16. Occupied Europe

WHILE THE AVENGING FATES gathered, the Germans continued to build the Thousand-Year Reich. At its greatest extent the German empire extended from the North Cape of Norway to the Peloponnesus, and from the Pyrénées to the Caucasus Mountains. This included Germany’s allies and satellites, but for practical purposes they might as well have been conquered territories, for their treatment was only marginally better than that accorded the victims of outright military aggression. German relationships with all the states and territories under their domination varied, both from one state to another, and from time to time as the war progressed. Yet through all the changes on the theme, there were perceptible patterns, and there was some attempt to impose a coherent scheme of empire on the German conquests.

In principle, Germany and Italy divided prostrate Europe between them. In practice, Italy got Albania, the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, and a few unimpressive bits of Balkan real estate. The bottom line of Hitler’s philosophy was that might makes right, and that as conquerors the Axis Powers could do as they pleased with their victims. They even went further than thinking that they might do as they chose; they believed, or professed to believe, that what had enabled them to conquer Europe was the superiority of their ideology; democracy had bred weakness and therefore did not deserve to survive; totalitarianism bred strength and it therefore not only deserved to triumph, it also enjoined upon its practitioners the necessity of conversion, or of full implementation of its tenets. If the conquerors were free of the toils of representative government and the burden of criticism, they were no less imprisoned by the demands of their own beliefs—or what was even worse, they were all imprisoned by the demands of Hitler’s beliefs.

The normal assumption is that the loss of freedom in a dictatorship is compensated for by the gain in efficiency; that is in fact usually the justification for the restriction of freedom. An examination of the Hitlerian empire, however, reveals that it was not nearly as efficient as is usually thought by admirers of Teutonic thoroughness. It was unwieldy, with the necessity for constant control militating against the factors that would make for a ready response to crisis. It was also full of junior empires, all seeking to enlarge themselves at the expense of competitors, all in the long run working against each other. Not only were there the personal problems and rivalries inherent in any human organization, but at bottom some of the guiding principles of the system blatantly contradicted other guiding principles. Ultimately, the whole creation was a huge inverted pyramid, resting on a tiny point named Adolf Hitler.

The omnipotent Fuehrer divided his world into segments, territorially and topically. Topically, all of his underlings competed with each other to enlarge their own spheres of influence. Joachim von Ribbentrop, for example, was Minister of Foreign Affairs. A man completely bereft of talent, his one purpose was the serving of his master; as ambassador to Great Britain before the war, in one ludicrous instance, he had greeted a startled King George VI with an outstretched arm and a loud cry of “Heil Hitler!” Fortunately for Germany, under Hitler there was little for the Foreign Ministry to do. Von Ribbentrop’s greatest days ran from 1935, when he negotiated the Anglo-German Naval Treaty, to 1939, when he was instrumental in gaining the Russo-German Nonaggression Pact. He was never anything more than the mouthpiece of Hitler, however, and in a war situation the Foreign Office gradually lost whatever usefulness it ever had. None of that prevented von Ribbentrop from building up his office, from fewer than 2,500 to more than 10,000 personnel, and from parroting the party line and pushing the claims of his own little bailiwick whenever possible.

Far more important was Hermann Goering, not so much in his capacity of head of the Luftwaffe as in his role of economic director of the Reich. Goering amassed titles and responsibilities the way he collected medals and uniforms. A fascinating mixture of characteristics, a war hero from the First World War, Goering was the second-highest man in Germany. A man of considerable intelligence, he faded badly through the war, partly perhaps because of drug addiction, which seems to have been acquired by taking pain-killers, partly because he was one of the few in Hitler’s immediate entourage to recognize where they were all going. As the war progressed, he adopted an “Après moi le deluge” attitude, and more or less retired to enjoy the good life as long as it lasted. Yet he had still gained a great deal of power under Hitler, and he remained a formidable member of what would later be called the Nazi Leadership Corps right to the end. He was a total failure as an economic director, however; he knew little of economics and cared less. It was left to others, eventually, to put the German economy on a war footing.

Another competitor was Alfred Rosenberg, who was regarded as the Party Theorist, in capital letters. Anti-Christian, anti-Slav, violently anti-Semitic, he was slated in the days of peace to lead the educational renaissance of Germany in the paths of righteousness. After war began he was eventually given the title Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. His administration never really got anywhere, as he and his followers were constantly outpaced by Goering’s people, by the army, by the SS, and by everyone else who was in on the pickings east of the Vistula. Yet it was Rosenberg who approved the plan to bring pre-teenagers west from Slavdom with the double aim of making them work for Germany and reducing the reproductive potential of Russia. Rosenberg was really a pseudo-intellectual nonentity, lost among the bully-boys of nazism, but he owed his position to the fact that his volumes of turgid writings gave a veneer of class to Hitler’s philosophy.

