Implementing and Subverting the Final Solution in Nazi-occupied Europe
“If I could not be your sword, at least I would be your shield.”
— Marshal Pétain, collaborationist leader of Vichy France Rates of Jewish victimization in German-occupied countries during World War II varied quite significantly. This is surprising because it suggests that, despite its totalitarian character, the Nazi regime faced very real limitations for policy implementation in its sphere of influence. Despite its obvious relevance for the study of military occupations and state-sponsored violence, political scientists rarely turn their attention to the Nazi genocide. And due to their tendency to focus on particular countries or regions under German occupation, historians have been relatively silent on the issue of comparative victimization. Thus, this intriguing question is virtually ignored in the extant literature.
Using the methods of comparative political science and international relations, I explain variation in the level of Jewish victimization among German-occupied countries during World War II. I demonstrate that the ‘success’ of the German genocide program depended most importantly upon the level of political hierarchy between Germany and each occupied country. Where Germany ruled directly, and therefore had complete or near-complete say in the policy of a given territory, German demands and interests, including the desire to rid the territory of Jews, prevailed. Where Germany shared sovereignty over a given territory with domestic officials — where it ruled, indirectly, through collaborators and quislings of various stripes — principal-agent problems had a ‘negative’ effect on the implementation of Nazi policy. In short, my independent variable is the mode of German occupation: Where Germany ruled a territory directly, the rate of Jewish victimization was high. Where it relied on collaborators, ceteris paribus, the rate of victimization was lower. The degree of Jewish victimization varied inversely with the relative autonomy of domestic officials.
Nazi Germany clearly found indirect rule to be beneficial in a number of respects. Usually, what Germany lost in terms of inefficiency and compromise, it gained in terms of lower governance costs. Thus, so long as collaborationist regimes could be trusted not to sabotage the German war effort, Germany was more than willing to let its collaborators take on the responsibilities of fighting partisans or enforcing local law. Indeed, with locals at the helm, local administration retained at least the pretense of legitimacy, something that was nearly impossible where Germany ruled directly.
But German occupation was not an unmitigated evil for most collaborators, either. First, by advocating ‘accommodation’ with the Third Reich, collaborationist officials were allowed to keep their positions in office. More broadly, collaborators often used their positions in office to ‘soften the blow’ of Nazi terror. By acknowledging Germany’s position in the new world order, collaborators and their constituents could reap the economic benefits of trade with the Third Reich. And by contributing to Germany’s military might, collaborationist leaders could win for their countries significant concessions or even territorial rewards. On the most basic level, countries that demonstrated the ‘right attitude’ toward their new German masters usually won a ‘gentler’ form of military occupation. And though Jews certainly suffered more than their fellow citizens all over occupied Europe, they, too, benefited from having their own government act as an intermediary. Ironically, this was even the case in collaborationist countries characterized by high degrees of antisemitism.
Because they were helpful in matters of occupational administration, collaborationist officials had significant bargaining power in negotiations with the Germans. But why would they use their leverage to protect local Jews? Certainly, genuine concern for the well-being of Jews, or reflection upon the sheer horror of the Nazi program, was sometimes a relevant factor; indeed, this factor was only more salient when the Jews in question were citizens of the collaborationist country, war heroes, parishioners of cooperative churches or members of the local fascist party. But ‘protection’ was often accidental, since employees of the collaborationist regime could simply get away with ‘sloppy’ or ‘unenthusiastic’ implementation of the Final Solution in a way that Germany’s own henchmen could not. In the most cynical sense, collaborators who deported local Jews also gave up a potentially-profitable opportunity to exploit them. Jews who otherwise faced deportation were fertile targets for political or even financial blackmail. Collaborators protected the politically connected, allowed Jews to buy their freedom, or took bribes to save Jewish lives. For various reasons, such ‘corruption’ was more likely when local collaborators, rather than German Nazis, were in positions of political power.
The significance of this project for Political Science.
As a contribution to the vast literature on the Nazi Holocaust, the significance of this project should be clear. While many Holocaust scholars have considered the implementation of the Final Solution in this or that particular country, there are few broadly comparative studies of the Nazi genocide,1 and none that provides such a close analysis of the incentives facing the main actors in this tragedy. Indeed, even much of the scholarly work on the Holocaust tends to see that event as unique or impervious to rational analysis. And while both of these things are true to a certain extent, this focus has led many to overlook its comparable and comprehensible aspects. We cannot learn from the worst events in human history unless we are prepared to generalize from them.
Standing at the interface of two enduring global phenomena — imperialism and ethnic animosity — this project also sheds light on several important debates in political science. By showing that antisemitism was only indirectly related to Jewish victimization, we learn to question the centrality of ‘ancient hatreds’ in modern instantiations of state-sponsored violence. By studying the implementation of a common policy throughout a vast empire, we learn more about the relationship between regional hegemons and the subject-states they try to influence.
This project also fills a shocking gap in the political literature on comparative military occupations.2 Though usually not addressed by political scientists, World War II and the Final Solution provide intellectual raw material for the study of occupation regimes and the implementation of hegemonic policy in times of war. My project demonstrates that a hegemon’s choice about modes of occupation has tremendous impact on policy implementation in the wider sphere of influence. Similar in form, if not in substance, military administration during World War II can inform the military policy of today.
