Collaboration & Adaptation in Axis Europe
A review of Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire, Part 2
Part 2 of 2
Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
New York: Penguin Press, 2008
The New Order in the West: A Still-Born European Revolution
The heady days after Germany’s defeat of France in 1940, leaving her for all intents and purposes mistress of the Continent, are quite fascinating. Never before had the bourgeois parliamentary regimes been so discredited:
The Belgian socialist Henri de Man did not speak for himself alone when he proclaimed: “For the working classes and for socialism, this collapse of a decrepit world, far from being a disaster, is a deliverance.” (474)
Fascists [. . .] everywhere from Portugal to Romania hailed the Reich’s triumph as the sign of the international shift to the right: the fading legacy of the French Revolution had finally succumbed to the authority, youthful energy and discipline of National Socialism. (108)
The Italians were particularly keen on a genuinely European New Order: “For passionate fascists, after all, Europe’s future was at stake” (128). There was similar sentiment in certain elite French circles. The Bulgarians even moved that there be a common European policy on the Jewish question.
Many have faulted Hitler for not pursuing a coherent policy to unite Europe, on the model of Japan’s “Asia for the Asiatics” anti-colonialist revolution. Perhaps surprisingly, given Hitler’s long-stated ambition of permanently neutralizing France to secure Germany’s western flank, even his plans for that country were vague and undetermined (permanent occupation? Balkanization? Seizure of formerly Germanic territories? Something more generous to secure peace with the British?).
In the end, Hitler took a pragmatic approach, essentially ruling these countries according to the needs of the war (especially economic needs), and postponing decisions until peacetime. For the most part his approach was not ideological (there were exceptions: e.g., initially limiting Waffen-SS volunteers to Nordic and Germanic countries and restricting the number of French volunteers). The Dutch and Flemish received preferential treatment, seeing the release of their POWs. But Berlin opposed even relying on local mass National Socialist parties, as existed in Norway or the Netherlands, preferring to have perfectly dependent vassals, instead shaping an fully integrated elite through recruitment into the Waffen-SS.
Occupied Western Europe was better fed than during the First World War, famines were rare, and “birth rates rose substantially in many areas,” especially France (262). Denmark’s occupation was the happiest: “The Danes ended the war as a member of the United nations; but for at least three years, they found a comfortable niche in Germany’s New Order” (104). Norway’s was much more violent. Tens of thousands of western (especially Nordic/Germanic) Europeans joined the German armed forces, while hundreds of thousands immigrated to Germany as guest workers for the insatiable war economy. Women fraternizing with German troops were often unpopular with locals, instinctively opposing gene flow from the invaders (475).
The Third Reich’s relations with Vichy France and Spain were generally ones of constructive neutrality, but never more. Hitler apparently declined a Spanish offer to declare war on Great Britain in exchange for Gibraltar and French Morocco (114). He also did not take up French Admiral François Darlan’s offers to increase military cooperation against Britain in exchange for greater French sovereignty. Hitler fundamentally wanted to destroy the Soviet Union, not the British Empire.
Mazower notes that “Vichy’s politicians were French nationalists, gambling on whether German National Socialism was prepared to trust them sufficiently to grant them the power they sought” (419). Vichy counter-espionage arrested some 2,000 German agents (423). “Collaboration,” that demonized slogan, was actually unpopular with Hitler himself, who preferred a tougher approach.
There were various unfulfilled schemes to unify western Europe, especially economically. Herman Göring’s Economics Ministry widely consulted European business leaders on the creation of a “European economic union.” German industry dreamed of a “European industrial parliament” (267). The Belgian banker Baron de Launoit proposed a coal and steel community for Germany, France, and the low countries, prefiguring postwar plans (268). In practice, there was no customs or currency union, and Germany managed economic relations with each country on an ad hoc basis.