The propagandist of the movement, as opposed to its philosopher, was Josef Goebbels. In terms of running the empire, he appeared as the exponent of German Kultur, so that his minions were trying to convince the occupied peoples of German superiority while other Germans were robbing and enslaving them. Goebbels therefore had something of an uphill struggle; but as Hitler’s most faithful follower, doglike in his devotion, he enjoyed a privileged base from which to operate.

Diametrically opposed to Goebbels’ task was that of Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS or Schutzstaffel, the military formation of the party that replaced the massacred SA and eventually became a rival to the army itself. As Reichsfuehrer SS, Minister of the Interior, and master of a host of other offices, Himmler was more feared perhaps than Hitler himself. His was the control over the concentration camps, his the responsibility for carrying out Nazi views on “racial purity.” A precise, almost effeminate man, Himmler exuded the kind of fearful, devious power that had once emanated from Cardinal Richelieu; the SS as a body were modeled in part on the Jesuits with their stress on loyalty and obedience. They were an almost archetypal example of virtue perverted, of the world turned upside down.

Finally, competing with all the myriad other organizations and claims to authority, there were the military forces. The army, navy, and the Luftwaffe all had their problems and their needs, and they were forced to fight with the assortment of civilian groups for priorities, for materials, for men, and for power.

If this were not sufficient to confuse the schematic diagram of the empire, there was a territorial or geographical pecking order as well. Preferential—or more appropriately, non-preferential—treatment went to different areas, generally as they were more or less “Germanic” or “Aryan.” Nazi ideas of “race” were hopelessly confused, but concentrated essentially on the “purity” of Germans and Germanic peoples. Such notions, though scientifically bizarre, were of long historical standing. As far back as the Middle Ages the superiority of tall blond Germanic types was extolled, and during the unification movement of the nineteenth century, German historians praised their distant ancestor, Arminius—Hermann—for defeating the legions and refusing to be corrupted by the decadence of Rome. A series of writers expatiated on the superiority of the Germanic type, and when the idea found its way into the heart of nazism, it was reflected in the treatment given to different states.

First of all, of course, came the German Reich. This included not only the Germany of the Peace of Versailles, but also the Germany of all the territories rescued from the foreigner: Austria; the Sudetenland taken from Czechoslovakia; Poznan Province, Upper Silesia, and the Corridor taken from Poland; the former free city of Danzig; the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg; and Alsace-Lorraine taken from France; also, after 1943 and the collapse of Mussolini’s Italy, the ex-Italian Tyrol, this in spite of the fact that a rescued Mussolini had set up the Salo Republic and was still ostensibly fighting side by side with his partner.

Next favored were Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Though they all remained occupied by the Wehrmacht, they were still regarded as “Aryan” states and were allowed a degree of self-government, or at least self-administration, under regimes that were willing to collaborate with Germany. The most notable of these was in Norway, where a Norwegian Nazi named Vidkun Quisling gave his support to Germany and his name to be a synonym for one who betrays his own country. How much independence any of these regimes enjoyed depended basically upon how subservient they were to German demands, and the military situation at any given time. The Germans did make some attempt to deal “correctly” with them. They also recruited soldiers from these countries—indeed by the end of the war they were recruiting soldiers everywhere—and exploited them in any way they could.

Rather below them in preference were the non-Germanic satellite countries officially regarded as allies. These included Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, and the rump of Czechoslovakia, now known as Slovakia. There was also a lesser ring of satellites, the Protectorate of Bohemia, and the so-called Government General of Poland. Where the allied states secured some small measure of independence and autonomy, the latter two were directly subordinated to German control.

Finally, the vital military areas, non-Vichy France until late 1942 and all of France after that, Belgium, Greece, and much of the conquered Russian territory, remained basically under the control of the military forces, though subject to incursions by all the other competing authorities. The navy controlled ports, the SS hunted Jews, the labor organizers rounded up forced labor, and on and on.

Through all the conflicts engendered by these competing authorities and diverse relationships, there ran several common threads of exploitation. The German planners, to the extent that they had a consistent philosophy, believed in the self-sufficiency of Europe, and in the creation of an independent closed system, in which Europe’s resources would enable it to live by itself. Though this was never entirely achieved, they did do fairly well at it, and in terms simply of resources and materials, they managed to sustain their war effort much longer than might originally have been expected.

