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 for national security, the same obsession with land, colonization and racial settlement. Along with many of their followers, both believed that expanding Germany’s borders was necessary to achieve safety in a world of constant struggle against the Slavic danger from the East.

Nazi Germany’s first important territorial expansion, through the Anschluss with Austria in 1938, was easy. Most Austrians welcomed the “occupiers,” and their country was seamlessly incorporated into the Reich. Vienna became, in Mazower’s words, “a laboratory of anti-Jewish violence,” but this was a mere detail. The archbishop of Vienna was so eager to please his new overlord that he was soon concluding his correspondence with the words “Heil Hitler!” This made him all the more indignant when the Nazis bore down harshly upon the Catholic Church.

Thereafter, however, Hitler’s conquests became progressively more difficult to absorb, because he and his senior subordinates had given no serious thought to how they were to be administered. Proconsuls were chosen from the upper ranks of the National Socialist Party, and were responsible for implementing its racial and social policies. These men proved wretchedly inadequate. Whereas the British recruited district officers of the Indian Civil Service by famously exacting competitive examinations, the Nazis sent some of their stupidest and most corrupt party hacks, the likes of Erich Koch and Hans Frank, to serve as gauleiters in Eastern Europe.

Among Germany’s new subject states Denmark worked best, because it was interfered with least. Hitler perceived the Danes as fellow Aryans, and throughout the war treated them with notable forbearance. They retained their own government, and were largely left to get on with their own affairs. Germany appropriated only about 10 percent of Denmark’s industrial output, against 30–40 percent of France’s. None of this meant that the Danes liked the Nazis, which they certainly did not. But occupation bore much less hard upon them than upon the rest of Europe.

The Dutch were also relatively well treated, and their factories diligently produced war material and consumer goods for Germany. Only in 1944 did the occupation of Holland become dramatically brutalized. Meanwhile, Belgium and the two French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais were placed under military rule, because of their strategic locations. The general in charge, Baron Alexander von Falkenhausen, was a conservative of comparatively humane instincts. Since the local populace remained docile, German hegemony was not intolerable.

Elsewhere, however, matters were different, often unspeakably so. The Poles obliged their conquerors during the brief campaign of September 1939 by providing provocations for subsequent reprisals. Between 1,778 and 2,200 ethnic German civilians were killed either by maltreatment or in mass shootings, prompted by Polish wrath at the invasion of their country. In German eyes, these murders justified the massacre of thousands of prominent Poles in the first months of occupation. Hitler was determined to destroy the Polish elite, and was ably assisted in this purpose by the Soviets, who conducted their own mass killings in the east of Poland, which they seized by agreement with Berlin, executing over 20,000 Polish officers and others beginning in March 1940 in the Katyn forest. Several thousand Jews perished in the inaugural slaughter, but this was directed more toward securing German dominance than pursuing racial objectives.

In the second stage of occupation, Poles were expelled wholesale from their homes and farms, to make way for new German immigrants destined to colonize the west of the country, now incorporated in the Reich. The great port of Danzig became a ghost city. Jews were herded into ghettoes, while many dispossessed Poles were left roaming the countryside. The same process was undertaken in the newly annexed Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, carved out of Czechoslovakia, as had been the Sudetenland earlier.

From Berlin’s viewpoint, so far, so good. But the new imperialists had not considered the practical implications of their territorial aggrandizement. Hitler’s interpreter later said, “The Nazis kept talking about a thousand-year Reich, but they couldn’t think ahead for five minutes!” The new Polish lands brought into the Reich 600,000 ethnic Germans—but also 603,000 Jews and 8.9 million Poles. Once Untermenschen were removed from their homes and jobs, who was to harvest the crops and sustain economic activity? From the outset, few Germans showed much desire to move into the empty spaces that the Führer intended for them.

Mazower describes the chaos of the new dispensation. Most of the Nazi officials sent to rule in the East were expert thieves who looted enthusiastically. But beyond this, they had little notion of what to do. New regulations were imposed so arbitrarily, and with such widespread regional variations, that in some areas it was mandatory to give the Hitler salute, while in others it was forbidden to do so.

