Monday, April 13, 2009

Book Review: 'Hitler's Empire.' He Was Good At War But Lousy At Governing

The Nazis kept talking about a thousand-year Reich but they couldn't think ahead for five minutes!
While thousands of books have been written about virtually every aspect of the Third Reich from anshluss to zionism, comparatively little ink has been spilled on how Adolph Hitler governed his empire of conquered European states. And so it comes as something of a revelation, as Mark Mazower concludes in his recently published Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe, that those detail-obsessed Nazis gave little thought to governance, let alone a long-term vision for their immense empire.

The reason is simple and at the same time complex as Mazower explains in this very fine and meticulously researched 726-page tome: The Germans were ill prepared to take advantage of their early victories, failed to think deeply about Europe because war and occupation were their primary instruments of governance, and most Europeans -- notably the French -- dutifully fell into line and did what was demanded of them.

In fact, the disciplined cohesion that Hilter liked to project was a mirage. The central government in Berlin and Nazi Party remained at loggerheads throughout the war, generals and old-line bureaucrats fought constantly, and his style of leadership was to divide-and-rule in order to keep at arm's length any threats to his leadership.

Mazower, a Columbia University historian, writes that the Führer's deputies wildly underestimated the challenges in Germanizing their conquests while hewing to crackpot racial theory as a basis of law and administration. Even the genocidal answer to the "Jewish question" emerged in fits and starts, there were bitter rivalries between party and government and regular army and SS as to how to deal with Jews everywhere and conquered peoples in general. In short, the Nazis were often brilliant militarily but incompetent when it came to politics.

Mazower says that this already was evident in the Reich's initial foray into Poland:

"[Hitler] wanted to destroy the Poles' leadership class completely, and his discussions in August and
September [of 1939] focused on the 'political house-cleaning' necessary to accomplish that. As a result, approximately 50,000 Poles and 7,000 Jews were executed during the invasion. Yet there were no plans -- or so it would seem -- for what to do with the remaining millions of the Polish population, nor -- more astonishingly -- for identifying the German colonists who were supposed to come in and constitute a new frontier wall against them. It was as though, compared with the zest with which Hitler and his associates mapped out the destructive dimensions of their task, everything else could simply be left to take care of itself."

The turning point militarily was, of course,
Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's massive and ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

"This was the best prepared of all the German campaigns, and the preparation extended to specifying how the enemy population was to be treated," Mazower writes. " . . . With this epic, murderous and unremitting conflict as the catalyst, the very character of Nazi rule across Europe was to be irrevocably altered. Already, Hitler had shown that his programme was incapable of winning over Europe politically; as the veteran diplomat [Ernest von] Weizsäcker had noted, 'the ideological unity of Europe is reduced to Germany, Italy and Spain' -- and even the last of those was doubtful. Now all that was left was force."

But just as the French had surrendered much sooner than anticipated, Joseph Stalin's Red Army turned out to be a substantially more formidable foe than Hitler had ever imagined as the Blitzkrieg dragged on to the end of the year.


"Before 1941 was out, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden had been sent to Moscow. The campaign that had been designed to force the British to capitulate had in fact cemented the new alliance that would ultimately defeat Germany."

The carnage -- militarily and civilian -- for the balance of the war was so astounding that I found myself becoming numb to the body count at several points while pouring through
Hitler's Empire, and then a set of statistics like these would jerk me out of my fog:

"Long before the world discovered the grisly sight of the overcrowded
SS [Shutstaffel] camps in the Reich in 1945, the Wehrmacht's own POW camps -- unseen by any journalists -- had contained horrors that were, if anything, greater still in their magnitude. By February 1942, only 1.1 million Soviet POWs remained alive (of the 3.9 million originally captured), and of these only 400,000 were able to work. The overall mortality rate for Soviet POWs in German hands during the Second World War was 57.5 percent; as many British and American soldiers died in Germany captivity during the whole war as died in these camps in one day." [Italics mine.]

There were farcial aspects of the Nazis' attempts to Germanify non-German civilian populations.

Robert Wagner, the Gauleiter of Baden in southwest Germany, released French POWs provided they sign a declaration stating that they were of German blood. He ordered the secret police to scan telephone directories in an effort to ban certain non-German names:

"Wagner prohibited René being turned into Renatus or Marcel into Marcellus, published lists of acceptable German names and unacceptable French ones, and laid down transcription rules (to avoid a situation in which different members of the Dumoulin family ended up with Vondermühlen, Zurmühlen, Müller and Dumüller). Nationality politics turned into onomastics.

"By the time the Germans got round to passing the ordinance which made the whole renaming demand legal -- in early 1943 -- more than 50,000 applications had been received. Whether they did what Wagner (whose family name was originally Backfisch) hoped, which was 'to liberate the Alsatian from the odium of being only a half-German,' is more doubtful."

In eastern Europe, the looniness extended to tearing down old cities and putting up planned communities for the Germans who would emigrate from the motherland.

The elegant Renaissance provincial town of Zamość in southeastern Poland -- today a UNESCO World Heritage site -- was to serve as a regional capital for 60,000 new German colonists: In August 1942, powerful SS head [Heinrich] Himmler walked around Zamość with the local German administrator and told him to tear it down immediately and replace it with a new German settlement that would be called Pflugstadt (City of the Plough).


