Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
New York: Penguin, 2008
The image of Nazi Germany as a well-oiled, unconquerable machine is hard to forget, but so many books in recent years have given a more honest evaluation of the Third Reich. Mark Mazower’s 2008 book Hitler’s Empire, while not really breaking any new ground, is a strong compendium of the flaws, inner turmoil, and seething disputes among the Nazi hierarchy over how to run and strengthen their empire. In fact, as empires go, it was more shadow than substance.
Nazi Germany’s ephemeral life had much to do with its creator’s aspirations. Adolf Hitler wanted a Greater German Reich, and wanted to rally Germans worldwide to join his quest for conquest and expansion.
This is illustrated by an interesting vignette from the other side of the world in 1942 with which Mazower begins Hitler’s Empire, involving Germans in the Bismarck Archipelago of New Guinea. They had settled in and were content before they were sent by Australian soldiers to internment camps in Australia.
These colonists were a very small part of Germany, being among those who had settled in the string of colonies that were taken at the end of the nineteenth century as Germany as looking to have a place in the colonial Sun alongside the other European powers. Germany’s problem was two-fold: There wasn’t much left to take by the time she and her ebullient Kaiser got to the table, and more importantly, the Germans themselves never cared much about colonization. Most Germans who went abroad went to America, although many others, especially intellectuals and visionaries, had an urge to colonize the east — that is to say, Russia.
Mazower lays out the background of German unity. The 1848 Revolution, with its all-German liberal assembly in Frankfurt, was expansionist, demanding an extension of German lands in the east that would unite the ethnic Germans with their “homeland.” If, as Heinrich Heine said, the British ruled the waves and the French the land, the Germans ruled the clouds. Frankfurt’s hope of becoming a true political power was easily dashed by a revitalized Austria and Prussia, however. In the end, it wasn’t liberal clouds but Bismarck’s blut und eisen that united Germany.
Bismarck was not an imperialist. He was concerned about the increasing number of Poles moving into Prussia, and tried to find ways to discourage them, or to resettle Germans on those contested lands betwixt the Oder and Vistula. Bismarck was frustrated by the reluctance of Germans to become farmers in the old realms of the Teutonic Knights; they preferred cities, factories, and modern life. He therefore accepted German boundaries and keeping a firm, but modest, role in Europe. After his resignation, however, and with Kaiser Wilhelm in charge, it was full steam ahead . . . to where? A place in the Sun, of course.
Mazower notes that in many cases, Germans thought their eastward expansion was a matter of destiny, much like America’s Manifest Destiny. Whereas America could easily dispose of Indian tribes and slice off land from a weakened, corrupt, and overexposed Mexican Empire, however, any kind of German Drang nach Ost would have to deal with a very organized and powerful Russia.
In the European rush to colonize the world, Africa could easily be carved up, but when they tried the same with China, it was too civilized and restive to be treated as such. First there was Sun Yat-Sen and a new Chinese republic, and then an aggressive Japan dampened any European hopes of partitioning China.
Yet for Germans, there was always the call to the east.
During the First World War, Germany came close to realizing their foggy eastern empire. In the Brest-Litovsk treaty that was signed in March 1918, Russia, which was in the throes of revolution, gave up Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. The eastern German empire was in place. But less than a year later, the war in the west was lost and the Germans were stunned at how quickly it had happened. The obvious military strength of the Allies, given a new transfusion by the United States, was discounted by many who preferred to believe that Germany was “stabbed in the back” by the “November Criminals” at home. Hitler especially believed this bitter explanation. Their new, nebulous eastern empire crumbled away, either being returned to Bolshevik Russia or ending up as independent states under British and French auspices (which was especially favored by Woodrow Wilson; Mazower says little of Wilson’s demand for “self-determination” that defined the Treaty of Versailles) in order to keep Germany in check.
This created problems, for large ethnic German communities were left behind in the new states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, and too many points of contention remained to be ironed out. For example, the Czechs informed German public servants that they had two years to learn Czech or be dismissed, and Poles attacked German settlements, leading the newly-created paramilitary Freikorps in rumbling, post-Wilhelminian Germany to cross the border to fight back.
All of this is important to understand, because Hitler sought to impose the Greater German Reich upon Eastern Europe. Mazower aptly demonstrates how, after victory in Poland, the Nazis carved out colonies. The Baltic states, after they had been retaken by Stalin, were then seized by Hitler and became the Reich Commissariat Ostland and the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Northern Poland was given to an expanded East Prussia, and southern Poland was simply called the General Government. All of these regions were to be filled with hundreds of thousands of new German settlers.
