Nazi-occupied Europe was governed firmly, brutally and for benefit of the German war effort. It was under this cloak of military occupation that Hitler’s Schutzstaffel (SS) were able to plan and implement the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe.
By the summer of 1940, the Nazis controlled much of western Europe, including eastern France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Baltic states, Norway, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the western half of Poland. This occupation continued until the D-Day landings and Soviet invasion of 1944.
Establishing and maintaining control of occupied territories was, of course, critical. This was achieved in a number of ways that varied from one place to the next.
The Nazis often left local governments in place, provided they were either sympathetic to Berlin or could be easily manipulated. Each occupied nation was appointed a Gauleiter, a senior NSDAP official who ruled in the manner of a governor.
‘Night and Fog’
The level of control and force wielded in each occupied country was often based on Hitler’s personal perception of it. Nations with large populations of Aryans, like Norway and Austria, were treated comparatively better than those with sizeable Jewish and Slavic populations.
Anyone in an occupied territory who resisted or criticised the Nazis was likely to be detained in concentration camps or forced labour. Conversely, those who supported or collaborated with the Nazis were often permitted to maintain their lifestyle.
In December 1941 Hitler signed the notorious ‘Night and Fog Decree’, authorising summary executions for anyone caught campaigning against or resisting Nazi rule. This was usually done in secret and those executed were said to have “disappeared into the night and fog of Germany”.
Probably the main function of the Nazi occupation was to supply the German war effort with raw materials, resources and cheap labour.
Berlin sent economics experts into each occupied territory to decide how its domestic economy could be put to work for Germany.
Owners of mining companies, factories and manufacturers were forced to sign contracts to supply the Nazi war machine with resources or goods, usually at very low rates. Wages were fixed at low levels (around 20 per cent less than before the war) and prices were sometimes controlled.
The Nazis also imposed restrictions on labour. As in Germany itself, there was very little free movement of labour; each person was given a workbook and an identity card then allocated a job.
As the war progressed, the authorities in some Nazi-occupied countries introduced labour conscription. Locals could even be forced to relocate to Germany for work. Non-workers had to carry identity papers and there were restrictions on movement, such as checkpoints and curfews.
Most local newspapers continued to operate but were placed under the control of local Nazis or sympathisers. There was a ban on publishing ‘bad news’: information about German defeats or articles about the resettlement or deportation of Jews. Locals were even forced to salute SS officers or high-ranking Nazi Party members.
Brutality in Poland
The most brutal Nazi occupation was in Poland. In September 1939, the Polish state was effectively dissolved and divided in two, the invading Germans occupying the western half and the Soviet Red Army occupying the east.
Hitler’s policy in Poland was not one of occupation but of ‘Germanisation’. He appointed Hans Frank, the party’s fanatical lawyer, as Gauleiter of the Generalgouvernement (‘General Government’, the Nazi term for occupied Poland).
One of Frank’s first priorities was Operation Intelligenzaktion, or the liquidation of Poland’s intelligentsia. For six months, squads of einsatzgruppen marched Polish aristocrats, academics, teachers, judges, lawyers, priests, politicians and writers into remote forests and shot them in cold blood. Though Intelligenzaktion was not specifically anti-Jewish, many of the 60,000 people killed were Jews.
The Catholic Church in Poland was also targeted: four-fifths of Catholic priests and nuns were either killed or deported to concentration camps.
The fate of Polish Jews
But for the Hitler regime, the most significant target in Poland was its two million Jews, the largest Jewish population in western Europe.
By early 1941, most Polish Jews had been forced out of their homes and herded into ghettos. As the SS stepped up its campaign against Polish Jews, other Poles were warned not to hide or assist Jews in any way. In November 1941, Hans Frank posted a decree warning that any Pole who concealed or aided Jews would be summarily shot. In some cases, entire Polish families were executed for harbouring Jews.
For a while, Polish Jews became a source of slave labour. Tens of thousands were employed by local factories at very cheap rates, their ‘wages’ paid to Nazi officials rather than the workers themselves.
From exploitation to extermination
By late 1941, however, Nazi priorities had changed. The demand for Jewish slave labour had been overtaken by plans for their ‘resettlement’ and extermination. In November, Hans Frank wrote to his fellow SS officers:
“As far as the Jews are concerned, I tell you quite frankly that they must be done away with, one way or another. I know that many of the measures carried out against the Jews at present are being criticised. Before I continue, I want to beg you to agree with me on the following formula: We will in principle have pity on the German people only, and nobody else in the whole world. The others had no pity on us. As an old National Socialist, I must say this: This war would be only a partial success if the Jews of Europe survive it, while we shed our best blood to save Europe. My attitude towards the Jews is therefore based only on the expectation that they must disappear. They must be done away with. Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourselves of all feeling of pity. We must annihilate the Jews wherever we find them, and wherever it is possible, to maintain the structure and the integrity of the Reich.”
“Not knowing what was in store for them, the Jews in some towns in central Poland sent delegations to welcome the German invaders. On September 8th 1939, for example, Jewish community leaders and rabbis met the German troops on the flower-strewn Mikolaj Rej Street in Radom and offered them the keys to the town, as well as bread and salt.”
Tadeusz Piotrwski, historian
1. The Nazis had invaded and occupied most of western Europe by mid-1940, including Poland, France, Holland and Norway.
2. These countries were placed under the governorship of Nazi officials, who were often supported by sympathetic or puppet regimes.
3. Industries and production economies in occupied countries were forced to assist the Nazi war effort, providing it with cheap supplies and labour.
4. There were also social restrictions in occupied European countries, such as control of the press, obligatory identity cards, checkpoints and curfews.
5. Poland was by far the worst treated. Its intelligentsia were assembled and murdered, its large Jewish population was forced into ghettos and slave labour.