Most important, this project explores the logic and limits of mass coercion as a tool in contemporary politics. It therefore addresses the most fundamental issue in Political Science, the role of violence in the maintenance of political order. In many respects, World War II is the most vivid illustration of this issue that history has to offer. It is therefore all the more surprising that the Nazi regime is so seldom used as a case in comparative political analysis. The contemporary importance of understanding Nazi Germany cannot be overstated.
Chapters 1 and 2. Theory, literature review and large-n analysis.
A brief introductory chapter [Chapter 1] summarizes my argument and contextualizes it within existing literatures in comparative politics, international relations, and the historical study of the Holocaust. In chapter two, I show how German occupation regimes can be conceptualized as forms of international hierarchy, thus allowing them to be understood and analyzed in terms of the existing scholarship on international hierarchy, hegemony, and imperialism. Next, I operationalize my variables and conduct a number of large-n regressions. These demonstrate a statistically significant correlation between levels of German hierarchy and Jewish victimization rates. The chapter ends with my reflections on the contemporary relevance of the Nazi case, showing its potential for the study of military occupation and political order.
Chapter 3. Denmark (Victimization rate: 6%) and Norway (46%).
Because the local population helped nearly all of the Jews escape to neutral Sweden, Denmark is seen as a “ray of light” in the dark history of the Holocaust. The common view, prevalent even in the scholarly literature, contends that Danish traditions of democracy and religious tolerance trumped Nazi tyranny and made the persecution of the Jews unacceptable to the average Dane. A comparison with Norway, which shared proximity to neutral Sweden and also had long traditions of democracy and religious tolerance, challenges this conventional wisdom. In my view, the unique aspect of the Danish case is the Danish government’s willingness to negotiate with the Germans, thus insuring that Denmark would be treated (in the words of one German official) with “velvet gloves.” By supplying Germany with economic goods, contributing to its war effort, and even arresting local communists, the Danish government was able to preserve a degree of autonomy unprecedented in the German occupational sphere. But the arrangement also forced Germany to postpone action against the nation’s Jews, essentially until it was too late. In Norway, on the other hand, the constitutional government refused to bow to German demands and, instead, fled the country. While, in a moral sense, refusing to negotiate with Nazi Germany may have been the right thing to do, this action left Norway with a veritable power vacuum. Germany soon filled the vacant seats of government with members of Norway’s small and maligned national socialist party. With German appointees at the helm, the implementation of the Final Solution was much more complete in Norway than in Denmark.
The Denmark-Norway comparison questions the significance of Danish political culture in foiling the German genocidal effort; instead, it directs our focus to political institutions. By highlighting Denmark’s significant (and often unnoticed) contribution to the German cause,1 I show the celebrated failure of the Final Solution in Denmark to be the result of a morally questionable policy of negotiation. I thus present Norway’s reaction to German occupation as a tragic moral choice: By resisting the occupation, Norway’s government may have done the right thing; but its population, Jew and non-Jew alike, was left to face the full force of Nazi brutality.
Chapter 4. The Netherlands (67%), Belgium (53%), and France (26%).
In Chapter 4, I investigate the imposition of German hierarchy and the implementation of the Final Solution in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. Though Germany invaded the Netherlands and offered authorities there a ‘Danish-style’ compromise, the Dutch government and Queen largely followed a ‘Norwegian’ path, fleeing the country and encouraging the resistance. This left the Netherlands with virtually no political officers of its own. German administrators staffed the vacant political positions and even replaced much of the bureaucracy with ‘reliable’ substitutes. Though somewhat re-constituted in the face of the German invasion, the French government, on the other hand, remained largely intact and ruled from the resort town of Vichy. The Vichy government was of considerable help to the Germans: fighting partisans, ensuring economic cooperation, and ultimately putting a ‘French face’ on the German occupation. But when it came to the Final Solution, the Vichy government routinely deported immigrant Jews with the explicit understanding that Jews with French citizenship would be spared. Indeed, even though native police forces were enlisted to help in the arrest of France’s Jews, their progress was so ‘unsatisfactory’ that the Germans stopped making use of them. In the end, 76% of the Jews in France (and 85% of the Jews with French citizenship) survived the war. In comparison with the Netherlands and France, Belgium emerges as a ‘middle’ case: The Belgian ministers of government fled; but the king stayed in the country and signed a surrender with the Germans. The king even met with Hitler to request that his country be treated gently; and when German officials implemented the Final Solution in Belgium, the Queen Mother intervened on behalf of Belgian Jews.
This chapter makes extensive use of material from my personal interview with Maurice Papon, a former Vichy official now under house arrest for complicity in crimes against humanity. The comparison shows that, even for Jews in a relatively antisemitic country, citizenship had its advantages. It also demonstrates the very real importance of nominally powerless rulers, like Belgium’s constitutional monarch. Finally, the comparison shows us that, be it by conscious design or otherwise, collaborationist governments can and did act as buffers between German occupiers and the local population. This does not excuse the collaborators, who, after all, helped advance the German cause. But it does show their wholesale condemnation to be somewhat simplistic.
