Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe by Mark Mazower
Mark Mazower is an historian for whom the spectres of Fascism, Nazism and Communism haunt the continent of Europe. Driving these ideologies was a sense of national or racial superiority and this infected whole populations. In previous books, Mazower has shown with alarming clarity how many of the European states proved unable in the 20th century to safeguard liberal democracy, national frontiers or the survival of minorities. Tens of millions of people died as a result.
Adolf Hitler’s overriding purpose, as Mazower stresses in this impressive new book devoted to Nazism and its reach, was to gather all ethnic Germans into a Greater Reich clean-sed of everyone else. Pan-Germanism was not novel, but Hitler’s singular contribution was to create the opportunity for fulfilment of this racial exclusivity by reshaping Germany into the instrument of his will. One military conquest then succeeded another. Germany was to expand at the expense of Slavs — first Poles and then Russians — and this, too, was not novel. Once the Wehrmacht had also conquered France and most of western Europe, Hitler could, in theory, do what he liked.
Was there ever any prospect of a Nazified New Order that would dominate Europe indefinitely?
In the final resort, Hitler did not really care about a political outcome. In his conception, other peoples and countries existed only to satisfy Germany’s needs in war and in any future peace.
Mazower provides absorbing snapshots of the proconsuls Hitler appointed to do his bidding. Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, Alfred Rosenberg, Hans Frank and their other Gauleiters and henchmen somehow persuaded themselves that Hitler’s irrationality and myth-making powers could be made to correspond to reality.
Their levels of intelligence, political acumen and personal corruption varied from person to person, but one and all had no scruples about the use of force in pursuit of perceived German interests. Hitler himself imagined that the British ruled their empire by force alone, admired them for it, and believed that he was imitating their example.
In the process of Germanisation, Polish frontiers were redrawn and shrunk and, in a period of a mere three years, hundreds of thousands of Poles and Jews were deported and replaced by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans mostly from further east. But new German settlements in what had been Poland in fact proved centres of discontent and failure.
There were simply not enough Germans to satisfy Greater Reich demands, and their ethnic identity was often as doubtful as their loyalty. Incorporation of territory inevitably but paradoxically brought large numbers of Poles and Jews into the Greater Reich, adulterating the dream of the ethnically pure state. Then as the war progressed and labour became more and more essential, millions of non-Germans had to be conscripted into the Reich — the very opposite of Hitler’s intentions.
The supposed mortal enemy, Judeo-Bolshevism, was the deepest and darkest element of Hitler’s mythomania. The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 began what could only be a struggle to the death. The Wehrmacht, Special Commandos and the SS were equally ruthless. The Germans thus alienated whole populations who might have welcomed them as liberators from Communism. For the Russian campaign’s initial stages, for instance, Mazower gives the figures of 3.9 million Soviet prisoners, of whom only 1.1 million were still alive by February 1942 and fewer than half of them capable of work.
Brutality left room only for “ersatz diplomacy”, in the phrase of Count Ciano, the disappointed Italian Foreign Minister. Sincere collaborators like the Norwegian Vidkun Quisling and the Frenchmen Pétain and Laval — and even Hitler’s primary ally Mussolini — were exploited rather than rewarded. For the Germans, the New Order meant unrelieved plundering of resources and property, execution of hostages in revenge for resistance, labour and extermination camps. For the occupied and victimised people it meant fear, resentment and terror.
Danes, Greeks, Bulgarians, Yugoslavs and renegade Russians took to resistance each in their separate ways, often foreshadowing the Communism and Cold War that was to come. Poles showed particular bravery and panache, at one point circulating a spoof SS pamphlet to the Polish public — but directed at the Germans — with the title “Learn German!” The underlying warning became clear with the words: “We will deal with you as the Germans dealt with us.” In contrast, René Bousquet, head of the police, placed the French police at German service. Himmler described him as a “precious collaborator in the framework of police collaboration”.
When eventually “Hitler Kaputt!” became the order of the day, the sight of dispirited German soldiers retreating was to the watching Poles “heavenly”. Evacuating Cracow Castle, where he had made his headquarters, the head of the occupation, Hans Frank, himself pulled down the swastika on the flag-pole and drove home to Bavaria with truckloads of loot. In his local café, to the astonishment of visitors, he then hung the famous masterpieces he had stolen.
The capstone of the New Order and the ultimate expression of Hitler’s fantasies was the mass murder of Jews. Mazower concurs with contemporary historians, such as Ian Kershaw and Saul Friedländer, in describing how the key to this crime was once again opportunity. In the early stages of the war, Jews were to be obliged to emigrate collectively to Madagascar.
The capture of territories inhabited by large numbers of Jews made possible the alternative — mass killings in hidden locations. By 1942, Joseph Goebbels could confide in his diary that the Nazis’ implementation of “rather barbaric measures not to be described here more precisely; not much is left of the Jews”.
Peace gave liberal democracy a second chance, but several national frontiers changed once more, and minorities underwent compulsory population exchanges amid much suffering and injustice. One unforeseen consequence of the war was the foundation of the State of Israel, in 1948, and another was the total collapse of Europe’s global moral authority, its empires and indeed its previous pre-eminence in the world.
Mazower catches the broad historic sweep of these events, and illustrates it with telling details taken from a very large range of sources. Whether today’s Europe is really able to repair so destructive a past is this book’s unspoken question.