Niall Ferguson Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The War of the World: Conversation with Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Harvard University; October 19, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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New Kind of Empire

The book has a remarkable capacity to put pieces of the story together in one larger context, and when I was going over my notes in preparation for the interview it suddenly dawned on me that when we get to World War II and the causes of that war, what you're really showing us is that new kinds of empires emerged as these multinational empires were collapsing. They were state empires that sought to resolve internal problems and reshape the world. Is that a fair restatement of what you're getting at? When you look at Germany and Japan, they're dealing with a set of problems, they're going to use their foreign policy to achieve [their goals], they're going to use military power. Talk a little about that, because this was almost like a second iteration of trying to bring order to the world.

What's interesting about these new empire states, as I call them, whether you look at the Soviet Union, which was one, the Third Reich/Nazi Germany, which was another, nationalist Japan, which was the third, is that they are unquestionably imperial in their dimensions. They aspire to control large tracts of land inhabited by foreign people, so there's no question of their being ethnically homogenous. On the other hand, they tend to try to govern themselves far more like nation states. They're far more centralized, and the insistence on uniformity is far greater. So, they're far less tolerant of ethnic minorities than these old empires I was talking about before.

So, the new empire states are really very dangerous things, and they're capable of tremendous internal violence against their own people. They're also capable of extraordinary external violence. They're extremely aggressive. This comes down to that critical question of living space that was posed by writers on geopolitics in the mid-century. There was this sense, particularly in Japan and Germany, densely populated societies by comparison with say the United States or the British empire, very little free territory -- there's a sense (and it's not an implausible argument in the 1930s) that to cope with the Depression, Germans and Japanese needed more land. So the whole project becomes an imperial one, but it's an imperial one which is more ruthless than previous imperial projects, because the conception is "We want the land; we don't really want the people who are currently there."

The imperial projects that emerge for a thousand-year Reich in Central Europe and Eastern Europe, and for a greater East Asia co-prosperity zone, imply not only living space but also killing space. You are going to get rid of at least some of the indigenous peoples in order to clear the way for your own master race to reproduce and cultivate. That makes these empires really quite distinct from previous empires. They're very much more systematically violent, much more determined to engage in mass murder than previous empires had been.

And they have the capacity to do that. They industrialize genocide.

Yes. This of course is a critical point, that the countries that do many of the worst things in the mid-twentieth century are among the most sophisticated in the world. You can't say that higher education inoculates a society against barbarism, because Germany in the 1920s had the best universities in the world, bar none. A very high proportion of Nobel Prizes were being awarded to Germans from these universities.

More than in the United States?

More than in the United States which was significantly behind. Indeed Germany was where you went if you had scientific ambitions at that time. So, we have a puzzle here which is that the most sophisticated societies produced the greatest barbarism. Japan too, clearly the most advanced Asian society in the 1920s, capable, as Germany was, of running a democratic system; and yet able to unleash within a few short years extraordinary levels of organized violence, waged very ruthlessly in the sense that there was never any restraint in the way that violence was used by these [earlier] empire states, when they let rip. Indeed, the lack of restraint, the ruthlessness, was almost a signature of both regimes. There was a sense that traditional restraints on the conduct of war were suspended when Japan went into, say, Nanjing or when the Germans invaded Poland. The gloves were off.

One of the things that's most troubling about the book is the idea that it's highly educated men who are often responsible for the worst atrocities. We can't pretend that this was some kind of lower-middle-class affair, because Nazism is essentially devised and implemented by people with doctorates, with very high levels of education.

I recall a footnote in which there were a high number of PhDs that were head of these killing units that went in, in the first wave of the German invasion.

The SS was an elite organization. It attracted specialists in racial theory and eugenics. We forget, now that these disciplines have been completely discredited, that they were, or seemed to be, at the cutting edge of modern science in the 1920s and 1930s. People who specialized in racial theory held eminent posts in universities not only Germany but in the rest of the world. So, these people were natural recruits to a project to redraw the ethnographic map of Europe. Hitler was, of course, not a very well educated man. He was not a didact with very incoherent ideas, but when it came to [turning] Hitler's diffuse aversion to Jews and his paranoia about miscegenation into policy, he turned to these people. They came from the universities, donned their black uniforms, and perpetrated horrific crimes as if their education had stripped them of moral restraint rather than equipping them with it.

Racial theory becomes a key component of this, that for example, the Jews "pollute the blood of the Aryan race," and so on. That's a key element, or shall we say, a key plank in the -- I think you call it a political religion that Hitler came to power on. As you point out, he headed a mass movement, and he did win large numbers or a plurality in the voting.

No question. He should probably have formed a government earlier than he did, actually, because the Nazi victory in '32 is really decisive, and it's only by some rather footloose play that they can keep Hitler out of power until '33. There's no question that Hitler articulates popular feelings. Not a majority -- you need a majority, this was a PR system and with proportion representation, the Nazis clearly were in a position to form a government by '32. But he articulates the feelings of a very large number of Germans.

One of the things that I was able to show in the book is that if you take all the people who ever voted for a fascist party in Europe, in the period of the Depression, an overwhelming majority of them were German speakers, and this is true not only in the German Reich but it's also true when you look at Austria and look in countries like Czechoslovakia. So, in a sense, as a mass movement fascism was a quite peculiarly German one. Other fascist parties didn't do anything like as well; there were very, very few fascist parties that could mobilize the way the Nazis could.

So, part of the question is, how far is anti-Semitism what makes Hitler popular, or is it, in a sense, a kind of cranky preoccupation of the extremists in the party? It's tempting to say it's a marginal phenomenon, Hitler doesn't talk about it that much in '32, '33; it's essentially an economic protest vote that the Nazis capitalize on, or it's an anti-Versailles, anti-peace treaty vote. And yet, when you look at how often the themes of what became Nazi government propaganda were present in the popular culture of Weimar Germany in the 1920s you have to wonder. For example, one of the great bestsellers of the early twenties was a book called The Sin Against the Blood by a guy called Artur Dinter, and this book is an absolutely classic Hitlerian fantasy about "racial pollution." And when Hitler says in Mein Kampf that the Jews pollute the blood of the Aryans, he means something quite specific. He's talking about intermarriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, and of course, he's actually talking about something that, as we said earlier, was happening. It's not, in that sense, an imaginary construct, but it translates this high level of intermarriage into an anxiety which Hitler is not alone in feeling, that something is changing, as it were, in German society, that something is fundamentally being altered by this pattern of assimilation and integration.

What's interesting is the extent to which these ideas are imported from places like the United States. The Germans had never really been worried about race before, because in a sense they'd not been part of the great imperial projects of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in the English-speaking world. A fear of miscegenation, fear of intermarriage across racial boundaries was very well established and had produced anti-miscegenation laws in a very large number of American states. So, Hitler was taking ideas from outside the German world and importing them and applying them to the particular predicament of Central Europe in the 1930s. It's a very, very potent appeal that those ideas turned out to have. It's not just the cranks, in other words, but highly educated men with PhDs who come to believe that the Jews are a "racial tuberculosis," or some kind of parasitical body that has to be expelled from the German fold. Now once you've got highly intelligent, highly educated, and well-equipped Germans believing that, you can go an awful lot further than with pogroms in Russia in 1905. You can go all the way down the railroad track, ultimately to Auschwitz.

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