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When Barbarism Won

Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
By Mark Mazower
(Penguin Press, 726 pp., $39.95)

Between 1935, when Germany re-acquired the Saarland at the French border, and 1942, when German soldiers hoisted their flag on Mount Elbruz, Europe's highest peak in the Caucasus, the Third Reich expanded steadily until no country on the continent escaped its direct or indirect influence. It took a world-wide coalition of nations another three years to crush the Nazis--and yet as late as April 25, 1945, when American and Soviet troops joined hands in the heart of Germany, Hitler's soldiers were still occupying parts of Austria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Finland and, last but not least, Great Britain, whose Channel Islands had been under German rule during most of the war. German colonialism (inspired by British, French, and American models), imperial policy, native collaboration, and resistance are what Mark Mazower brilliantly describes in this majestic historical synthesis.

Mazower is the author of two major monographs on Greece, each with particular emphasis on World War II. Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44, which appeared in 1993, showed impeccable scholarship but also seethed with moral indignation over the callousness of the Germans, who had allowed approximately 250,000 Greeks to starve to death. Mazower also condemned the Greek collaborators, who not only killed their communist compatriots during the war but continued to do so after the liberation, this time under the protection of British troops and the Greek royalist government. Nor did Mazower spare the anti-Nazi non-communist resisters, many of whom had engaged in ethnic cleansing during the war. As for the communist and other leftist resisters, Mazower unhesitatingly listed their acts of extreme brutality in the war of liberation against the Italian and German occupiers, and in the simultaneous civil war. Inside Hitler's Greece foreshadowed Mazower's later and geographically broader studies, in which he argued that the Nazi war allowed for the settling of accounts among social, religious, and ethnic groups all over eastern and southeastern Europe.

Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews, 1430-1950, which was published five years ago, is a less tragic narrative: one detects also a note of nostalgia in Mazower's evocation of the great traditions of the city, also called Thessaloniki, which once harbored three thriving civilizations--Greek, Muslim, and Jewish. The rise of nineteenth-century Greek nationalism put an end not only to Ottoman rule, but also to a cultural symbiosis that, while not perfect, nevertheless produced an enviable urban culture. During World War II, the persecution and the starvation of the non-Jewish population were acts trumped by the Germans' maniacal effort, near the end of the war, to deport every single Greek Jew to the extermination camps. As a result, one-fifth of the city's inhabitants were gone forever. Ironically, and this was the case also in the rest of Europe, many non-Jews at first profited from the disappearance of the Jews, but the economy took a long time to recover from the destruction of so many members of the intelligentsia and the commercial elite. Nor had the nationalist goal of ethnic purity been achieved, owing to the massive presence of Slavic-speakers in the area.

Mazower is also the author of The Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century, which is one of the few high-quality overviews of twentieth-century European history. It moves the reader from the collapse of the European empires following World War I, through the rise and failure of interwar parliamentary democracies and the most barbaric period in world history--the 1930s and early 1940s--to a much calmer second half of the century. Compared with the years until 1945, when some fifty million people perished, the second half of the century was idyllic, unless of course one believes that the hot wars of the Cold War were fought not in Europe but elsewhere, by proxy.

The Dark Continent is particularly effective in pointing to the vast contrast between the two halves of the same century. If the years 1914-1945 were marked by wars, revolutions, inflation, depression, half-closed borders, fanatical political groupings, armed militias, and genocide, the main event of the second half of the century was Europe's march from ruin through the Coal and Steel Community to the European Union and general prosperity. There was also the slower but ultimately successful move to integrate the communist bloc countries into free Europe. Mazower embraces the idea of continued cultural diversity, but he supports political unification. And indeed it must be said that today's marvelously open frontiers can be really appreciated only by those who have known the ghastly opposite.

As the title of Mazower's new book indicates, Hitler's Empire concentrates on World War II, and within it on Europe's fatal division into a western/ southwestern segment and an eastern/southeastern segment. Mazower paints a shattering portrait of Eastern Europe at war, owing to his extraordinary familiarity with the area's political, cultural, and ethnic histories. (I was on the lookout for factual errors in his several overviews of the wartime history of the Eastern European countries, and I found none.) It is enough to listen to the tales of German war veterans to realize that the East was where the "real war" took place: a war of gigantic armies, titanic tank battles, endless marches, mud, frost, snow, burning villages, the shooting of civilians, and the bodies of real and alleged partisans swinging from trees. And even though German losses were horrendous in Normandy and elsewhere in the West during the last year of the war, it was not commensurate with the conflict in the East, because the war in the West was fought more or less according to international conventions. In the West, captured soldiers could expect--even demand--humane treatment; but in the East there were no such expectations and no such demands could be made.