Interestingly enough, the Greater German Reich looked like the German Reich envisioned by Prince Felix von Schwarzenberg, one of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph’s major statesmen. Schwarzenberg envisioned uniting all of Germany under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, creating a great, super-national Central Europe. As Sebastian Haffner noted in The Rise and Fall of Prussia, had Schwarzenberg not died in 1852, German history might have been totally different. His vision was certainly compatible with Hitler’s own cloudy dreams, although Hitler added Russia to his.
The Poles were, after a while, to be exterminated, or those who were left would become helots to German Spartans, which was also to be Russia’s fate west of the Urals. There were likewise plans for at least three million Czechs to be driven out or killed off so that Germans could take their land.
Hitler always saw Germany as being in need of land for agriculture and self-sufficiency in relation to both agriculture and minerals. He believed European colonial empires failed when they went overseas for goods, making them vulnerable. The Greater German Reich wouldn’t make that mistake. As for Russia, Hitler envisioned a perpetual war in the Urals, much like the British having to deal with contentious factions in India. He believed the major war with the Soviet Union would only last six to ten weeks. Hitler saw Soviet Russia as rotten and ready to topple over.
Eerily enough, this echoed American plans in the early 1800s to annex Canada. Americans saw Canada as a ripe prize. Thomas Jefferson said that taking Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.” But Canada and Britain had other ideas — as did Russia, when the Nazi war machine entered it.
How was this new empire governed? Mazower shows that it was brutal and only semi-efficient, with colonial leaders selected from among Hitler’s favored Gauleiters, or regional governors, in Germany. Any attempt at building local allies was discouraged by him. Hitler wanted Germans to be in control of the operation at all times.
Mazower captures the rivalry of Nazi leaders in ruling these areas, which ended up as a tug-of-war between the Gauleiters and the SS almost immediately, with the SS slowly winning, building an administrative system, and culling what profits they could. The Gauleiters, for their part, were less cunning, settling for taking what they could to enrich themselves or simply enforcing the new German Reich’s dictates to create an Aryan-rich region from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
There were problems with this. Aside from the provincialism of most Gauleiters, there was a paucity of Germans willing to settle in the east, just like Bismarck’s own dilemma. Bismarck, for the most part, had let it go, but the Nazis went in for social engineering. Ethnic Germans from Central Europe were ordered east to take over farms recently vacated by evictions or killings. Populations that had resided in Hungary or Romania for centuries were rooted out and forced into Ukraine.
In college, one of my German professors came from a Romanian German family, and they were among those ordered to pack up and go to Russia. After a trying year or two attempting to be farmers, they had to flee west when the Red Army began its surge.
There was a continual battle over who was governing what. The SS slowly outfoxed the party officials, gaining police power and some industrial control.
The Wehrmacht stayed out of this tug of war as much as possible, but Mazower maintains that the military was far more involved in the widespread killings and massacres than they earlier claimed. As it was, simply resisting the Germans resulted in a mini-genocide. Kill one German soldier, and 100 people died.
This became a crisis, as the Germans administering these areas needed people for labor and agriculture, and killing off too many helots would end up destroying the crops needed for the Reich. In many cases, they simply started killing Jews to satisfy the body count, although sticklers for rules — and being Germans, there were quite a few of these — insisted it was the locals who were openly resisting, and not just the Jews, who were going to be killed anyway. Hitler’s Empire makes no attempts to excuse or downplay the Holocaust, but Mazower notes how Jews were enthusiastically attacked and killed by the local Slavic communities, many of them ready to become militiamen or concentration camp guards for the Nazis, especially in Ukraine. Their brutality unsettled even the SS.
As always, the question is why this brutality occurred. The common feeling is that the Jews were simply all Anne Franks, and were needlessly persecuted. Might there have been reasons for this? Mazower is silent on this.
When there was local resistance against SS and Nazi policy, such fierce reprisals helped build the resistance up. Mazower notes, as have many others, that when the Germans first entered Ukraine, they were welcomed as liberators, and Germans like Alfred Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s inner circle, wanted to build on this to create allies among the Slavs in an anti-Bolshevik crusade. Hitler was adamant, however: no allies or local rule, however sympathetic; Germans only. He distrusted anyone who was not German, and Rosenberg and his like were quickly isolated and seen as dreamers.
