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  • Fascism's Stages:Imperial Violence, Entanglement, and Processualization
  • Sven Reichardt


At the high point of its power in 1941, National Socialist Germany ruled over a landmass exceeding the United States in area and population and producing a greater economic output than any equivalent territory on earth. The historian Mark Mazower deemed National Socialism an empire,1 and in the last few years a new approach in Fascism Studies accepts Mazower's insight and examines fascism in its imperial form.2 Political latecomers, the fascisms of Germany, Italy, and Japan challenged the liberal world order and Communist internationalism, and also radicalized the logic of imperialism and the forms of colonial war conduct. In the destruction of [End Page 85] the European Jews, the "Nazi empire" was clearly more radical; but in its dedication to the achievement of a large contiguous and racially defined area to be conquered in wars of destruction and modernized with settlers, it was both comparable to and directly bound up with the Italian and Japanese empires.

The fascist empires radicalized older imperial traditions: the missionary idea, the uses of violence and repression, hierarchically graduated justifications and special laws. Fascists intensified the idea of hierarchies among peoples and turned them into matters of survival. The destruction of other peoples became a consistent expression of this tendency, and the settlement empires were tied up with the typically national aim of internal homogeneity.3 They constructed a contradictory mixture of imperialism and nationalism in forming nation-empires, as Roberta Pergher insightfully observed.4 Notwithstanding this pattern, the models of rule they followed in their actual occupation policies were thoroughly heterogeneous. Substantial variations are evident already in the Japanese case—between Manchukuo (industrialized using forced laborers and intended for rapid adaptation to Japanese conditions with modern city planning and a comprehensive policy of Japanese settlement) and the Japanese East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (Daitōa Kyōeiken, with indirect rule in allied Thailand and the economic plunder of the Philippines). A secret 1943 document analyzed by John W. Dower, "Global Policy with the Yamamoto Race as Nucleus" ("Yamamoto Minzoku o Chūkaku to suru Sekai Seisaku no Kentō") demonstrates that the Japanese considered themselves the superior people, and not only vis-à-vis other Asian ethnicities. Besides different forms and degrees of imperial rule, this document directly evoked familiar European concepts like natalism, blood-and-soil nationalism, and Lebensraum.5

The National Socialists also developed steep hierarchies. A spring 1941 document by SS brigade commander and administrative jurist Werner Best suggested four categories of a racially designed administrative system of governance: (1) informal control of states (e.g. Denmark); (2) [End Page 86] "oversight administrations" where German representatives used a national administration while leaving it structurally almost unchanged (France, Netherlands, Belgium); (3) "governmental administration," with far-reaching reconstruction of the local bureaucracy (Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia); (4) "colonial administration" (Generalgouvernement in Poland), with administrative control and reduction of the indigenous population to forced labor.6

With Operation Barbarossa, the spectrum of heterogeneous power relations expanded to a kind of "polycratic fabric of occupations."7 Next to the formal sovereignty of Vichy France and the almost untouched self-administration of Norway, there were occupied lands with German chiefs presiding over civilian administrations, as in Slovenia; areas under direct military administration (Belgium, Serbia); and finally the outright rule of destruction practiced by the Reich Commissariats of Ukraine and Ostland. Some newly organized Gaue (districts) were intended for annexation and Germanization, like Danzig-West Prussia in Poland, Alsace-Lorraine in France, or parts of northern Slovenia.8

These imperial constructs were inherently less stable than the empires of the nineteenth century, as became evident in the rapid depletion of the readiness to collaborate with the Nazis in the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine. Armed resistance, barely existent in occupied Europe from 1938 until mid-1941, grew explosively within a few months of the attack on the Soviet Union.9 The situation in the Japanese empire was not much different. Nationalist forces first greeted liberation—in Burma from British and in Indonesia from Dutch rule—until regional leaders like Ba Maw and Sukarno understood that their countries would continue to be ruled repressively under...