Many prominent Nazis thought the war almost won, and acted with corresponding insouciance. Large orders were placed for Scandinavian granite with which to construct the palaces and cities deemed appropriate for the new empire. Hitler hoped to enlist both Vichy France and Spain as belligerent allies. Admiral Darlan, Vichy’s defense minister, was enthusiastic. But like General Franco of Spain, he pitched his demands too high, seeking territorial gains in Africa and the Mediterranean.

Hitler was briefly enamoured of the notion of dispatching Europe’s Jews to Madagascar. Asked how they would be transported there, he proposed using the pre-war “Strength Through Joy” cruise-ship fleet. He added reflectively, however, that he had “pondered on many other ideas which were not quite so nice.”

The invasion of Russia created problems for Germany’s imperialists of a new order of magnitude. The first was how to dispose of three million Russian prisoners of war. This was initially addressed by allowing two million to starve to death. Then there was the question of the Ukrainians. Access to their crops and natural resources was among the chief priorities of the invasion. But if the Ukraine’s harvest was shipped to Germany, what would its own people eat?

Nothing, was the answer. In the first weeks of the German advance, Ukrainians who hated Stalin welcomed Hitler’s armies as deliverers, with the traditional bread and salt. But then the Nazis embarked upon their ghastly program of cruelties. Shootings began. Commissars, Jews, and intellectuals perished wholesale. The Germans, entered upon a love affair with death, became steadily less discriminating about their victims. As people starved, fled, or were killed, there were insufficient hands to harvest crops. Economic activity atrophied. Hatred for the Germans grew, and so too did partisan resistance.

Alfred Rosenberg, later hanged at Nuremberg as one of Nazism’s principal ideologues, protested against all this. He was Hitler’s designated minister for the East. At an early stage, he saw that the German empire needed goodwill from at least some of its subject peoples, so that they might function economically in the Reich’s interests. If all who fell under the Nazi yoke perceived themselves as doomed to starve or be murdered, the system must fail.

Yet as Mazower shows, Rosenberg was a hopelessly incompetent administrator who possessed much less influence in Berlin than Heinrich Himmler, overlord of the SS. Himmler was uninterested in Rosenberg’s theories of enlightened imperialism. He believed that mercy toward subject peoples represented weakness. He was already addicted to mass murder, which possessed in his eyes an inherent virtue, independent of the utility of eliminating people superfluous to the New Order’s requirements. Himmler’s vision, not that of Rosenberg, prevailed.

Hitler professed himself untroubled by the murderous anarchy that was developing: “The greater the chaos…, the easier for us to administer and exploit the occupied Eastern territories,” he said. Yet amid the contradictory policies of his satraps, only carnage was efficiently implemented. The Nazis’ enthusiasm for creating racial homogeneity clashed headlong with the fact that while they could kill unwanted subspecies, they could not create to order new citizens to replace them. A mere 83 million of Hitler’s people were Germans. Where were they to find further millions, to achieve their desired target population of 120 million?

This requirement prompted racial reclassification of some acceptable Poles resident in the Greater Reich. Hitler decided that as many as ten million Slavs might be suitable for “re-Germanization.” But some of the intended beneficiaries were unenthusiastic. One housewife declared that her husband was away, and when he came home she “did not want him to find her a German.”

Then there was the problem of disposing of unwanted people, estimated at between 46 and 51 million. Dr. Erhard Wetzel of the East Ministry worried that if it proved necessary to kill them all, this would have an unfortunate moral effect on those who had to perform the executions. It would burden Germans with guilt “for years to come.”

Worse, 7.5 million men were absent at the front, so to sustain Germany’s economy, replacement labor was needed for mines and factories. Hitler’s captives and subject races provided the only plausible manpower pool. Yet Himmler’s SS, with robust assistance from the Wehrmacht, was killing millions of prospective slaves. Some modification of policy could not be avoided. To keep lathes turning and presses working, the necessity was recognized of shipping to the Reich large numbers of “subhumans.”