Mazower does not question any aspect of the Holocaust, but offers evidence that it began randomly during these reprisals and later gaining steam after the Nazis had so many Jews to manage that they didn’t know what to do with them. In fact, the entire eastern empire overwhelmed the German ability to enforce rules and settlement plans.
There wasn’t time to devise some kind of rational method for providing a stable, long-term plan when it was apparent that the German settlers weren’t coming. The SS, however, went on empire-building and did a very good job becoming a state within a state. Himmler was determined to keep adding to its coffers (the Czechs were a highly desired cash cow for the SS), as well as to increase its actual power, which meant military expansion, as in the Third Reich, having the most guns meant getting Hitler’s ear.
Meanwhile, local Nazi officials tried to cope with increasing agricultural production to feed Germany, ignoring the starvation of the locals and, much against their wishes, having to hire locals to administer and run the economy, all while jockeying for more land, redrawing boundaries of control, eliminating rivals’ satrapies, and making sure their districts had more minerals and viable land for exploitation. It became a terrible muddle. As one German official noted, there was always talk of a thousand-year Reich, but the Nazis could barely plan ahead for six months. All the petty empires built by these rival officials, as well as plans for increased colonization, became moot as the Russian counteroffensive closed these lands forever to Nazi administration, and after 1943 it was happening very fast.
The continual brushfire wars Hitler envisioned in reality became one long, grinding advance by Russia upon the now vulnerable Reich.
What about the use of native troops, the sepoys of this new empire? Hitler refused any plans to organize Slavs, such as the Ukrainians, or dissatisfied Russians into a unified anti-Bolshevik army. All of the fighting had to be done by Germans. Eventually, Ukrainians were formed into SS units (there were many more volunteers than positions available), but they were disorganized if enthusiastic fighters, and particularly brutal. Andrei Vlasov, a captured Russian general, became the nucleus of a proposed Russian anti-Bolshevik army, but Hitler dithered; Vlasov’s forces weren’t organized until 1945, when it was far too late for it to be of any practical military use, and Vlasov, a Russian nationalist who was uneasy with much Nazi policy, finally led his men to turn on the Nazis and help liberate the Czechs in the final days of the war. The ungrateful Czechs delivered Vlasov to the approaching Russians, who promptly executed him. Czech reasoning was that Stalin was their liberator; they learned otherwise.
In the west, there were SS formations made up of various European peoples. The Baltic states had enthusiastic volunteers, and 125,000 West Europeans joined the SS. This was a considerable force, but not one of overwhelming numbers. Many later historians claimed this showed that the Nazi forces were a forerunner of NATO. Perhaps, but again, Hitler’s insistence that German soldiers should do the hard fighting and were the most reliable forces stymied efforts to create truly massive European formations of troops loyal to the Nazis. The deteriorating repression, economic situation, and slowly decreasing food distribution in Europe kept dimming any enthusiasm for an empire offering nothing to non-German nationals, in any event.
Mazower points out how ephemeral this empire was. Its high tide was from late 1939 to mid-1943, when the effects of Stalingrad and Kursk put the Germans on the defensive, and all the Reich’s resources were put into fighting the eastern war; a long, grinding, clawing slaughter superseding the Blitzkrieg — and the German economy that wasn’t geared for a long war. Germany, despite Hitler’s economic miracle of the 1930s and quick rearmament, was, like the rest of Europe, still recovering from the atrocity of 1914. The use of the Blitzkrieg to invade Russia for its resources, especially oil, was a quick fix that failed.
Such was Nazi rule in the east, in those lands where polyglot peoples had had their political stability disrupted by the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. But what of western Europe? It had a somewhat happier fate. The West was spared the open brutality of social engineering and extermination of populations. The Nazis believed it should be treated carefully, and saw its populations, if not equal, at least worthy of being used to work in building the Reich’s war machine — which, as the war widened, was slowly being outproduced by the industrial might of the Soviet Union and the American dynamo.
Denmark, because it offered no resistance to the Nazi invasion, was mostly left alone. Holland was somewhat so, and Belgium less so, but direct control by the Wehrmacht in these countries because of their proximity to Britain, and hence the fact that they were potential war zones, kept the Gauleiters and SS at bay.
