Military history


Occupation and Repression

Midway, through a catastrophic defeat, lost Japan not a foot of territory and in no way altered the boundaries of its new empire. The true consequences of Midway lay far in the future, when the Americans penetrated the Japanese defence perimeter in the southern and central Pacific at the end of 1943 and forced the Japanese once again to wage mobile warfare – by which time Japan had lost its superiority in naval airpower. In the meantime they retained their enormous area of conquest – eastern China and Manchuria, the Philippines, French Indo-China, British Burma and Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, together with their ally Thailand – and administered it undisturbed by Western Allied interference.

Conquest brings problems as difficult, if not as acute, as those of organising victory itself. Order must be maintained, governments replaced, currencies supported, markets revived, economies sustained and exploited for the conqueror’s profit. The Japanese did not come to empire unprepared, however. They had had ten years’ experience of administering conquered territory in Manchuria. More important, they had a theory of empire which was by no means hostile to or unpopular with all the peoples whose sovereignty they had wrested from the former colonial powers. The idea of a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ which had taken root in the army, navy and nationalist circles in Japan before the war was at one level a cloak for imperial amibition; at another it clothed a genuine belief in the mission of Japan, as the first Asian great power, to lead other Asians to independence from foreign rule. Many in Asia were enthused and inspired by the Japanese triumph of 1942 and were ready, even eager, to co-operate with it.

The establishment of a ‘New Order’ in Asia had been adopted as an aim by the second Konoye cabinet in July 1940. In February 1942 the Tojo cabinet set up a Greater Asia Council and in November a Ministry for Greater Asia. The high point of Japan’s pan-Asian policy came a year later when the first – and only – Greater East Asia Conference was convened in Tokyo in November 1943. Its composition revealed the varied character of administration that Japan had imposed within the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

The conference was attended by the Prime Ministers of Manchuria (Manchukuo), Chang Chung-hui, and Japanese-controlled China, Wang Ching-wei, a representative of the Thai government, Prince Wan Waithayakon, the President of the occupied Philippines, José Laurel, the head of state of occupied Burma, Ba Maw, and Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the ‘Free Indian Government’. The Prime Ministers of Manchuria and ‘China’ were Japanese puppets, entirely without power and effectively instruments of Japanese exploitation of their annexed territories. Subhas Chandra Bose, a messianic Indian nationalist, had deliberately exiled himself from British India in order to raise the standard of revolt and arrived in Japan in mid-1943 in a German U-boat. He had no standing in official nationalist circles in India, where he had broken with Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, but had a considerable popular following and in the Indian National Army, raised from prisoners taken in Malaya, a sizeable military force under his influence – though not under his command, which remained in Japanese hands. Ba Maw was a genuine enthusiast for the Co-Prosperity Sphere; as the head of a state whose declaration of independence had been sponsored by Japan on 1 August 1942, he had on the same day declared war against Britain and the United States. The Burma Independence (later National) Army was led by young nationalists who were prepared to fight on Japan’s side. The Thai prince represented an independent state which had allied itself with Japan (in circumstances which would have made any other policy difficult) and had been rewarded by grants of territory from neighbouring Burma and Laos. José Laurel was a political associate of the legitimate but exiled President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon, who had charged him to pretend co-operation with the Japanese. However, Laurel had subsequently been converted to pan-Asianism, and under his presidency the Philippines had declared its independence – already conditionally conceded by the United States – on 14 October 1942.

The territories excluded from the conference were Indo-China, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Indo-China – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – though under Japanese occupation, remained under Vichy French colonial administration until March 1945, when the Japanese rightly suspected it had turned to the Free French and overthrew it. Malaya’s large Chinese population, among which a small communist guerrilla movement flourished, made it an unsuitable country in which to experiment with self-rule – though a sizeable Muslim Malay element was not hostile to the Japanese, who had promised them independence at a later stage. The Muslims of the Dutch East Indies had been given a similar promise; while fighting with the Americans and Australians continued in New Guinea it was not judged opportune to grant them independence, but numbers of nationalist leaders including the future president, Sukarno, agreed to join a Central Consultative Committee, or quasi-government, in September 1943. Certain other territories, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Dutch, British or Australian Timor, Borneo and occupied New Guinea, had such strategic importance that they were simply annexed to the Japanese empire and placed under military government.

