Few governments in the history of humanity have been so criminal and so destructive as the National-Socialist regime that prevailed in Germany between 1933 and 1945. When Adolf Hitler in 1939 invaded Poland, thereby firing the opening salvo for WWII, this led to a global conflict and series of massacres which would see over 50 million people dead – more than in any war in the history of civilization. The blame for this is laid first and foremost among all Axis nations on Nazi Germany. Yet what that regime is most known for is not even its destructive wars, but most particularly its genocidal policies of hateful murder called the Holocaust or Shoah, in which millions of Jews, Slavs, Sinti & Roma, homosexuals, Communists and other ‘undesirables’ were ruthlessly destroyed. The memory of these events is still alive very strongly, at least in Europe, and there are few historical periods about which more books have been written than the Nazi period. Yet despite the popular familiarity with the subject, there is still much missing in the common version of events; in particular, the question not of how this came to pass, but why, deserves fuller attention. Fortunately, some excellent works of history have been written about the context of the events leading up to and including the Nazi destruction, aiding us in the task of understanding.
There are two aspects of the Nazi state and its machinery that have remained, at least until recently(1), underemphasized. The first is the economic impetus for Nazi Germany to make its policies as it did, and to wage war the way it did and at its given time. The second is the colonial context within which the entire enterprise of national-socialism, both as a practice and as an ideology, must be understood. These two issues are closely related, as the Nazi party and its ideology would have been impossible if it did not bring out the latent destructive potentials of the late colonial period more generally – what was unique about it was the ruthlessness of its implementation, and most importantly, the fact that it was aimed against Europe. The Nazi state and its ideology was nothing other than the racial-imperial ideology and the extractive-military reality of colonialism combined in the most violent and explosive manner possible, and to the shock of all contemporary observers, it aimed its hammer-blows not against the familiar victims in Africa or Asia, but against the peoples of Europe itself. Moreover, it did so only 30-odd years after the end of the last Great War, which was generally assumed to have been ‘the war to end all wars’. Such a threat to the integrity of the European system had not been seen since the Napoleonic wars, if not the Ottoman siege of Vienna. It is therefore very worth exploring, in as summary a way as can be done, how this was possible.
More than anything else, the whole system of Nazi Germany and its ideology was a product and a culmination of colonialism, and within colonialism, its settlerist variety. It started with the eradication of the Native peoples in North America in the process of the settlement of that vast continent. Disease indeed eradicated most before settlement really was underway at a large scale, but a more direct inspiration were the genocidal campaigns against the remaining Indian resistance during the 19th century by such people as Custer and Andrew Jackson. Although Natives had often in the past been described as savages and been considered on a lower plane of civilization by many, there had up to and including the 18th century been impulses to see them as free romantics and virtuous primitives also, as shown by Rousseau’s ideal of the ‘Noble Savage’, somewhat erroneously modelled after the American natives as well as Polynesians. During the course of the 19th century, however, colonial talk became increasingly racialized as European dominance over the rest of the world became complete, and no respect, however grudging, had to be granted even the Indian or Chinese civilizations. The second half of 19th century was the apogee of settlerism, with the deportation and destruction of the remaining Native peoples in the United States and Canada, with the mass settlement of Australia and New Zealand, with the formation of dense farmer settlements in South Africa (Cape Colony), and the Russian ‘internal colonization’ of the far east. Not coincidentally, it was also the heyday of racial theoretization. Writers such as the Comte de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain produced influential racial theories based in practice on the differentiations in imperial power between the different states, with white western Europeans on top, then southern Europeans, and all the way down until the Aboriginals of Australia and the like, who served no purpose but to be eradicated in the relentless march of progress.
