Part 1 of 2
Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
New York: Penguin Press, 2008
I like to think I am not an uncritical person. Before reading a “heretical” book, I almost always read a mainstream book on the topic first, so I know how to situate the possibly more outlandish claims (e.g. Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance before William Pierce’s Who We Are). At the same time, when I read a mainstream book on a politically incorrect subject, I tend to also be very skeptical about the claims – scarred as I am by the previous Big Lies I was raised with – perhaps too skeptical even. This is especially difficult concerning the history of the Second World War, in which I neither want to thoughtlessly give credence to atrocity propaganda, nor minimize the suffering people actually endured.
Thus I came to Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire, a recent brick-sized book providing a synthetic overview of Axis-occupied Europe. The book is interesting as it, while staying firmly with the establishment narrative (Mazower likes to use the word “subhumans” a lot, only once in an actual quote), provides many facts that do not jive with that narrative. These include:
- Detailed accounts of Czech, Polish, French, and Soviet persecution and ethnic cleansing of German minorities before, during, and after the Second World War.
- Emphasis on the Third Reich’s sometimes surprisingly flexible approach, such as opening German citizenship to Czechs, a decision to assimilate as much as one third of some Polish territories, or the bringing in of vast numbers of eastern guest workers.
- Noting that racial science actually tended to moderate Slavophobia, because anthropologists argued Slavs were a linguistic rather than strictly racial group.
- While certainly emphasizing the gratuitous brutality of the Germans in the East (e.g. Ukrainians are casually called “niggers”) and real or alleged plans to starve/exterminate the natives, the deaths are often presented as due to strained resources (e.g. overcrowded POW and concentration camps) or a natural consequence of anti-partisan warfare.
One gets the overall impression that Hitler’s empire as, on the whole, less ideological and more pragmatic, that is, driven above all by military necessity. The empire could self-correct – and indeed was in the process of self-correcting its disastrous eastern policies – but this was too little, too late.
The story is a downright tragic one as Mazower effectively recounts a major step, really the most important, in the decline of Europe and her subjugation by foreign powers and ethno-masochist ideas. The book is richly detailed and informative, notwithstanding a certain anti-European subtext.
How “Normal” Were Nazi Policies?
Mazower frequently emphasizes that many National Socialist military and population policies were relatively “normal” for Europe at the time. Hitler did not invent the goals or methods of natalism, ethnic homogeneity, or anti-partisan warfare, even if he was a particularly ruthless practitioner. Mazower’s narrative then in part denies the unique evil of National Socialism, but only to spread this evil across Europe as a whole.
The indiscriminate detainment or physical displacement of ethnic groups with suspect political loyalties was widely practiced by the Allies. Besides the United States’ famous internment of ethnic Japanese, Australia deported German settlers in New Guinea en masse to concentration camps, and the Soviet Union similarly deported hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans in its territory (a large percentage of whom died).
Mazower writes of Germany’s brutal anti-partisan warfare in both the East and West: “The uncomfortable truth is that the counter-insurgency war was more the product of a certain European way of fighting than of Nazism itself” (353). Furthermore, concerning citizenship and ethnic relations: “what we think of as Nazi nationality policies in fact formed part of a broader European tradition” (221).
During the heavily politicized Nuremberg trials, German officials were quick to defend their own policies expelling Poles or Jews from certain territories by citing the Allies’ ethnic cleansing of Germans. Werner Lorenz, head of the SS Main Welfare Office for Ethnic Germans (in charge of resettling 800,000 ethnic Germans from various territories outside the Reich), “could not resist pointing to the ongoing expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe, approved at Potsdam in 1945, to argue that such measures were not in themselves illegal” (216-7).
Mazower puts the violence of the Third Reich in context. Certainly, Hitler was a truly ruthless international power-politician – willing to destroy whole nations such as Poland and Russia if this was in Germany’s interests, and generally seeing eastern life in particular as expendable. However, Mazower’s account clearly indicates the escalation of violence to dizzying heights in the Second World War was very much a two-way, dialectical process. Mazower notes that German concentration camps held only 21,400 prisoners before the war. He adds on the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands and racial extermination: “None of these things had happened – or had even been contemplated – before the war broke out” (11).
