Skip to main content

Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe Review


Nazism was predicated upon colonial expansion in Europe itself. If there is a crucial lesson to draw from Mark Mazower’s book Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe, it is this: that Nazi expansion was a colonial project, based on a German conception of the success of the British Empire, that sought to dominate and colonize Europe. In this, it marries to another relatively recent, prestigious work on the subject of Nazism and its political economy as well as war economy, in Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction. Mazower's book however, is in its analysis of Nazism colonialism, policy in occupied Europe, collaborationism, and resistance, much more focused and detailed on the nature of Nazi conduct in occupied territories. This focus while still presenting excellent general lessons to be drawn makes it into a brilliant book which magnificently shows the contradictions, limitations, and murderous effects of Nazi administration.

There are many excellent parts of Hitler's Empire, but what stands out as one of its most incisive parts is the ideology of race war and ethnic conflict which fueled German delusions in the East, starting with the first chapter comparing German colonialist race science and its exploration of race wars in the colonies of the Bismarck archipelago, to the catastrophic results of German race war in Europe. This theme of exploration of minority and ethnic relations is central to the book, comparing Nazism to the Versailles and now-modern order of minority rights, and to the enduring effects of German-European ideologies of blood and soil and national purity. This includes even the highest enemy of the Nazis, Israel, whose Zionist project was another representation of the European ideology of ethnically unitary states.

Its analysis of the German Eastern European colonial settlement drive is fascinatingly devastating in the indictment of its inherent impracticality and absurdity. A country whose urbanized, city and westward-moving population was to be sent to become farmers in a depopulated East. Mazower shows how the objectives of German economic power, exploitation of conquered regions, and wartime production ran directly contrary to the German settlement program. Attempts to settle Poland with Germans thus proved quickly to be a failed dead end, and led to the reliance upon “Germanization,” however skin-deep this was, of the locals - as shown by an excellent scene in the book describing “Germans,” duly categorized and identified as such, marching East against the Communists singing Polish songs! But the Nazis still pressed ahead with their ambitious colonization schemes, regardless of the logic present. The contrast is striking with the post-war Polish resettlement drive which sent millions of Poles West to the formerly-German Eastern lands, taking advantage of the natural movement of Poles there anyway and the millions of Poles themselves displaced from territories occupied by the Soviet Union, and who blended together reasonably well in these regions.

Movies such as the Russian film Come and See (Idi i smotri) show the sheer horror associated with German occupation policy in the East

Movies such as the Russian film Come and See (Idi i smotri) show the sheer horror associated with German occupation policy in the East

This German policy was in complete contradiction with the development of local sympathies and exploiting friendly sentiments among conquered peoples, at least in the East - although Germans quickly managed to attract tremendous hostility in the West as well. The Italian dimension of the Axis continental strategy is closely bound up with this: the Italians, unlike the Germans, did press for a European policy to exploit anti-Communist sentiment and dissatisfaction with the pre-war liberal order, and were intensely frustrated by a German refusal to add a political dimension to the war which might have genuinely attracted and motivated allies. Italy’s hoped for, but quickly doomed, role as an intermediary between German and the small states of Europe is neglected in other books but shown very well here. Not that Italy was innocent of crimes of course, but they had at least some higher conceptions. The same can be said for the objectives, aims, and dynamics of the smaller states themselves, particularly in their policy vis-a-vis the Holocaust.

The Holocaust had a crucial diplomatic element which is not mentioned in many other books - Germany’s allies had substantial Jewish populations which the Germans wished to kill as part of their Final Solution. but however anti-Semitic these states have been (Romania in particular was utterly brutal and murderous in its slaughter of its own Jews), their own Jews were markers of both their sovereignty and their relationship to the Nazi regime. Thus many opposed exporting their Jews to Germany for extermination, and they used their willingness to be complicit as a way to signal their opposition or closeness to Nazi Germany. And genocide had its own impact on occupied people: they could see in the extermination of the Jews a sign of their own fate.

Mazower cites Tooze approvingly, but some of his conclusions run contrary to what seems to be the pre-seminent current economics work on Nazi Germany, the Wages of Destruction. Tooze writes that a crucial reason behind the extermination of the Jews was the German lack of food: their killing thus served a useful part of Germany’s economic strategy, in eliminating hungry mouths. And while Germany’s war strategy in the East was politically disastrous, a crucial element of it, beyond the Nazi racial ideology, was driven by the need to squeeze the population for food. Mazower discusses the Romanian occupation of South-West Ukraine as an example of hos things could have been different, as the lecherous and corrupt Romanian administration was far more interested in the goose’s golden eggs than strangling it, allowing markets and private property to redevelop and a great degree of consumption goods not available elsewhere to flourish. But how practical would it have been to apply this to the rest of Ukraine, in light of the demands of the German army? It seems that certainly the Germans were blinded by their ideology, and could have attracted substantially more support, but there seems to have been hard limits on what was possible: food supply is a crucial one and one which, however short-term the solutions might have been, was a drive for some of the more brutal German efforts.

Scroll to Continue

Mazower’s analysis of German occupation policies by country, and the internal bureaucratic politics of the German regime - closely bound up with the struggle for power over these territories, is another bright spot of the book. France is a particularly good and detailed example, showing the dynamics of occupation politics, with the right-wing conservatives that German allied with and the far-right groups who hoped to profit from Germany’s triumph. But even more important than the political side of things was bureaucracy and administration, since while political parties and politicians could be done away with, the Germans needed local administrators and states required the iron cage of bureaucracy to hold themselves together and keep order and be useful for the occupiers. The sections on resistance help explain why resistance developed in certain regions more intensely than others, such as in Yugoslavia, and what the goals, objectives, and utility was.

Thus even in Poland, there was some degree of administrative continuance despite the formal abolition of the Polish state, and local collaborating officials. This was magnified greatly in countries such as France. The book helps to put in context how negotiations and relationships between these figures and the Germans functioned, such as in France the French bureaucracy choosing to themselves deport Jews in order to maintain their internal sovereignty.

Overall, this is an excellent and formidable book, and required reading to understand the dynamics of German occupation, ambitions, and rule in occupied Europe, and the ideology and ideas underlying it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Related Articles