More than three million Soviet soldiers died in German captivity in the early years of Operation Barbarossa--and yet, strangely and as proof of the inconsistency of Nazi politics, nearly a million Soviet prisoners were allowed to escape death by joining the German army as soldiers, auxiliaries, and concentration camp guards. Only with regard to the British and American aerial attacks and the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" did conditions in the West resemble those prevailing in the eastern half of Europe: bombs dropped by Flying Fortresses utterly defied international conventions, and the Nazis exterminated all the Jews they could lay their hands on, whether they were highly assimilated Dutch businessmen or the starving inhabitants of a Lithuanian shtetl.

In 1941, Soviet soldiers learned that to die fighting was better than to starve to death in German captivity. In the last years of the war, German soldiers learned the same thing: many chose desperate resistance over surrender. It was during the Soviet siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944 that I met a young man named Helmut, a seventeen-year-old draftee in the Feldherrnhalle Division, who told me that his parents had perished in an air raid on Cologne, and that he would choose suicide over surrendering. I never learned his fate, but it is unlikely that he survived either the siege or Soviet captivity.

Hitler's Empire explains clearly what it meant for the world when, in June 1941, the greatest army in history--3.6 million Germans, Romanians, Finns, Hungarians, Croats, and Slovaks--stormed the Soviet Union. They were followed soon by Italians and Spaniards, as well as by volunteers from the rest of Europe. From that time on, astronomical casualties, devastation, cruelties, death camps, deportations, hunger, and disease were the rule. Eastern Europe became the scene of continued and accelerated ethnic cleansing that has changed the national and demographic composition of the entire region east of Germany and Austria. The Holocaust, to which Mazower dedicates a great deal of attention, was in many ways a unique event, but it also formed a part of the great ethnic cleansing that rid Eastern Europe of many ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities.

In the East, most nations fought at least two wars, and were often subjected to two or more occupations. Finland, Romania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria changed sides during the war, suffering heavy losses in the struggle both for and against Germany. Following World War I, Romania acquired a greatly enlarged Transylvania from Hungary, as well as several major Russian, Austrian, and Bulgarian provinces. In 1940, Hitler forced Romania to return the northern part of Transylvania to Hungary. From that time on, until 1944, Hungarians oppressed the Romanians and the Jews in the northern part of Transylvania, while Romanians oppressed the Hungarians and the Jews in the southern part of that province--all this despite Romania and Hungary being allies in the common struggle against Bolshevism. In August 1944, Romania turned against Germany, and soon Soviet and Romanian troops invaded northern Transylvania. There followed a series of Romanian atrocities against the Hungarian population, which caused the Soviets to take back the administration of the province. Finally, northern Transylvania again came under Romanian rule, but these rulers were now communists and even among them some of the most ruthless sort.

During the war, revolts and civil wars ravaged Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. In the West, too, there was an incipient civil war in France, as well as a ferocious conflict, during the last few months of the war, between the fascists and the mostly communist partisans in northern Italy. In notorious incidents, SS men killed hundreds of innocent civilians at Oradour-sur-Glane in France, in the Ardeatine Cave near Rome, and at Marzabotto, near Bologna, in Italy. Yet most Western Europeans experienced violence only briefly, such as during the German attack in 1940 and the Allied counter-attack in 1944. The vast majority of Danes, for instance, experienced no violence whatsoever during the war; instead they lived comfortably from the profits of their lively commerce with Germany.

In eastern and southeastern Europe, by contrast, most everyone was involved in the terrible historical events, as victim, perpetrator, or both. In vast regions of Eastern Europe, not only did the nationality of the occupier change over the years--such as in eastern Poland, where Polish rule ceded to Russian occupation, then to German occupation, then to Russian occupation again--but it also sometimes changed from sunset to sunrise. In thousands of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Balkan villages, German soldiers and their allies ruled during the day, while anti-Nazi partisans held sway during the night, all of them robbing and killing in the process.

Mazower directs his attention mainly to Germany's conquest of the East. The ultimate goal of German imperialism was the creation of living space--Lebensraum, as they infamously called it--which involved the extermination of at least a part of the inhabitants, and the importation of German settlers as overlords. Earlier European imperialisms of the Roman, Hapsburg, and Ottoman varieties had been supra-national, promoting local talent so long as it was subservient, and acknowledging local autonomies so long as they did not hurt the interests of the center. In the Ottoman Empire, members of subjugated ethnic and religious groups governed the country at the price of individual conversion to Islam. Even such nineteenth-century imperialisms as the British, the czarist Russian, and that of the Kaiser's Germany had little in common with Hitler's racist and xenophobically homicidal imperialism. But as Mazower also emphasizes, Hitler's ideas regarding imperial policy were not new: he had learned some of them from aggressively expansionist German imperialist groups that thrived before and during World War I.