"Playing for time, his companion, who treasured Zamość's architectural unity, asked the Reichsführer what a 'German
town' should look like: there was, after all, Nuremberg's medievalism or the neo-classicism that [Albert] Speer favored. To sort it out, Himmler sent a team of architects and town planners, who were still working on their blueprints when the Red Army marched in. It was a small triumph for the delaying tactics of one of the saner of the civilian administrators running Poland."

Nazi rule in western Europe was considerably more benign (if that descriptor can even be used) than in the East. The arts and cultural life in general flourished in Paris through much of the war because the Germans were far more interested in and sympathetic to them than the parochial Vichy government, although even their occupation of France was badly mismanaged.

Meanwhile, the fact that other Europeans were nationalists as well was lost on Hitler and he was utterly disinterested in leading any effort to foster cooperation among nations, as well as having long lost sight of the difference between "leadership" and "domination" in his manic belief that the continent could be made to
serve German interests.

In a radio address in October 1941 when Barbarossa was going well, the Führer had likened the defeated Bolsheviks to the hordes of Genghis Khan, but as Mazower notes, "Genghis Khan was the ruler whose destructive powers had outstripped his constructive ones, and whose extensive conquests failed to cohere and fell apart after his death."

In the end, Hitler's mismanagement of manufacturing and labor was key to the Reich's defeat:


"[H]is bid to wage a continental war in defiance of Germany's economic capabilities backfired. The USSR's continued resistance, its apparently endless reserves of manpower and the remarkable success of its own rearmament effort in the face of crippling shortages of foodstuffs condemned his entire strategy. The key phase of the struggle was in the first year and a half after the German invasion of the USSR, when the Reich's new conquests and the profound shock to the Soviet economy brought it many advantages at a time when the American economy was still gearing up for war. It was in those
crucial months that the Nazi capacity for wastage and incompetence, Hitler's strategic mistakes and the regime's inability to convert resources into weapons as effectively as its enemies cost the Reich dearly."

Hilter's Empire is a triumph in large part because Mazower ignores the battlefield and focuses on the political, racial and economic policies that resulted in utter disorder despite the Master Race's attempts at order -- and the consequent misrule.

No work as encompassing as this one would be complete without addressing a deeply discomfiting question: What was the difference between what other imperial powers did abroad and what the Nazis did in Europe?

The answer, as Mazower notes in a brief aside in the concluding chapter of Hitler's Empire, is very little, and for some of us it took Nazism to bring into sharp focus the deep racial prejudices that was behind English, French, Dutch, Spanish -- and, yes, American conquests. That is not to say that the extermination of perhaps a million Native Americans can be compared to the Final Solution, but neither can this homegrown genocide be left unremarked on in the context of World War II.

Mazower, in a sort of coda, cites the sage Generalleutenant Ferdinand Heim's lecture to fellow POWs three weeks after the Nazi capitulation:

"Could the war have been won at all, even if no military mistakes had been made? My opinion is: no. From 1941 onwards at the latest it was just as much lost as the Great War because the political aims bore no relation whatsoever to Germany's military and economic possibilities. The only thing Hitler's peculiar method of waging war cost the German people was millions too many people killed. That's the only thing -- the war could not have been won. The remarkable thing is this, a thing about which I am always thinking: how is it that a country like Germany, which is situated in the middle of the continent, has not developed politics into an art, in order to maintain peace, a sensible peace . . . We were so fatuously stupid as to think that we could challenge the world . . . without seeing that is absolutely impossible in the situation in which we find ourselves in Germany. What are the reasons for it? I'm no politician, I am no historian. I don't know. I only see the question."

IMAGES (Top to bottom)
"Erwachende Germania" (1848) by Christian Köhler; Hitler and
Himmler at the Berghof (1943); Poster showing Nazi workers,
farmers and soldiers; Polish invasion poster (1939); Soviet
POWs at Mauthausen;
Zamość town center; Armaments chief
Albert Speer; Hitler speaks at VW factory manned with slave
labor; Friedrichshane borough of Berlin in flames (1945);

Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief and holy man Sitting Bull (1885)


Anonymous said...

Excellent book review. I'm going to pick up the book. However, I'd say that Hitler might have succeeded if he hadn't made one particular military/political mistake, and that would have been attacking the Soviet Union. Had he satisfied himself with dominating Eastern Europe, the Allies would have needed decades to beat him without Stalin hitting him from the East, and maybe never succeeded at all.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent and detailed review. I am really looking forward to reading this book. There is no question that Hitler was his own worst enemy during the War; in imposing such cruelty and insane racial persecution upon the populations he sought to control, alienation and widespread resistance was an inevitability. The Nazis encountered collaborators in every country they entered; a more imaginative approach to recruiting these sympathizers would have gone a long way toward achieving their goals (and thank God this eventuality did not come to pass!) Granting autonomy (for example) to the Latvians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians and treating these anti-
Stalinist states as true allies might have been the difference in Barbarossa. Those interested in the period might want to check out my new novel, THE FUHRER VIRUS. It is a fictional spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers and can be found at,, and


Paul Schultz

Anonymous said...

Nice review, though I have some reservations about the “imperial impulse” theory as Mazower has formulated it.