France was a special example. Far too large to be bullied or brutalized, the French were brought into the Axis wing half-heartedly. The Vichy government collaborated, while the occupied zone, centered in Paris, proved useful to German forces. Some cultural liberties were allowed. The Nazi sculptor Arno Becker was actually a friend of the French writer Jean Cocteau. He was allowed to produce his plays and publish his books, and while Pablo Picasso could not publicly display his works (at the request of the Franco government), there were no restrictions on visitors to his own gallery. (It was said one German officer came to view these works, and, indicating Guernica, asked if Picasso had painted it. No, Picasso said, pointing his finger, you did this!)
Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité were replaced in Vichy by Travail, Famille, Patrie. It is tempting to think France could have been a very strong and useful ally of Germany, but again, Hitler wanted no allies; he wanted vassals. As it was, the French authorities cooperated fully with the German forces until the war began to turn against Germany. This reluctance led to the creation of the Milice, a combined political and paramilitary organization known for its brutality. Many Milice wound up in the SS, and one of its units, the Charlemagne Division, fought hard and to the bitter end, protecting Hitler in his bunker in April 1945.
Switzerland was left alone. Popular historical conceptions are that the Swiss were unmolested because of their massive citizen army and mountainous terrain, but Mazower shows less strategic reasons. Hitler reasoned that his Reich needed a good, reliable go-between for its finances, being aware France would watch how Switzerland was treated — and he had to bring Vichy fully onto the Axis side. Also, Mussolini would have demanded part of Switzerland if it had been conquered. Thus, Hitler decided it was better to leave the Swiss in peace.
Mazower depicts the states allied with Germany very well, and shows how Italy was a true ally and thus given a lot of room to maneuver; unfortunately, all of Mussolini’s maneuvers were bad ones, particularly his adventures in Africa and Greece, dragging Hitler into both to come to his rescue and hence deny the Allies an entry point on the continent.
The other Axis states in Europe — Horthy’s Hungary, Tiso’s Slovakia, and Antonescu’s Romania — all had their own agendas for expansion, and were each ruthless in their own right. The Iron Guard in Romania was far more brutal than the SS was against minorities and Jews. Mazower likewise buries the claim of Italy being a gentler occupier than Germany. Mussolini was as harsh as Hitler in the territories he occupied. The one fascist state that behaved prudently was Franco’s Spain. Franco shrewdly avoided allying with Hitler and attacking Britain. His wait-and-see attitude kept him in power until 1975.
The high tide of Hitler’s empire was 1940 to 1942, when the Third Reich seemed unstoppable. After its reverses in Russia, the vassals became restive, sensing they’d hitched their wagon to the wrong star and sought a way out as the Red Army rolled closer to their borders.
Nazi harshness wasn’t the only reason there were rumblings in Hitler’s empire. Occupied countries paid the costs for German forces. German troops were provided with occupation marks that were pegged artificially low, about 20% below the currency’s true value. It meant European goods were siphoned into Germany at bargain prices. Perfume counters in Paris were filled with German troops buying all kinds of delicacies for their wives and girlfriends. In small ways like these, and in larger diversions of goods and food sent to sustain the German populace, the occupied countries were being plundered. They were willing to go along with it at first, because more than a few Europeans hoped Hitler was offering a genuine change, and it was assumed Germany would be victorious over Britain and Russia. When it wasn’t, and the war dragged on with more Europeans being forced into factory and other kinds of slave labor to keep the German war machine going, the resentment against Germany deepened.
The armed resistance movements were never seen by the Germans as a serious threat, and in most cases they weren’t, except in Russia, where organized partisan warfare was a sharp bite in the rear. Yugoslavia’s resistance forces were tough, but they fought each other as much as the Germans. Tito and his Communists managed to climb to the top of the heap and free Serbia, reassert their will on the collection of ethnic minorities under its rule, and became the only Communist state not liberated by the Red Army. Tito held it together until the 1980s, after which the ethnic cauldron boiled over.
Another factor that stifled resistance was the reprisals meted out: 100 civilians for every German killed, in many cases. Poles, who were marked for eventual extermination anyway, fought on with varying degrees of success.
In 1944-45 Italian partisans caused Axis forces much discomfort behind the lines, and the SS took brutal, savage reprisals. For all this viciousness, it did curtail the partisans. Mazower recalls incident after incident like to this to show that all of the Nazi methods were a kind of quick fix attempting to solve the embroiling war sucking up all of the Reich’s resources, all for the sake of Lebensraum. Hitler made no compromises, nor allowed any kind of diplomatic maneuvering using the shrinking cards in his deck. It was stand firm, don’t retreat, and obey.