National Socialism was originally an extreme response to Germany’s interwar insecurity – being starved by the Allies and facing an enormous Bolshevik threat. During the war, it was often the Western Allies who escalated matters, rejecting Hitler’s early peace overtures in 1939 and 1940, demanding “unconditional surrender” at Casablanca in 1943, and agreeing to Bolshevize eastern Europe at Yalta in 1944. Churchill and Roosevelt made these demands of a politician, Hitler, who had staked his entire career on rejection of the premature surrender of November 1918 and on anti-communism. This really left no room for maneuver for Berlin: The alternative was total surrender to foreign and in particular communist domination, or victory by any means.
Assessing Hitler’s Empire
Germany received considerable, but ultimately insufficient, benefits from her European empire. Apparently about a third of French national income went to Germany, and foreign guest workers made up 19% of the German workforce in 1945. However, the empire only boosted Germany’s resource intake and war production by about a quarter.
Hitler, while an inspiring German leader, was a decidedly mediocre European diplomat. (As evolutionary theory predicts: Hitler’s fanatically ethnocentric drive and appeals meant stunning solidarity within the in-group and brutal disregard for out-groups.) Hegemony in Western-Central Europe did not turn medium-sized Germany into a superpower.
And here, in German weakness and smallness despite both National Socialist and Allied propaganda, was the source of defeat. Mazower notes in passing Germany’s absolutely shocking material inferiority to the Allied world-empires: The British Empire and the United States alone controlled three quarters of world mineral output (576) and the Germans, even with access to the crucial Romanian oil fields, only had access to 2 percent of global oil output (290). Europe was dependent on foreign food and raw materials, and to some extent paralyzed by the British blockade.
As far back as Mein Kampf, Hitler had emphasized the smallness and resource poverty of European states, leading he thought to their dependence on and domination by the United States and the Soviet Union. His answer was to conquer the East, otherwise Germany would be doomed to be an insecure, dominated little nation. During the war, Hitler did not sufficiently appreciate his massive inferiority – underestimating both Stalin’s Soviet Union and the unremitting hostility of the “Anglo-Saxons” – until it was far too late. Up to the end, Hitler made no real attempt to make anti-communist nationalist states out of the Soviet Union and failed to create any European organization giving other Europeans a stake in his New Order.
Nonetheless, Hitler’s empire was able to adapt to a significant extent. Whereas an incredible 40 percent of German industrial output was dedicated to consumers up to Operation Barbarossa, the German war economy would consistently expand by leaps and bounds almost till the bitter end. There was considerable European cooperation in the doomed struggle against the Soviet Union, with about a million non-Germans participating in the initial invasion (mostly Finns and Romanians), over a quarter of the force. Hitler eventually relented in allowing non-Germanic Europeans to serve in his armed forces, which led to remarkable results:
Once the initial decision had been taken to look more widely for recruits the Waffen-SS expanded incredibly fast. Of the 170,000 men serving in its ranks in early 1942, only 18,200 were not Reich Germans; yet by the war’s end nineteen of its thirty-eight divisions were basically made up of foreigners, nearly half a million of them, mostly from eastern Europe. (456)
Overall, according to one estimate, at least 650,000 former Soviet citizens wore German uniform. The Wehrmacht was turning into a multi-national army despite itself. (462)
All this was against Hitler’s preferences – apparently he was shocked to learn even in late March 1945 that a Ukrainian SS division existed. Nonetheless, the Reich adapted. There was considerable internal criticism of Hitler’s eastern policy. Treatment of POWs improved. Working immigration to the Reich was facilitated, despite fears about social cohesion and racial pollution. Criteria for German citizenship were significantly relaxed in western Poland, eventually being open to one third of residents in some areas. All this suggests are more dynamic and self-correcting Third Reich than mainstream narratives present. This proved insufficient for victory, but we get a sense that this catastrophic era in European history was a very close run thing.