The Italians and Joachim Ribbentrop’s Foreign Office were keen on a European “grand design.” In practice, this mainly meant some kind of European organization or manifesto (countering the Atlantic Charter) guaranteeing the sovereignty and integrity of the participating states. Italy and the smaller states had an obvious interest in this. Mussolini’s proposals in this direction, put forth in a meeting with Hitler in late August 1941, were ignored (321). Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano was frustrated with what he called Hitler’s “ersatz diplomacy.” French Prime Minister Pierre Laval told Hitler during a summit meeting: “You want to win the war to make Europe. But make Europe in order to win the war!” (356). Ribbentrop’s more desperate March 1943 proposal for a Europäischer Staatenbund (European Confederation) guaranteeing members’ sovereignty was also turned down.
Besides the Waffen-SS and ad hoc economic cooperation, European unity under the Third Reich was then largely limited to cultural diplomacy. This included the European Writers Congress of October 1941 in Weimar (attended by Abel Bonnard, Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, Robert Brasillach . . .) and a kind of “Nazi Eurovision Song Contest” with groups competing for the Weimar Music Award. (One would love to see footage or hear audio of the participants.)
I believe Hitler was too frank and too much of a perfectionist to allow his postwar plans to be held hostage to the fictional sovereignty of small states. He wanted his hands free for some kind of annexation of Germanic areas (Denmark, Norway, Flanders, perhaps even Wallonia and parts of France) into a “Greater Germanic Reich.” Hitler had long railed against committee decision-making in Mein Kampf and against the inherent weakness of confederations of sovereigns in the Second Book. Europe, he insisted, could only be unified by force, just as Germany itself had (or, he might have added, the United States had, if one considers the Civil War).
Hitler felt a European declaration was superfluous while he was winning in 1941. But, when he began losing thereafter, he also asserted that such concessions would be an unacceptable admission of weakness, and could only be made after a major victory (which never came).
Furthermore, Hitler was always a German and Nordicist first. In December 1941, upon declaring war with the United States in solidarity with Japan, he told his Gauleiters that the “interests of the white race” had to be secondary (376). He to some extent pursued an “anarcho-tyrannical” strategy against his Slavic and Latin partners and rivals, being actually quite happy for them to cling to democracy, individualism, and/or Christianity, believing this would weaken them. That is an uncomfortable fact both for Allied propaganda claims and White Nationalists fond of the Führer. National Socialism, he insisted, was not for export.
Hitler believed most other nation-states – especially Poland, France, and Russia – to be inherently unreliable and potentially dangerous. This attitude was not completely deluded given that (admittedly under the enormous pressure of the threat of unlimited Allied violence), as we know, Darlan tried to have Vichy France join the Allies, Finland early on gave up offensive operations against the Soviet Union, and Italy, Romania, and Russian General Andrey Vlasov defected to the Allies.
The East: From a “Nigger Attitude” to Collaboration
The most unpleasant reading in Mazower’s book is his account of the brutal occupation of the Soviet Union. On this I can only say two things for certain:
- Hitler saw life in the East as expendable and, in an ideal world, the natives would not exist but there would only be German settlers. This mode of thinking could naturally lead to mass murder, either as an acceptable side-effect of other policies or as an end in itself.
- The Allies had every incentive to exaggerate German atrocities as part of their hate propaganda, in order to justify Churchill’s war, the destruction of Germany, and the handing over half of Europe to communist totalitarianism.
The truth lies somewhere between these two points. For instance, Mazower notes of the so-called “General Plan East” for conquering and exterminating the inhabitants of the Soviet Union:
From one point of view, this is the story of a blueprint that was never realized, an exercise in utopianism of the kind for which both Himmler and Hitler were notorious, noteworthy only for its toxic combination of romantic nationalism and social scientific expertise. Meyer’s defence during his trial after the war was precisely that his schemes had never been put into effect. (211)
Incidentally, no copy of this document has ever been found, either by the Nuremberg prosecutors or since. As previously noted, the Germans “only” expelled about 2 million Poles and made no attempt to starve them, so evidently they were in no hurry to implement “General Plan East.”
