HISTORY | WORLD WAR II
Axis of Incompetence
How the Nazis Ruled Europe
By Mark Mazower
Penguin Press. 726 pp. $39.95
Surveying Nazi Germany's conquests shortly after it invaded the Soviet Union, Hitler's minister of economics boasted: "Never before in the history of the world has there been such an economy to administer." Germany was indeed the master of most of Europe at that point, and its armies were marching quickly into Russia. But in Hitler's Empire, Columbia University historian Mark Mazower spells out how ill-prepared the Germans were for their string of early victories -- and how completely they botched the administration of their empire.
Many histories have focused on Hitler's costly military mistakes, particularly on the Eastern Front. Mazower largely ignores the battlefields and focuses instead on the political, racial and economic policies of the Nazi conquerors. While many parts of this story have been told before, he painstakingly examines a huge body of evidence for insights into Nazi misrule. This hardly makes for light reading, but it allows him to present a compelling case, which was best summarized by a German general at the end of the war. Addressing his fellow POWs, Ferdinand Heim argued that the German war effort would have been doomed "even if no military mistakes had been made."
The reason: Nazi articles of faith amounted to grotesque fantasies about how the New Order would function, and they couldn't possibly survive prolonged, or even relatively short, clashes with reality. Leaving morality aside, the Holocaust made no economic sense at a time when Germany was desperately short of workers. When Victor Brack, one of the officials charged with carrying out the Final Solution, suggested that between 2 and 3 million Jews could be sterilized and put to work rather than killed, Hitler wasn't interested.
The German leader's plans for the rest of the people in the East were even more absurd in economic terms, since they involved the majority of the local inhabitants, not just minorities. Under Nazi doctrine, Germanization was the overarching goal, which meant eliminating as many non-Germans as possible and finding and elevating local Germans or bringing in new German settlers. But after Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1939, 90 percent of the inhabitants of German-occupied territory were Poles and only 6 percent ethnic Germans. And as the empire grew, the proportions of ethnic Germans became even smaller.
In the midst of a widening conflict, German officials methodically photographed and examined Polish families, discriminating in favor of those who appeared to have "the soundest German blood." All of which was guaranteed to stir resentment. Even Colonel-General Johannes von Blaskowitz, one of the German commanders in Poland, noted: "The idea that one can intimidate the Polish population by terrorism and rub their noses in the dirt will certainly prove false."
Nowhere was that miscalculation more costly than in the Soviet Union. After Stalin's purges and forced collectivization of the 1930s, some Ukrainians, Lithuanians and even Russians were prepared to view any invaders as possible saviors. Hitler's ruthless policies, directed not just against Jews but also against Soviet POWs and the entire civilian population, quickly disabused them of such notions.
That part of the story is fairly well-known. But Mazower goes one step further by demonstrating the hypothetical alternative. He points to the relatively enlightened occupation of southern Ukraine and Odessa. In the port city, locals could open businesses if they offered the right bribes, and visiting Germans were astonished by the thriving shops, restaurants and cafes -- all with plenty of food. "It simply showed what could have happened across the former Soviet territories," Mazower writes, "if the Germans had allowed markets to flourish and not planned to destroy the social order."
Ironically, the industrialized economies of Western Europe, where German rule was far less draconian than in the East, contributed more to the German war effort than the Eastern territories did. By deliberately starving their Eastern subjects, the Germans only contributed to the poor performance of the agricultural sector. And yet it was the East that mesmerized Hitler, whose whole notion of Lebensraum was built on the premise that Germany would harvest great riches there, using largely mythic German settlers. There simply weren't anywhere near the number of Germans needed to transform those fantasies into reality.
At times, Mazower's sweeping survey feels forced, trying to cover everything -- the origins of Nazism, the Holocaust, collaboration and resistance in all parts of occupied Europe. Inevitably, there are some questionable generalizations. In explaining the Nazi New Order, Mazower asserts, "the quest to unify Germans within a single German state" was more important than anti-Semitism or than the lust for conquest-- as if these are contradictory impulses.
But all the way through, Mazower offers incisive details and insights that make Hitler's Empire a fascinating read. He points out, for example, that the United States accounted for 67 percent of the world's oil output in 1943 and the Soviet Union only 10 percent. So here, too, Hitler's basic assumptions about what he would gain by conquering the East were flawed: Even if his armies had taken the oil fields in the Caucasus, he wouldn't have solved his energy problem. Luckily for Germany's opponents, the master race was totally impervious to something as mundane as logic. ·
Andrew Nagorski is director of public policy and senior fellow at the EastWest Institute. His latest book, "The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II," will be out in paperback next month.