Interwar Persecution of German Minorities
Mazower notes that the conflict between Germans and Slavs in Central Europe was by no means a one-sided affair, with German minorities typically facing discrimination and persecution. Even before the First World War, ethnic Poles in eastern Prussia would boycott German business and refuse to sell land to Germans, so as to defend their land and identity (XXXVIII).
With the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, millions of ethnic Germans became vulnerable minorities in other countries. Hundreds of thousands were either forcibly expelled to Germany or their situation was so desperate they emigrated to the Reich. Almost 10 percent of the ethnic German population of Czechoslovakia emigrated to Germany before 1938.
I can attest that, to this day, French young people are not taught in school about the ethnic cleansing their forefathers committed against defeated Germany:
In the wake of the First World War, the French had purged the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, classified their population according to “blood origins” and driven out more than 90,000 people in barely a year: the German population of the Moselle department dropped from 164,502 in 1910 to under 45,000 in 1921. (199)
A total of some 200,000 ethnic Germans were expelled from reannexed Alsace-Lorraine.
The situation was similarly bad in Poland:
In Poland itself, the Germans were seen as second-class citizens and traitors [. . .] “Polish land for the Poles” was a common watchword, and [Prime Minister Władysław] Sikorski spoke in 1923 of ‘de-Germanizing’ the western provinces. (36-37).
Some 575,000 Germans would leave their ancestral lands in Poland to rejoin Germany between 1918 and 1926 alone, including half of the ethnic German populations of ceded Poznania and West Prussia. Mazower stresses that German expulsion and persecution of Poles was in some respects meant as both retaliation for and reversal of Polish policies:
Everyone knew how, after 1918, their [ethnic Germans’] land had been confiscated or surrounded with subsidized clusters of new settlements. Hostile officials had discouraged them from speaking German or declaring themselves as Germans in censuses and even the landscape itself had been de-Germanized through changes to the names of families, streets and entire towns. In many areas Germans had been deliberately expelled; in others they had sold up and left, or bowed to the pressure to change their nationality. The Nazi regime saw reversing the effect of these decades as a priority. “Make this land German for me again!” Hitler had ordered an official after the conquest of northern Yugoslavia in 1941. His message to those he appointed to the Reich’s other borderlands was basically the same. (180)
Mazower notes on the German conquest of Poland in 1939:
[T]he Poles’ treatment of the ethnic Germans played an important part in fueling ‘the war of the peoples’. Worried about Nazi-funded underground organizations and ‘self-defence’ militias, they had closed down many German cultural and religious institutions after the invasion of Poland began, police arrested 10-15,000 members of the minority on the basis of prepared lists and marched them away from the front lines. Attacked by Polish bystandards and soldiers, between 1,778 and 2,200 Germans died, some of exhaustion and maltreatment, others through mass shootings.
When they uncovered evidence of these deaths, the invading Germans were provoked into an even more violent response. In Bydgoszcz – the most notorious case – hundreds of local Germans had been killed because of rumours that snipers were firing on Polish troops. The death toll amounted to 700-1,000 people, and some of the bodies were horrifically mutilated (68).
Hitler’s Limited War Aims
Mazower is keen to also normalize Hitler’s war aims as driven, not by megalomaniacal insanity, but a more conventional desire to unite ethnic Germans in eastern Europe: “The roots of the Nazi New Order [. . .] lay not in anti-Semitism, nor in the blind lust for conquest, but rather in the quest to unify Germans within a single German state” (90). The Reich had a policy of voluntarily repatriating “the splinters of the German nation” in southeastern Europe and the Baltics (80), solving the German question in those regions insofar as it was achieved.