A second major murder program is the so-called “Hunger Plan,” whereby the Germans, even prior to Operation Barbarossa, planned to engineer a famine in the Soviet Union, with Göring casually noting this would kill tens of millions of people. This seems so diabolically stupid that it beggars belief, but this could well be true. If so this would be one of the most gratuitously murderous and counter-productive operations in human history.
What is certain is that there was a catastrophic failure to take advantage of the Wehrmacht’s stunning early victories over the Soviet Union in 1941, capturing a staggering amount of prisoners and territory, with their resources and populations. By March 1942, 2 million Soviet prisoners of war had starved to death and 100,000 had been shot (139), another one of the major claims of German atrocities. Interestingly however, Mazower does not come down on whether this was deliberate mass murder or incompetence, given that the Wehrmacht had never foreseen the logistical challenge of sustaining so many POWs:
At Nuremberg, Keitel and Jodl tried to defend themselves by stressing the logistical difficulties. More recently, some historians have echoed them. In the words of one, this was “mass starvation” but not “mass murder.” But it is not so easy to disentangle what happened from the ideological attitudes described earlier [i.e. racism]. (161)
Mazower also makes the strange quasi-revisionist comment:
Long before the world discovered the grisly sight of overcrowded SS camps in the Reich in 1945, the Wehrmacht’s own POW camps – unseen by any journalists – had contained horrors that were, if anything, greater still in magnitude. (163)
Mazower documents massive self-criticism of German policies in the East by various officials, including Party ideologue and Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories Alfred Rosenberg, SS commander Otto Bräutigam, Abwehr lawyer Helmuth von Moltke, Spanish diplomats, and others. The general tenor is shock at the loss of life, abuse of Slavs, and failure to organize these into anti-communist forces. The successes in allowing the Balts self-administration (and intermarriage with Germans) and in light “supervisory administration” in France show how things could have been done differently. Rosenberg emerges as very much the most consistent, albeit ineffectual, critic, attacking his colleagues’ “nigger attitude” (Negerstandpunkt) towards the Soviet peoples.
If only for reasons of self-interest – e.g. using POWs in the war economy and not alienating the natives – policies were adjusted.
Mazower argues that anti-partisan warfare, while brutal (not unusual for Germans to adopt 100-to-1 reprisal ratios), was not extraordinary in the wider tradition warfare. He seems to suggest that even the extermination of Soviet Jewry was a gradual process stemming from escalating partisan warfare rather than an a priori deliberate policy. In the initial stages of the invasion, the notorious Einsatzgruppe units were very small. There were “sporadic, unsystematized and almost invariably unpunished shootings of Jews which Germans soldiers and SS units carried out” (98). Furthermore:
[T]he identification of Jews as partisans had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: with no other refuge available, the handful of survivors of the region’s prewar Jewish population of nearly one million gravitated towards the partisans. Yet despite the existence of Jewish partisan brigades and encampments, Jews made up barely 5 percent of overall partisan strength. (173)
There is no question however that the Germans specifically targeted Jews for reprisals, to be starved, or to be killed in other ways.
Curiously, underscoring meritocracy in the Third Reich, Mazower notes that the officer responsible for anti-partisan warfare was SS General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, a man who “had overcome the not inconsiderable twin handicaps of Polish ancestry and Jewish brothers-in-law to rise high in the SS [. . .] and he was a favourite of Hitler too, who regarded him as ‘one of the cleverest people’” (486).
Mazower’s accounts, while not entirely satisfying in terms of sequence and interdependence, clearly leans towards a “functionalist” interpretation of death in the East. He repeatedly notes that the German concentration camps were severely overcrowded with 700,000 people by the end of the war. German officials considered food security to be crucial, both for reasons of ideology and of maintaining morale. When food became scarcer from 1942 onwards, the government prioritized it for their own citizens and against “undesirables” such as Jews and those unable to work. Toutes proportions gardées, there is a similarity here with Churchill’s wartime decision to not supply millions of starving Bengalis with food (they “breed like rabbits,” he said).
