The Most Evil Emperor

Winston Churchill was frequently criticized during World War II for displaying insufficient interest in Britain’s postwar reconstruction. He was obsessively preoccupied with the defeat of the Axis powers. South Africa’s prime minister, Jan Smuts, said, “Winston’s mind has a stop in it at the end of the war.” In this, as in so much else, there was a striking contrast with the attitude of Hitler. While the titanic conflict was still unresolved, Germany’s leader committed enormous economic, political, and military effort to the fulfillment of his social and racial ambitions for a Greater Germany.

If the Final Solution was the most notorious manifestation of these policies, hardly less dramatic, and as costly for the Nazis, was their displacement of millions of East Europeans from their homelands and their resettling of designated areas with German immigrants, often as reluctant as the hapless refugees whom they supplanted. Hitler possessed a vision for a European empire as far-reaching as it was demented. For the Nazis, Mark Mazower writes, this was an ideal, “a violent fantasy of racial mastery, a demonstration of the prowess of a martial elite bred to lord over millions of subjects.” The attempt to realize it while German armies were still waging the greatest campaigns in history cost the lives of as many other Europeans as Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

Hitler was impressed by the manner in which a few hundred British administrators governed the subcontinent of India. While he had little notion of, or interest in, the details of how the Raj worked, he envisaged an elite of Nazi officials ruling the newly annexed lands of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the same fashion. As for the peoples of the occupied Soviet Union, they could either starve—as they did, in vast numbers—or become slaves.

Mark Mazower traces some of Hitler’s thinking back to 1914. There remains today a widespread misconception that World War I Germany represented no greater threat to the European order than the allegedly bellicose or reckless rulers of other great powers, including France and Britain. It is true that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his generals lacked the appetite for mass murder displayed by the Nazis a generation later. But Mazower notes that Wilhelm shared Hitler’s belief in a worldwide Jewish anti-German plot, and possessed the same aspiration to rule Europe.

Like Hitler, Germany’s 1914–1918 generals wanted to appropriate Russian cereals, coal, minerals, and oil by occupying the Ukraine and Caucasus. Some six thousand civilians were executed when the German army marched into Belgium in 1914. Half a million French workers in occupied territory were conscripted to serve the German war effort. The blood price of Wilhelmine excesses in World War I fell far short of that which the Nazis exacted. But the same mindset was at work. Had the Kaiser prevailed over the Allies, European freedom would have perished as surely as it did under Hitler. Mazower writes:

The Kaiser and the Führer shared the same focus upon eastern Europe as the critical zone…

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