Mazower notes that Hitler’s conquests in northern and western Europe were not premeditated and, hence, he had virtually no plans for how these areas should be run:
The extension of German power into western Europe had basically been prompted by Berlin’s strategic needs. No grand ideological programme was at stake, and the sheer variety of occupation regimes established in 1940 indicated Hitler’s uncertainty about where they fitted in his larger scheme, with its predominantly eastern orientation. Denmark, after all, had only been attacked as a launch-pad for the invasion of Norway; and Norway itself was only brought into German plans in order to forestall Anglo-French plans for occupying the northern Swedish orefields. (111)
Hitler, we can stress again, had no designs on England or the British Empire (implicitly suggested is that his peace feelers to London were sincere):
His basically pro-British stance did not change after Dunkirk and he made several more attempts to reach a settlement [. . .] he expected an agreement with London “on the basis of the division of the world.” (111)
The reality was that, outside Europe, Hitler remained a believer in the racial superiority of the Anglo-Saxon peoples and did not want to do anything that might hasten Britain’s demise as “a dominant race.” (589)
Racial Science Undermined Slavophobia
Allied propaganda and conventional narratives emphasize that the Third Reich’s racial ideology saw Slavs as “subhumans,” a term in fact more often used in a dysgenic rather than ethnic sense. Mazower makes clear however the paradoxical fact that German racial science at the time was actually a moderating influence on Slavophobia, because Slavs were considered a linguistic rather than a racial group:
Prewar Germany funded racial science well – as it did the sciences in general – and the Third Reich was a particularly generous sponsor. [. . .] The discipline of racial science itself was in turmoil, and many German scholars had already become aware of the difficulties. [. . .] [K]nowing how to distinguish a German from a non-German – the key concern for those running the new empire – was not something upon which it was possible to get expert consensus. (182)
Hitler apparently agreed:
Hitler himself thought Himmler’s race mysticism was impractical and, while hostile to Serbs and Russians in general, he felt differently about other groups of Slavs. He praised the Czechs as “industrious and intelligent workers” and speculated that blue-eyed Ukrainians might be “peasant descendants of German tribes who never migrated.” In fact, he came round to the view – common among German anthropologists – that there was, racial speaking, no such category as “Slavs”; it was a linguistic term, nothing more. (198)
Furthermore, German scientists believed that the idea of a pure “German race” was unscientific. Otto Roche, Fritz Lenz, and Hans Günther believed the Germans were a mixed group. Many were uncertain about racial hierarchies: “The value question itself was divisive – some believing in racial hierarchies, others insisting that difference carried no connotation of worth” (183). Mazower mainly cites Christopher Hutton’s Race and the Third Reich on these issues.
That anthropology and evolutionary science were not so politicized in the Third Reich – despite Hitler’s emphatically racial Weltanschauung – is perhaps not so surprising. Hitler had a decided love for science, believing that it enabled material progress, knowledge of the universe, and would dispel old superstitions such as Christianity. Whereas Hitler stressed that education should be strictly politically correct, he was emphatic that research should in contrast be free:
Research must remain free and unfettered by any state restriction. The facts which it establishes represent truth and truth is never evil. It is the duty of the state to support and further the efforts of research in every way [. . .].
Czechia: A “Liberal” Approach
Hitler’s rule in the former Czechoslovakia was on the milder end of the spectrum, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia having a strange semi-sovereign legal status within the Reich and Slovakia being a formally independent state. Mazower writes:
This dire fate [systematic racial separation], however, faced the Poles in particular rather than the Slavs as a whole. Despite the Nazis’ rhetoric, in theory, and increasingly in practice, racial scientists and policy advisers distinguished between different groups of Slavs. The Slovaks were allowed to govern themselves, and even in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia the Germans ruled through a Czech bureaucracy and a figurehead Czech president – something denied to the Poles. (74)
The government managed to continue to fund the Czech Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Czech rations remained as high if not higher than those in the Reich itself. (75)
In the Academy of German Law, traditionalists argued daringly that the unilateral annexation of Polish territory and the subsequent occupation of the General Government were illegal. (76)
Ah, the Germans, ever true to that legalistic punctiliousness!