The social consequences were remarkable. In place of the racial purity which Hitler sought, communities throughout Germany found themselves in the same condition as the small town of Osnabrück. Its population of 60,000 increased by one fifth as a host of slave laborers flooded in, speaking nineteen languages and soon crowding halls, warehouses, rail sheds, and anywhere else offering floor space for them to sleep upon. It was even acknowledged as desirable that concentration camp inmates should be kept alive for work. Thanks to improved rations and marginally diminished savagery, in 1943 the monthly camp death rate fell from 10 percent to 2–3 percent. The deliberate killing of Jews continued, of course, but even some of these were kept alive a little longer, so that they could provide labor.

Albert Speer was by now working his miracles as Germany’s armaments minister. But Mazower observes that dramatic increases in weapons output could not, in the long term, compensate for the fact that Hitler’s perception of the European economic system as a zero-sum game must encompass its destruction. Having no interest in or understanding of the complex relationships of international trade, he sought merely to loot the occupied nations for the advantage of Germany. He was oblivious of the consequences not only for subject populations, but ultimately for the entire continent.

Germany continued to ship food from Greece, heedless of the fact that the Greeks themselves were dependent on imports to live. Hermann Göring said, “We cannot worry unduly about the Greeks. It is a misfortune which will strike many other people beside them.” A million Greeks died in the war, most from starvation, among 8.2 million civilians who perished under Nazi occupation in Europe as a whole. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s scorched earth policy, imposed as the Red Army retreated in 1941–1942, was formidably effective in eliminating economic activity in the huge tracts of Russia that Hitler controlled. Precious little food reached Germany from the East. From 1942 onward, the Nazis recognized that their Eastern resettlement policy must be abandoned.

Yet chaos worsened. Himmler and the SS exercised the most powerful influence on Eastern policy, and killing was the only skill in which they excelled. Their management of concentration camps was corrupt as well as bestial. One of the SS Einsatzgruppen leaders, Otto Ohlendorf, observed disdainfully that Himmler was “really organizing disorder.” Some 400,000 camp inmates were supposedly working for the German economy, but few produced useful results under SS management.

Mazower is blunt about the ghastly nuances of occupied Europe’s plight. If the fate of the Polish people was terrible, that of their Jews was, with some notable exceptions, made worse by Polish anti-Semitism. Stories were told of Jewish women and children emerging from hiding in the woods to beg the local gendarmerie to shoot them. They could find no succor among their compatriots.

The plight of occupied France was nothing like as dreadful as that of the Eastern lands, but it was wretched enough. By 1943, half the nation’s workforce was committed to the service of the German war economy, and over a third of its national income went to Germany, partly through manipulation of the overvalued reichsmark. Mazower suggests that wartime France was run not by the politicians of Vichy or even by the Germans, but by its senior civil servants.

Resistance was marginal until 1943, when it was given dramatic impetus by the introduction of STO—Service du Travail Obligatoire, forced labor in Germany. Tens of thousands of young men took to the maquis to escape STO. For the rest of the war, they survived by legitimized banditry, which angered the French bourgeoisie as much as the Germans. Resistance became an important force only in 1944, when Allied victory was assured, and arms were belatedly supplied in quantity to the maquis.

Mazower follows such other historians as Julian Jackson in asserting that resistance was more important as a moral force than a military one. German repression was formidably effective in deterring armed opposition. Reprisals were carried out on a draconian scale for every act of sabotage and shooting of German soldiers. In France as in Greece and Yugoslavia, the innocent perished in hundreds whenever daring young guerrillas attacked German troops or installations. Only in the Soviet Union did partisan warfare become an important strategic force.

So desperate was the plight of subject peoples in occupied Russia, where they seemed doomed to starve or be killed even if they remained supine, that they saw little to lose by fighting. The Germans deployed large forces to defend their lines of communication. Mass hangings and shootings of civilians became ubiquitous—and so did the partisans. “Only in the USSR did German counter-terror fail,” writes Mazower. Elsewhere in Hitler’s empire, Tito’s guerrillas caused serious inconvenience to the Germans in Yugoslavia, but still required the aid of the Red Army to gain control of Serbia in 1944.