Although at the outset Japan’s devolution of power worked successfully, the Filipinos, who had no dislike for the Americans and were proud of their heavily Westernised culture, accepted occupation grudgingly and sheltered the only large-scale popular anti-Japanese guerrilla movement to flourish within the Co-Prosperity Sphere. In parts of Burma and Thailand local labour was conscripted to work in harsh conditions with Allied prisoners of war; of these, 12,000 out of 61,000 prisoners and 90,000 out of 270,000 Asian labourers died on the construction of the Burma railway. In other areas, however, the occupied population found little to resent in the change from colonial administration. The educated classes initially welcomed it and were only gradually alienated by the discovery that the Japanese were as racially arrogant as their former European masters.

Such was not the case in China. An independent state, however ineffective its government before 1937, it had been invaded without provocation and then systematically exploited for profit wherever the Japanese armies were strong enough to impose their control. The educated classes, deeply conscious of the antiquity and grandeur of their vanished imperial system and consistently resentful of the West’s commercial penetration and diplomatic aggression in the previous century, were as disdainful of the Japanese as of all other foreign cultures. However, the area still controlled by the Kuomintang was ravaged by inflation, which had reached 125,000 per cent by 1945, and by constant conscription drives; the communist north-east was gripped by an austerity deeply inimical to the national character; and the rural areas within the Japanese sphere of occupation, which contained about 40 per cent of China’s agricultural land, were scourged by constant ‘rice offensives’. In the prevailing chaos many Chinese made an accommodation with the enemy. In 1942 the Chinese communists publicised the fact that twenty-seven Kuomintang generals had gone over to the Japanese; more significantly a vast system of local trade had sprung up between occupiers and occupied. Since the Japanese armies generally controlled only the towns, and were driven to raise necessities from the surrounding countryside by force – a wearisome and inefficient practice – landowners and merchants rapidly entered into trading arrangements with the local Japanese commanders, and this market relationship proved more satisfactory to both sides. This accommodation prevailed throughout most of western China until the institution of the Ichi-Go offensive, at Tokyo’s decree, in the spring of 1944.

Hitler’s ‘New Order’

The ethos of Japan’s ‘New Order’ was co-operative; yet it was self-deluding and insincere in conception, and frequently harsh and extortionate in practice. Japanese excesses and atrocities, however, were arbitrary and sporadic. The pattern of its German ally’s occupation policies was exactly contrary. Hitler’s ‘New Order’ was designed to serve Greater Germany’s interests exclusively; but the system of coercion used to make it work was calculated and methodic, while the recourse to punishment, reprisal and terror which underlay it was governed by rules and procedures implemented from the centre.

By the end of 1942 German troops occupied the territory of fourteen European sovereign states: France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, Yugoslavia and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Austria had since 1938 been amalgamated with the Reich as sovereign territory, together with the Sudetenland province of Czechoslovakia and, since 1939, the former German provinces of Poland. Luxembourg, the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and the Yugoslav provinces of southern Styria and Carinthia, occupied in 1940-1, were deemed territories whose ‘union with the Reich’ impended and were under ‘special civil administration’ by the Ministry of the Interior. Denmark retained its elected government and monarchy under German Foreign Office supervision. Norway and Holland were under the supervision of Reich commissioners who answered directly to Hitler; their monarchs and governments had gone into exile but their civil administrations remained in place. Belgium was placed under military government by the occupying Wehrmacht, as was north-eastern France; but the French Vichy government remained the civil administrative authority throughout the country, even after the extension of Wehrmacht occupation into the ‘Free Zone’ in November 1942.