Hitler saw the existence of a distinct Czech nation with the Reich as a problem in and of itself. The “Czech question” was to be “solved” in the long run through a mixture of assimilation and expulsion, with Hitler eventually opting for a 50-50 approach. In practice however, Mazower astonishingly claims the National Socialist approach to citizenship in the Protectorate was moderate for the standards of the day:
After the First World War [. . .] many European states had introduced systems of forcible classification. In Czechoslovakia in 1921, the authorities had fined thousands of people for declaring themselves Germans and had unilaterally reclassified them as Czechs. Similar policies were followed in French Alsace, Slovenia and Poland. What was striking about the new citizenship law that the Nazis now introduced was that it was actually less coercive than these predecessors, following the pre-1914 Bohemian German preference for voluntary assignation instead. It distinguished between (German) Reich citizens and second-class (Czech) “members of the state,” but left to individuals to choose which to opt for. [. . .] The Nazis’ official defintitions of Germanness in the Protectorate reflected a surprisingly open-ended and non-biological understanding of nationality. (186-7)
During the war, about 300,000 Bohemians and Moravians thus declared themselves to be Germans, only about 4 percent of the population. Apparently even some ethnic Germans were reluctant to claim full Reich citizenship, as this entailed military service and participation in Party activities. Despite the notional long-term goal of absorbing/expelling the Czechs, the Germans took a pragmatic approach throughout the war, actually cultivating Czech nationhood:
The Czechs were simply too important economically, and too obedient politically, to make it worth alienating them.
By late 1942 the Germans [. . .] were reduced to promoting their own bizarre brand of Czech nationalism. They founded a new youth organization and tried to foster what they called “Reich-loyal Czech Nationalism.” Schoolchildren marched under the swastika singing Czech songs and spent their vacations on “Heydrich’s Summer Relaxation Camps” [sic!]. By the summer of 1944,they were helping organize a Week of Czech Youth in Prague. (188-9)
In the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia [. . .] national income even rose above prewar levels despite massive net outflows of resources to the old Reich. (261)
The Czech case is not an example of Hitler’s personal gentleness. His idea of negotiation was to terrorize President Emil Hácha and the Czech government with threats that he would deport the entire Czech population if they proved uncooperative. Of course, after the war, the Czechs would not merely threaten but actually implement such an approach against the Sudeten Germans:
Pushed by President [Edvard] Beneš, wartime plans had been approved in Washington, London and Moscow for eventual expulsion [i.e. ethnic cleansing] of the German minorities in Czechoslovakia and Poland. The Beneš government had been whipping up the Czechs’ already fierce anti-German hatred. “When the day comes, our nation will take up the old battle cry again: Cut them! Beat them! Spare nobody! Everyone has to find a useful weapon to hit the nearest German, an officer screamed on the BBC in late 1944. [. . .] “We . . . will carry out the whole thing ourselves,” Beneš declared in 1945. (543)
Even the Red Army was shocked by the Czechs’ humiliation of the Germans – the violent killings, the torching of their homes and farms. [. . .] The Beneš regime initially did nothing to curb this outpouring of hatred. On the contrary, on 12 May, the newly returned president told the inhabitants of Brno that “the German people . . . behaved like a monster . . . We must liquidate the German problem definitively.” (545)
Between 19,000 and 30,000 Germans died during the “wild expulsion,” including 6,000 suicides, 6,000 direct murders, and the rest by disease or starvation. German-speaking Czechs and Jews were also expelled (on the latter, “the Czechs were keen to seize the opportunity,” Mazower says ).
Poland: Breaking a Nation & Pushing Back Slavdom
Poland is no doubt with Ukraine the most brutal example of Hitler’s rule. Hitler’s aims in 1939 were apparently genuinely limited to the issue of Danzig and the German minority in Poland, and he considered allowing a Polish rump state if the Allies would make peace. In the end however, Hitler opted to “denationalize” Poland by liquidating tens of thousands among the Polish elite. Polish GDP fell by 40 percent during the invasion (266). Nonetheless, “there was no outright starvation in occupied Poland – outside the [Jewish] ghettoes” (281).