A corollary idea was that in any considerations of priority, Germany was to be supreme, and all the other areas were to serve merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Master Race. Non-German Europe was to be exploited as a colonial area for Germany. How much France or Holland or any other state might be left depended upon how much surplus it could produce over German needs. As the war turned increasingly sour, the demands of the German economy became more voracious, and by late in the war, even the supposedly favored territories such as Holland and Denmark were being ruthlessly looted and exploited to meet German quotas.

The financial underpinning of all this was provided by a series of agreements between Germany and the conquered states, in which the currency value and exchange rates were arbitrarily fixed in favor of the German mark. The mark was pegged artificially high, and competing currencies were fixed artificially low; the result of this was that Germans could buy foreign goods at ludicrously cheap prices, while German goods were far too expensive for non-Germans to afford. This created a one-way flow of manufactured items and luxury goods into Germany, with no corresponding outflow. The Germans also, in the time-honored tradition of conquerors, assessed the occupied countries for the maintenance costs of the armed forces. Thus, Belgium not only was occupied by German troops, the Belgian government had to pay for the privilege.

Setting aside the jugglings of high finance, the Germans resorted to a form of legitimized robbery under the name of requisitioning. In all combat areas, the German forces simply commandeered what they needed. In eastern Europe, with a relatively low-level economy, and a Slavic population, they left a desert behind them in many areas. In western Europe, they were at great pains to be more “correct” in their approach, which meant for practical purposes that they robbed more politely. As the war went on, the veneer of correctness became progressively thinner. Eventually, they were skimming off most of the products of non-German Europe. They took over the Hungarian grain production, Danish dairy products, Dutch garden crops, Norwegian timber. They requisitioned iron ore from Lorraine, oil from Rumania, coal from Poland, copper from Yugoslavia. They took virtually all the French bauxite and all imports from the French Empire while Vichy was still afloat: iron, phosphates, oil—everything they could get.

They also took over businesses and factories. French firms built German aircraft and tanks under license; Czech firms built German guns. The business infrastructure of Europe was overlaid with a web of German control, with all normal considerations subordinated to German needs. The Nazis were careful to maintain friendly relations with German capitalists and manufacturers, so they became the agents of the regime in handling business deals that put them at an advantage over foreign firms, and enabled private German businessmen to reap incredible profits from the general situation. The result was a temporarily integrated though imbalanced European economy.

Another factor making for integration was the need for labor. As more Germans went into the armed forces, and as the country eventually awoke to the needs of a long war, the need for factory and farm labor gradually increased. Germany began to draw on foreign labor pools. First, in spite of international agreements to the contrary, they started putting prisoners of war to work. There were something like a million French soldiers in Germany as prisoners after 1940. The Germans drafted many of them into their factories. This was not nearly enough, as the war continued, so they began to conscript foreign labor outright. In Vichy France, there was a labor draft; at first it was presented to the French as a patriotic gesture: if France would send so many volunteer workers, the Germans would release an equivalent number of prisoners of war. Needless to say, volunteering was not too popular, and the Vichy authorities were soon forced to resort to outright conscription. One result of this was to send large numbers of young men into the hill country, where they became recruits for the Resistance movement.

Eventually, there were as many as ten million foreign workers in Germany, manning the factories, working on the farms, doing the jobs that would ordinarily have been filled by young Germans. The young Germans were at war. It was a vicious circle; in the name of Nazi ideology—racial purity, living space, and all that—millions of Germans were fighting and dying in Russia, North Africa, and the mid-Atlantic. To make up for their being away, millions of Russians, Czechs, and French were at home in Germany, keeping the economy going so that more millions of Germans could go off and fight—so that more millions of foreigners could be brought into Germany, and so forth. In the long run the Germans were trading their own blood and that of their allies and subjects for other peoples’ goods and services, and finally they would run out of blood.

The compulsory labor system helped generate the Resistance movements, and it provided the greatest displacement of peoples since the barbarian migrations. Yet it was merely a footnote to the larger policies for which Hitler’s Germany will always be remembered. The Nazis are inseparable from their policy of systematic terror in eastern Europe, and the worst expression of it, the attempt to wipe out the Slavs and the Jews.