Chapter 5. Test of the Democracies.
Chapter 5 summarizes the findings of chapters 2 and 3. Thus, it allows us to see German occupation regimes in Scandinavia and in Western Europe in comparative perspective. This comparison allows us to control for political culture, religious tolerance and levels of democracy. Even so, we see a remarkable correlation between German occupation regimes and levels of Jewish victimization.
Chapter 6. Bulgaria (18%), Romania (51%), and Hungary (78%).
Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary were all German allies and formally independent. However, they were subjected to different degrees of informal German hierarchy. Be it due to its cooperative attitude, peripheral location, or both, Bulgaria “retained a greater degree of control over its domestic and foreign affairs … than any other country in Southeastern Europe” [Rich 1974: 258]. Bulgaria also cooperated with Germany in the attack on Yugoslavia and Greece, winning handsome territorial rewards (namely, Macedonia and Thrace) for its effort. But when it came to the Final Solution, Bulgaria reached an explicit arrangement with the Germans: It would deport 20,000 Jews from the newly-acquired territories with the agreement that 51,000 Jews in Bulgaria itself would remain unharmed. Ultimately, ‘only’ 11,400 Jews from Macedonia and Thrace were deported and killed. Bulgarian Jewry was virtually untouched. Romania was also, formally speaking, a German ally; however, the thousands of German troops stationed in the country constituted “a garrison force” and rendered Romanian independence “a facade” [Gutman: 1291]. Romanian forces participated in the wholesale massacre of Jews in newly-acquired territories along the Soviet border. But meanwhile, in Romania itself, a thriving industry developed for the exploitative taxation and extortion of local Jews. Throughout Romania, Jews bribed local officials for protection from the Nazi genocide. Thus, in one of Europe’s most antisemitic countries, ‘only’ about half of the Jewish population fell victim to the Holocaust. As in Bulgaria, these deaths were concentrated in the newly-acquired territories. In fact, if these territories are exempted from the analysis, Romania’s victimization rate was only 12%.
Hungary is the best single illustration of the relationship between German occupational hierarchy and Jewish victimization rates. Until March 1944, Hungary was a loyal (if unenthusiastic) German ally. Jews remained virtually unharmed, and even fought in Hungarian uniform on the Eastern Front. When suspicion arose that Hungary was prepared to switch sides, however, German forces occupied the country, replaced the Prime Minister, and eventually took the Prince Regent’s son as a hostage. In under a year at the very end of the war, with the world watching and almost fully aware of their fate, almost 80% of Hungary’s Jews were deported and killed.
The Hungarian case shows that the late onset of deportations did not significantly affect occupational policy outcomes. Events in Romania show that even severe antisemitism did not ensure high rates of victimization. Thus, two potential rival hypotheses are dismissed. Informal hierarchy, a political science concept under-appreciated in the historical literature, clearly played an important role in victimization rate variation.
Chapter 7. Conclusion.
In the concluding chapter, I summarize my argument and attend to this project’s moral implications. First, though Jews consistently suffered more than their national compatriots, their suffering was somehow ‘proportional’ to that of their fellow citizens. Germany unleashed brutal retaliation on the citizens of any country that resisted its hegemony. But citizens suffered less when high-ranking government officials stayed in office to collaborate. While Jews were certainly among those who suffered most in any given case, Jew and non-Jew alike benefited from such negotiated arrangements.
This project also calls into question simplistic judgments of collaboration as morally vacant. As I have shown, high-level collaboration correlated with high rates of Jewish survival and a reduction in the suffering of the population at large. The purpose of this project, of course, is not to exonerate the collaborators — who, after all, cooperated with the Germans, prolonged the war, and ultimately contributed to the suffering of (Jewish and non-Jewish) Europeans elsewhere on the continent. But in his postwar trial for treason, Vichy leader Marshal Pétain claimed that he intentionally acted as France’s shield because he was unable to act as its sword. His statement may not have been sincere; but it raises harrowing moral questions in any case.
Throughout this project, we are faced with the notion that reaction to German occupation entailed a tragic choice. Collaboration often meant giving up the noble effort to resist German occupation. But resistance was often futile, and usually increased the brutality of the occupation that inevitably followed. Under such circumstances, it may have been better to protect one’s own citizens, even if that meant helping the Germans as well. It is neither my ability nor my intention to adjudicate between these compelling moral claims. But we do ourselves and our science a disservice if we do not at least recognize the tragic logic of collaboration and its consequences.
1 Helen Fein’s Accounting for Genocide and Wolfgang Seibel’s “The Strength of Perpetrators – The Holocaust in Western Europe” are welcome (but nonetheless limited) exceptions to this rule.
2 To my knowledge, there are only two broadly comparative studies of military occupation: “Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail”, by David M. Edelstein; and America’s Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq, by James Dobbins, et al. of the RAND Corporation.
1 Ultimately, I had to turn to documentary sources (eg, SS files housed in the German federal archives) to show the full nature of this contribution. In the existing secondary literature, the issue is almost unmentioned and certainly underestimated.