Allen Lane 30 (604pp) 27 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Hitler's Empire, by Mark Mazower

The ragged, random Reich

Hitler's Europe has been described as everything from the last European land-based empire to a forerunner of the EU. This variety reflects the protean nature and short duration of Nazi rule. The Greater German Reich didn't last long enough to resolve the ambiguities that characterised Nazi hegemony. The confusion is exacerbated by the profusion of planning documents. As Hitler's interpreter once remarked: "The Nazis kept talking about a Thousand Year Reich but they couldn't think ahead for more than five minutes."

This is the paradox at the heart of Mark Mazower's weighty study. He sets out to analyse the origins and nature of Nazi imperialism, but constantly provides evidence that it was unplanned, improvised, irrational, and shot through with contradictions. He repeatedly resorts to "absurdity", "craziness" and "fantasy" to describe what he is chronicling. While each page groans with information, the structure seems to dissolve into the data. Which is, perhaps, an accurate reflection of the subject. By the end, although we have a brilliant account of how the Nazis governed, the notion of anything as coherent as an "empire" seems preposterous.

Part of the problem is that the Nazis drew on several models. Mazower begins with the era of Bismarck when Germans were already preoccupied with "the East". How could they exploit and control Polish labour and avoid being overwhelmed by hordes of Slavs? Then there were the colonies they grabbed in Africa and the Far East. Under the Nazis, men who had experience of border warfare against the Poles and former colonial administrators all jostled for influence.

None of them could prevail over Hitler. The constant theme of Mazower's study is the Fhrer's driving and divisive will. For Hitler, race and war dominated everything. Yet the two frequently cut across each other, while the speed of events and his implacability made coherent planning virtually impossible. "Lebensraum" was more a slogan than a policy.

Germans and many Austrians had dreamed of union and Hitler spoke of it often. Yet, when the Anschluss came in March 1938, no one had given any thought to how Austria would be governed and what its relationship to the Reich would be. In the end, Austria was simply absorbed into Greater Germany. But this formula could not be applied to non-Aryan nations such as the Czechs and Poland.

At best, portions of Poland, conquered in 1939, could be annexed and Germanised. But there were not enough Germans to settle the annexed territories, even when hundreds of thousands were imported from other parts of eastern Europe. The SS tried to expel Poles to create a suitable demographic balance, but could not do it fast enough and, in any case, this created a labour shortage. In desperation, some Nazi Gauleiters massaged statistics by classifying Poles as Germans of a greater or lesser degree.

Racial absurdities were largely absent from western Europe, but here, too, Nazi rule was typified by contradictions. Denmark, Norway, France and the Low Countries were defeated so fast that, again, the Nazis had no inkling of how to run or integrate them. There was "no ideological programme", only a response to exigencies.

In mid-1940, thanks to the fall of France, Hitler had the chance to acquire an African empire. He could have played the imperial statesman, winning the alliance of Spain by handing Franco French colonies. But he didn't want to upset Vichy France.

Hitler may have been a canny politician, but lacked sweeping imperial ambition, except for "the East". Even here, he undermined the prospects of success by his belligerence and racist myopia. In December 1940, he ordered his generals to prepare the invasion of the Soviet Union. The food and raw materials of the Ukraine, plus the oil of the Caucasus, would enable Germany to achieve world domination.

It was supposed to be a lightning war. Germany's army was not prepared for a sustained campaign and its economy could not afford one. As a result, millions of captured Russian soldiers perished for lack of food or shelter. With them died the labour force the Reich needed. The ruthless exploitation of the conquered lands drove the population towards the partisans. To cope with this threat the overstretched German security forces resorted to savage repression. It was a vicious circle, a mockery of the British imperial example Hitler said he admired.

Hitler aggravated the situation through his personal rule, appointing cronies to run slabs of Europe. He could trust them to enforce racial policy, but they were inefficient, corrupt and brutal. Fritz Sauckel excelled at rounding up forced labour, but across Europe his violent methods drove men into the resistance. The SS thought it could do a better job of running the Nazi domain, but even their technocrats could not prevail against Hitler.

The point of empire was the rational exploitation of resources, but while Hitler talked economics he acted as if he would win the war before he needed to do anything practical. Because it was also a racial war, the short-term was catastrophic. An armaments inspector in the Ukraine remarked: "If we shoot the Jews, let the prisoners of war die, allow much of the city population to starve to death ... Who will produce economic assets here?" Mazower sums up the fallacy of Nazi rule in one, pithy phrase. "Germany could have racial purity or imperial domination, but it could not have both."

In his provocative conclusions, he observes that the consequences of Nazism were equally paradoxical. The horrors of the Third Reich turned Europeans against empire and stimulated anti-colonial movements. But they also made Europeans warm towards the nation-state as a bulwark, so thwarting moves towards a federal Europe. Meanwhile, new nation-states emerged from the ruins of Europe's empires. One of these was Israel, and some readers may balk at Mazower's suggestion that the Jewish state realised the settlement ideas that inspired the Nazis. That may be a paradox too far.

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