Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The last colonial war?

Ian Kershaw’s two-volume Hitler biography (“Hubris, 1889-1936” and “Nemesis, 1936-1945”) is considered by many a “definitive biography” of Hitler. One probably can say that, with some degree of certainty, for the 21st century because the perceptions of Hitler, as John Lukacs wrote in his excellent slender volume “The Hitler of history”, do change in accordance with the spirit of the times.

Kershaw’s two volumes are extraordinarily well-documented (the second volume runs to more than 1100 pages, with some 300 pages of notes), well-written, and persuasive. Kershaw is an excellent writer even if he lacks the skills of historians like AJP Taylor or Hobsbawm to illuminate with one single sentence a very complicated issue, or to display in one dazzling paragraph many contradictions of  Hitler’s long political life (such, as for example, that in 1939, his “very clever” maneuvering brought him into a war with England, which he admired, and made him an ally of the Soviet Union which he loathed).

I read the first volume around the time when it was published (2000), and began the second, but then misplaced the book. But it stayed in my mind, and I recently reordered “Nemesis” and found it even more fascinating than “Hubris”.

Kershaw organizes the book around the two lodestars of Hitler’s political thinking. They also became his central war aims: elimination of Jews from Europe, and conquest of the living space in the East. “Hubris” begins with these two aims, as they were defined by the young Hitler in the 1920s, but whose  full significance became clear at the time when Hitler, the warlord, was able to put them in practice. The two objectives fused thanks to the fact that the inhabitants of the Eastern spaces, that Hitler believed were indispensable for Germany’s thriving future, were “Judeo-Bolsheviks”. Thus, conveniently, the struggle for Lebensraum became  at the same time also a “crusade” against communism, and for the destruction of Jews and the enslavement of Russians.

Hitler’s ideology and his aims were, in Kershaw’s view, remarkably constant throughout his life (even if tactically he would privilege one aim over the other at a time).  Jews were considered the “parasites” who, at first had to be shipped out of Europe (it is remarkable how seriously the Madagascar plan was taken by the Nazi leadership in the late 1930s) until the “territorial solution” became impracticable. It was then substituted by the “final solution”(the term was apparently used first by Heydrich) of annihilation. Absence of clear written or even verbal records by Hitler regarding the Shoah is one of the auxiliary topics of the book, and Kershaw’s attempt to solve that puzzle seems the best that one can come up with—although, of course, the question of Hitler’s secretiveness on this topic, even among his closest circle, can probably be never entirely convincingly answered. His similar secretiveness regarding the killings of thousands of “lives not worth living” (mental patients and handicapped), which preceded the Holocaust, does however provide some clues.

The Lebensraum objective, as Hitler’s numerous statements  such as “Russia will be for us what India is for England” or “Russians will be destroyed as the red-skins were dealt with” can be understood only in a strict colonial context. As indeed Mark Mazower argued in “Hitler’s Empire” (see my review here), and before him Aimé Césaire, it was “colonialism applied to Europe”.

Hitler’s post-War imagination of how the immense Ukrainian and Russian spaces would look like was not dissimilar to what King Leopold accomplished in Congo, or Spanish conquistadores in Peru. First, all existing cities had to be razed to the ground—Hitler especially wished to destroy St Petersburg (“even if it is architecturally more beautiful than Moscow”) because it was the cradle of “Judeo-Bolshevism”.  Then, after the Soviet or Russian government of whatever stripe has been pushed beyond the Urals, that is, out of Europe—once there, it was to Hitler a matter of indifference what type of government it would be—the European Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine would be settled by German soldier-farmers who would live in clean and even palatial agro-towns, connected by beautiful autobahns, and served by Russian helots. The latter will be given only a very elementary education. It would suffice, according to Hitler, that they be able to read traffic signs (one thinks of Congo having, at the independence only a dozen graduates). The Russian helots would work on German-owned estates in a form of modern-day encomienda, and return in the evening to their filthy huts.

It was to be European colonialism complete with slavery and forced labor, but augmented by racial pseudo-science, and implemented by modern technological means that were lacking in earlier colonizations. It was colonialism for the 20th century: the most extreme, barbaric and at the same time most technologically advanced, and undergirded by “science”.

The realization that the Second World War in the East was a colonial war is often blurred by an apparent equivalency drawn between the Western and Eastern fronts. The Western war however was a standard European  war which, in terms of casualties, was much less murderous than the First World War. The Eastern part of the war was entirely different: it was a war of extermination (primarily against the Jews) and of colonial enslavement.  Thus the two wars (Western and Eastern) were entirely different in their aims and the way they were prosecuted. Kershaw’s use of the two Hitler’s war aims (destruction of Jews and Lebensraum) enables him to explain why in 1944 and even in 1945 Holocaust continued unabated while the German military situation on both Eastern and Western fronts grew ever more desperate. Would not train cars, soldiers, and even death camps guards be better used, from the German point of view, in fighting on the front rather than in rounding off the Jews? Not, as Kershaw argues, because once Hitler realized that the war was lost (most likely by Summer of 1943 and the failure of the big German offensive in Russia), the attainment of the other goal (destruction of the Jews) acquired an even greater importance than before.

It is an extraordinary book, particularly worth reading now at the time when racial issues are back on the agenda, to see where the pseudo-scientific madness of racial hierarchy can lead. On a more positive note, one can hope that this particular form of colonialism-cum-genocide, on such a big scale, is unlikely to be repeated this century.


Note: Kershaw is inconsistent in the use of city names/topographic locales: they vary from standard English names (like Warsaw or Prague) to German names for the cities that are now better known under their Polish, Lithuanian or Croatian names. It would have been useful to give both names. In a couple of instances, Czech last names are “Germanized”, and there is one howler when Sladko (actually, Slavko) Kvaternik is introduced as Slovak, rather than Croatian, Fascist minister of defense.  

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