Mazower argues that Allied incitement to resistance, and support through Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), was justified by the moral benefits that it conferred upon oppressed societies. In view of the ghastly price exacted in reprisals, this remains debatable. It was plainly right to promote covert opposition to the Nazis. The mistake, some of us would argue, was to promote mass revolts that invariably ended in tragedy, notably in Warsaw. Churchill’s 1940 injunction to SOE to “set Europe ablaze” seems sorely misjudged.

Mazower devotes considerable space to the Holocaust. He makes the point that once the Nazis had finished killing Jews, they intended to start on other subspecies, the Poles prominent among them. They wanted blank sheets of paper, or rather empty spaces in Eastern Europe, on which to create their new Germanized Utopia. Merely shuffling millions of unwanted people further eastward failed to achieve the desired conditions. The objectives of the Final Solution were even more ambitious than the extinction of Jewry.

Most of Mazower’s passages on the Holocaust address hideously familiar issues. The importance and originality of his impressively authoritative book rest upon its portrait of Hitler’s empire as a political and social entity, and his depiction of the fate of millions of non-Jewish victims. Far too much modern scholarship about the Nazi era addresses the Holocaust in isolation. Mazower’s conclusion is that Hitler’s vision for Europe was doomed by the fact that it offered nothing save subjection to the nations beneath its sway.

Marshal Pétain told Göring that he was seriously interested in an active collaboration between France and Germany, but that he needed to know what would be in it for France. Göring answered vaguely that “this would depend on how close the two people came to one another.” In truth, membership in the German empire promised benefits only to Germans. All successful empires in history have exploited the support of at least some of their subject peoples. Berlin did not offer even lip service to international cooperation or mutual benefit.

Hitler offered only servitude to the occupied nations, in most places on the most brutal terms. “Germany lacked either the forces to prevail alone or the political vision to win enough allies to help,” writes Mazower. Hitler missed important opportunities to rouse the Arab world and India against the British, because such a notion clashed with his convictions of racial superiority. Although the German army gained useful assistance from 650,000 Hiwis ( Hilfswillige, or voluntary helpers), auxiliaries recruited from Russian prisoners, and both the SS and Wehrmacht raised some East European fighting formations, Berlin made no serious attempt to exploit the aid of occupied peoples hostile to Stalin.

Mazower suggests that Kaiser Wilhelm’s imperial vision for a Europe dominated by Germany, but in which subject people were permitted to conduct their own polities, might have worked,

but not the all-mastering Reich which was all Hitler was willing to consider. The result was not only Germany’s downfall but the end of the two-centuries-long span in which Europe dominated the world.

It will surprise some readers to be told that in some areas of Poland, killing Jews was at first perceived by the Nazis as a “sideshow” to the main business of removing and killing Poles. Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s best biographer, describes events in the Warthegau—the name given to the largest of the three sections of western Poland annexed to the Reich—in 1941–1942 in one essay in his new collection, published under the auspices of the International Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem. Hitler, writes Kershaw, “had far-reaching but imprecise notions of future developments.” As with so much that happened in the Third Reich, his subordinates sought to interpret his racial cleansing objectives in their own fashion.

Arthur Greiser, Reich governor of the Warthegau, aspired to make it a model province. To this end, from the autumn of 1941 onward he began killing Jews by shooting and in gas vans, at first spasmodically and experimentally. Greiser wrote retrospectively in November 1942:

I myself do not believe that the Führer needs to be asked again in this matter, especially since at our last discussion with regard to the Jews he told me that I could proceed with these according to my own judgement.

Here is one of many important pieces of circumstantial evidence about the Führer’s personal role. He set the tone, mandated outcomes, but was at pains to avoid obliging historians by issuing direct written orders—hence the scope for such inventive sympathizers as David Irving to dispute his responsibility. Kershaw, a meticulous scholar whose respect for evidence illuminates every page of his book, writes:

The Führer’s authorization of the vital steps into genocide was indispensable. That there was a single, all-encompassing “Führer decision” seems very doubtful.

