As we now know, the unimaginably awful Third Reich did not spring fully formed from Hitler’s mind. Its antecedents can be traced to the predominantly upper-class and reactionary parties of the late 19th century, to Bismarck’s Slavic preoccupation, to a long history of racial and mythical obsessions with Deutschtum or German-ness, and on into Weimar with its manifold resentments. We also know that the myth of efficiency and single-mindedness was an illusion: the Third Reich was a shambles, both organisationally and ideologically. Much of the policy was made on the hoof, with the SS, the Gauleiters, the Army and the Civil Service in competition for power, and for Hitler’s attention.
What Mazower demonstrates in this exhaustive and brilliant book, is that the unexpected speed of the conquest of Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway and France led to utter confusion about how to govern, how to impose German dominance and how to lend some form to the racial paranoia which inhabited the minds of Hitler, Heydrich and Himmler, and the minds of many other lesser lights and opportunists like Rosenberg, Sauckel and Koch. What Mazower is interested in is something which, as far as I know, has never before been attempted, to explain coherently how confused policies of race and German-ness actually related to notions of empire — Hitler wanted an empire on the British model, but located in Europe — in the newly conquered territories.
Mazower shows that there were no agreed policies, because of the very subjective nature of racial judgments and because, by setting his Gauleiters and the SS in opposition, both to each other and to the army and the civil service, Hitler was courting chaos. With the recklessness engendered by the early successes in Western Europe, he imagined that Germany’s manifest destiny as the world’s greatest empire was about to be realised: Russia would fall and the East would provide raw materials, labour and Lebensraum for a new, racially pure state without minorities. Almost alone, he never doubted this vision until the very end. On the very day in 1944 — 20 July — that Stauffenberg brought his bomb from Berlin to the Führer’s eastern headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler was in conversation with his generals about the defeat of the Red Army. By this stage the inevitability of defeat was more or less taken for granted by much of the army, the navy, the Foreign Office and the Secret Service. Yet this was the moment when the madness of racial obsessions and the mythical concepts of Teutonic destiny prevailed
over pragmatism, at the cost of many more millions of lives, including more than two million Germans. Uppermost in the minds of the bomb plotters when they tried to kill him on 20 July 1944, was the certainty that Hitler was leading Germany to catastrophic ruin and shame.
From the beginning, the one thing the fantasists around Hitler were agreed on was that Jews were poisoning the bloodstream of German-ness. Because of their irredeemably alien qualities, Jews were also the bearers of the Bolshevik virus. Initially the plan was to create space for ethnic Germans to replace the Poles, Jews and various Slavs sent eastward, but the task proved beyond the capabilities of the SS: when the military advance stalled, where were the displaced to be sent? When it turned out there were not enough ethnic Germans willing to be colonisers, who was going to keep the economies of the devastated lands going? And, crucially, how were Jews to be transported to the proposed homelands in the East, when the Russians stopped the German advance? The seeds of the policy of destruction — Vernichtung — were sown. Mazower suggests that it was the product of the irreconcilable military and racial objectives swirling in Hitler’s brain. It led to Wannsee and the final solution.
In detail, in country by occupied country, Mazower demonstrates effectively that Hitler subjected practical considerations such as the shortage of labour, the impossibility of fighting on two and more fronts, the alienation by the SS (but not only the SS) of the local populations particularly in the East, and the inability of the various arms of the state to co-operate, to his obsession with race, and the place of race in Greater Germany’s triumphant recreation of itself. In the West the conquered, non-Jewish people were treated with relative kindness. They were not Untermenschen, and at various times experts declared the Dutch, the Norwegians and the Flemings to be Aryan. Forms of self-government were allowed. Mazower examines the cases of Austria, France, Denmark Norway, Holland and Belgium meticulously. Scotland was to be given full independence. The 2,800 strong list of the SS special wanted list in Britain, included Nancy Cunard, Noël Coward and Sigmund Freud who had died some months earlier.
There was no consistency at all: in the end racial antipathy was the deciding factor. Austria, of course, was simply absorbed into Greater Germany; Denmark was given a sort of autonomy, and treated with moderation, while in Poland ‘the Nazis trampled on international law and erased the country from the map’. The obvious explanation of the difference lies in the Nazi preoccupation with the degenerative effects of Slavs on German-ness, not necessarily as destructive as Jewish contagion, but bad enough to ensure that the Polish state should vanish for ever. This piecemeal application of policy, often at the whim of Gauleiters or Himmler’s cronies, was always ultimately at the mercy of Hitler’s particular fixations. Sometimes when local officials wanted to spare groups for economic reasons, or because they wanted to tamp down resentments, Hitler would intervene; sometimes when it was pointed out that the destruction of whole towns and populations as punishment would impede the war effort, he insisted, demanding the utmost severity. Virtually all the subjugated peoples of the East, including the Ukrainians, Belorussians and Poles, who might well have been allies against Stalin, were alienated by the murderous sadism of the SS and — as Mazower makes clear — some elements in the army. Incidentally, the Italians were adept at avoiding the worst of Hitler’s demands, as was Vichy.
This is a brilliant book, perhaps a little too detailed for the mythical general reader, but a must for anyone who has a serious interest in the dreadful Third Reich. It proves that Goebbels was right in April l940 when he said: ‘If anyone asks how you conceive the new Europe, we have to reply that we don’t know.’ Untold millions of blameless died as a result of the toxic brew of incompetence, racial obsession and utterly fantastical beliefs.