In annexing the greater part of Poland, Hitler brought 8.9 million Poles, 600,000 Jews, and only 600,000 Germans into the Reich. Some 2 million Poles were expelled to make way for German settlers and homogenize territories adjacent to the old Reich (rather less, we might note, than the number of Germans who were expelled by the Soviets and the Poles after the war). Mazower notes: “Despite the deportations, the vast majority of the non-German inhabitants in the annexed territories remained where they were” (88). The Soviets for their part deported between 400,000 and 1.2 million Poles (97).
An overwhelming majority of resettled Germans – 537,000 – were sent to the Wartheland – that is to say the adjacent territory between West Prussia and Silesia, effectively rounding off the old Reich’s borders.
Mazower notes that German policy adapted during the war:
Facing the prospect that the whole resettlement programme would end up depopulating the Reich’s new eastern borderlands by getting rid of Poles before enough Germans had been found to come in, the local authorities in the Warthegau moved towards an assimilation policy and sought to introduce new citizenship guidelines in order to work out whom to give German ID papers to. Less dogmatic than Himmler, Hitler himself understood the problem and once he clarified that he would tolerate some degree of assimilation the guidelines were finalized. Even in Poland, it turned out, the Nazi regime was being forced to retreat from its hardline insistence on biology as a criterion for nationality. [. . .] [T]his really involved the introduction of a surprisingly flexible approach to German nationality, one that allowed large numbers of people to claim citizenship, even if they did not speak German. (194-5)
By 1944, some 30 percent of the population in the western Polish areas incorporated to the Reich were eligible for some kind of German citizenship (196).
Even in the rump of Poland known as the General Government, Governor-General Hans Frank advocated a degree of assimilation: “I speak openly of Germanization. How often have we not seen with astonishment some blond, blue-eyed child speaking Polish. To which I say: ‘If this child learned German, it would be a pretty German girl’” (193).
Mazower claims that:
The [German] secret police sought to “break the biological forces of the Polish people” by raising the marriage age – to prevent Poles having children – and supporting illegitimacy. It was as though nothing was barred in the war of populations, no institution – marriage, the family – safe when the security of the German nation was at stake. (216)
One is struck at the similarity in the rationale of this denationalization and demographic warfare policy, and the ideas the Frankfurt School would later spread among Western nations.
Serbia is a nation Hitler was similarly happy to break, even though he had previously sought to ally with Yugoslavia. His Croatian allies ruled brutally. A German officer believed the Croatians had failed to maintain order because they tried “to govern a Völkerstaat [a state of peoples] like a homogeneous nation-state” (348).
1. Mazower does note that “the German influence on Israeli settlement strategy remained strong after [Israeli] independence” (599). I have no idea if Mazower himself is Jewish. Mazower seems to be a Polish Jewish last name, and Mark Mazower himself was raised in Golders Green, an area of London “known for its large Jewish population as well as for being home to the largest Jewish kosher hub in the United Kingdom,” Wikipedia tells me. There is very little other information on his background. Mazower seems to have a well-developed media network, publishing frequent op-eds in top British print publications. The analyses are fairly conventional, adopting the quasi-detached moraliste tone mainstream historians are known for (e.g. Tony Judt). http://www.mazower.com/m_journalism.html
2. In a conversation on May 16, 1944. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s Table Talk (Ostara Publications, 2012), 310.
3. In a conversation on July 4, 1942. Ibid., 240. Given Hitler’s “collaborate or be destroyed” approach to negotiations, it is unsurprising that leaders of vulnerable nations, such as Marshal Philippe Pétain and Marshal Ion Antonescu, were eager to stay on the Führer’s good side.
4. The Germans adopted a similar, apparently more aggressive, assimilation policy in Slovenia following the invasion of Yugoslavia:
Hundreds of German teachers were rushed into Slovene kindergartens, and the Slovene language was banned for official use. Courses in German were made compulsory, and eventually nearly 400,000 people registered for them. The Germans set up a single new mass national organization in each province and made entry as easy as possible. (203)