Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe 
by Mark Mazower.
Allen Lane, 726 pp., £30, June 2008, 978 0 7139 9681 4
Show More
Show More

As a young man, Adolf Hitler became a devotee of the music-dramas of Richard Wagner, and spent much of his meagre income on tickets for performances of Lohengrin and other pseudo-medieval fantasies. Historians have spent a good deal of energy trying to trace the effects of this youthful passion on the later dictator’s ideas and beliefs. But he had another enthusiasm too, less commented on, and cheaper to pursue: the pulp novels of Karl May, set in the Wild West and featuring cowboys, mostly of German descent, like Old Shatterhand, whose name refers to the power of his punch, and Winnetou, a Native American who converts to Christianity. May became the centre of a literary scandal when it was revealed that he had a criminal record and had never been to America (he made his first visit not long before his death in 1912). But far from undermining Hitler’s admiration, this only confirmed his belief that it was not necessary to go to a country in order to get to know it. Even during the Second World War, he was still recommending May’s novels to his generals and ordered 200,000 copies to be printed for the troops.

For May, the Native Americans were noble savages, a view of indigenous peoples that Hitler certainly didn’t share. Underlying the novels, however, is an implicit Social Darwinism that portrays Winnetou and his culture as doomed to destruction at the hands of a superior, more powerful civilisation – May’s debt to The Last of the Mohicans was obvious here as in other aspects of his work. Social Darwinists and racists of the late 19th and early 20th century looked enviously across the Atlantic to the United States, where millions of European colonists had trekked westwards to form a new, prosperous and powerful society, displacing and eventually marginalising the continent’s native inhabitants in the process, until the vast majority of them had perished. Racial superiority, they thought, destined the European settlers to mastery, just as they doomed backward peoples like the Australian Aborigines to extinction, and if anyone protested, the Social Darwinists simply wrote them off as unscientific and behind the times.

But if a race showed its superiority by conquering and subjugating others, what part of the world was available for the Germans to demonstrate their capacities? Arriving late on the world scene, the united Germany of 1871 was able to pick only a few crumbs off the imperial table: Namibia, Tanzania, Togo, Cameroon, New Guinea, a handful of Pacific islands and not much else. During the 19th century, Germans became colonisers in huge numbers, but they went to areas that Germany did not control. (Five million emigrated to the Americas, making up 40 per cent of all migrants between the 1840s and the early 1890s.) The failure to expand was deeply disappointing to extreme nationalists. ‘Shouldn’t Germany be a queen among nations,’ one colonial enthusiast asked as early as 1879, ‘ruling widely over endless territories, like the English, the Americans and the Russians?’ Increasing numbers of Germany’s ruling elite before 1914 clearly agreed, and from 1898 the Kaiser’s government poured vast resources into constructing an enormous navy that would eventually confront the British on the high seas and open the way to the creation of an overseas empire.

The First World War put paid to such ambitions. The German fleet failed to dent British naval dominance, and German defeat led to its overseas colonies being mandated to other powers. But even before the war, some nationalists had been turning to a more obvious area in which to establish German colonial dominance: Eastern Europe. Mark Mazower begins Hitler’s Empire, his sweeping survey of Nazi rule in Europe, with an account of the emergence in late 19th-century Germany and Austria of the idea that the struggle between races for the survival of the fittest required the creation of Lebensraum, into which the Germanic race could expand to secure its future, rather as European immigrants to the Americas had done. Far-right nationalists regarded Poles, Russians and other Slavs as backward and uncivilised; surely it was their destiny to serve as helots for the German master-race?

Germany’s catastrophic defeat in 1918 opened the way for such radical ideas to enter the mainstream of politics. After 1933 they became the official doctrine of the state. Throughout all the twists and turns of Nazi foreign policy as Hitler feverishly rearmed the country in preparation for a great European war, the ultimate goal remained the conquest of Eastern Europe, and the creation of ‘living space’ there for future generations of Germans. The Nazis didn’t abandon the idea of creating an overseas colonial empire, but they believed that Germany had to become a world power first, and the way to this led through Europe.

Mazower’s book focuses, then, on Hitler as empire-builder. It is perhaps not as novel or unfamiliar a theme as he seems to think, but it certainly gets its first extended, systematic, Europe-wide treatment here. What the Nazi empire in Eastern Europe would mean in practical terms became brutally clear in the first few weeks of the war. As Mazower shows in detail, the German conquest of Poland brought in its wake the ruthless expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Poles from their farms and businesses to make way for ethnic German settlers from the East, where, they were persuaded, Stalin’s rule didn’t promise them a rosy future. Polish culture was crushed, thousands of professionals and intellectuals were arrested, imprisoned and shot, and the large Jewish population was rounded up and confined in overcrowded and insanitary ghettos while the Nazi occupiers worked out what to do with them.

