May 18, 2013

Matthijs Krul on Nazi settler colonialism

It's no secret that Nazi Germany set out to create a settler colonial empire in eastern Europe. But what role did this effort play in the larger Nazi project? How was it connected with Nazi economic, military, and racial policies -- including the annihilation of European Jews? Matthijs Krul's essay "What was Nazi Germany?" (in Parts I, II, and III) explores these questions in more detail than I have seen in other anti-fascist discussions. I don't completely agree with Krul's conclusions, but I think he offers an important piece of the picture, which has larger significance for understanding fascism more generally.

Krul is an independent Marxist who runs the blog Notes & Commentaries. "What was Nazi Germany?" appeared there in 2010, but I only discovered it this year.

Resettlement of German colonizers to annexed Polish territories. Bundesarchiv, R 49 Bild-0705 / CC-BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons
As Krul recounts, Nazi settler-colonialist ambitions involved military conquest of Poland and large sections of the USSR, forced removal of non-Germans from these lands, and their replacement by German settlers. This vision was inspired partly by earlier genocidal conquests elsewhere -- notably Imperial Germany's war against the Herero in what is now Namibia, and the United States' conquest of Native America -- but unlike most previous examples directed settler conquest against Europe itself. (Krul doesn't mention it, but the British also practiced settler colonialism in Europe, specifically Ireland, centuries earlier. See Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume One.)

Krul is hardly the first writer to discuss German Nazism in these terms, but he analyzes Nazi settler policies in more detail than I have seen previously. For example, he discusses Nazi laws that barred German women and first-born sons from inheriting farms -- and thereby created a large pool of potential settlers. More eastern settlers were to be recruited (or forcibly transplanted) from poorer German cities, other "Aryan" countries such as the Netherlands, and ethnic German communities in the Baltic countries and elsewhere. Some 200,000 eastern Germans were in fact relocated in this manner in 1940, although it is unclear from Krul's account how many of them made it out of transit camps onto farms.

Krul also explores the connections between settler colonial policies and the Nazis' economic and military program, drawing heavily on Adam Tooze's excellent book, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. Krul outlines Germany's starkly uneven development in 1933, with advanced big industry offset by backward agriculture and small industry, coupled with steep inequality and a low standard of living for most people. As he notes, Nazi rearmament in the 1930s was at one and the same time (a) the main engine for economic growth, (b) preparation for colonial conquest, and (c) a source of tension with industrial capitalists. In 1936, Hitler's assistant Hermann Goering "took over control of the economic as well as the military spheres, since the contradiction between the needs of rearmament (import of raw materials, manpower to the army) and those of industry (restriction of imports, labor for industry) had become unresolvable without dictatorial intervention…" (II -- All citations here from Krul's essay indicate whether the quote is from Part I, II, or III.)

Contrary to the vulgar Marxist view that Nazism simply acted on behalf of big business, Krul outlines German capital's initial ambivalence and factional divisions in the face of Nazi plans, and argues that the Nazi dictatorship (for example, imposing state-controlled cartels on industry and agriculture) reflected the economic elite's weakness and inability to solve problems by the usual means. Tooze goes further in this regard, detailing numerous ways that Nazi state took policymaking power away from capitalists, even as it helped them restore profitability and power within the workplace. All of this echoes (and provides strong confirmation for) the argument Timothy Mason advanced 45 years ago in "The Primacy of Politics - Politics and Economics in National Socialist Germany."

Krul also outlines the gradual unfolding of Nazi racial policies in relation to both the settlement program and the economic demands of a large-scale war of conquest. As he notes, "the final goal was not just to get rid of Jews and other undesirables and to win the war through production, but overall to 'cleanse' Eastern Europe altogether for German settlement" (III). Not only Jews, but non-Jewish Poles and others considered racially inferior were systematically worked to death. Nazi racial terrorism went through several stages -- from expropriation of property and forced migration, through greater and greater concentration under harsher and harsher conditions, to large-scale mechanized murder -- which correlated with the stages of the settlement program. Property looted from Jews was used to compensate German settlers who had been forcibly relocated, and Jews were squeezed into a smaller and smaller area of Poland as the land reserved for colonial settlement was increased.