There were no devolved arrangements in eastern or southern Europe except in Slovakia, which had been detached as a puppet state. The troubled Serbian province of Yugoslavia was under military government, as was Greece (though parts of Greece and Yugoslavia were Italian-occupied until September 1943, while certain Yugoslav border provinces were annexed to their neighbours). Eastern Poland, White Russia and the Baltic states were designated ‘Ostland’ and, with the Ukraine, run by Reich commissioners effectively as colonies. The Czech parts of Czechoslovakia had been denominated a Reich protectorate, as Bohemia-Moravia, and were directly ruled by Germany, as was the rump of Poland, known as the ‘General Government’. Areas of Russia immediately behind the battlefront were held under military government.

Special economic arrangements prevailed, as they had done during the First World War, in Belgium and the French northern departments, whose coal and iron industries were run as a single unit, its output co-ordinated with that of the Ruhr and occupied Lorraine (the success of this military ‘iron, steel and coal community’ was to plant the seed of the European Economic Community of the post-war period). However, in a wider sense, the whole of Hitler’s European empire was administered for economic return. In the industrialised West, delegates of the Economic and Armaments Ministries established working arrangements with the existing managements of individual factories and larger enterprises to agree output quotas and purchasing arrangements. Similar agreements were made with agricultural marketing agencies and ministries. Western Europe’s intensive agriculture was a magnet to economic planners in Germany, where 26 per cent of the population in 1939 had been employed on the land without managing to meet the country’s foodstuff needs. Underpopulated France, a major pre-war exporting country, was expected to provide an important part of the shortfall, particularly after mobilisation had removed one in three of Germany’s male population. Danish farming, famously efficient, was also considered a prime source of agricultural imports, particularly of pork and dairy products. Denmark, partly because it was ruled on a light rein, responded well to German demands; the 4 million Danes provided rations for 8.2 million Germans for most of the war. France, though it fed the sixty occupying German divisions and found surpluses for export, did so only at the expense of reducing its own intake; French agricultural productivity actually declined during the war, largely through a shortage of artificial fertiliser which affected farming throughout the Nazi empire.

Purchases of all commodities from France were financed throughout the war largely through credits levied by the so-called ‘occupation costs’, an arbitrary annual levy on the French revenue whose amount was dictated by Germany at an artificially low exchange rate between the franc and the mark which favoured Germany by as much as 63 per cent. Similar arrangements were imposed upon other occupied countries; but it was in France, the largest and most industrialised of the occupied countries, that they bit hardest and produced the largest returns – from 1940 to 1944 no less than 16 per cent of the Reich treasury’s income. To a certain extent ‘occupation costs’ were offset by direct German investment in French war industry, often by private enterprises such as Krupp and IG Farben; but such investment was entirely self-serving, a mere priming of the pump to enable French industrialists to maintain or increase their supply of goods to a single market for sale at a price ultimately fixed by the German buyers.

German purchase of French, Dutch and Belgian industrial products – which included items for military use such as aero-engines and radio equipment, as well as finished steel and unprocessed raw materials – were acquired in a rigged market; it was a market none the less, and the German purchasing authorities, such as the officials of the Franco-German Armistice Commission, were careful to preserve the autonomy of their opposite numbers. Such was not the case with German intrusions into the western European labour market. During the war German industry and agriculture developed an insatiable appetite for foreign labour. Since military requirements reduced the size of the domestic labour force by one-third, and Nazi policy precluded the large-scale employment of German women, the shortfall had to be made good from outside the borders of the Reich. Prisoners of war supplied some of the numbers, over a million Frenchmen being employed on German farms and in German mines and factories between 1940 and 1945; but even military captivity failed as a source of labour supply. As early as mid-1940 economic inducement was offered to tempt skilled workers from home and by December 220,000 Western workers were employed in Germany. However, as local economies recovered after the catastrophe of 1940, others resisted the lure; by October 1941 the Western foreign labour force in Germany had not risen above 300,000, of whom 272,000 were from allied Italy.