Allied Atrocities and Popular Anti-Semitism
Mazower is frank about the crimes committed against Germany in the final years of the war. The Soviet conquest of eastern Germany meant “the largest case of mass rape in history” partly as a result of “having been told to hate” (541). Mazower does not note who told the Soviet forces to hate, namely propagandists such as the Jewish communist writer Ilya Ehrenburg. The insufficiently-famous sinking of 10,000 refugees on the Wilhelm Gustloff was “one of the greatest losses of life in maritime history” (542).
Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia, before being ethnically cleansed, were forced to wear armbands with an “N” (for Niemic). Ukrainian resistance groups were prone to ethnic cleansing. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) targeted ethnic Germans and later Poles, contributing to Stalin’s belief Ukrainians and Poles could not live together (506-7).
In 1942, former U.S. president Herbert Hoover advocated ethnic cleansing to create peaceful homogeneous nation-states:
Consideration should be given to the heroic remedy of transfer of population. The hardship of moving is great, but it is less than the constant suffering of minorities and the constant recurrence of war. (548)
Churchill agreed, arguing in December 1944:
[The] total expulsion of the Germans . . . will be the most satisfactory and lasting guarantee of stability after the war. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble . . . a clean sweep will be made. (548)
Churchill and Roosevelt ratified mass ethnic cleansing at the Potsdam conference.
Mazower remarks on several occasions on the pervasiveness of anti-Semitism throughout eastern Europe during the war. During the early stage of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans documented Soviet atrocities with photographs and film of corpses. As a result, “Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Romanians and Poles were fired with hatred for the Bolsheviks, and many of them pinned the blame for their sufferings on their Jewish neighbors” (100). Germany’s economic “Aryanization” measures in the occupied territories were often popular. There were anti-Semitic riots killing 350 Jews in Poland at the end of 1945.
Both the Poles and the Czechs were eager to get the Jews out of the country at the end of the war: “Many Jewish survivors were driven out of their homes even after Liberation, confirming what the Final Solution itself had suggested, that many east Europeans were generally sympathetic to the Nazis’ basic goal of getting rid of the Jews” (600). Actually, apparently even the Zionists were often unsympathetic and frustrated by eastern European Jews after the war. David Ben-Gurion himself “was dismayed by the [Jewish refugees’] state of mind – their factionalism, selfishness and incessant demands” (600).
Mazower is rather evasive on the reasons for anti-Semitism’s popularity, for instance claiming that the reason Polish Jews had welcomed the Red Army in 1939 was because the Soviet Union promised “civic equality” (98). Jewish historian Yuri Slezkine has been more frank on these issues, having written in detail on Jews’ effective monopoly control of many crucial economic sectors in the urban areas across central and eastern Europe, and on their massively disproportionate participation as both promoters and enforcers of communist totalitarianism (speaking even of “Stalin’s willing executioners”).
Conclusion: The New Order’s Legacy
Even in total defeat, German officials assumed they would still be allowed to hold on to the honors and ideals for which they had sacrificed so much. With a certain touching sincerity and naïveté, they apparently believed Germany would be allowed to adhere to an ideology of her own choosing and cultivate her folk-community in peace. Captured soldiers and sailors continued to sing the Horst Wessel Song and Wir fahren gegen Engeland. Mazower tells us that after Hitler’s suicide:
[L]ong-time members of the SS intelligentsia, like Himmler’s foreign intelligence chief, Walter Schellenberg, and the economist (and former Einsatzgruppe commander) Otto Ohlendorf [. . .] were in the thick of discussions about what to do next. Ohlendorf in particular – “the Galahad of National Socialism” to the bitter end – was still hoping to rescue the SD’s [Sicherheitsdienst] reputation and make it a partner in the reconstruction of postwar Germany “along National Socialist lines.” [. . .]
