Hitler's Alternatives: Is He a Prisoner of Conquest?

LESS than ten months after the beginning of the war, Hitler was master of a land empire of Napoleonic proportions. He had struck down every enemy on the continent of Europe. On the other hand, six months of intensified air and submarine war after the fall of France have failed to conquer the island stronghold of Britain.

What are Hitler’s present alternatives? Can he settle down, accept an indefinite stalemate in his struggle with England, and build up a powerful selfcontained economic unit out of Germany and the lands which he has incorporated or will incorporate in his ‘new European order’? Or is he rather a prisoner of his own conquests, obliged by the exigencies of the situation to go on or go under? I believe the second hypothesis is the correct one. A prolonged standstill for the Nazi dictator would be equivalent to a defeat.


Napoleon shattered the old order in Europe with the double weapon of his own military genius and the intoxicating ideas of the French Revolution. At the height of his power, after Austerlitz and Jena, he had come closer to the realization of the ideal of a Europe united under a single sway than anyone else until Hitler in our own time. Indeed there is an amazing similarity between Napoleon’s position at the full tide of his success and Hitler’s today.

Like Hitler, Napoleon had broken or reduced to the status of a satellite ally or minor power every country on the continent except Russia, with which he maintained relations of ambiguous friendship, not unlike those of Hitler and Stalin today, after the Peace of Tilsit. Like Hitler, he sought to break the British blockade with his own counterblockade, to organize a European Lebensraum lhat could exist despite British mastery of the sea.

The three main causes of Napoleon’s collapse were the unrelenting pressure of the British blockade, the fiasco of the invasion of Russia, and the nationalist revolts which flamed up in Spain and in Germany. Hitler must face very similar problems, but against a very different technological background, which gives him some advantages and some disadvantages.

In the airplane and the submarine, Hitler possesses means of striking England directly which Napoleon lacked. No young Englishman or Englishwoman now could be so happily oblivious of the war as the heroes and heroines of Jane Austen’s novels of Napoleonic times.

Russia’s distances would not present such formidable obstacles as was the case in 1812. When the Grande Armée commenced its ill-fated march to Moscow there was not a railway line to ease the problem of supply and transportation. Napoleon did not possess the trucks and tanks which Hitler could send sweeping across the Russian steppes if his policy should demand an invasion of that country. And rebellion against a foreign conqueror, as against a domestic dictator, is extremely difficult in the age of the airplane and the tank.

Not all the trump cards, however, are in Hitler’s hands, if one compares his position with Napoleon’s. The agricultural America of four million settlers, from which Napoleon had nothing to fear, has become a people of one hundred and thirty millions, the strongest industrial power in the world, which is already making an important contribution to Great Britain’s power of resistance. The British Empire itself is a far greater asset, a much richer reservoir of men and materials, than it was in the days of the Pitts.

Strategic minerals, fuels, and fats are much more important for Hitler than for Napoleon, because modern warfare is so highly industrialized. And here Great Britain, so long as it retains command of the seas, possesses a definite advantage in potential resources which are being gradually brought into play, although Hitler has converted a much larger portion of his more limited resources into actual war material.


After the fall of Napoleon a century elapsed before a power appeared, in Germany, strong enough to try to unite Europe by force. Yet the idea of European unity was not altogether lost. The Holy Alliance was an attempt to substitute federation, on a reactionary basis, for domination by a single power. It broke down, as coalitions usually do, when the shock and panic of the Napoleonic spectre had subsided and the maintenance of the status quo, the ideal of the Holy Alliance, had proved to be impracticable.

At the other extreme from Metternich, the soul of the Holy Alliance, was the Italian revolutionary and dreamer, Mazzini. To Metternich’s project of European solidarity, expressed in a league of absolute monarchs, Mazzini opposed the ideal of a federation of free European peoples. Neither of these aims was realized. Nationalism proved stronger as a force for division than as a force for union. Such cultural solidarity as Europe possessed during the nineteenth century received a terrific blow in the World War and its aftermath, the totalitarian revolutions in Russia, Italy, and Germany.

Yet even after the war the Pan-European ideal continued to appear in the most varied places. It was a favorite idea of the recently murdered revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. One of the curiosities which I turned up during research in the historical records of the Russian Revolution was a speech which Trotsky delivered to an audience of gaping peasant soldiers of the newly organized Red Army in the provincial town of Balashov during the Russian civil war. Trotsky envisaged revolutionary Germany joining hands with revolutionary Russia, then a Communist United States of Europe, which would finally send out an invincible armada to subdue the last stronghold of capitalism in the United States.

The most persistent and persuasive advocate of a liberal, non-revolutionary Pan-Europe during the post-war years was Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi. Europe, he maintained, must federate or perish. As a group of twenty-six sovereign states, divided by political feuds and separated by customs barriers, it could not, he believed, resist the military pressure or the economic competition of such huge units as the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire.

During the liberal twenties some eminent statesmen, both in France and in Germany, expressed platonic sympathy with the Pan-European idea. But the drive behind the movement was not strong enough to overcome the powerful opposing forces: national hates and rivalries, the protected vested interests which would stand to lose in the event of the creation of a European customs union, the formidable inertia which blocks the way to such a radical change in political thinking and habits. Pan-Europe, on the basis of voluntary federation, never got beyond the debating-society stage.

