Saturday, July 29, 2017

Colonialism applied to Europe: review of Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire”

Mark Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis ruled Europe” is a magisterial book.

I read it on vacation, and it is not a book I would suggest you take with you to the beach. Unless you want to spoil your vacation. But once you have made such a choice, you cannot stop reading it and the book will stay with you throughout your stay (and I believe much longer).

This Summer I read, almost back-to-back Adam Tooze’s “The deluge” and Mazower’s book. The first covers the period 1916-31, the second, the Nazi rule of Europe 1936-45. They can be practically read as a continuum, but they are two very different books. Tooze’s is, despite all the carnage of World War I and Russian Civil War, an optimistic book in which sincere or feigned idealism is battling conservatism and militarism.  As I wrote in my review of Tooze’s book, the emphasis on the failed promise of liberal democracy (but a promise still it was) is a thread that runs through most of the book. Mazower’s book, on the other hand, is unfailingly grim and this is not only because the topic he writes about is much more sinister. The tone is bleaker. It is a book about the unremitting evil. It is the steady accumulation of murders, betrayals, massacres, retaliations, burned villages, conquests, and annihilation that makes for a despairing and yet compelling read. Europe was indeed, as another of Mazower’s book is titled, the dark continent.

Here I would like to discuss another aspect of Mazower’s book that is implicit throughout but is mentioned rather discreetly only in the concluding chapter. It concerns the place of the Second World War in global history. The conventional opinion is that the Second War should be regarded as a continuation of the First. While the First was produced by competing imperialisms, the Second was the outcome of the very imperfect settlement imposed at the end of the War, and the difference in interpretations as to how the War really ended (was it an armistice, or was it an unconditional surrender).

But that interpretation is (perhaps) faulty because it cannot account for the most distinctive character of the World War II, namely that it was the war of extermination in the East (including the Shoah).  That is  where Mazower’s placing of the War in a much longer European imperial context makes sense.

The key features of Nazi policies of “racial” superiority, colonization of land and conscious destruction of ethnic groups cannot be understood but as an extreme, or even extravagant, form of European colonialism, as it existed from the 15th century onward. If one thinks of the Soviet Russia as of Africa or indigenous American continent (as it seemed to the Nazis), then Nazi policy of mass extermination and (more liberally) enslavement of the Slavic population that would provide forced labor for the German aristocracy living in agro-towns dotted across the plains of Russia does not look much different from what happened for several centuries in the mines of Potasi, in the Congo, in the ante-bellum South of the United States, in the Dutch Java or indeed in German-ruled Namibia.

The creation of two ethically and racially distinct social classes, with no interaction and with one openly exploiting another is exactly how European colonialism presented itself to the rest of the world. As Aimė Cėsaire, quoted at the end of the book, wrote (I paraphrase) “Nazism was the application of colonialism to Europe”.

There were, however, some differences that made the realization of this dream of conquest and domination unrealizable for the Nazis.

The technological and military gap between the “master” class and the Untermenschen was much smaller, and at the end it got even overturned in the military sphere. By 1942, the Soviet Union was producing more airplanes and tanks than Germany with all her factories in conquered Europe. The technological gap was indeed much smaller than it seemed to the Germans, and than it objectively was between the European conquerors and the peoples of Africa or the Americas. Tiny forces of Spaniards or English could conquer huge spaces and rule many people because of enormous superiority of their military power. But this was not the case in Europe. In other words, when the technological (military) gap between two groups is small, a complete annihilation of one by another is impossible.

The Nazis were blinded to this, not only by their misjudgment about the technological development of Russia, but also by their belief in rigid racial hierarchy where the very fact that such hierarchy existed (as they believed) made it impossible to entertain the possibility that the lower classes might rise sufficiently to challenge the “masters”. The rigidity of self-created racial hierarchy blinded them to reality.

The second difference between the Nazis and classical European imperialism was that racial hierarchy, pushed to its extreme, and leading to the attempted annihilation of the entire ethnic groups (Holocaust) was not motivated by economic interests of the elite but took place, as it were, outside it. Mazower makes very clear the tension that existed throughout the Nazi rule between economic needs for more forced labor, both in European factories and in the fields in the conquered territories in Poland, the Ukraine and Belorussia, and the ideologically-motivated drive to exterminate the “inferior races”. The military and civilian administrations tended to prefer the former approach (exploitation to death through labor), the SS the latter (pure destruction). This single-minded pursuit of annihilation, regardless of, or even against, economic benefits, was not something that existed in European colonialism.

The rigidity of racial hierarchy was such that the same Nazi leaders were arguing for forced labor vs. annihilation for one group, and for the opposite for another group. This was the case of Hans Frank, the head of the General Government of rump Poland, who tried to protect Poles from some random killings because he needed them to deliver grain but was eager to kill as many Jews as possible. (Although even he balked at thousands of “new” Jews being pushed to his territories as the “death camps” were already working at capacity.)