That death was what ultimately awaited these people became only too clear with the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Hitler waxed lyrical about the benefits of civilisation that German rule would bring. Sparkling new German cities would be created, acting as hubs for German farming communities rooted in the Eastern soil and linked to one another by high-speed railway lines and motorways. The area’s existing inhabitants would not be part of this brave new world. Their own cities, like Moscow and Leningrad, would be left to rot, while Ukrainian and Russian peasant farmers would be thrown off the land just as their Polish counterparts had been. Planners estimated that between 30 and 45 million Slavs would die of malnutrition and disease. SS academics fantasised about deporting scores of millions of the ‘racially undesirable’ to Siberia, or even to Brazil. The ultimate prize followed. ‘Once we are the masters in Europe,’ Hitler said in October 1941, ‘then we will enjoy the dominant position in the world.’ The German empire would at last be the equal of the empires of Britain and the United States. The final confrontation for world supremacy could begin.

For a brief moment in the summer of 1941, it seemed possible to the Nazi leadership that such dreams might become reality. France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Norway had been defeated the previous year and victorious German armies were sweeping all before them in the East, occupying huge swathes of territory in the Ukraine, the Baltic states and Belarus, while in southern Europe they had established control over the Balkans. Yet all this was an illusion. It was not just that the Soviet Union, with its vast resources of manpower and materials, proved impossible to defeat. More important was the fact that the Germans had no coherent idea of how their huge new empire was to be made to serve the global purposes for which it was intended. Mazower points out the great variety of administrative arrangements under which it was governed, from collaborationist regimes like Slovakia and Vichy France through military government running alongside a surviving native civil service, as in Belgium, or a specially created German apparatus of rule, as in the Reich Commissariat of the Ukraine or the Polish General Government. Some areas were incorporated directly into the Reich, including large areas of western Poland, while others were regarded as likely to be absorbed at some future date, including the Netherlands, whose people the Nazi leadership regarded as predominantly ‘Aryan’.

This huge empire had no central direction, and there was no co-ordination in the way it was run. The Germans never created any equivalent of the Greater East Asia Ministry through which the Japanese governed their conquests. This, Mazower argues, was partly because Hitler bypassed the civil service in favour of committed Nazi fanatics whom he could trust to construct the new Greater Germany along racial lines. As a consequence, the Nazi Party, led by ‘Old Fighters’ who had been members since the 1920s, and particularly by the regional leaders, the Gauleiters, gained power at the expense of the interior ministry, whose officials began to lament the absence of any centralised administration of the new territories. For his part, Hitler complained that ‘among us, the conception of the monolithic state implies that everything should be directed from a centre . . . The English in India do exactly the opposite.’ ‘There is no possibility,’ he concluded, ‘of ruling this huge empire from Berlin.’

Adding to the confusion was the inexorable growth of Himmler’s SS, which bypassed civilian and party administrations in pursuit of its openly proclaimed purpose of redrawing the racial map of Europe. German military and civilian administrators from Holland to the Ukraine were faced with the choice of either turning a blind eye as the SS rolled in to massacre or deport the Jews under their control, or of putting their own resources at its disposal in the genocide. Dissatisfied with existing arrangements and desperate for some kind of central direction, some senior civil servants, such as the interior ministry’s Wilhelm Stuckart, turned to Himmler: if there was to be a new colonial elite in the long run, then perhaps Himmler’s cohorts of highly educated and efficiently organised young SS officers would provide it.

The reality remained stubbornly different. Mazower exaggerates when he claims that it was Germany’s ‘pre-1914 colonies that provided what little administrative expertise existed in the Third Reich’. Certainly, some former colonial officials played a role, such as Viktor Böttcher, the governor of Posen, who had helped run German Cameroon before 1914, but they were inevitably in a tiny minority, given the very small size of the German colonial administration before the First World War. Administrative experience came overwhelmingly from the domestic civil service. But it found itself increasingly sidelined by Hitler’s preferred representatives of ‘political leadership’. Thus the chaos remained, and sharp-eyed observers continued to complain that the supposedly highly centralised Reich was in practice divided into dozens of self-willed satrapies; fundamentally, one of them despairingly noted, it altogether lacked ‘a functioning government’.