One of the main Nazi goals was the unification of all Germans, which was to begin with the gathering-in of hundreds of thousands of Germans from the East. This was necessitated by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which allowed the Soviets to gobble up eastern Poland, the three Baltic countries, and Bessarabia, as well as northern Bukovina in Romania. As Mazower skillfully explains, very few among these people were Baltic barons, traditionally the awe-inspiring representatives of German superiority in the region. Most were poor peasants, with bad teeth, little education, and little German, or a German that no one in the Reich understood. The Nazi authorities settled them in what used to be western Poland and in the territories from which the Polish farmers had been deported. All this took place in an atmosphere of chaos and confusion, of contradictory orders and intrigues within the party and the state bureaucracy, though there were certainly many young party members sincerely trying to help their compatriots.

It is important to note that the Germans were not the only ones to engage in the "un-mixing of peoples." The same procedure was practiced on a gigantic scale by the Soviets, within their country and in their newly acquired territories. In Poland, the common aim of the Germans and the Soviets was to decapitate Polish society through the elimination of its educated classes. Ethnic cleansing was also practiced by the Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Croats, and Finns--that is, by the sovereign allies of the Third Reich. Countries occupied by Germany, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, would follow suit after the war.

Consider the case of three Hungarian-speaking villages in northern Bukovina. The latter was once a Turkish, then an Austrian, later a Romanian, and finally a Soviet Ukrainian province, from which not only the German settlers but the Hungarians, too, were withdrawn following the annexation of the region by the Soviets in 1940. The few thousand villagers, who spoke a lovely ancient Hungarian, were settled in northern Yugoslavia, which the Hungarians had re-annexed in 1941 on lands and houses from which Serbs and Jews had been evicted. Yet no sooner did the new arrivals learn how to cultivate their new lands than the war came to an end, and those Hungarian settlers whom Tito's partisans had not killed fled to western Hungary. There they were assigned houses and lands from which their German ethnic owners had been deported to western Germany. The Bukovina immigrants vegetated under communist rule until they dispersed in the world, with no traces left of their original speech, refined folk art, and ancient customs.

The second stage of the great German project, namely the settling of Germans in the East, was no less complicated and no less frustrating. Instead of sturdy farmer warriors who would rule over millions of helots in fortified manors connected by new Autobahnen, there arrived, following the German attack on Russia in 1941, thousands of German civilians who, as former evacuees from the East, had been pushed from one place to another. The colonization policy was organized and supervised by German bureaucrats whose bosses had wanted to get rid of them back home, as well as by carpetbaggers who were keen on enriching themselves. Settlement policies contradicted one another, and in any event within a few years the settlers had to flee westward from the triumphant Red Army. The colonization program was a failure, except for the German successes in killing or deporting millions.

With regard to the subjugated peoples, German policy was a bundle of contradictions, varying from Hitler's and Himmler's extermination plans and practices to the not unsuccessful efforts of some minor Wehrmacht officers and bureaucrats to win over the local population for the anti-Stalinist cause. Particularly eager to use the services of Russians and other eastern peoples were such eastern specialists as Georg von der Ropp, Wilfried Strik-Strykfeldt, and Count Claus von Stauffenberg, later a resistance hero. It is no exaggeration to say that had they succeeded in persuading the German high command to treat the Russian population better and to mobilize them against Stalin, Germany could have won the war. Luckily for the world, mindless German brutality prevailed.

Ethnic cleansing was not, of course, a German invention. Consider only the mutual expulsion of Greeks and Turks in the 1920s. Sanctioned by the League of Nations as an "exchange of populations," it amounted to mutual mass murder and the dumping into foreign lands of millions of poor people, including Eastern Orthodox who spoke no Greek or spoke an incomprehensible variety of that language, and Muslims who spoke no Turkish. Even with regard to religion there was a good deal of uncertainty, as some Turkish-speakers were Orthodox Christians by religion and some Greek- or Bulgarian-speakers adhered to Islam. None of these niceties influenced the inventors and the executors of ethnic cleansing.