There was no more fervent believer in National Socialism than Ohlendorf, but [Reich President Karl] Dönitz himself did not see things very differently from him. “We may ourselves abolish many of the trappings of National Socialism,” he wrote. “Others may be abolished by the enemy; but the best aspect of National Socialism, the community of our people, must under all circumstances be preserved.” (532)
[German soldiers] resented being told to give up the Hitler salute, and Dönitz kicked up a fuss when told to get rid of military decorations and insignia. He refused to order the official dissolution of the NSDAP and only lowered the old flag outside his headquarters when forced to do so. (534)
In despair, tens of thousands of Germans committed suicide.
Mazower emphasizes how many of the ideas of the less chauvinist German officials were taken up by postwar European integrationists:
[T]hese men [the Third Reich’s European planners] did identify many of the concerns that also worried postwar Europeanists – the threat of cheap competition from abroad, the need to prevent any repeat of the prewar slump by moving away from laissez-faire while reducing barriers to trade within the European “community,” as well as the importance of guaranteeing a continental food supply by protecting farm producers. A glance at the treaty establishing the European Economic Community in March 1957 confirms the striking similarity between its goals and theirs. But as Keynes had already remarked in 1940, the question where economics was concerned was not whether the Nazis had the right ideas, but whether they could be trusted to carry them out. [. . .]
After the war, small, generally short-lived fringe groups denounced both the Americans and the Soviets and recycled ideas drawn from Hitler’s writings of thirty years earlier. They reacted violently, too, against the Europeanist stirrings that were becoming visible in postwar Europe. Karl-Heinz Priester, a former SS officer who had become active on the extreme right, appeared at the first meeting of European neo-fascists in Rome in 1950 and warned that
the more some yes-men hasten to turn not only our motherland, Germany, but also our fatherland, Europe, into a colony . . . through such devices as the Council of Europe and “European Union” . . . the more quickly will grow the determination of all honest and independent Germans to accompany us on our way from nationalism to Nation Europe.
Even Nazis like Priester could see that, in the age of the Superpowers, Germans was not powerful enough to regain its independence without regional support. “Nation Europa” was thus the extremists’ alternative to Brussels and Strasbourg, a kind of peacetime version of Himmler’s “European” Waffen-SS. Yet such men regarded parliamentary democracy as a sham “democratatorship” (Demokratur), believed the multi-party system had to be abolished and wanted somehow to reunify the country with the assistance like-minded fascists abroad. (572-3)
Both Allied and Axis thinkers emphasized the importance of societies’ ethnic homogeneity in promoting civil and international peace. University professor Theodor Oberländer (later to be a West German minister) wrote in 1936: “The struggle for ethnicity is nothing other than the continuation of war by other means and under the cover of peace” (44). Mussolini said he fought “to realize the maximum of ethnic and spiritual unity so that the three elements of race, nation and state come to coincide” (344). Mazower writes of SS officers such as Wilhelm Stuckard, Werner Best, and Reinhard Höhn:
Opponents of what they called “imperialism,” they feared that somewhere along the way National Socialism had lost sight of its original purposes, which the creation of a nationally homogeneous Germany. [. . .] [They believed] the German conquest of territories that were not, and where never intended to form, part of the Reich’s Lebensraum posed a real ideological and organizational challenge to National Socialism. [. . .]
In their view, National Socialism’s potential contribution to regional and continental peace depended in the first place upon its ability to force through ethnic separation. Different peoples simply could not live harmoniously together: that was their basic premise. (245-6)
These SS-men, who represented a major tendency, founded a journal – Reich, Volksordnung, Lebensraum – to debate and publicize their ideas. Ethnic homogeneity, European cooperation, and cultural and genetic cultivation of one’s folk-community: These were thoughtful National Socialists’ more constructive proposals for peace and prosperity in Europe.
