Mark Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis ruled Europe” is a magisterial book.
I read it on vacation, and it is not a book I would suggest you take with you to the beach. Unless you want to spoil your vacation. But once you have made such a choice, you cannot stop reading it and the book will stay with you throughout your stay (and I believe much longer).
This Summer I read, almost back-to-back Adam Tooze’s “The deluge” and Mazower’s book. The first covers the period 1916-31, the second, the Nazi rule of Europe 1936-45. They can be practically read as a continuum, but they are two very different books. Tooze’s is, despite all the carnage of World War I and Russian Civil War, an optimistic book in which sincere or feigned idealism is battling conservatism and militarism. As I wrote in my review of Tooze’s book, the emphasis on the failed promise of liberal democracy (but a promise still it was) is a thread that runs through most of the book. Mazower’s book, on the other hand, is unfailingly grim and this is not only because the topic he writes about is much more sinister. The tone is bleaker. It is a book about the unremitting evil. It is the steady accumulation of murders, betrayals, massacres, retaliations, burned villages, conquests, and annihilation that makes for a despairing and yet compelling read. Europe was indeed, as another of Mazower’s book is titled, the dark continent.
Here I would like to discuss another aspect of Mazower’s book that is implicit throughout but is mentioned rather discreetly only in the concluding chapter. It concerns the place of the Second World War in global history. The conventional opinion is that the Second War should be regarded as a continuation of the First. While the First was produced by competing imperialisms, the Second was the outcome of the very imperfect settlement imposed at the end of the War, and the difference in interpretations as to how the War really ended (was it an armistice, or was it an unconditional surrender).
But that interpretation is (perhaps) faulty because it cannot account for the most distinctive character of the World War II, namely that it was the war of extermination in the East (including the Shoah). That is where Mazower’s placing of the War in a much longer European imperial context makes sense.
The key features of Nazi policies of “racial” superiority, colonization of land and conscious destruction of ethnic groups cannot be understood but as an extreme, or even extravagant, form of European colonialism, as it existed from the 15th century onward. If one thinks of the Soviet Russia as of Africa or indigenous American continent (as it seemed to the Nazis), then Nazi policy of mass extermination and (more liberally) enslavement of the Slavic population that would provide forced labor for the German aristocracy living in agro-towns dotted across the plains of Russia does not look much different from what happened for several centuries in the mines of Potasi, in the Congo, in the ante-bellum South of the United States, in the Dutch Java or indeed in German-ruled Namibia.
The creation of two ethically and racially distinct social classes, with no interaction and with one openly exploiting another is exactly how European colonialism presented itself to the rest of the world. As Aimė Cėsaire, quoted at the end of the book, wrote (I paraphrase) “Nazism was the application of colonialism to Europe”.
There were, however, some differences that made the realization of this dream of conquest and domination unrealizable for the Nazis.
The technological and military gap between the “master” class and the Untermenschen was much smaller, and at the end it got even overturned in the military sphere. By 1942, the Soviet Union was producing more airplanes and tanks than Germany with all her factories in conquered Europe. The technological gap was indeed much smaller than it seemed to the Germans, and than it objectively was between the European conquerors and the peoples of Africa or the Americas. Tiny forces of Spaniards or English could conquer huge spaces and rule many people because of enormous superiority of their military power. But this was not the case in Europe. In other words, when the technological (military) gap between two groups is small, a complete annihilation of one by another is impossible.
The Nazis were blinded to this, not only by their misjudgment about the technological development of Russia, but also by their belief in rigid racial hierarchy where the very fact that such hierarchy existed (as they believed) made it impossible to entertain the possibility that the lower classes might rise sufficiently to challenge the “masters”. The rigidity of self-created racial hierarchy blinded them to reality.
The second difference between the Nazis and classical European imperialism was that racial hierarchy, pushed to its extreme, and leading to the attempted annihilation of the entire ethnic groups (Holocaust) was not motivated by economic interests of the elite but took place, as it were, outside it. Mazower makes very clear the tension that existed throughout the Nazi rule between economic needs for more forced labor, both in European factories and in the fields in the conquered territories in Poland, the Ukraine and Belorussia, and the ideologically-motivated drive to exterminate the “inferior races”. The military and civilian administrations tended to prefer the former approach (exploitation to death through labor), the SS the latter (pure destruction). This single-minded pursuit of annihilation, regardless of, or even against, economic benefits, was not something that existed in European colonialism.
The rigidity of racial hierarchy was such that the same Nazi leaders were arguing for forced labor vs. annihilation for one group, and for the opposite for another group. This was the case of Hans Frank, the head of the General Government of rump Poland, who tried to protect Poles from some random killings because he needed them to deliver grain but was eager to kill as many Jews as possible. (Although even he balked at thousands of “new” Jews being pushed to his territories as the “death camps” were already working at capacity.)
It is this macabre and economically and politically irrational drive toward extermination that might have differentiated colonialism as applied to Europe from colonialism applied elsewhere. But establishing racial hierarchy, believing in eugenics, being indifferent to the death of the “lower races”, creating a system of forced labor, shooting or maiming people who do not deliver their quotas of produce was not exactly new. Aimė Cėsaire might have been right.