This sort of talk, this ideology of conquest, left its mark. In the 1870s General W.T. Sherman declared that the “Indian problem” in America required “extermination” as a “final solution”(2), in a chilling prefiguration of what was to come about. The similarity of speech is more than coincidental here. Not only was there genocidal intent in the policy of the successive American governments against the Native ‘rebels’ and the like, but the stories from the frontier and of the fight against the American Indians written from the pioneer’s perspective, such as James Fenimore Cooper and the fantastic Karl May, were favorite readings of Hitler himself.(3) As John Toland pointed out, the experience of the Native Americans at the hands of the United States provided a direct inspiration to the Nazi regime when they devised their own “final solution” to a not altogether different question.(4) But there was another source of inspiration of a similar kind, more directly connected to German history itself: the extermination of the Herrero.
In January 1904, the first genocide of the 20th century was undertaken by the forces of Imperial Germany in their colony of Namibia, or German South-West Africa, when the “Herrero-German War” broke out.(5) German settlers had been flocking, be it in small numbers, to the colony, but the main reason to seize this area (1 1/2 times the size of Imperial Germany itself) was simply to keep it out of British hands. When the private projects of German adventurers failed, the Imperial government had decided to make it an official settlement colony after British model, and appointed a Governor, a certain Heinrich Ernst Goering, whose son would in turn play a significant role in the Nazi empire. The settlers, as they are wont to do, sooner or later came into conflict with the local population, in particular the Herrero people. Analogous to conflicts between the Boers and the Zulu and others in South Africa, some minor but pitched battles were fought between the armed settlers and raiders from the local inhabitants. To ‘restore order’, the Imperial government then sent in a contingent of German troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha. Von Trotha followed the prevailing military tactics in attempting to surround and concentrate the forces of the opposition, in order to totally destroy them in single battle, which was much easier than going after small bands piecemeal. The intent was explicitly to destroy not just the Herrero resistance, but the Herrero themselves by doing so. As Von Trotha explained:
My initial plan for the operation, which I always adhered to, was to encircle the masses of Hereros at Waterberg, and to annihilate these masses with a simultaneous blow, then to establish various stations to hunt down and disarm the splinter grous who escaped, later to lay hands on the captains by putting prize money on their heads and finally to sentence them to death.
Von Trotha succeeded in gathering and defeating the Herrero forces at the Waterberg, or Hamakari, and the defeated Herrero fled into the Kalahari desert. Nonetheless, there was always the fear that they might regroup and return, and the settlers could not feel safe, and Von Trotha not fulfill his task, if they were not definitively disposed of. Von Trotha realized this, and wrote in a letter:
I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country by operative means and further detailed treatment. This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of the nation who have moved back westwards and destroy them gradually(…)
Consequential to this policy, on Sunday, 2 October, 1904, Von Trotha gave the following order to be proclaimed in Namibia:
The Herero people must… leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr. Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.
These are my words to the Herero people.
[Signed] The great General of the mighty German Kaiser.
Not spuriously, Von Trotha’s order to the Herrero has become known as the Vernichtungsbefehl. What makes the meaning of this policy even clearer is what subsequently happened. The Vernichtungsbefehl was overruled eventually by the German Reichstag, under strong Social-Democratic influence in those years, as senselessly wasteful. But what this meant was that the Herrero captured after the repeal would be put into special concentration camps and put to work as forced labor.(9)
The conditions of these camps were described by a German missionary as follows:
Everywhere they [Herrero] popped up – not in their original area – to submit themselves as prisoners. What did the wretched people look like?! Some of them had been starved to skeletons with hollow eyes, powerless and hopeless, afflicted by serious diseases, particularly with dysentery. In the settlements they were placed in big kraals, and there they lay, without blankets and some without clothing, in the tropical rain on the marshlike ground. Here death reaped a harvest! Those who had some semblance of energy naturally had to work… It was a terrible misery with the people; they died in droves. (…) Hardly cheering cases were those where people were handed in to be healed from the effects of extreme mistreatment [meant is physical abuse]: there were bad cases amongst these.
