Much of the failure and radicalization of the Nazi occupation of Poland can be traced to a series of systemic human factors whose roots like in the world of colonial occupation. I will outline these factors in brief, and then spend the rest of this paper elaborating on this collective “human resources disaster.”

Because We Can.” When holders of a fundamentalist ideology gain control of a colony, they are often tempted to use it as a proving ground for radical policies they are unable to implement at home for reasons of domestic support. When liberals gained control over the East India Company in the 1820s, they used British India as a laboratory for liberal social and economic policies until the rebellion of 1857 signaled their ultimate failure. Likewise, the Bush administration has used Iraq as a terrarium for neoconservative democracy building, especially in the first two years. In Nazi Poland, this was the case in at least two different aspects:

  1. The Government-General became a test bed for “colonial” administrative and economic policies. Methods of agricultural and industrial exploitation and labor extraction were pioneered here with the intention of extending them to the broader East.
  2. The Warthegau and East Upper Silesia (and to a lesser extent, Danzig-West Prussia) became models for the incorporation into the Reich of frontier territories primarily populated by “ethnic aliens” and “enemy peoples.” Here the Nazis tested out new population policies, including resettlement and mass murder, and administrative staffing, at a time when this was still difficult in “the Old Reich.” Included among such policies:
    1. The gradation of the local “German” population into “ethnic” categories based on political reliability (the Deutsche Volksliste).
    2. The ghettoization of Jews and marking them with the Star of David.
    3. The use of forced labor for public works projects.
    4. The resettlement of ethnic Germans from eastern Poland, Romania, the Baltic, and other points east on Polish farmsteads; but perhaps as importantly, their constant cajoling and indoctrination. The Nazi regime could simply go farther with them than with “Reich Germans” because they had nowhere else to go, and were viewed as more primitive outsiders in need of civilizing into “real Germans.”

Help Wanted.” When a radical regime comes to power that claims to represent all of a polity but knows it is only a very strong minority, it acutely senses its weakness and aspires to further control. One means is through staffing policies in occupied territories. For example, the Bush administration in Iraq has become famous for explicitly recruiting ideologically reliable but professionally untrained Republicans instead of more highly qualified candidates. The possible benefits of such a policy are clear:

  1. Increase your party’s hold on power.
  2. Build a personnel base that owes its position to you, and hence will implement your radical, “can’t do it at home” policies without backtalk.

On the reverse side, one increases the risk of not effectively implementing any policy because one’s staff is stocked with hacks and slackers. German administration in the occupied territories all carried this reputation, especially in the East.

“Colonialism isn’t for everybody.” It takes a special kind of person to succeed in colonialism’s unusual environment. A member of the “master race” needs to have social confidence, cultural sensitivity if not respect for the host culture, and a strong base of moral values to guide one’s exercise of near-dictatorial power over subject populations. Willpower alone is not enough. Thus the British colonial administration recruited heavily among the lower upper middle classes. These were low enough to view “the colonies” as an honorable career, but high enough to not let it get to their heads when dealing with “native” chiefs and rajas. Their public school upbringing gave them a moral compass that was immature, cruel, and lacking in many respects, but generally gave them the fortitude not to lose their heads in the jungle. This did not hinder racial arrogance, nor did it prevent them from the committing atrocities and from pursuing policies that were overall cruel in the belief that they were benefiting humanity.

In Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran argues that much of US policy in Iraq has been hindered by essentially human resources factors. Alongside recruiting based on ideology rather than experience, he argues that the Americans charged with rebuilding Iraq were simply not prepared for the cultural encounter they were about to undergo. Most had never left the US, and were not trained for cultural encounter so much as for desert warfare. It pleased me to see this book because its author makes the same argument I have been making for years about Nazi personnel policy (if in less eloquent form):

If one takes several thousand bookkeepers, shopkeepers, carpenters, and gardeners whose chief distinction is their dedication since the late 1920s and early 1930s to a movement that rejects key civic virtues in favor of Herrenmensch ideology and a “get it done” attitude, mainly lower middle class men who have never left Germany except in uniform, and give them power …

Married men with children, getting good salaries for doing their best but owing their pay to their political service, in difficult conditions, with minimum orientation, with little social support beyond admonitions to “be a man” …

The result will be a disaster.

January 12, 2008 in History