Mazower is on slightly safer ground when he notes that German race laws in colonies like Namibia provided a basis for similar regulations in German-dominated Europe after 1939, according to which Poles and other Slavs were subjected to harsh discrimination and – especially if they were drafted in to work in the Reich, as they were in their millions – banned by law from having sexual relationships with members of the master-race. However, recent claims by some historians that the war of annihilation conducted by German armed forces in their suppression of the Herero and Nama revolt in Namibia in 1905-6, when scores of thousands of tribesmen were driven into the desert or marooned on an island and left to starve, provided the model for Nazi policy towards the Jews, fail to convince because there is no evidence of a direct connection.

There were plenty of other models of racial discrimination for Hitler to draw on, including the US, where Native Americans were defined up to 1924 as ‘nationals’ but not ‘citizens’, or almost any colony or dependency of the British, where land was confiscated for distribution to white settlers, and Africans were drafted onto forced labour schemes. In South Africa in particular there was harsh racial oppression and the abrogation of the rights of supposedly racially inferior social groups. The major contrast here was that the Nazi empire applied such policies in Europe itself, where higher standards were felt to apply. But there were other differences too. By the interwar years, as Mazower points out, imperial powers generally held out the prospect of eventual self-government to colonised peoples, even if only in the distant future, and encouraged the formation of educated indigenous elites. For Hitler, however, conquered peoples like the Poles, Czechs or Russians were doomed to extinction to make way for the Germanic master-race, and the sooner this happened the better.

In his mealtime monologues, recorded for posterity on the orders of Martin Bormann, Hitler repeatedly returned to the example of British India. ‘Let’s learn from the English,’ he said, ‘who, with two hundred and fifty thousand men in all, including fifty thousand soldiers, govern 400 million Indians.’ ‘What India is for England,’ he remarked on another occasion, ‘the territories of Russia will be for us.’ He didn’t ask how the British had managed to retain their hold on the Indian subcontinent with such limited forces at their disposal; he simply assumed it was a result of their racial superiority. ‘The Russian space,’ he said, ‘is our India. Like the English, we shall rule this empire with a handful of men.’ He thought that German colonialism had failed not least because it had imported the German schoolmaster into the colonies. ‘It would be a mistake to claim to educate the native. All that we could give him would be a half-knowledge – just what’s needed to conduct a revolution!’ In occupied Western Europe, the racial affinities assumed by the Nazis could lead to rule through existing administrative channels. But in the new empire in Eastern Europe, Germany would rule by force.

Thus any chance of co-opting nationalist groups in countries like the Ukraine, where Soviet rule had caused untold misery and starvation, and where local people welcomed the invading German troops as liberators with traditional gifts of bread and salt, was firmly rejected despite the advocacy of men like the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, who ran the largely powerless Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories. Mazower discusses in detail the alternative proposals put forward by Rosenberg and others for ruling the East. A Baltic German driven by hatred of Communism, Rosenberg thought of the Germans as liberators of the oppressed masses from the curse of Stalinism. He urged the creation of independent states purged of their Communist administrations, and warned that ‘the conquered territory as a whole must not be treated as the object of exploitation.’ But Hitler, and even more Himmler, were dismissive of the idea that ‘subhumans’ like the Ukrainians could have any racial affinity with the Germans: they were Slavs, to be used and then discarded once they had served their purpose. The result, as one of Rosenberg’s aides pointed out in February 1944, was that the German occupiers had, ‘within a year, chased into the woods and swamps, as partisans, a people which was absolutely pro-German and had jubilantly greeted us as their liberator’.

The brutal and murderous policies that achieved this result stood in sharp contrast to the relatively mild policies imposed in Western Europe. Following the defeat of France in 1940, Nazi planners came up with the idea of a ‘New Order in Europe’, in which the French and other Western European economies would be mobilised in a wider sphere of economic co-operation to rival the huge economic blocs of the US and the British Empire. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1940, following Hitler’s declaration that the German economy could not survive on the basis of ‘autarky’ or self-sufficiency, economists and planners engaged in detailed discussions about European economic integration in the service of Germany’s global ambitions, while big firms like I.G. Farben envisioned the creation of pan-European cartels as their contribution to the realisation of this ambition. ‘We are not alone in Europe,’ the Reich Economics Ministry warned in October 1940, ‘and we cannot run an economy with subjugated nations.’