It is not difficult to see what parallels can be made here: aside from the description of the landscape, the missionary’s observations could well have been from 1945 rather than 1905. Moreover, the ‘coincidence’ of Hermann Goering’s father having been the governor of this particular province is of course anything but. The comparison was noted also by the Rev. Michael Scott, when he attempted on behalf of the Namibian peoples to campaign against incorporation of ‘Southwest Africa’ into the racial South African state:
To read the records is exactly like reading the accounts of the obliteration of Poland, except that Germans had not gas chambers then, but killed babies with their own hands or burned sick old women in their huts. The tribe broke and fled… The majority, all but fifteen thousand out of ninety thousand, were hacked to pieces by the Germans or died of thirst.
Now to come to Nazi Germany itself. It is important to understand the position the Weimar Republic, its predecessor, found itself in. After the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was stripped of its colonies abroad as well as of the industrial areas of the Ruhr, and forced to pay enormous reparations denominated in American and French currency. The crisis period of 1918-1923 ripped apart the political foundations of the country, as two attempts at left-wing revolution were repressed by the connivance of the Social-Democrats with revanchist, right-wing paramilitary forces. These same forces would later produce many of the leading figures of the Nazi state, but the Social-Democrats feared their enemies on the left more than those on the right. Mass inflation destroyed the wealth of the German middle class and made the position of its Prussian rentier aristocracy precarious, leading to a strong rightward swing among those sections of society. Nonetheless, as in the 1920s the world economy, led by the United States, boomed, the Social-Democrat/Liberal coalition in the Weimar Republic that had tethered itself to this global economy prevailed.
The primary figure associated with this period is the economic historian-turned-politician Gustav Stresemann. He managed to stabilize the German currency and economy by pressuring the American establishment into a postponement of reparations until 1928-1929, under the so-called Dawes Plan. Effectively, this allowed Germany to borrow American funds to pay off the Brits and French in order to preserve the political order in the world at large and Germany in particular, which America found more important than punishing Germany; and as long as America’s economy held, it worked, and the competition on the left and right wing was succesfully held at bay.(12) At the same time, however, as Germany’s industry was allowed to survive by these means, it also meant that to a certain extent the pre-WWI situation was restored. Germany found itself once again competing fiercely with Britain and France in the economic field, and increasingly all of these overshadowed by the fast growing economic power of the United States. The alliance between these states had defeated Germany in 1914-1918, and caused it to have to revive the competition with a much weaker strategic position, dependent entirely on the German internal market for want of any foreign currency reserves or colonial source of income. This deeply worried Hitler and other right-wing revanchists, who saw the German position as weak and weakening still, as it was militarily overshadowed by the British-French alliance and economically outcompeted by the United States. As Hitler put it in his (then) unpublished “Second Book”:
In the future the only state that will be able to stand up to North America will be the one which has understood how, through the essence of its inner life and the meaning of its foreign policy, to raise the value of its people in racial terms and to bring them into the state-form most appropriate for this purpose (…) It is the task of the national socialist movement to strengthen and to prepare its fatherland for this mission.
Of itself, this insight did not guarantee the National-Socialists any support whatsoever. His party in 1928 obtained 2.5% of the vote, mainly from revanchist military cliques and some old Prussians, and it had no financial support whatsoever. Nazism would have been a mere footnote in history if it were not for the economic circumstances that were to follow the collapse of the American economy with the Wall Street crash of 1929. In that same year, Stresemann died, and Hjalmar Schacht, the more aggressive head of the German central bank, failed in making the Versailles repayments that came on the agenda contingent on restoration of Germany’s territorial claims. Schacht resigned and “threw in his lot with the forces now gathering on the extreme right of German politics”, and much of the banking establishment with him.(14) In 1930, the NSDAP gained 18.3% of the vote and became the second largest party in a very divided Reichstag. As a result of the crisis, the British went off the gold standard and devaluated their currency, but the now rightist German government failed to do this, because its debts were mainly counted in American currency. The result was a destruction of German corporations’ export position, leading to bankruptcies among many processing firms. Already, the Nordwolle wool plant in Bremen had collapsed, which in turn had caused the collapse of the DANAT Bank, one of the five largest in Germany. The Rothschild’s bank in Vienna had also fallen as a result of the Wall Street crash, and took most investments in Central and Eastern Europe with it. All in all, the destruction was complete, and each government immediately restricted the outflow of capital to other places in order to preserve what position it could muster; international trade came to a standstill.(15) The rightist Brüning government did not have any inspiration other than to follow a policy of deflation, as orthodox theory prescribed: the result was that soon six million were unemployed. Stresemann’s reliance on the self-perpetuation of world trade and financial flows as natural result of the market had been misplaced, and the results were dire.
