Saturday, August 23, 2008

Making Adolf Hitler’s Ramshackle Empire Tick (Book Review)

Based on a shambles rather than order

By 1941, Germany controlled an empire consisting of half the European population in a space bigger than the equivalent of the entire United States of America. There were SS troops garrisoned in the Channel Isles and Panzers stood in what is now an area under the supervision of Moscow international airport. Nazi flags were to be found in the wheat fields of the Ukraine, the mountains of Crete and throughout the Balkans.

A rare photo of Hitler about to lose his balance

More by accident than design Hitler found himself in charge of an empire bigger than that controlled by Napoleon Bonaparte,but he was far from sure what to do with it. As Hitler’s interpreter put it, “The Nazis kept talking about a 1,000 year Reich, but they couldn’t think ahead for five minutes.” Thus they vacillated between trying to keep the Vichy regime sweet whilst periodically massacring hostages and, in late 1942, invading the southern part of France, the so called unoccupied zone, because they could no longer trust the collaborators.

It is the sheer confusion of nazi policy in Europe which is the hallmark of the excellent new book by Mark Mazower (Hitler’s Empire, 768pp, Allen Lane). The fact is that the Third Reich had no idea whatsoever how to plan for the future of a swastika Europe.

Policy was made up on the hoof. Parts of occupied Europe were simply annexed to Germany, including parts of Poland and border areas with France. Other parts were left largely undisturbed, in particular Denmark where a civil administration was given more leeway than any where else. But in Holland there was no civilian government at all and the country was ruled by a nazi Gauleiter who simply advised the Dutch civil servants to remain at their posts.

In most occupied countries collaborators rose to the occasion. In Norway Vidkun Quisling maintained a big office and staff but the real power was with the Reich representative Terboven. Quisling throuhout most of the war stuck to his belief that Hitler intended to do his best for the Norwegian people and just needed time to sort out a solution. In fact, Hitler never cared a fig for any of the occupied peoples. All that interested him were specifically German interests as he understood them, particularly making Europe pay for his schemes and providing living space for colonisers.

Nor was there any purposeful ideology at the top of the Third Reich. Hitler’s Cabinet never met after 1938 and he preferred personal contacts to tedious committee work. The Fuhrer’s chosen modus operandi was to llocate similar or overlapping jobs to senior rivals and then watch as they fought over the detail. Thus Himmler and Rosenberg had overlapping spheres of authority in onquered Russia and the SS chief won hands down. Chaos and improvisation were the hallmarks of nazi rule, but the cool order and discipline so beloved by the Reich’s propaganda ministry.

The same sort of muddling is apparent in the horror of the “final solution” of the Jewish “problem”. We shall never know for sure what Hitler knew or didn’t know of the death camps of Auschwitz, Balzac, Sobibor, Treblinka and the rest, but it’s apparent that many of the decisions were made by local SS Gauleiters on the spot. One can well imagine that Himmler told Hitler something of what was going on, but Hitler likely contented himself with orders to be “firm” and “brutal” without ever bothering about the detail. Nor were the German leaders in Russia united in what they wanted to achieve. Rosenberg wanted to offer the Ukraine indepen-dence from Russia “in the long term” but this was opposed by Erich Koch, the day to day ruler, who remarked that if he ever came across an intelligent Ukrainian he wanted to shoot him.

The author sensibly avoids a narrative based on a country by country approach, preferring a thematic survey of the nazi domain. As a result, in spite of the title of the book, the Fuhrer doesn’t appear much. Rather we meet a variety of extraordinary characters along the way. Virtually all of them tried to save their own necks. Koch, having lost his fiefdom in the Ukraine, was only captured after he failed to persuade the German navy to give him a U-boat to take him to Latin America. Hans Frank, the governor of nazi occupied Poland, wrote 40 books of memoirs which proved more than enough to hang him after the Nuremberg trials. There is a photograph in the book of the surviving Nazi elite, mustered at a castle in Luxemburg for interrogation. They look like school prefects who have just failed their exams.

Inevitably, Hitler’s luck began to run out,especially from 1943, and his defeat became just a matter of time. He kept the flag flying for the time being by urging self sacrifice, threatening defaulters with summary execution and promising a new generation of wonder weapons. But in the end he and his empire went down in a desperate Gotterdam-merung as he himself had predicted. The nazi empire was nasty and brutish, but not really short enough.

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