Mazower perhaps dismisses these elaborate discussions a little too brusquely when he remarks that the Nazi vision of a new European order ‘disappeared almost as soon as it arose’. But he is right to point out that the practical effects of such discussions were both limited and short-lived. Well before the end of 1940, Hitler and Goebbels were insisting that all that mattered was Germany, and that the rest of Europe should be exploited as far as possible in the interests of the German war effort. The Reich may not have imposed financial reparations on France and the other defeated nations but it slapped on ‘occupation costs’, fixed exchange rates to give German troops and administrators purchasing power that Frenchmen or Belgians couldn’t hope to match, and ruined transportation systems by shipping railway engines and rolling stock back to Germany. In the end, the wealthy industrial regions of Western Europe contributed far less to the German war effort than Berlin had hoped.

In his discussion of the mass extermination of the continent’s Jewish population, Mazower follows some recent historians in emphasising the importance of the wider context of the racial reordering of Europe in the creation of the Nazi empire, and the role of ‘practical’ considerations in the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe’, notably the need to eliminate people who consumed food badly needed by the Reich. But this work underestimates the distinctiveness of the Nazis’ conception of the Jews, not as a regional obstacle to be swept out of the way, but a global enemy whose removal was vital to the very survival of the ‘Aryan’ race. Hitler and Goebbels believed that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were all being steered by a world Jewish conspiracy, and that the Jews of Europe, even tiny communities in faraway places like Finland, had to be exterminated as an urgent measure of national security.

In some of his most interesting and original pages, Mazower suggests that the very ruthlessness and brutality of the German empire in Europe served to discredit the idea of world empires run by self-proclaimed racial overlords. The triumphant resurgence of nationalist resistance movements in the second half of the war did not stop at the boundaries of Europe. The victorious powers were not imperialist, as in 1918, but anti-imperialist: the US and the Soviet Union. And in the imperial metropoles, doubts about the legitimacy of imperial domination grew apace. Mazower quotes Orwell: ‘What meaning would there be,’ he wrote, ‘in bringing down Hitler’s system in order to stabilise something that is far bigger and in its different way just as bad?’

The age of imperialism was over. The idea that eventually triumphed in Europe was a modified version of the ‘New Order’, which economists like Ludwig Erhard, the future West German chancellor, had spent so much futile intellectual energy discussing in the early 1940s. Some of these men re-emerged after the war to take a role (mostly behind the scenes) in putting together the first building blocks of European union. ‘No political order,’ Mazower writes, ‘begins from nothing.’ But the new Europeans believed that economic co-operation could no longer be a propagandistic fig-leaf for one nation’s exploitative intentions. Nor could the idea of a pan-European economic sphere be built in opposition to the interests of the United States. Along with imperialism, the idea of a world divided between vast empires competing with one another for survival and domination had disappeared as well.

Hitler’s empire disappeared as quickly as it was created, the shortest-lived of all imperial creations, and the last. Mark Mazower has written an absorbing and thought-provoking account of its rise and demise. By placing it in the global context of empire, he makes us see it fresh, and that is a considerable achievement. Paradoxically, perhaps, it makes us view the older European empires in a relatively favourable light. Growing up over decades, even centuries, they had remained in existence only through a complex nexus of collaboration, compromise and accommodation. Racist they may have been, murderous sometimes, even on occasion exterminatory, but none of them was created or sustained on the basis of such a narrow or exploitative nationalism as animated the Nazi empire.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 30 No. 19 · 9 October 2008

Richard Evans is unfair to Karl May in describing him as a writer of ‘pulp novels set in the Wild West’ whom Hitler admired (LRB, 25 September). Only a small part of his immense output concerned the American Wild West, though his four Winnetou novels are still probably his best-known. He was by the end of the 19th century by far the most popular German writer of all time; at the end of his life in 1912 his books had been translated into 25 languages.

Sympathy for the American Indians is one of the main themes of the Winnetou books: at a time when the only good Indian was a dead Indian, May created heroes able to satisfy everything one might demand of ‘noble savages’. Correspondingly, his white men are sympathetic or not according to their empathy with the Indians. The Indians were doomed, but May treats this fact as an unmitigated tragedy, not, as Evans suggests, in a triumphalist Darwinistic ‘survival of the fittest’ manner.

May’s brushes with the law, giving him a ‘criminal record’ in Evans’s words, grew out of the ill-will of contemporaries envious of his success. He was accused and tried as a purveyor of fantasy as fact, given that in his many books of exotica, he described events and persons in lands he had never visited; this is what he served time in jail for, grotesque as that now seems.

J. Elfenbein
Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences