before dismissing the Nazi rise as simply an aberration. Although appealing to whether Hitler or the Nazis followed some policy is overdone, there is now enough known about the rise to make it clear that there was nothing extraordinary about it or them.

Today, we have groups like and the rest of the Peak Oil "movement" (seriously - look it up and check out the various websites) making essentially the same case as Garrett Hardin did. That is, we need to start practicing lifeboat ethics: Seal the borders and stop acting as the relief valve for the overpopulated third world. Devote money and power to limiting population. Raise the price of energy and slow economic growth. Some actually believe that we are facing a 5.5 billion person decline in human population within the next 50 years. And they get lots of press (though the press is reluctant to reveal the full agenda).

Wilson writes:

For a contemporary benchmark, David Duke is also keen on population, resource, and environment issues (especially wrt immigration).

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