Mazower believes, with most historians, that the Germans went east to enslave and eventually to kill the Slavic Untermenschen, an inferior race. Maybe this would have been the final outcome; but the fact is that in the interim the Slavic-speaking Slovaks, Bulgarians, and Croats functioned as Hitler's trusted military and political allies. Himmler himself could not make up his mind whether the Ukrainians, with so many blond people among them, were Aryans or Slavs. Also, despite Hitler's utter contempt for the Czechs, workers in the so-called Protectorate received the same food rations as the Reich German workers and, vague Nazi plans to the contrary, no non-Jewish Czechs were deported east from their country.

If contempt and hatred for the Slavs was the leitmotif of the Nazis, why then did they respect Bulgarian sovereignty to the point of allowing Bulgaria not to enter the war against the Soviet Union and to protect the lives of its Jews? Why did the SS take in thousands upon thousands of Slavic-speaking volunteers? Nor is there any proof that the Germans held the non-Slavic Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Greeks, and Baltic peoples in greater respect than they held the Slavs. The Germans made concession after concession to the Italians and the Romanians so long as the two countries seemed to be reliable allies; they shot or enslaved the Italian and Romanian soldiers whom they captured following the surrender of these countries to the Allies. One must conclude that unmitigated German hatred existed only for the Poles, which was nothing new, especially in the history of Prussia; and for the Jews, of course.

One of the most fascinating questions about World War II is whether Germany's allies possessed enough independence for their actions to be more than an extension of German policies. The answer to this must be a categorical affirmation of their sovereignty in all fundamental questions, such as whether to conclude an alliance with Germany, if and when to enter the war on the side of Hitler, and how much assistance to offer to the Nazi war effort. Again and again, the decision was made not by Germany but by the governments allied to the Nazis. Consider that, in June 1941, Italy, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia all decided on their own, with a minimum of German prodding or without any prodding at all, that they would join in Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. Their major motivation for taking this step was local: they were driven by fear that their neighbor and rival would enter the war before them, and thus would be first to reap the fruits of German victory. Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Croatia eyed each other with the greatest suspicion when joining in the fray. So German power was limited even at a time of their greatest military successes.

Despite the grand confusion and incessant intrigues prevailing in Nazi elite circles, despite their insane policy of killing their potential labor force such as the Soviet prisoners of war and the Jews of Europe, one must agree with Mazower that in the early years of the war the Nazi conquest was a great propaganda success. Had it been up to the Europeans alone, Hitler would have become the acknowledged and much admired leader of a continent in which--between 1939 and 1941--only the Poles showed the will to resist. Fortunately, there were also the British, who, to Hitler's great exasperation, decided to continue the war and thus ultimately won it.

Mazower devotes a good deal of attention to the German treatment of POWs, slave laborers, and deportees. Change in this destructive and self-destructive policy came much too late, in 1944, when Albert Speer and others finally realized that they needed the prisoners' labor for the Reich's survival. Yet there is a problem even with this well-known interpretation of German wartime policy--after all, nearly half a million Hungarian Jews and hundreds of thousands of others, many of them excellent labor material, were destroyed at the time of the greatest German need. Slave workers in the war industry were largely irreplaceable, and yet they were allowed to die. There is no proof that Russian POWs were fed any better in 1944 than in 1941. As Viktor Klemperer recorded in his secret diary, Soviet POWs in the factory in Dresden were starving abominably. I myself can testify to the spectacle of skeletal Russian POWs being beaten ferociously by their German guards in Hungary in the summer of 1944.

Clearly, as Mazower repeatedly says, there were too many German authorities, too many plans, too many expectations, too much confusion. It was a dark miracle that the system worked at all, but it did work, at least to a degree. The mind reels at the thought of what would have happened to the world if the Nazi system had truly been marked by the renowned German efficiency.

This remarkable book is crowned by several concluding chapters that place Nazi Europe into a historical framework and offer a few reflections on the future. Mazower explains that the Nazi revolution and the Japanese imperial expansion heralded the end of the European colonialist empires, and he raises the question of why so few people, even among the anti-Nazi resisters, understood that Fascist, National Socialist, and Japanese colonialisms were responses to challenges posed by the older European colonialisms. Wartime anti-Nazi resisters in France and the Netherlands were among the strongest advocates of preserving, with the force of arms, their countries' enlightened, progressive rule in the former colonies. All the European empires are gone now, and Europe exists within a modest but prosperous and humane framework. But Europe is only a small part of a teeming world, and it is unlikely, I think, that imperialism, the idea of expanding the grandeur of one's country or one's tribe and one's family at the expense of others, will ever disappear.

István Deák is an emeritus professor of Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Essays on Hitler's Europe (University of Nebraska Press).

By István Deák