Shelley Baranowski. Nazi Empire; German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler. Cambridge University Press, 2010, paper.
Shelly Baranowski’s Nazi Empire covers seventy-five years of German imperial history from the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, the third of three wars which forged the German Empire around the old Prussian state. However, Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian and then German chancellor, stopped short of incorporating the millions of Germans in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and elsewhere living beyond Germany’s eastern borders. Bismarck settled for “little Germany.”
That never sat well, Baranowski suggests, with Pan-German zealots. For them the German nation state must incorporate all Germans. Some also argued that the nation was threatened by its non-German populations. With higher birth rates amongst Slavic populations, particularly the Poles, it was feared that Germans would be swamped. The Empire’s rapid economic growth after 1871 reinforced concerns about the eastern provinces; rural Germans were leaving for the industrial cities in the Rhineland.
Meanwhile there was another population flooding into Berlin and other German cities, Jews from Imperial Russia. German Jews were well assimilated into national life, if not quite fitting the definition of “the good German.” These Eastern European Jews could never be anything but “the other.”
Germany’s entry into World War I was in support of its ally, Austria-Hungary, threatened by Russian armies. But as the Great War took its enormous toll of life and limb, German political and military elites felt compelled to formulate Germany’s war aims. Greater ‘clarity’ with regard to non-Germans in the eastern borderlands was an obvious.
After the year of revolutions in 1917, Russia left the war. The treaty signed at Brest-Litovsk was a ‘dictate.’ Bolshevik Russia ceded its Polish areas, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. That was in March 1918. In November 1918 Germany agreed to an armistice on the Western Front and Brest-Litovsk was reversed. Those few months of occupation were too brief to come to terms with the emerging Eastern European nationalism. Nevertheless Baranowski argues that there is continuity in thinking about racial policy during the eastern occupation, and continuing through the intervening Weimar years, and ultimately National Socialist Germany.
The Treaty of Versailles was nothing like the program that Woodrow Wilson had proposed to build a peace without winners and losers. By its creating an independent Poland and giving it a “corridor to the sea,” Germany lost a good chunk of western Prussia. German propagandists claimed that Versailles “enslaved” many Germans. The Weimar Republic, however, encouraged those “enslaved” Germans to stay put, not to surrender German soil to the Slav.
Once in power, the Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist regime began to construct the racially pure Germany of Nazi dreams. The Nuremberg laws passed in 1935 defined who was and wasn’t part of Germandom. Anyone with 25% or more Jewish blood was denied citizenship and encouraged to leave Germany.
Baranowski believes that the German experience with colonialism in Africa is a portent of what would follow the German invasion of Poland in 1939. In 1904 Germans had suppressed a revolt in Southwest Africa (now Nambia) with particular brutality. It included the establishment of “concentration camps.” Their treatment of the Poles and later the Ukrainians and Belorussians involved, of course, a different scale of brutality. Nevertheless the author argues persuasively that the mindset was the same. And it led to a civilian and military cadre of “willing executioners,” Daniel Goldhagen’s controversial phrase. The German invasion of Russia in 1941 added 5,700,000 prisoners of war to the population of “useless mouths,” to be starved to death, victims of the German food policy.
The ‘final solution,’ the extermination of Jews from the Old Reich, has been often described. But the Reich Jews, however, were not the first Germans to go. Baranowski quotes a figure of 70,000 Germans who were euthanized, kids who were mentally or physically handicapped, residents of mental institutions, and other defectives.
‘Why Did the Heavens Not Darken’ would be a good title for Baranowski’s last chapter. That was the title of Arno Mayer’s earlier book on the subject. It is to be reissued in a new paper edition in 2012.