The Germans therefore resorted to conscription. Fritz Sauckel, Reich Plenipotentiary-General for Labour, required the administrations of the occupied countries of the West to produce stated numbers of workers and thereby raised the number of foreign workers in Germany between January and October 1942 by 2.6 million. (In France the Obligatory Labour Service eventually proved a prime impetus for the defection of the young to the Maquis.) The rate of increase was sustained into 1943, largely as a result of Italy’s defection from the Axis in September which allowed the imposition of labour conscription there, yielding another million and a half young men.

Nevertheless recruitment in the West, whether by incentive or compulsion, could still not ultimately satisfy German requirements. Western workers had to be paid, fed and housed at western European standards, and the consequent charge on the German war economy grew progressively burdensome. The solution Sauckel introduced was conscription in the East. An immediate source of Eastern labour had been found in 1942 in the millions of Red Army men made prisoner in the encirclement battles at Minsk, Smolensk and Kiev. Out of the eventual total of 5,160,000 Soviet soldiers captured during the war, 3,300,000 died by neglect or murder at German hands; in May 1944 only 875,000 were recorded as ‘working’. Most worked in slave conditions; so too did the 2.8 million Russian civilians, mostly Ukrainians, whom the Germans brought within the Reich between March 1942 and the Wehrmacht’s expulsion from Russia in the summer of 1944. Originally invited to ‘volunteer’, the first recruits found themselves treated so badly that news of their virtual enslavement deterred others from following, and Sauckel had to resort to labour conscription to make up the numbers. A similar policy was imposed in the Polish ‘General-Government’. The SS became the instrument of enslavement. Its leader, Heinrich Himmler, outlined the principles by which it worked in his infamous Posen address of October 1943: ‘It is a matter of total indifference to me how the Russians, how the Czechs fare. . . . Whether the other peoples live in plenty, whether they croak from hunger, interests me only to the extent that we need them as slaves for our culture; otherwise it does not interest me.’

The exploitation of the East

The Reich commissioners for the Ukraine and the Ostland and the Government-General of Poland adopted a similar attitude to the exploitation of the economies under their control. In Poland private enterprises were either taken over by German managers or subjected to German managerial control; in the Soviet Union, where all production had been state-owned before the invasion, the first priority was to restore war damage, contingent or more usually deliberate, which had, for example, resulted in the wrecking of three out of four of all electricity-generating stations in the conquered area. Once damage had been repaired, the operation of the whole industrial structure, including mines, oil-wells, mills and factories, was consigned to state corporations – in particular the Berg-und Hüttenwerk Company for mining, the Kontinentale Oel company for oil and the Ostfaser Company for wool fibre – which operated as extensions of Germany’s nationalised industry. Later, when state corporations proved unequal to the task of managing all the plant that had been captured, private companies, including Krupp, Flick and Mannesmann, were allocated enterprises to oversee as part of their existing empires. The one Soviet economic system with which the Germans did not tamper was the collective farm. Inefficient though it was, and despite long-term plans favoured particularly by Himmler to settle the ‘black earth’ region with German soldier-peasants, the supply of both native and ethnic German settlers for the occupied area was too small to permit a wholesale transformation to private agriculture. In western Poland and other areas on the fringes of the Greater Reich, native cultivators were expropriated and replaced with Teutons; throughout the Ostland and the Ukraine there was an effort at reprivatisation, but the collective system was generally judged too well established to unravel.

Such changes as the Germans imposed were cosmetic. The Agrarerlass (Agricultural Edict) of February 1942 reconstituted collectives as agricultural communes, allegedly equivalent to the village societies which had existed before the Revolution, in which cultivators were granted rights of property over private lots and the German occupiers assumed the role of landlords to whom a proportion of the crop was owed as rent. In practice, as the cultivators quickly discovered, the Germans were as exigent as the commissars in exacting tribute, and failure to deliver it entailed loss of the private holding, expropriation and exposure to recruitment for forced labour.

