Let’s Learn from the English

Richard J. Evans

  • Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe by Mark Mazower
    Allen Lane, 726 pp, £30.00, June 2008, ISBN 978 0 7139 9681 4

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.

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