One of the ostensible reasons for which Germany launched the war was her need for Lebensraum, “living space.” It was a Hitlerian idea that Poland and western Russia should be cleared of inhabitants and colonized by Germans. Bizarre though it sounds, it was again an idea with deep roots in German history. The German migration to the east had gone on since the Middle Ages, and indeed, most of twentieth-century Germany was land originally colonized by German settlers moving east from the Rhine or the Elbe. The Hanseatic League, the Teutonic Knights, the German share of the partitions of Poland, the large access of territory claimed from Russia in 1918 at the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, all were expressions of the same urge to eastern expansion. The difference between Hitler and his predecessors was that they had come in as overlords and reduced the inhabitants to dependent status; he planned to kill them.

The Poles bore the brunt of this. They were conquered two years before the invasion of Russia. The southern Slavic states were in some sort of allied status, so it was primarily in Poland, and then later in Russia, that German policies received their most thorough development.

The Germans started by drawing up lists of Poles. Germans who had come to live in Poland through the drawing of boundaries at peace treaties were now welcomed back into the fold. Part-German Poles were accorded some degree of security. Pure Poles became “protected persons,” and Jews and Gypsies were classified as “reserved”; neither term meant what it sounded like. “Protected” meant, in effect, that Poles were not protected at all; they could not own real estate, they could not go beyond primary education, they could not form any associations, they could not go to libraries, museums, or theaters, they were paid at the lowest wage scale, they received fewer rations than Germans, their movement was restricted, they had to have special permission to use a bicycle, and they could be sentenced to death for anti-German gestures.

The intelligentsia and upper class, the business leaders, the educators, the priests, were all systematically eliminated. Cut out of their jobs and positions, they were sent to prison camps or work camps or killed out of hand. The Poles were to be reduced as a people to the level of trained beasts. Anything of value that was distinctly Polish was looted or destroyed; art works were carried off, churches desecrated, museums closed, newspapers proscribed. There were successive reclassifications of Poles, constantly skimming off any surviving leaders or potential leaders, with the ultimate aim of producing a race of helots. In the end, Poland, over whom the Western Allies went to war, suffered the greatest proportional losses of lives and property of any country in World War II.

This was not only the Nazis’ doing. In 1943, German troops near Smolensk came across mass graves in the Katyn Forest. In the time between the Russian occupation of eastern Poland and the German invasion of Russia, thousands of soldiers, officers, and leading Polish civilians had been imprisoned by the Russians. About 15,000 of them had disappeared completely; survivors and Poles who were in the west made frantic inquiries and efforts to find them, but no trace appeared until the Germans discovered the graves. Delighted to be able to accuse someone else of massacre, the German government gave the Katyn finding wide publicity. Eventually, more than 4,000 bodies were exhumed, of which nearly 3,000 were identified by name, the rest by their rank. All were officers or officer cadets, or—in the case of the civilians—teachers, professors, doctors, and engineers. All had last been seen alive in Russian prison camps; all had been shot in the back of the head; some had their hands tied behind them, their overcoats pulled over their heads, mouths stuffed with sawdust; some had wounds from the unique four-sided Russian bayonet blade.

Russians and Germans both, then Germans, then Russians, combined to destroy the Poles as a people. To be a Pole was almost—but not quite—the most unfortunate thing a person could be in World War II.

Russians under German control fared equally badly. The Germans had several millions of Russian prisoners of war. It happened that Russia had never signed the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners, and the Germans used this as an excuse to rid themselves of the Russians. Prisoners were drafted into work camps or put in concentration camps. They were systematically maltreated, denied proper rations or medical facilities and, as much as possible, worked to death. Nor was this treatment confined to “legitimate” military opposition; civilians under German occupation were handled the same way. In the spaces of Russia and the Ukraine, the war achieved a depth of savagery unmatched elsewhere. In the midst of the winters, retreating Germans would burn and destroy housing and drive the peasants into the cold to die. Very soon the Russians were burning their own housing, so it would not shelter the enemy; the “scorched earth” policy reduced vast stretches of European Russia to a desert. Civilians lived a precarious hand-to-mouth existence between or behind the lines. Those who could hid in the countryside. In the great Russian forests, partisans gathered, ambushing trains, killing sentries, being killed themselves, with no mercy expected or shown by either side. Only slowly did the Soviet government take an interest in and start supplying the partisans, but once it did, their attacks increased in numbers and, if possible, in ferocity.

The Germans responded by taking hostages, executing them and, in many cases, wiping out whole villages. Himmler announced that one of the aims of the Russian campaign was to reduce the population of “Slavdom” by thirty million, and the anti-partisan operations were partly used as an excuse to do so.

