Hitler’s Empire

By Mark Mazower

The short answer to the question of how the Nazis ruled Europe, exhaustively detailed in this excellent survey, is: Very badly. Under the terms of the New Order racist ideology trumped practical considerations, while an almost total lack of planning led to administrative chaos. On the Eastern front in particular the results were not only staggering in their murderous brutality but thoroughly counterproductive to the German war effort.

Chaos was not something peculiar to the running of occupied territories but rather endemic to the Nazi approach to government. Typical in this regard was the running battle between the Party (which “promised decentralized chaos”) and the SS (threatening “a lethal excess of centralized order”), with the civil servants of the state virtually ignored in the middle. This administrative chaos was in turn compounded by the drawn-out struggle against the Soviet Union and the efforts of allies who weren’t really allies at all – Hitler couldn’t abide such a concept – but governments with their own agendas, pulling in different directions.

The lack of planning, then, has to be put in context. Not having a plan was, to some extent, the plan. Hitler’s system was a lack of system. In the early days it was useful, if not necessary, to conceal long-term political goals in “deliberate ambiguity”:

“If anyone asks how you conceive the new Europe, we have to reply that we don’t know,” Goebbels told German newspapermen bluntly on 5 April [1940]. “Of course we have some ideas about it. But if we were to put them into words it would immediately create more enemies for us . . . Today we talk about Lebensraum. Anybody can interpret it as they wish. When the time comes we will know very well what we want.”

Later, when the time came, such ambiguity would serve other purposes. After all, if nobody was in charge, then nobody could be held accountable. The important thing was the imperial vision of the New Order. Lebensraum, for example, whatever it meant specifically, had at least two key components: Getting rid of the native populations in the East and settling the land with German colonists.

Yet there were no plans – or so it would seem – for what to do with the remaining millions of the Polish population, nor – more astonishingly – for identifying the German colonists who were supposed to come in and constitute a new frontier wall against them. It was as though, compared with the zest with which Hitler and his associates mapped out the destructive dimensions of their task, everything else could simply be left to take care of itself.

Everything else did not. Lebensraum was neither in supply or demand. The East – a place for the Nazis “in which the imagination ran wild and reality could be ignored” – was a land of opportunity only for a familiar type. From the days of the petty vassals who shuffled off to Outremer to the goofs who ran Conrad’s “Outpost of Progress,” the colonial loser has always been with us. Nazi Poland was no different, attracting “cast-offs and rejects,” “blockheads and ass-lickers,” “farmers looking for more land, ‘colonial’ carpet-baggers and ethnic Germans looking for the opportunity to become echte Deutsche.” There was even a word for them, the Ostnieten or Eastern failures. So much for the dream of a frontier wall of “‘physically and mentally healthy human beings’ warding off the racial threat posed by the fast-breeding Slavs.” That language, by the way, comes from the German High Command in the First World War. It was an idea with a pedigree.

Empire is never a pretty thing. What was different, and “unprecedented and shocking to the European mind,” was that the Nazis set out to establish theirs within Europe itself. The Slavs would be the new “redskins,” the East the new West. Of course this was fantasy. Not fantasy because the parallel itself was inherently false. Indeed it is one Mazower spends some time exploring. But fantasy because it was delusional in its absolutist assumptions about how such a new European empire would work. One of the more interesting revelations in the book is how reasonable Alfred Rosenberg, a widely ridiculed mental lightweight among the Nazi elite, seems. Though just as nasty a true believer as any of his peers, Rosenberg at least had some appreciation for how a Nazi empire might be realistically effected.

His was not, however, an opinion that carried any weight. Which is something we can all be grateful for.

Review first published online February 23, 2009.