The German industrialists were faced with almost certain slow strangulation, especially those that relied upon sale in large quantities and had little possibility of sustaining themselves on the weak German market alone, such as coal and steel producers. This meant that they had to act quickly against the tide if they wanted to survive. The same was also the viewpoint of the Prussian militarist clique, which increasingly took the reins of government under ever more rightist regimes. The terms of the Versailles treaty and subsequent disarmament talks held Germany permanently in a relatively weak military strength compared to the British and the French forces, and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine as well as the overseas territories smarted, as did the French occupation of the Ruhr. The militarists were almost all from the Prussian landowner class in the eastern Prussia, so to speak the Polish parts of Germany, and as a result were inclined to protect their landholdings against foreign competition as well as their nation. Strong agricultural tarriffs had protected the position of German large and middle-sized farmers, if not their highly exploited agricultural labor, since the days of Bismarck and the large farmer lobby was very strong on the German right.(16) Things turned quickly rightward: after some major NSDAP victories, Von Schleicher intervened in 1932 on behalf of the military clique to rule essentially in a military dictatorship, be it one with elections. He introduced some work programs and liaised with Hugenberg, representative of the industrial capitalists, and the NSDAP share of the vote dropped. It was however the inability of the different class groupings to unite effectively that made pursuing this course impossible: neither the industrialists, nor the Prussian militarists nor the landowners were willing to cede any power to the other. This led to a cabinet, devised by an intervention from the diplomat Von Papen, in which they all shared power over their respective domains as Ministers, and had the forceful and charismatic Hitler as Chancellor. In this manner, National-Socialism, like any fascist movement, was the result of the bourgeoisie and upper class’ inability to unify and solve their problems by the usual means – precisely their weakness led to the need for a dictatorship to pursue their policy interests on their behalf, and often against the demands of their individual units.
The Hitler government, while attempting to maintain a facade of national unity, requested and obtained from the Reichstag the necessary two-thirds majority to rule by decree – a move enabled by the decision of the Catholic ‘Zentrum’ to support Hitler’s proposal in exchange for protection of the dominance of the Church over education and the bureaucracy in southern Germany. Hitler had already eliminated the KPD by quickly imprisoning its leaders and middle cadre in the newly created concentration camps (as we have seen, an invention with precedent in southern Africa – it was also used by the British in the Boer War). The KPD, hamstrung by the incompetence of its leadership and the useless instructions from the Comintern, was appallingly easily destroyed. So also the SPD, which got its come-uppance for its own treason in the 1920s. Tellingly, the government then immediately also banned the existing labor unions and forced them into one fascist ‘corporation’, the Deutsche ArbeitsFront. Having eliminated with surprising ease the organisations of the workers and the left, the Führer had the breathing room to pursue his policies.
To understand properly how things ended up, and to not make this article overly long now that we have arrived at our actual point of consideration, it is useful to quickly summarize the economic situation of Germany as it presented itself to the Nazi government.
– First, there was large, if finally steady, unemployment in essentially all lower sectors of the economy.
– Second, there was an urgent need for foreign currency reserves to pay imports with: with the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, Germany had almost no major raw resource for its industries in any large quantity except coal. It had to import ore from France and Sweden, cotton and wool from Britain and elsewhere, rubber and oil from other countries’ colonies. Moreover, Germany’s large number of middle-sized farmers were technologically and productively backwards as a result of enormous excess labor in the countryside, a situation not dissimilar to the one the Soviet Union was in at the same time, about which I have written elsewhere.(17) This meant that it also was highly dependent on middle-sized farmer export countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark for butter, animal feed, milk etc. With no regular reserves existing as a result of the reparations payments and the huge debt, this meant that reviving German exports had a priority, as did defaulting on any further debts, as Hitler did in 1933.