There were of course ironic and tragic side-effects to all this. As the Germans needed more men, thousands of non-Communist or anti-Communist Russians were recruited into the German Army. Just as Russians who had tried to wipe out Poles later raised Polish bodies of troops, whom they eventually released to the West, so Germans who had tried to wipe out Russians raised Russian bodies of troops. A captured Russian general, Andrei Vlassov, was used as a rallying-point for Russian prisoners. Relatively few joined him, mostly to escape death in one form or another, and the force never became effective; the Germans could not overcome their ideological preconceptions and frittered away whatever chance there might have been of sowing political confusion in Russia. Not that there was much chance once their policies created opposition, anyway. In all, probably three of the five million prisoners taken by the Germans died, as well as fifteen to twenty million Russian soldiers and civilians. Nothing could overcome the hatred generated by that fact.

The survivors of the German camps did not fare much better once they were released. Official Communist doctrine was that it was a sin to surrender to the enemy. At the end of the war returning prisoners were treated very badly; many of them went from German prison camps to Russian labor camps, in some cases not to be released until the death of Stalin in 1953. Needless to say, German prisoners of war in Russia were treated the same way.

If Poles and Russians were to be reduced to subhuman levels, the Jews were to be exterminated. This policy developed during the war. Before 1939, the Germans were content to rob, beat, and deport German Jews; their ideas evolved with success. In the early stages of the war, they moved toward the creation of a super-ghetto in the Government General of Poland, herding Polish Jews into it and then gradually bringing in Jews from other conquered areas as well. When they took over France, they toyed momentarily with the idea of creating a great Jewish ghetto in the French colonial territory of Madagascar. The idea lacked practicality, however, so as they moved into Russia, and brought several million more Jews under their control, they hit on a logically more satisfying approach, a “final solution” to their problem. To Hitler and his followers the Jews represented all that was decadent and despicable. They would, therefore, produce an aesthetically and philosophically satisfying answer to what to do with them: they would kill them all.

The problem of how to do it was handed by Goering to Reinhard Heydrich of the SS. By late 1941 and early 1942, things were moving. The Germans had already introduced mobile vans into the Government General. Jews were placed in these, ostensibly for delousing, and gassed, after which the truck simply drove off with the bodies. It was a relatively small-scale operation, however, and the Germans soon moved to the idea of extermination camps, based on their own already existent concentration camps. They built four of these in Poland—Belsen, Maydanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka—and converted a labor camp in Silesia named Auschwitz. The Jews were systematically rounded up, loaded aboard trains or truck convoys, and taken on their one-way journey to the camps. Auschwitz achieved for its rulers a proud record of peak performance: 12,000 victims a day, sorted, gassed, cremated, disposed of. There were “scientific” experiments as well: how long could a man stay in freezing water before it killed him; how much faster could you operate without anesthetics; would a woman sacrifice herself to prevent her child being bludgeoned to death. By 1943, Himmler was urging his minions to greater efforts to fulfill their duty to the Fatherland.

Not only Jews went to the camps. Thousands upon thousands of Slavs died, the Gypsies were virtually wiped out in Europe, the retarded, the insane, the senile, all went down the via dolorosa to the camps. Rumors of what was happening reached western Europe in 1942, but most people in the West regarded them as nothing more than war propaganda. It was too horrible to be true, there were no words to describe it, and eventually a new one had to be coined: genocide, the murder of whole peoples.

No one knows how many people actually died in the camps, on their way to them, or as a result of having been in them. The official figure for the Jews is usually put at six million, in the camps themselves. Those are the best documented, as a result of the thoroughness with which the Germans kept their records, records which Himmler boasted, “have written a glorious page in our history.” But there is little doubt that nearly that many more died outside the camps, and the end product was very near what the Germans wanted, the wiping out of European Jewry. Before the war there were four million Jews in Poland; today there are seven thousand.

The fact that some Jews and Slavs survived at all is mainly the result of the contradictions of German policy. If the Jews were gassed, the Poles shot, the Russians starved to death, who would be left to do the work? The answer was no one, and eventually the policies had to be modified; from a quick death for everyone, the Germans moved to a policy of imposing a slow death by malnutrition while making prisoners work as long and as hard as possible. Had it not been for the demands of industry, the death toll would have gone even higher.

How much the German people, as a people, knew of all this remains problematical. The domestic opposition to the Nazis was weak, usually short-lived, and in the main ineffectual. If in the occupied countries German policies sparked the flames of resistance even while attempting to liquidate it, at home little was done. Only those who have never had to fear the knock on the door in the middle of the night can afford the luxury of criticism, and as the Nazi tentacles fastened ever more firmly on civilization, occupied Europe became what Churchill, as he so often did, summed it up: “a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

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