It is this macabre and economically and politically irrational drive toward extermination that might have differentiated colonialism as applied to Europe from colonialism applied elsewhere. But establishing racial hierarchy, believing in eugenics, being indifferent to the death of the “lower races”, creating a system of forced labor, shooting or maiming people who do not deliver their quotas of produce was not exactly new. Aimė Cėsaire might have been right.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Multi-party kleptocracies rather than illiberal democracies

The term “illiberal democracy” was, I think, introduced by Fareed Zakaria. It was used as a badge of honor by Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, the erstwhile poster-child of youthful East European reformers and liberals of the 1990s who then decided to turn over the new leaf. More recently, the term has gained further popularity as a way of naming and explaining the regimes such as Erdoğan’s in Turkey or Putin’s in Russia. Perhaps Venezuela can be placed in the same category too.

The implication of “illiberal democracy” is that the system is democratic in the sense that there are free elections, more or less free, or at least diverse, media, freedom of assembly etc., but that the “values” espoused by the regime are illiberal. Erdoğan believes in primacy of Islam over the Enlightenment-defined human rights, Orban believes in “Christian civilization”, Putin in “Russian spirituality”, Maduro in “Bolivarian revolution”. “Illiberal” also implies that the system is majoritarian in the sense that certain “inalienable” rights can be taken away through simple vote. At the extreme, a majority can decide to deny certain rights (say, to free speech) to a minority.

This definition, in my opinion, overstates the value component of these regimes. The core, or the desired objective, of this new breed of quasi democratic regimes is multi-partyism in which, however, only one party can win. Russia has gone the furthest on the road of “electoral engineering” where there is seemingly a democracy, multiple parties etc., but the rule of the game is that only one party can win, and that the others, in function of their “pliability” and closeness to the “party of power”, are allowed  to participate in the division of the spoils.

For it is precisely the “division of the spoils” which is a crucial feature of the regimes. They do not share, as some commentators believes, “values” antithetical to Western liberal values. Rather, I believe, these different values are simply invented to provide voters with a feeling that they are indeed voting for some distinct “national”, “homey”, “non-cosmopolitan” program while the real objective of the party of power is to control the state in order to steal, either directly (from overcharged public works or state-owned enterprises) or indirectly (through private sector corruption and laws and regulations that are for sale).

Thus, the party of power is simply an organized thievery that, in order to survive and prosper, needs to pretend to defend certain “values” and, most importantly, to keep on providing financial benefits to its supporters. The system is thus fully clientelistic. It functions very similarly to Mobutu’s Zaire (as beautifully described in Michala’s Wrong’s  “In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz”). The top guys (Erdogan and his son, Putin, Rothenberg and other oligarchs etc.) do, like Mobutu, take the largest slice of the pie, but they are more than anything else, arbiters in the process of the division of money between various factions. When you read Wrong’s book on Zaire, you realize that Mobutu was at the apex of the pyramid, but that he was not an unchecked dictator. To remain in power, he had to maintain support from various groups that were vying for money. This is precisely how Putin maintains his power: not as a Stalinesque dictator, but as an indispensable umpire whose sudden departure would throw the system totally off-balance until, possibly after a civil war, a new, generally accepted arbiter emerges.

I realized that it is this particular nature of the rule combined with clientelism, which is crucial and not some opposition to “liberal” values, when I spent this Summer in Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro had been ruled by one man, Djukanoviċ, for thirty years. He has in the meantime changed, like Putin, various positions from which he ruled: president of his party, prime minister, president of the country. Moreover, Djukanoviċ’s rule is broadly consonant with Western liberal “values” in the areas of gay rights, environment, lack of regulation and the like.  He has brought Montenegro to the threshold of the European Union and included it into NATO. But  the structure of his rule is equivalent to that of Putin: control of the government in order to steal, and distribution of these gains to his supporters (and of course to himself and his clique).

In order for such a system to survive it needs to continue winning elections, ideally forever. Ben Ali and Mubarak who headed similar systems in Tunisia and Egypt eventually failed. But Djukanoviċ, Lukashenko, Erdoğan, Putin and Orban have not failed so far. Again Russia is at the forefront here. To win elections, all means are used: state sector employees are strongly “recommended” to vote for the “right” candidate or the “right” party, people are given cell phones with which they record their vote and, if they vote “right” are allowed to keep them (Montenegro used this technique for more than a decade), votes are directly bought, or false ballots are added to sow confusion. The outright stealing of the votes, by falsifying the totals, remains as the ultima ratio. In Russia, such falsification is difficult or impossible in big cities but quite feasible in small towns or faraway areas where the percentage of the vote for the “right” candidate reaches 90 percent or more.

I think that it would be wrong, though, to regard such regimes as a different species from the Western liberal regimes. They simply exaggerate some features that exist in “advanced” democracies: sale of regulations and laws is done in both but it is done more openly and blatantly in the “new” regimes; creation of a real second party in Russia is as difficult as the creation of a third party in the United States; voter suppression is just taken one step further. They amplify, sometimes in a grotesque way, the negative sides of democracies and suppress, almost fully, their positive sides.

But the new regimes’ key characteristic is that they are multi-party electoral kleptocracies where only one party can win.