The Book of the Week: Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe

Benjamin Ziemann on Nazi lust for Lebensraum

June 5, 2008

When Napoleon's armies swept across Europe, they introduced not only the Code Napoleon, a progressive codification of civil law, but they also abolished guilds and other obstacles to a thriving market economy. In the past, empire has been, as this example shows, a progressive force. But when Wehrmacht troops were pushed back into German territory in 1944, all they left behind in the countries they had conquered since 1938 - apart from devastated landscapes and destroyed cities - were mass graves.

What is striking about Hitler's empire is not only the sheer scale and brutality of the destructive forces it unleashed. In a comparative perspective, what is remarkable is the apparent lack of any policy plans for the stabilisation of relations between the German rulers and their subjects. It is this conundrum that Mark Mazower tries to solve in his latest book, a comparative history of Nazi rule in occupied Europe during the Second World War.

Immediately after the war, some early post-colonial critics pointed to the hypocrisy of Western European critics of Nazi rule and compared it with the racial prejudice and exploitation the French and British had practised in their own colonial empires. The writer Aime Cesaire from Martinique for instance noted the lack of empathy among Western metropolitan elites, who tolerated colonial rule as long as "it had been applied only to non-European peoples". Always an astute observer, George Orwell was way ahead of his time when he reflected in 1939 on the implications of the fight against Nazism for the future of colonial rule. Bringing Hitler down would be meaningless, he reckoned, if it would not enfranchise the subaltern people in the British Empire, which was "in its different way just as bad". Some historians have recently followed Cesaire and Orwell, as well as Hannah Arendt, who elaborated on connections between colonial rule and Hitler's empire. They have interpreted Nazi rule in Europe as an inversion of imperial fantasies, both fuelled and informed by observations of the British Empire and by continuities with the brutal practices of the former German empire in Africa since 1884.

But these analogies are superficial, as Mazower observes. They cannot account for the reckless nature of the Nazi project of mastery in the East. In comparison with British, French or Imperial German colonialism, three distinctive elements of the Nazi empire in Eastern Europe since 1938 stand out.

First, whereas 19th-century colonisers hardly ever made the pretence that they were claiming land that had formerly belonged to them, the Nazis saw themselves as only reconquering land that the knights of the Teutonic Order had acquired and settled many centuries before.

The stakes were high, as some occupied Polish lands were incorporated into the administrative structures of the Reich and designated to create space for the settlement of ethnic Germans. Under the international system created in 1919, these Volksdeutsche had lived as a national minority dispersed throughout various European countries: in Italy's South Tyrol, in the Baltic states, in Polish Galicia, in the Romanian Dobrudscha and under Stalin's rule in Wolhynia and Bessarabia. The strength of their German national allegiance varied, as did their attachment to German language and culture. Nonetheless, the Nazis claimed to represent their interests through a "resettlement" of ethnic Germans. Nazi rule in occupied Czechoslovakia and Poland was meant to be the springboard for a large-scale removal of ethnic Germans to territories deemed to be German. In its rulers' perception, this empire was not based on conquest, but on the consolidation of German lands and peoples.

Second, the projected removal and "resettlement" of ethnic Germans to the East implied that there was no rationale for a long-term accommodation or at least limited legal protection of the subjugated population, as had been common sense in the slowly evolving colonial empires. In the African and Asian colonies, a very small number of settlers had to get along with much larger numbers of indigenous peoples, and hence could not avoid compromise and cultural contact.

In a stark contrast, it appeared that the Nazis were in a hurry to achieve their goal of a thorough and lasting Germanisation of the conquered territories in the East, a policy that in effect led to a twofold approach.

On the one hand, the Nazis pursued radical plans for the expulsion of Poles and Jews into the General Government, which was created in October 1939 in the Eastern parts of former Poland and where Hans Frank reigned with systematic terror. This was where all but two of the annihilation camps used for the genocide against the Jews were situated from 1941 until 1943. On the other hand, Upper Silesia, the Warthegau and the provinces of East and Western Prussia were designated to incorporate settlers both from the ranks of the ethnic Germans and from the Reich, and were hence subjected to an ethnic cleansing. Heinrich Himmler, in his capacity as "Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of Germandom", was at the centre of these projects.

The prospect of Germanisation also informed Nazi policies towards the Soviet Union since the attack in June 1941. Operation Barbarossa shifted the projected target territories farther to the East, included millions more victims and prompted settlement plans on an even grander scale as the infamous General Plan East, which was drafted and discussed by SS-affiliated academic experts in the summer of 1941. As hopes for a swift victory over the Soviet Union were dashed, the expertise in removal and resettlement was used to implement at least one implicit element of the previous plans, the "final solution" of the so-called Jewish question.

The attack against the Soviet Union also reveals a third distinctive element of Hitler's empire - his outright refusal to promise any political redemption for the subaltern people and to exploit nationalism as a tool of political warfare. When, only after intensive deliberation, the Russian Liberation Army of former Soviet general Andrei Vlasov was finally acknowledged as an independent unit in December 1944, this very belated attempt to mobilise Russian nationalism yielded no more than 50,000 troops.

Mazower's comprehensive account includes, after a chronological narrative of German expansion from 1938 to its peak in 1942, chapters about the failure to establish a new European order, with a comparative analysis of factors such as forced labour, collaboration and the relative lack of opposition in many countries. Whereas these parts of the book offer a wealth of information and will appeal to a wider public, Mazower is less successful in making the conceptual underpinnings of his central argument comprehensible: the link between Nazi occupation policy and the "resettlement" of ethnic Germans in the East as the key driving force for Hitler's empire. A brief historiographical essay could have helped to make this crucial point clearer, not least as Mazower is drawing heavily on ideas about Nazi population policies that were first developed by maverick German historian Gotz Aly in 1995. When historians try to appeal to a mass market, this must not necessarily be to the detriment of analytical clarity.


University of Columbia historian Mark Mazower is an academic, journalist, author and critic who still manages to find time to visit Europe regularly. The Continent is at the centre of his research, and much of his work to date has dealt with the Nazis and the Second World War.

He now plans to look at the United Nations and the different world systems that led up to its formation to encourage us to reflect on how well the systems we have serve a global need.

Mazower read Classics and philosophy at Oxford, studied international affairs at Johns Hopkins University's Bologna Center, before returning to Oxford for a doctorate in modern history. After stints at Birkbeck, University of London, and the University of Sussex, he moved to Princeton University and then Columbia, where he is programme director at the Centre for International History.

Had he not gone into academia, he says, he would have liked to have been an architect, as he finds the idea of building his own house intriguing. In the absence of any sort of architectural training, he would settle for a quiet retirement in Greece. "Anywhere with a good beach will do," he says. "And a good view."

Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe

By Mark Mazower
Allen Lane
ISBN 9780713996814
Published 5 June 2008

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