Hitler’s Empire by Mark Mazower

Hitler’s Empire – How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower, Penguin 2008.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008, Dial Press) is a whimsical tale, told in the form of letters, about life under Nazi occupation in the Channel Islands during the second world war. The details and experiences of occupation, a major focus of Professor Mazower’s book Hitler’s Empire, are of interest to me. The book documents the occupation experience in Europe, especially eastern European countries extending into the Soviet Union. Living in southeast England during the war I have always wondered what occupation might have been like and who would have collaborated and who resisted the Nazis. What I learned from this book about the war in addition to the more familiar general historical treatment was as follows.

First, Hitler’s ambitions for Germany were developed in the context of the spheres of influence that he saw Britain had with its empire, especially India, the US had in North, Central and South America and the spreading Japanese influence and designs in Asia. Germany, he felt, had been left behind in this expansion of territorial influence by other governments. Hitler aimed to move eastwards to achieve living space for Germanic peoples in Poland and Russia as an occupier, and to install regimes in Western Europe that would not be a threat as France had been in the past. If he could also reinforce outlets to the south, so much the better.

These aims were influenced by racial considerations. Hitler’s dislike of the Jews was coupled with a distaste for Slavic people and other minority groups, such as people with disabilities, as well as for Bolshevism. He signed the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of Sept 1939 as a tactic to allow him to concentrate first on the dissolution of Poland without having to fight the Bolsheviks at the same time.

Second, the death rate among civilians in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was extensive, not just due to armed conflict but to the forced movement of peoples such as the Poles to the east. Civilians were sometimes killed by their own governments and by the Germans and Russians if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were examples of Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians collaborating with the Nazis to move or liquidate selected groups among their own populations. Collaboration also took place in Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France where nationals rounded up other nationals at the request of the Nazis. This would surely have happened if the UK had been occupied.

Third, there was no detailed planning for how the newly occupied territories would be administered. Neither the German army nor bureaucracy, which Hitler did not trust, was tasked with this responsibility and so it was left up to Hitler and Himmler, head of the Gestapo, an organization subject to no judicial oversight, to appoint persons for different regions. These tended to be various unpleasant characters who implemented reprisals and reigns of terror to subjugate the conquered civilians. Local government required the Nazis to use existing bureaucrats, and as has been documented for Vichy France they often acted energetically to do the Nazi’s bidding. Sabotage of German persons and installations in occupied lands was met by reprisals involving the massacre of whole communities and the destruction of villages.
Fourth, the Nazis treated most of the populations of Western Europe far better than those in the east. While members of the Wehrmacht, the regular German army, at the beginning of the war often refused to take part in the atrocities ordered by Hitler, by the end of the war, as times became more desperate, they too engaged in these acts.

Finally, on a more general level, the circumstances of Hitler’s empire reinforces for me – it may be obvious to others – the importance of geography, location and timing for the conduct and outcome of major political and economic events. I am curious about the evolution and consequences of the British Empire from 1500 to the present. The more I read, the more I realize there are other comparative cases to study not just the Roman, Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, but, for example, the way in which the Soviet Union administered an empire for 75 years and the way the US and China behave imperiously today.

Imperial circumstances vary between cases. Whereas the Nazi example constitutes a horror story, a working research hypothesis is that empires have a variety of effects, some good and some less good. At this time, my hunch, unsupported by data, is that the British Empire resulted in benefits that outweighed the costs. In the future I will try to evaluate available evidence. One difficulty is to agree on a counterfactual situation. What would have happened in the absence of imperial rule? Would parts of the world have remained tribal and primitive by today’s standards? Would they have developed on their own with or without external aid? Or would they have been colonized by some other power? The alternative possibilities are numerous but any evaluation includes some implied alternative.

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