He believes the important commitments were probably taken at bilateral meetings, for which no records were kept, between Hitler and Himmler late in 1941—by which time many Jews were already being killed on an ad hoc basis in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The Fuhrer’s ideas about destroying the Jews were at first as vague as much else:

Hitler’s leadership was at the same time absolutely pivotal to the regime but utterly incompatible with either a rational decision-making process or a coherent, unified administration and the attainment of limited goals. Its self-destructive capacity was unmistakeable, its eventual demise certain.

At first, the Nazis hoped that by herding Jews—along with Poles and many other unwanted peoples—into the Eastern wastelands, many would die from exhaustion and starvation. Only in 1941–1942 did Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and others embark upon systematic extinction. Himmler always cited Hitler’s authority for his actions, and there is no doubt that he possessed this.

Some of the best essays in Kershaw’s book—which suffers a little from the overlap inevitable in collected pieces written over decades—concern German public opinion. Hitler’s people in the Nazi era are, in many respects, a more interesting study than the Führer himself, a figure of remarkable banality. Kershaw writes:

The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference…. The general passivity which marked the most pervasive reaction—or perhaps one should say non-reaction—to the persecution and extermination of the Jews reflected above all the low level in the ranking of priorities which the fate of the Jews occupied in German consciousness.

Jews were far more central to Hitler’s thinking than they were to his people’s. The disorder and obtrusiveness of Kristallnacht in 1938 dismayed many citizens much more than the fate of its victims. But the Nazis successfully depersonalized Jews in popular consciousness. Kershaw writes:

So far in history no other advanced society has experienced a collapse of collective moral consciousness and individual civil morality approximating to the steepness of the decline in Germany after 1933. It was above all the absence of a choice against evil.

The author adheres to this view even after more recent events in the Balkans and Africa.

He cites extensive evidence of German public awareness that Jews, and others, were being killed in large numbers. It was, he writes, rumored that Allied bombing raids on cities represented reprisals for Nazi mass murders. When Berlin in 1943 announced the discovery of the mass graves of thousands of the Polish officers killed by the Soviets at Katyn, the Würzburg SD (the Nazi Party’s local intelligence and security organization) reported that German claims were widely disbelieved: “The view was put forward that it could be a matter of mass graves laid out by Germans for the murdered Polish and Russian Jews.” Yet the overwhelming majority of Germans were too preoccupied with their own concerns—food, air raids, the safety of loved ones at the front, the future of their own homes, businesses, and communities—to waste pity on Poles and Jews.

Kershaw’s book is full of interesting and important reflections, including analytical commentaries on the divisions among German historians. With a humility which some of his peers could profitably adopt, he suggests that on many aspects of this vast subject, evidence for definitive conclusions is lacking, and always will be. Like Mazower’s work, Kershaw’s highlights the incoherence of the Nazi vision, and the haphazard fashion in which Hitler’s creatures set about fulfilling it. Seldom if ever did he himself preside at formal roundtable meetings to settle major issues.

At every turn, the Führer legitimized the descent into barbarism, but many enormities were the consequences of initiatives by others, notably Himmler and Heydrich, interpreting Hitler’s will and receiving his approval. Heydrich, of course, chaired the Wannsee conference, a key point on the road to Jewish genocide, in January 1942.

I am uncertain whether anyone has analyzed the economic cost to the German war effort of the Final Solution and the Nazis’ half-baked efforts—bungled even within their own terms of reference—to reshape Eastern Europe. The direct costs were considerable, and the indirect ones—loss of labor and economic activity—far greater. To be sure, almost everything associated with National Socialism represented madness, but it was a special refinement to attempt to impose complex and draconian social policies across Eastern Europe in the midst of a world war. Killing millions of people was not merely wicked, to use a wholly inadequate adjective. It made it much more difficult for the Nazis to win.

The early 1940s,” writes Mark Mazower,

are…a prime example of how the violence of war—especially when short-sighted and ideologically driven political leadership is combined with overwhelming military superiority—may lead to an almost limitless escalation in the use of force and a constant revision of rules and norms.

The only elements of Hitler’s empire that were efficiently conducted were those of combat and repression. Even Speer’s armaments complex was much impeded by the jealousies and corruption fundamental to the gangster clique through which Hitler ruled. When we consider how close the Nazis came to achieving hegemony over Europe, we have much cause for gratitude that this was so.