In short, German agricultural policy in the East rested upon the principle of coercion, as did its whole Ostpolitik. Nazi Germany was not interested in winning the goodwill or even the co-operation of peoples it deemed by ideological edict to be inferior –Untermenschen. What was true in the East, moreover, was true throughout Hitler’s empire. Coercion, repression, punishment, reprisal, terror, extermination – the chain of measures by which Nazi Germany exercised its power over occupied Europe – were inflicted with more circumspection west of the Rhine than east of the Oder. They were, nevertheless, the common instruments of control wherever the swastika flag flew, unrestrained by the writ of civil law, and pitiless in effect whenever the will of the Führer gave their agents licence.

That had been true first of all in Germany itself. Immediately after his appointment to the chancellorship of Germany in January 1933, Hitler had broadened the existing legal provision of Schutzhaft – protective custody of the person concerned, to protect him or her, for example, from mob violence – to embrace ‘police detention’ for political activity. To hold ‘police detainees’ detention centres were established at Dachau near Munich and Oranienburg in March 1933 and soon other such ‘concentration camps’, a term borrowed from the Spanish pacification of Cuba in the 1890s and later adopted by the British during the Boer War, had been established in other parts of Germany. Their first inmates were communists, held for terms determined by the Führer’s pleasure; later other political and conscientious opponents of the regime, active or merely suspect, were detained, and by 1937 ‘anti-socials’, including homosexuals, beggars and gypsies, were sent there. At the beginning of the war the number of concentration camp detainees was about 25,000.

No concentration camp was yet an extermination camp; all were merely places of arbitrary imprisonment. However, they were administered by a special ‘Death’s Head’ branch of the SS, whose chief, Heinrich Himmler, was since 1936 also chief of the German police. This particular stroke of Gleichschaltung brought under the unified control of a Nazi official the political (Gestapo) and criminal police forces of the Reich, together with the ordinary civil police, but also the security organs (Sicherheitsdienst or SD) of the Nazi Party. Thereafter a German citizen was liable to arrest by the Gestapo, consignment to ‘police detention’ by an official of the SD and imprisonment by SS ‘Death’s Head’ guards, without any intervention by the judicial authorities whatsoever.

The great conquests of 1939-41 brought the extension of SS/Gestapo power, now allied with that of the military police (the Feldgendarmerie), into the occupied territories. The effect was first felt in Poland, where acts of aggression against the leaders of society began immediately after occupation: professionals such as doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers and priests were arrested under the ‘police detention’ provisions and confined in concentration camps. Few were ever to emerge. Forced labour was a founding principle of the concentration camp system: the Nazi slogan Arbeit macht frei, ‘Labour wins freedom’, was the precept by which they operated. As concentration camps multiplied in occupied territory and their populations increased, rations dwindled, the pace of work accelerated, disease proliferated, and forced labour thus became a death sentence. The Poles were the first to die in large numbers, and those who did not survive Schutzhaft represented a significant proportion of the nation’s loss of a quarter of its population during the war; thereafter few peoples were spared. The penalty for resistance, even dissidence, for Czechs, Yugoslavs, Danes, Norwegians, Belgians, Netherlanders and French was not arrest and imprisonment but deportation without trial, often ending in death. The most poignant of all the memorials on the great medieval battlefield of Agincourt is not the monument over the mass graves of the French knights who fell in 1415 but the modest calvaire at the gates of Agincourt château, which commemorates the squire and his two sons, ‘morts en transportation à Natzweiler en 1944’.

Natzweiler, to which the three Frenchmen were transported to death, was one of eighteen main concentration camps run by the SS in and outside Germany. Tens of thousands died in those west of the Oder, worked or starved to death, killed by diseases of privation or, in individual cases, executed by decree. The western concentration camps were not, however, extermination camps; the appalling spectacle of death on which the British army stumbled at Belsen in April 1945 was the result of a sudden epidemic among the chronically underfed inmates, not of massacre. Massacre, however, was the ultimate horror which underlay the concentration camp system, and those camps which lay east of the Oder including particularly Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Majdanek, had been built and run exclusively for that purpose.