It's clear that settler colonialism was a major part of the German Nazi program and is crucial for understanding many Nazi policies -- for example, why the Nazis killed some two million non-Jewish Poles. But it doesn't explain all major policies, and Krul overreaches when says that Nazi Germany was a settler state and a colonialist state "above all else" (III). Settler colonialism doesn't explain the ferocity of Nazi anti-Bolshevism, as embodied for example in Hitler's orders that the invasion of the USSR be fought as a war of "extermination" against Bolshevik commissars and the Communist intelligentsia. (See Lorna Waddington, Hitler's Crusade: Bolshevism and the Myth of the International Jewish Conspiracy, p. 170.)

Above all, settler colonialism doesn't explain the overriding centrality of Nazi antisemitism. Krul argues that, from the Nazis' perspective, the settler program required getting rid of Jews (and other "undesirables," such as Roma) to ensure the German people's purity and safety. This is no doubt true, but it begs the question of why the Nazis regarded the Jews as an existential threat in the first place. As the U.S. example demonstrates, settler colonialism doesn't inherently require anti-Jewish discrimination, let alone expulsion or mass murder. In fact, French settler colonialism in Algeria involved granting French citizenship to Jewish Algerians, raising them legally and socially above their Muslim compatriots.

Even if we somehow accept the idea that Nazi settlerism had to target Jews, this at most explains the Nazi killing of Jews in Germany and the areas slated for eastern colonial expansion. It doesn't explain why the Nazi state devoted scarce resources to rounding up and murdering some one million Jews from other parts of Europe -- the Balkans, Hungary, France, Italy, the Netherlands, etc. This part of the Final Solution only makes sense if we recognize that annihilation of the Jews was for the Nazis an end in itself that did not serve any other instrumental purpose.

But Nazi settler colonialism doesn't have to explain all that to be an important part of the story. As long as we don't treat settlerism as the overarching principle that covers all of the Nazi state's main features, exploring its meaning and implications can teach us a lot. For example, what can we learn about generic fascism by looking at Nazi settlerism in relation to Fascist Italy, which had its own settlerist program in Africa? And what were the implications of Nazi settlerism for Germany's (and Europe's) class and socio-economic structure?

Here I suggest relating Krul's analysis to arguments posed by two different authors in the book Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement. J. Sakai (in "The Shock of Recognition") argues that Nazism "de-proletarianized Aryan society" by elevating "newly Aryanized men…into military & police service and into being supervisors, office workers, foremen, straw bosses and minor bureaucrats of every sort," and creating a "new proletariat that…was heavily made up of involuntary foreign & slave laborers, retirees, and -- despite Nazi ideology about women's 'natural' place in the kitchen and nursery -- women" (p. 121).

Taking a different approach from Sakai, Don Hamerquist (in "Fascism & Anti-Fascism") argues that while  "normal" capitalist development involves genocide "against pre-capitalist populations and against the social formations that obstruct the creation of a modern working class," German Nazism undertook "the genocidal obliteration of already developed sections of the European working classes." Not only labor power, but workers themselves were "consumed in the process of production just like raw materials and fixed capital," which broke with capitalist principles (p. 28). There's a lot of room for useful dialog between both Hamerquist's and Sakai's arguments and Krul's settlerism analysis.

In addition, while working on this post I came across two other scholars who are writing about Nazi settler colonialism. Carroll P. Kakel III has published a book comparing The American West and the Nazi East, while Elizabeth Harvey's Women and the Nazi East examines women's role in the "Germanization" of Poland. I look forward to reading what these authors have to say and comparing their findings with Krul's.


Anonymous said...

Very good review of relatively obscure book! Food for thought, for sure. Thanks...


Matthijs Krul said...

That's a very good critical discussion. I broadly agree with your criticisms, several years on - including Sakai's point about the creation of a new working class in the process of 'settlerization' and the specificity of anti-Semitism and genocide generally, which I did not deal with. I intend to do so at a later date. As might interest you, I've also engaged with Hamerquist on some more general questions of settlerism etc more recently:

Matthew N Lyons said...

Matthijs, thanks for your comment. It's good to know you found the criticisms useful, and I look forward to seeing your future treatment of the issues you mention. Thanks too for the link to your exchange with Don Hamerquist -- a very interesting and important discussion.