– Third, the German military position was weak, as mentioned, and from the point of view of the military needed urgent rearmament, especially faced with the inevitable hostility from France, Britain and the United States its newly nationalist policy would provoke.
– Fourth, it is important to emphasize that the standard of living in Germany was substantially lower than in Britain or America, and although it had very advanced heavy industry, much of its smaller agriculture and small industry (such as textiles and food processing) lagged seriously behind.(18) In 1990 dollars, the German per capita income was about $4500, comparable with mid-level global economies today, such as Iran or South Africa.(19) The United States was already, be it slowly and with great inequality, embarking on the mass production of consumer goods for the upper middle class, such as fridges and cars, which Germany altogether lacked. The British middle class, too, was significantly better off than the Germans, fuelling the fires of revanchism further. Britain’s comfortable arrangements with the other Commonwealth states in the form of the Ottawa Agreement economic union assured it an export market, while at the same time permitting cheap import of raw materials of all sorts from its colonies like India and Malaysia. Hyperinflation, but more importantly the reparations regime had destroyed the German middle class and damaged its industry, while Britain and the US proceeded to increase their growth pace. German capital therefore felt itself truly surrounded and incapable of meeting the challenge of competition on these terms, while the military worried about lack of industrial production potential due to unemployment and the small market, which would weaken the capacity for war production. German housing was terrible even compared with Britain, and general inequality very high (one reason why the KPD had remained large despite its incompetence). At the same time, its technological level at the top of capital was still high and its research excellent.
– Fifth, there was the central issue of Lebensraum. The excess labor in agriculture and its low standard of production, especially with a dual system of great landowners and lagging middle-sized family farms, gave the impression of great overpopulation in rural areas. This, in turn, was translated by Nazi policy into a need for more land. This was nothing new of itself: the mass emigration of some 40 million Europeans to settler colonies outside Europe in the preceding century was the product both of low wages and of land hunger. In 1933, some 29% of the entire workforce was engaged in agriculture(20); compare this to a country like the Netherlands today, which produces, albeit with significant subsidies, vast excesses for export with an agricultural workforce of a mere 2-3%. Moreover, most of these were agricultural laborers who were quite poor, as well as hard-pressed family farmers, whose infinitely divisible inherited plots became smaller and less profitable as time went on. The end of WWI had seen widespread famine and disease, which killed hundreds of thousands. The population density of Germany was high, especially now that it lacked any overseas colonies, and very unfavorable compared with France or America (or the USSR), meaning it would lag more and more behind and become ever more dependent on imported food. For Hitler c.s., this was a recipe for ‘race death’.(21) The only option was expansion and settlement elsewhere. (It is important to note Italy, Germany’s later war ally, was in much the same position – in fact it had even fewer ha per rural population available than Germany did.) (22)
– Sixth, there is the question of race. National-Socialism on the one hand expressed the unified desire for expansion and settlement on the part of both certain sections of heavy industry, in particular the ‘quantitative’ ones like mining and steel, as well as that of the middle and large farmers; on the other, it expressed the logic of colonialism in its most aggressive form, where all was ranked according to a hierarchy of peoples eternally fighting over their living space and exploitable resources, endlessly warring over their settlements, in a race to the death to have one ‘blood’ win over another. This crude medley of social Darwinism, racial ‘science’ and imperialist apologetics was a poisonous concoction brewed out of the ingredients of Victorian thought, and could not have existed without the prior popularity of each of these elements among the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia of the Victorian-era great powers. This includes, of course, anti-semitism and support for ideas of ‘racial purity’. Truly Nazism went further than any other in this regard, but this was more a matter of boldly boiling down the fluffy mass of Victorian imperial justification to its toxic core than a matter of innovation. In his main work Mein Kampf, Hitler immediately connected this entire ideological framework with the concrete and medium term needs of those larger farmers and heavy industry, as well as the revanchism among military circles, in a maneouvre as brilliant as it was diabolical. This meant of course implacable hatred toward those weakening the race on the one hand, such as ‘impure’ groups, and those opposed to the aforementioned classes on the other hand, such as socialists. In fact, the commentators seem to disagree on whether Hitler hated Jews more than Communists, and whether he hated Jews for being Communists or Communists for being Jews; be that as it may, these aspects followed immediately from these ideological elements. Fitting the combination of Lebensraum policy with support for the Nazis’ particular racial ideology, the agricultural areas of the north and east of Germany were the only parts to ever give the NSDAP a full majority in an election.(23)
In the next part, I shall show what strategic conclusions the Nazi government drew from this analysis, and in what manner they implemented them in the runup to the war and during the war itself.