Massacre is endemic to campaigns of conquest; it had been the hallmark of the Mongols and had been practised in their time by the Romans in Gaul and the Spaniards in South America. It was an index, however, of the degree to which Western civilisation had advanced that massacre had effectively been outlawed from warfare in Europe since the seventeenth century; it was a consonant index of Nazi Germany’s return to barbarism that it made massacre a principle of its imperialism in its conquered lands. The chief victims of its revival of massacre as an instrument of oppression, however, were not those who opposed German power by offering resistance – resistance was what had chiefly invoked the cruel excesses of conquerors in the past – but a people, the Jews, whose very existence Nazi ideology deemed to be a challenge, threat and obstacle to its triumph.

The fate of the Jews

Jews had been legally disadvantaged in Germany immediately after the Nazi seizure of power; after 15 September 1935, under the so-called Nuremberg Laws, Jews were deprived of full German citizenship. By November 1938 some 150,000 of Germany’s half-million Jews had managed to emigrate; but many did not reach countries which lay outside the Wehrmacht’s impending reach, while the great concentration of Europe’s Jews, as yet unmotivated to flight, lived within it. That included the Jews of the historic area of settlement in eastern Poland and western Russia, some 9 million in number, as well as the great Jewish populations of Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Salonica and Lithuanian Vilna, the centre of Jewish religious scholarship. The diplomatic and military victories of 1938-9 put many of these East European Jews under Nazi control; Barbarossa engulfed the rest of them. Himmler, though he persisted in trying to establish his legal right to do so, began to massacre them at once. Four ‘task groups’ (Einsatzgruppen), divided into ‘special commands’ (Sonderkommandos) composed of German SS and securitymen and locally enlisted militias, had already killed one million Jews in the new area of conquest between June and November 1941. Most, however, had been killed by mass shooting, a method Himmler regarded as inefficient. In January 1942, at a meeting held at the headquarters of Interpol, of which Himmler was president, in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, his deputy Heydrich proposed and received authority to institutionalise the massacre of the Jews, a measure to be known as the ‘Final Solution’ (Endlösung). Jews had been obliged to live in defined ghettos in Poland since the moment of occupation, and the order had subsequently been extended to other occupied areas. It was therefore not difficult to round up and ‘transport’ Jews for ‘resettlement’ in the east. Those sent to camps associated with an industrial plant run by the SS economic branch were usually worked to a state of enfeeblement before being sent to the gas chambers, though the old, the weak and the young might be gassed immediately; Auschwitz, the large camp in southern Poland, served both purposes. Those sent to the extermination camps, like Treblinka and Sobibor, were gassed on arrival. In this way, by the end of 1943, about 40 per cent of the world’s Jewish population, some 6 million people, had been put to death; of the last large European Jewish community to survive, the 800,000 in Hungary, 450,000 were delivered to the SS between March and June 1944 and gassed at Auschwitz.

By that time, the head of the SS economic branch reported to Himmler on 5 April, there were twenty concentration camps and 165 subsidiary labour camps; in August 1944 the population was 524,286, of whom 145,119 were women. In January 1945 the total had risen to 714,211, of whom 202,674 were women. There were few Jews among them, for the simple and ghastly reason that the Final Solution was effectively complete. It seems possible, however, that Jews never formed a majority of the camp populations, since it was normally their fate to die on or soon after arrival; non-Jewish forced labourers, who were kept alive as long as they could work, may always have outnumbered them. In that irony lay a chilling dimension of Nazi racial policy. For the removal and transportation of Europe’s Jews was a fact known to every inhabitant of the continent between 1942 and 1945. Their disappearance defined the barbaric ruthlessness of Nazi rule, offered an unspoken menace to every individual who defied or transgressed Nazi authority and warned that what had been done to one people might be done to another. In a profound sense, the machinery of the Final Solution and of the Nazi empire were one and the same: because systematic massacre underlay the exercise of Nazi authority at every turn, Hitler needed to rule his conquered subjects scarcely at all. The knowledge of the concentration camp system was in itself enough to hold all but a handful of heroic resisters abject during five years of terror.

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