- Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler by Shelley Baranowski
Not too long ago we spoke of a memory boom in modern European historiography, and now we seem to be in the midst of the empire boom. The roots of this trend are manifold: the growth of postcolonial literary studies, rise of global history, and subaltern studies. To this list, one should add the emergence of genocide studies, which has inspired serious research on the links between systematic government policies of extermination of indigenous peoples and colonialism. Given the centrality of Holocaust history in modern German history, the interest [End Page 474] in Nazi imperialism and the genocide has become strong and in the last decade generated a mini-boom of articles, monographs, and conference programs. In many but not all ways the recent trend follows the adage of the old wine in new skins. Imperialism and colonialism are not new themes in German history, but resistance to it in Holocaust studies has been.
The German “grasp for world power” as both continental and overseas expansion was an ongoing topic of discussion among those who first advocated for it and critiqued it as of the late nineteenth century, then during the First World War and Paris peace conferences, and especially in the 1930s as Hitler’s ambitions unfolded and collective security collapsed in Europe leading to the outbreak of the Second World War. In the aftermath of the war, German imperialism was not a subject of debate, but accepted as a cause of the calamities of the first half of the twentieth century, taken as a given by those across the political spectrum who presented it in its various forms as fascism, nationalism, and totalitarianism.
Yet the first systematic study of the roots of Nazi imperialism by Woodruff Smith skirted the history of the Holocaust and argued that the atrocities were not directly linked to the imperial ideas and operations of the Reich. In the 1990s, the shift in Holocaust research to the lands of the former Soviet Union reconceptualized Nazi occupation as a colonial endeavor that rested on genocidal social engineering campaigns epitomized by the “Final Solution” against the Jews.
While not advocating a remounting of the Sonderweg debate about German exceptionalism, which has been eroding since the 1970s, Baranowski does carve out a uniquely German narrative of “imperialist aspiration, the eschatology of ethnic homogeneity over diversity, imperial enlargement over stasis, and Lebensraum as the route to biological survival” (p. 6). She seeks to illuminate “new ways to historicize the Nazi regime’s obsessions” with racism, colonialism and genocide (p. 3).
Baranowski’s Nazi Empire is an exceptional synthesis that presents empire as central to understanding the political, military, and demographic (racial) ambitions of the German monarchy; the first democratic (Weimar) republic; and the fascist regime of Hitler. A distinguished professor of history, Baranowski presents her narrative of imperial expansion and collapse in six chronological chapters spanning the decades preceding the First World War until the Third Reich’s demise. Occasionally Baranowski compares German imperialism with British, French, or American imperialism, referencing maritime and continental models. Anti-Semitism is a prominent theme in her narrative, at first introduced as a German and European phenomenon, but [End Page 475] the pan-European component is not taken up later when the destructive dialectic of the Second World War included Axis campaigns of demographic engineering and anti-Semitic violence. Baranowski refers to the insightful work of Dirk Moses on the subject of colonialism and anti-Semitism, adopting the view that in the years leading up to the Holocaust, Germans increasingly saw themselves as both colonizers and colonized. They believed that Jews as communists, Bolsheviks, international capitalists, and biological contaminants were the imperialists that had invaded German society and threatened Germany’s existence. Thus, in their minds, genocide was an act of national self-determination and preservation. Baranowski skillfully presents the tensions, fears, and frustrations of the German elite and of ordinary men and women.
Though she acknowledges that the German imperial...