When referring to Italy’s great power aspirations, Bismarck always said Italy had a great appetite but poor teeth. This might as well have been said of Hitler’s aspirations for an eastern empire. Mazower restates at the end that the Third Reich tried to establish a colonial empire much in the same way the other European nations had in the rest of the world. A sore point was Nazi brutality: treating Europeans the same way they had been treating the native peoples they ruled. It was a sobering analysis. Paul Johnson, in his Modern Times, spoke of nationalism going rampant combined with a vulgar interpretation of Darwinism that made Europeans powers begin a contest of survival of the fittest against each other, beating down the path leading to 1914.
Ironically, Hitler had no desire to see the colonial empires dissolved. He favored keeping them intact, especially the British, yet his war roused Britain and Churchill so much that Churchill bankrupted Britain’s empire to fight Hitler, in effect leading the way for American hegemony in the west and Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe. A victorious Stalin found Eastern Europe a physical, spiritual, and political vacuum suffering from the lost stability the Habsburg Empire had provided. The region’s emotional aspirations and ethnic tensions were suppressed during the long Soviet occupation, only to come alive again once the USSR, an empire in its own right, dissolved in 1991.
In The Meaning of Hitler, Sebastian Haffner argued that Hitler had the perfect opportunity to create a united Europe, but only if it had been a cooperative system of continental powers. Hitler would never have done this. It had to be German-controlled empire or nothing, and by 1944, Europeans consented to a division of the continent between America and Russia. As Haffner stated:
“I was Europe’s last chance,” Hitler dictated to Bormann in February, 1945 — and in a certain sense he was right. Except that he should have added: “And I wrecked it.”
I didn’t find any new revelations in Hitler’s Empire, only restatements of previously-known historical facts, but I enjoyed his compendium of Nazi infighting and the extreme lack of planning in the Third Reich.
Mazower also records the terrible plight of German refugees after the war, when, to solve the ethnic problem that so bedeviled the interwar period, Germans were simply expelled from lands they had lived on for centuries, and many times the expulsions were brutal and violent. This was completely ignored in the West. Again, referring to my college days, one German economics professor I knew became furious when describing the expulsions and many horrors he had seen. Some of the faculty thought him a crank, but the man’s memories were certainly genuine, as was his anger at the injustice doled out to these Germans.
In the final weeks of the war, Hitler was less a national leader heroically fighting to defend Germany and his vision of a new empire than a determined artist destroying the canvas of a work of his that hadn’t worked out — in this case, the German people’s colonial destiny. Oddly enough, as Mazower notes, the German defeat, with the awful forced emigration of millions of Germans, did finally unify them as a people, cosseted as they were in the post-war boundaries set up by the Allies.
It was said that much of the German resistance in the last few months of the war stemmed from knowledge of the Allied plans to destroy them, as in the Morgenthau Plan, that would have rendered Germany a deindustrialized pastoral land, but in all honesty this bucolic, ethnically pure ideal was the eventual hope of Nazis like Himmler, which would have seen Germany escape all corruption of the modern world; another cloud dream unrealizable as Germany continued to progress in industry, science, and modern thought. As Mazower noted, the Nazis could have ethnic purity or an imperial state, but they couldn’t have both.
Reading this book today seems remarkably relevant, as Europe is caught in its own contradictions in supporting Ukraine even while slowly destroying itself in self-imposed sanctions and, for want of a better word, fanaticism. It recalls Hitler’s intransigence. He said he would fight “five minutes past midnight, or until one of our damned enemies gets tired.”
The current American leadership and their European . . . allies? vassals? . . . seem to have no strategy except to go full throttle and never back down. This Hitlerian desperation is uncomfortably echoed today, sounding worse when being enacted by the NATO and European Union non-entities who are only concerned about defending these institutions, not Europe while being backed, if not commanded, by a venal cohort in an equally muddled America and a sleazy, senescent first magistrate.
As Scott Ritter has said, a new historical era is beginning, but it has uncomfortable shadows, much of it reflected in the disunity of the Slavic world and the intention of Britain and America to make political gains in fighting, as it is popularly said, to the last Ukrainian.
Hitler’s Empire may document the last colonial empire, but America has become the true and final one. In the end, it might appear that its teeth, too, are weak.
Mark Mazower offers a thoughtful and meditative study of one empire’s brutal failure. Who will write of ours? Any takers?
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