The most destructive war in history ended in Europe shortly after 9 p.m. on May 8, 1945, when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the final German Instrument of Surrender. Over the past seven and a half decades millions of words have been written about World War II, but some of its aspects remain contentious to this day and deserve to be briefly revisited.
Nothing is inevitable in history, but the Treaty of Versailles made Germany’s bid for revanche likely—regardless of Hitler’s rise to power. Far from reestablishing a solid new order after four years of carnage, Versailles produced an unstable system which lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the defeated. This hindered their prospects of eventual integration into the postwar European order. When the German High Command finally gave up in 1918, with the Kaiser abdicating and the Armistice signed on Nov. 11, many Germans expected they would be treated with consideration. This was not to be. The spirit of revenge was dominant in Paris. President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister Georges “le Tigre” Clemenceau sought to punish Germany as harshly as she had punished France in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. The result was a document severe in its terms and immediate consequences, but untenable in the long term. Versailles contained the seeds of another, even more destructive war a generation later.
It’s a myth that Germany had a grand vision for Europe in World War II. There was no German master plan for Europe, either before or during the war. Contrary to the prevailing postwar wisdom, which tended to read in all of Hitler’s actions a systematic, premeditated quest for hegemony in Europe—or even world domination—he was actually an ad-hoc improviser. His notions of “global power” and “eastern empire” should be taken as metaphors or “utopian figures of speech,” as historian Martin Broszat argued. Post-war planning was considered in various elements of the Nazi power structure, but there was no coherence. All they had in common was a vague notion of the “rings” of control, radiating from the center and mainly extending east- and southeastwards. Piecemeal projects sometimes caught Hitler’s imagination, but not for long.
No plan had ever attained the status of official policy. Competing ideas and designs for a new European order only had to fit into the Führer’s overall framework. However, except for his anti-Jewish obsession and yearning for the Lebensraum in the East, there was little consistency in Hitler’s vision of the new Europe. In various sections of the Nazi bureaucracy one could even encounter relatively sensible ideas, which allowed for a degree of economic ‘partnership’ with the states which fought on the side of Germany. The primacy of German interests was always implicitly taken for granted, however, even in relation to the key nominal ally, Italy.
More common were some brutally frank ravings about the “master race” emanating from the circles of Alfred Rosenberg’s foreign department of the Nazi Party and Heinrich Himmler’s SS. A group of “SS intellectuals,” Walter Stahlecker most prominent among them, openly talked of conquering the world. They envisioned a world with “half a billion Germans by the year 2000,” which entailed Germanizing smaller nations of so-called good blood and eliminating “unvaluable elements.” As commander of the SS security forces in the Baltic States in 1941–42, Stahlecker did his best to turn words into action.
At times the tension between different visions of the future held by different German agencies could not be concealed. The Slovak minister in Berlin recalled an episode which occurred at a dinner hosted by him in early 1942. A young German officer, rather drunk, delivered an impromptu oration about his exploits on the Russian front from which he had just returned. He enthused about the destruction of the “Slav Untermensch” and the re-enactment by the German Reich of the “holy and eternal laws of Life, desecrated by Christians, Jews and Slavs.” He was abruptly cut short by a fellow guest, a high-ranking official from the ministry of propaganda. He took the officer away from the table and then proceeded to assure the horrified Slovak minister and other guests that the Reich was going to create a European order in which each nation would have its function and its place according to merit.
According to some fragments of Hitler’s secret conversations in 1941 and 1942, the core area under direct German administration comprised the Greater Reich, most of the Danube valley and “the eastern territories.” Beyond this sphere of immediate and unconcealed German control were loosely defined second and third rings of dominance. The inhabitants within the Reich’s broad military control would feel German control less directly than those in the core, though their resources would be at the disposal of the Reich. This allowed for an Italian “zone of interest,” through not in any way Mussolini would have found agreeable. Hitler may have been sincere in his protestations to his “friend” that Italy would have the freedom to recreate the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the logic of the distribution of power within the Axis camp dictated that an Italian sphere would exist only at the sufferance of the Reich.
Last but not least, World War II had witnessed the final departure from the concept of natural morality that provided a salutary restraint on the behavior of many European states before 1914. Before the Bolshevik terror, it was not mere expediency which had prevented states from resorting to mass extermination as a means to an end. The limitations on the behavior of states derived from an underlying consensus that their reason for existing entailed membership among the community of civilized nations.
The final break came following Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, and the ensuing decision to embark on the Final Solution. Genocide was implicit in his ideological assumptions, at least from the time he dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess in 1923. His regime devoted significant resources to carrying out mass murder in pursuit of the vision of a homogenous national community, even when the resources required for genocide threatened military strategy. A dramatic Wagnerian finale was always implicit in Hitler’s essentially nihilistic regime.
Image Credit: Field Marshall Keitel signs German surrender terms in Berlin May 8, 1945.