One is also struck, more generally, by the frankness of these National Socialist thinkers. The jurist Carl Schmitt denounced the follies of universalism, the falseness of international law, and the hypocrisy of the Monroe Doctrine. The Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan “spoke of power, region and hierarchy, not of equality, universality and sovereignty” (580). How far we are from the hypocritical world of the United Nations, of these Western powers who, whether in cold warrior, liberal interventionist, or neoconservative forms, have only “international law” and “human rights” in their mouths even as they smash with extreme violence those nations opposed to their domination.
The most obvious physical legacy of the New Order was an astonishing homogenization of much of Central Europe. Hence, Poland has since been peaceful. Czechia and Slovakia were able to peacefully separate. In contrast the Yugoslav peoples, because they were intermingled, have been in permanent conflict. It is striking how the peacefulness of a country’s transition away from communism, a stressful thing, is almost directly proportional to its ethnic homogeneity.
But Mazower is distinctly dissatisfied with homogeneity – actually, he takes it for granted that it is passé. He notes:
Himmler’s plans may have been unique in their ambition and brutality but they were certainly neither the first not the last to regard demography and colonization of the land as the key to national security. It would take several decades before Europeans learned to see things differently. (222)
I found that last sentence rather chilling, when one thinks of the propaganda and violence that has been necessary for Americans, Germans, French, and other European-derived peoples to “learn to see things differently.” Happily, at least we can say that the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Romanians, and the Bulgarians have yet to “learn their lesson.”
One could indeed repeat Hoover’s reasoning verbatim: Yes, achieving homogeneity is difficult, but if you have homogeneity, why throw it away? No matter, Mazower insists, even back then, that there was a dilemma between “prosperity or globalization.”
The Second World War marked the last period of European self-determination. It reflected the tragic limits of ethnocentrism in a continent such as Europe where our tribes are too small. The call of the blood was a factor of national unity and continental disunity. If Napoleon’s France was not big enough to achieve hegemony by force, how truer this was of Hitler’s Germany.
After this, our continent’s destiny was largely dictated by hostile outsiders in the United States and the Soviet Union. Their grip has since loosened, but by now Western Europeans have been anyway grown terribly soft and been fully reeducated to embrace the self-abolition of their own nations as a moral good. We will regain our senses if we are willing to unabashedly learn from our history. Europe may once again be a beautiful garden.
1. Nonetheless, Hitler said he was “moved” by the disappearance of the white man from Asia as the undoing of centuries of expansion. Conversation of December 18, 1941 in Bormann, Table Talk, 65. Furthermore, Hitler is reported to have declined to publish a gloating press release upon the fall of British Singapore to the Japanese, saying: “We have to think in terms of centuries. Sooner or later there will have to be a showdown between the white and the yellow races.”
2. One SS officer describes Rosenberg’s deputy Alfred Meyer as “too weak to do any good, and too cowardly to sin” (151).
3. Mazower also asserts that Himmler had an “exaggerated” idea of Jewish influence in the United States, particularly as regards the possibility of trading Jewish detainees for peace.
4. In Napoleon’s day, the French population was roughly equal to all the other Western European powers put together and the United States had a tiny population. “Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world,” Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said.
As an aside, and at the risk of anachronism, I would say that Hitler’s empire often does not compare unfavorably to Napoleon Bonaparte’s. Both, as nation-states dominating other nations, were inefficient and brutal. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was only about 20 percent foreign on the eve of his equally fateful Russian invasion, anti-partisan warfare in Spain was perfectly cruel, and Napoleonic economics were similarly coercive (for instance, Napoleon sacked his own brother as king of the Netherlands for his inadequate enforcement of the Continental Blockade). Napoleon’s command to his subordinates was: “La France avant tout!” (Frankreich über alles . . .). There is of course the added racial dimension, by which Hitler’s empire saw the disappearance of certain groups as desirable.
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