- Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler
Historians have recently returned to explorations of the continuities in German history that seek to link its National Socialist period to the Kaiserreich and even earlier periods. Enriched by criticisms of the liberal modernization theory implicit in the German Sonderweg thesis, the new students of German continuities have avoided grounding their narratives in characterizations of the German bourgeoisie as pathological deviants from a supposedly more democratic “Western” norm. The study of colonialism, [End Page 660] both in Germany’s eastern territories and in its overseas empire, has offered this recent scholarship a set of promising possibilities for connecting Kaiserreich and Third Reich. Bearing a subtitle that includes the phrase “from Bismarck to Hitler,” a kind of byname for the once defunct Sonderweg narrative, Shelley Baranowski’s most recent book contributes to this historiographical turn.
There are at least two variants of this “colonial path” from Kaiserreich to Third Reich. One, focusing on German peculiarities—which is also a component of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 masterpiece, Gravity’s Rainbow—connects the genocidal war against the Herero and Nama in German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia) with the Nazi genocide. This continuity has been given its sharpest formulation by Jürgen Zimmerer, who, in a number of publications, most recently Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz? (Berlin, 2011), traces a path from the capital of German Southwest Africa, Windhoek, to Auschwitz. Isabel V. Hull, in Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca, NY, 2005) offers an important caution against this path. The genocide in Southwest Africa was an unintended consequence of a German “way of war,” she claims, while the Nazi genocide was driven by newer racist ideologies.
Baranowski, by contrast, traces a second path connecting Nazi rule in Europe with European—not particularly German—colonial rule in Africa and elsewhere. In his 1955 Discourse on Colonialism (New York, 1972), Aimé Césaire, one of the first to map this route, wrote that the uniquely German aspect of Nazi rule in Europe was that it “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the blacks of Africa” (14). Baranowski finds such continuities more in National Socialist rule over Europe, especially Eastern Europe, than in the planned genocide carried out against the Jews. But she also finds an internally coherent, though hardly uniform, development connecting German colonialism from the Kaiserreich to the Third Reich.
For Baranowski, the driving force of German imperialism was not relations between colonizer and colonized, but rather German anxieties about competition with other European imperial powers. The central turn in the development of German imperialism was the dramatic reversal in the wake of World War I, when the state not only lost its own colonies to the victorious Allied powers, but also saw its own territory occupied and annexed. Germany imagined itself, in a sense, transformed from colonizer to colonized. Determined to undo this reversal and prevent it from occurring again, National Socialists pursued a policy inspired by Adolf Hitler’s critique of German imperialism in his unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf, written in 1928 (Gerhard Weinberg, ed., Hitler’s Second Book [New York, 2003].). In that book, Baranowski relates, Hitler maintained that imperial Germany had been hampered in its continental efforts by Slavs, both through its alliances with the partially Slavic Hapsburg Empire and also its entanglements with Russia. The overseas imperialism [End Page 661] of the Kaiserreich was, furthermore, too tied to calculating commercialism, and its African and Pacific possessions were simply too distant from Germany. Hitler called, instead, for the expansion of a racially homogeneous Germany inside of Europe, pushing out or annihilating Slavs and forgoing primarily commercial ventures overseas.
Paranoia about imperial disintegration—arising, perhaps in part, in reaction to the real imperial disintegration that the Kaiserreich had experienced after World War I—spurred the Nazi obsession with ridding itself of internal enemies, particularly Communists and...