Timothy Snyder: Nazism's dialectic of death

Roundup: Talking About History

[Timothy Snyder is Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies in European and Russian Studies at Yale University.His most recent book, The Red Prince: The secret lives of a Habsburg Archduke, was published earlier this year.]

Can a nationalist found an empire? The United States of George W. Bush invaded Iraq in the name of democracy, though any representative Iraqi government would have to oppose a foreign occupation. Russia under Vladimir Putin tries to impose its will on Ukraine in the name of national self-determination, denying that Ukrainians are a separate people. The Chinese regime modernizes Tibet while expressing its own sense of national superiority. All of these are imperial policies by essentially nationalist regimes, and all of them spread nationalism around the world. Ukrainian national identity is ever more distinct. Tibetan protests spread from towns to the countryside. The American occupation will build the Iraqi nation, as the inevitable withdrawal creates a heroic myth of resistance to the outsider. In Isaiah Berlin’s famous formulation, a bent twig snaps back.

But what if a nationalist made an empire by exterminating the native populations of conquered lands? As Mark Mazower shows in Hitler’s Empire: Nazi rule in Occupied Europe, this is exactly what Adolf Hitler set out to do. Hitler dreamt of an empire in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia, denuded of its native populations. After 50 million Slavs and Jews were murdered or deported, like (in Hitler’s comparison) the “Red Indians” of North America, free German farmers could claim their “Lebensraum” in the East. (Americans of my generation learned from government-sponsored television that the history of our country was indeed one of the pursuit of “elbow room” in the West.) As German scholarship has recently stressed, and as Mazower skilfully argues, Hitler and SS Chief Heinrich Himmler counted on a quick victory over the Red Army in the East, followed by the elimination of Jews and Slavs – Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians. Before and during the German invasion of the Soviet Union, German planners designed agricultural colonies to defend and Germanize the depopulated wasteland.

Mazower’s book treats two empires: the mythical one that Hitler and his collaborators imagined in the East and tried to make by invading the Soviet Union in 1941, and the real one comprised of the lands the Germans annexed and controlled, beginning with the Anschluss of Austria in 1938. In his detailed discussions of the real empire, Mazower is concerned to present a comprehensive account of German aims and local experiences in all of the European countries occupied by German forces. This he achieves to an astonishing degree, by seeking and finding the themes (Germanization, collaboration, resistance, culture) that express the particular realities of occupation by Germany. Although these thematic chapters are full of motion, they convey a sense of stable equilibrium in most of the countries under German power. Mazower does observe that a certain destructive tension builds from 1938 to 1941, as the Germans find that conquest created problems that only further conquest can solve. For example, the destruction of the Polish state in 1939 brought millions of Jews under German dominion. The conquest of France in 1940 suggests a solution to what the Nazis regarded as the “Jewish problem”: deportation to Madagascar, a French possession. But since Britain blocked the sea lanes, this proved impossible. The Final Solution would have to take some other form, in the East, after a quick war to be fought and won in 1940...

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