May 19 2019

Hitler’s Empire by Mark Mazower

In Hitler’s Empire Mark Mazower, a professor of history at Columbia University, describes how Nazi Germany ruled most of the rest of Europe. Briefly, Nazi rule was both incompetent and inhumane. In that sense, Mazower’s book does not break much new ground. Instead, it takes on several other interesting tasks. It situates Nazism “as an extreme version of a common modern European phenomenon — nationalism.” (p. 9) It notes Axis allies “like Italy, Hungary and Romania that had fought alongside Hitler and run parallel occupations of their own. The Croats and Slovaks had acquired their own states, Bulgaria had swallowed up neighbours’ lands, and Hungary regained much of the territory it had lost in 1918.” (p. 8) Opportunism was not limited to Europe’s eastern parts. “Europeans fell into line and contributed what [the German occupiers] demanded anyway. After 1945, this was conveniently forgotten. … Berlin’s dealings with cooperative businessmen and civil servants in western and central Europe went unmentioned. So did the fact that thousands of unemployed French, Dutch, Croatian, Spanish and Italian workers had volunteered to work in factories in the Reich before the slave labour programme came in.” (p. 8) He also takes issue with the idea of totalitarianism as the best lens for examining Nazism. Mazower says that there are some things that “the totalitarian paradigm” gets right, notably Hitler’s prime importance to how the Reich was run. He says that the paradigm misses complexity within Germany itself, that “Germans, on the whole, did not have to be coerced into fighting, and even in the final days there was no wholesale collapse as there had been in 1918.” (p. 10)

The most important thing to consider about Nazism, he writes, is the war. “Above all, there is a real problem with discussions of National Socialism that fail to take into account the catalytic impact of the war itself. Nothing perhaps illustrates the point better than the evolving terror apparatus. In September 1939, the six main concentration camps in the Reich housed a mere 21,400 prisoners between them; by the start of 1945 the system had metastasized into an enormous and appallingly run network of camps containing more than 700,000. There was, in short, no single system of terror that sprang fully formed from Hitler’s brow. It was the policing of conquered territory in the East that allowed the SS to make its dizzying ascent until it became the most feared organization in occupied Europe. It was the war that completely altered the position of the Führer himself, allowing him to trample over what was left of judicial discretion in Germany and making him simultaneously more remote and less constrained. It took only a few months, in the winter of 1941–2, for the Nazis to allow more than two million Soviet POWs to die in crowded camps, unseen and largely unrecorded. It took only three years — 1941 to 1944 – for them to invent and build extermination camps, kill over five million Jews and press-gang more than six million Europeans to work in the Reich. None of these things had happened – or even been contemplated – before the war broke out.” (p. 11)

Mazower closes his introduction with judgment: “Far from establishing the Greater German Reich, Hitler left the country dismembered. His empire had been premised its salvation on the death of millions, but salvation never came, and as his regime consumed its own, death was all it left behind.” (p. 12)

From there, Mazower lays out a detailed description of Nazi rule across occupied Europe. There are two chapters of a more historical introduction. One sets the intellectual, cultural and military stage for where the war will largely play out: Eastern Europe. The other, “Versailles to Vienna” covers the interwar period through the Anschluss with Austria. The remainder of Part I is mostly chronological, covering Nazi Germany’s stunning victories in the West and its attempts to integrate those countries into a European system centered on the Reich, followed by its even greater territorial gains in the East, and the near-total failure to institute governance of any kind, let alone an effective one, in that area. The eight chapters of Part II are mostly thematic, with chapters on both collaboration and opposition, as well as one that examines the Final Solution. Chronology is not fully absent, however, and Part II finishes with a chapter titled “Hitler Kaput!” that describes the collapse of what was left of Nazi rule. Part III concludes the book with two chapters that look at Nazism in broader contexts, such as their conception of Europe versus competing visions.

Hitler’s Empire is thorough and unflinching, and takes advantage of the scholarship available through the time of its publication in 2006. For anyone interested in a detailed examination of the Third Reich within Europe, this is a much better book than Barbarossa because it is broader in scope and benefits from another 40 years of research on all of the questions about the period.

Hitler’s Empire is grim reading. The Nazis ruled like gangsters out of their depth. Far from an invincible machine of lockstep supermen, the Third Reich was a snakepit of deadly rivals fighting for loot, conquest and the Führer’s favor. Their propaganda claimed that Germany needed massive amounts of Lebensraum in Europe’s east for colonization, but in truth few Germans wanted to relocate to Polish lands, fewer still to Russia. Soviet rule in the 1930s had been horrific, with millions dying from deliberate famine in Soviet Ukraine. Canny invaders might have turned Ukrainians against the Bolsheviks and won a lasting victory in the vast borderlands. Nazi generals and administrators were not canny. They soon proved themselves worse for the populace than the Communists who had spent the previous two decades requisitioning, collectivizing and terrorizing the Ukrainian countryside. That took some doing.

Mazower tells these stories and many more, giving shape to what the Germans thought they were doing, and how that worked out in reality. It was a gruesome combination of the incompetent and the inhumane.

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