Mobilizing Metal for Total War: The Paradoxical Role of Jewish Scrap Metal Traders

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 9:30 AM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Chad B. Denton, Yonsei University
A year and a half before the outbreak of the First World War, Norbert Levy gave a public lecture in Berlin to reassure those who worried about Germany’s metal supply in the case of a future war. The owner of a small copper trading firm, Levy argued that the Germans had an untapped reserve: the market in scrap metal. Itinerant peddlers collected everyday metal objects, such as broken doorknobs, window latches, and clock pendulums. They sold them to brokers such as Levy, who identified, sorted, and weighed the objects and then resold them in bulk to foundries and refineries who transformed the metal into bars, wires, or plates. The same process worked at an industrial scale with used boilers from steam engines, distilleries from breweries, and copper wire from telephone, telegraph, or street-car lines. In August 1914 Germany’s War Raw Materials Department, under the civilian leadership of Jewish industrialist Walther Rathenau and with the support of German-Jewish metal traders, defied the British blockade by enlisting the help of the scrap industry. They instituted widespread, methodical metal requisitions in Germany and occupied territories that saved helped save the German war effort. Twenty-five years later Nazi Germany implemented nearly identical measures with similar success.

Without understanding the crucial role of German Jews in the requisition and salvage of raw materials in the First World War, it is not possible to appreciate fully the genesis of Nazi requisition and salvage policies in Germany in the 1930s and in occupied Europe in the 1940s. This paper traces the role of Jewish expertise and labor (both voluntary and forced) from the origins of German metal “mobilization” drives in the First World War, to their “Nazification” in the 1930s, and then to their systematic extension in occupied Europe.

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