1) At least until the recent publication of Adam Tooze’s brilliant economic history of Nazi Germany: Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction (New York, NY 2007). This book shall serve as one of the main sources for this essay; sources quoted by Tooze shall be referred to on the appropriate page of this work rather than each individually. My conclusions, of course, are my own.
2) Quoted in S.B. Willson, “Bob Kerrey’s Atrocity, The Crime of Vietnam and the Historic Pattern of US Imperialism”, in: Adam Jones (ed.), Genocide, War Crimes and the West (New York, NY 2004), p. 172.
3) David Jablonsky, Churchill and Hitler: Essays on the Political-Military Direction of Total War (Ilford 1994), p. 135.
4) John Toland, Adolf Hitler, Vol. II (Garden City, NY), p. 802.
5) Jan-Bart Gewald, “Imperial Germany and the Herero of Southern Africa: Genocide and the Quest for Recompense”, in: Jones, p. 59-62.
6) Cited in Gewald, p. 61.
8 ) Ibid.
9) The use of this term is no exaggeration for polemical purposes: they were actually called Konzentrationslager, just like in the Nazi period. See Gewald, p. 62.
10) Missionary Elger, cited in Gewald, p. 62-63.
11) Michael Scott, “Michael Scott and the Hereros”, in: The New Statesman and Nation (March 5, 1949).
12) Tooze, p. 6.
13) Cited in Tooze, p. 11.
14) Tooze, p. 16.
15) Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Grootkapitaal en Fascisme (tr. Eric Vonk, Amsterdam 1975), p. 35-36.
16) Tooze, p. 29.
17) Tooze, p. 50. For Soviet agriculture, see “An Outline of the Economic Problems in the History of the Soviet Union”. http://mccaine.org/2009/10/07/an-outline-of-the-economic-problems-in-the-history-of-the-soviet-unio/
18) Tooze, p. 94.
19) Tooze, p. 138.
20) Tooze, p. 167.
21) Tooze, p. 169.
22) Tooze, p. 176.
23) Tooze, p. 170.
Very good article, and I should probably wait for the second part, but I’m not convinced Nazi anti-Semitism can be explained simply through a combination of extreme racism and a colonial desire for “living space.”
Now, such a characterization regarding Nazi policies toward Slavs, or any other numerous and terrifyingly incomprehensible example from that period, is right on, but you subsume anti-Semitism into a general unleashing of Nazi tyranny.
The ideological mission behind the extermination of the Jews is distinct in that:
a) It lacked functionality.
b) It was not out of particular desire for land, or the result of the violent taking of land. (As was the destruction of American Indians, or the destruction of centers of resistance in Slavic lands, so as to exploit the rest more easily.)
c) At the same time, their destruction was placed at the highest priority, even to the point where significant military resources were committed to the mission while Germany faced imminent defeat (and was pressing other enslaved groups into military service).
There’s a particular kind of ideology at work here that defies general explanation. At the moment, I’m not satisfied.
Can you recommend a book (in English) similar to Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction, but which deals with the economy of Japan prior to and during World War II?
Actually, I don’t know of one – if someone finds something along those lines, I’d be very interested in reading it too. Perhaps it still has to be done. There is after all much more writing on Nazi Germany than on fascist Japan.