Side by side with Coudenhove-Kalergi’s paper scheme there was the functioning international organization of the League of Nations. But it failed to supply the need for European federation. It included Asiatic and South American powers which had no direct concern with European affairs. The League, even in its most favorable period, suffered greatly from the absence of Russia, from the unhealed breach between France and Germany, from the abstention of America. The absence of the United States made it impossible to take up realistically the interrelated problems of war debts, reparations, and tariff barriers which aggravated so seriously the great crisis of 1929. This crisis in turn promoted the rise of Hitler and ended the last hopes of voluntary European federation.

Now twelve of the twenty-six states which existed in Europe before Hitler began his career of conquest have been destroyed. Several others live only on sufferance and might disappear almost overnight as a result of the thrust of a few armored divisions. Hitler is effectively sovereign (for Mussolini is distinctly the junior partner in the Axis) in an area which exceeds that of the Napoleonic Empire. He is the ruler of the expanse of territory which Coudenhove-Kalergi conceived as Pan-Europe, from which the Soviet Union was to be excluded. Even in countries where the German armies are not in physical occupation, Hitler’s fiat is law. He can change Balkan boundaries at a moment’s notice in the true Napoleonic style.


What can Hitler do with this new empire, which is larger than the MittelEuropa of Pan-German dreams before the first World War? Given a stalemate in the military struggle, — German inability to conquer England, British inability to break Hitler’s grip on the continent, — could a forcibly unified Europe, under German hegemony, become a going concern? Could there even be a rise in living standards to a point where the non-German people would forget their lost liberty?

From a cold-blooded engineering standpoint, putting aside the important sentimental and ethical considerations, there would be certain technical and economic advantages in a consolidation of Europe under German industrial leadership, under conditions of world peace and normal access to overseas markets. I have italicized the qualifying phrase because, as I shall presently show, it is of decisive importance. And one must add the further reservation that, unless there were a complete reversal of the Nazi attitude toward other peoples, the benefits of the new European order would accrue exclusively to Germany. There would be no cement for the scheme except force.

Germany is the most populous country in Europe, excluding Eurasian Russia. It is also the most advanced in industry and in the practical application of science. The skill of its workmen, the painstaking industry of its salesmen, the achievements of its scientific laboratories, are proverbial. The fall of many customs barriers, the inclusion of tens of millions of new producers and new customers within a single unit, would tend to expand and cheapen production.

German engineers and experts in agriculture and forestry could do a good deal in mopping up Europe’s untidy Balkan back yard. Bridges, factories, railways, and roads could be built; new crops could be introduced, and the yield of old ones increased. Such natural resources as Rumanian oil and timber and Yugoslavian copper and lead and bauxite could be more scientifically and efficiently exploited. There could be a more specialized division of production and markets between Germany’s own industries and those of small countries with highly developed industries, such as Switzerland and Sweden, the Netherlands and Belgium. The natural economic alliance between Ruhr coal and Lorraine iron would be strengthened by the disappearance of customs barriers. French and Spanish agriculture, in a Pan-European scheme, would represent a natural complement to German industry.

In brief, a Europe organized under German economic leadership could be a more productive economic unit, a richer market, and a stronger competitor in world trade than the Europe of twenty-six states, big and small, which came into being after 1918. But this Europe today is physically one of the most miserable regions in the world.

France, through all vicissitudes hitherto the home of good food, is already cold and hungry and may soon be starving. The little countries with the formerly high standards of living, Denmark and Holland and Switzerland, are being subjected to privations and rationing. Very serious is the plight of Norway and Belgium, always dependent for many of their foodstuffs on overseas trade and shipping. Meatless days have become familiar in the Balkans, which, whatever else they lacked, always produced an abundance of cheap food. For Germany itself the immediate fruit of victory is a standard of living below anything known under the much abused Weimar Republic, even below that of Americans on relief, as regards quantity and quality of food and clothing.

The destruction directly attributable to war furnishes only part, and not the most important part, of the explanation of Europe’s disastrous decline in physical well-being. Europe is on grimly short rations not because of the devastation associated with Hitler’s successive Blitzkriegs in the east, in the north, and in the west, but because it is not a workable economic unit. Hitler’s present empire is hopelessly lopsided economically, oversupplied with men and machines, undersupplied with foodstuffs and essential raw materials. The part of Europe that is under Axis domination has more than double the population with less than half the area of the United States. What is still more important, its natural resources are much inferior to those of the United States.

Europe is a reasonably fertile section of the temperate zone, without deserts and jungles. But it is not self-sufficient in such basic foodstuffs as meat and fats and cereals.1 And it is completely or largely deficient in a long list of tropical and semitropical products — in cotton, rubber, and tin, in tea and coffee, cocoa, and vegetable oils. It is very inadequately supplied with oil, with the minor and shrinking Rumanian fields and the negligible deposits in Galicia and Albania as its sole sources of natural oil. Well provided with coal and iron, the European continent (excluding Russia) is lacking in such important subsidiary metals as manganese and nickel, tungsten and antimony. Europe has been able to prosper and to support a greatly increased population during the last century by means of overseas trade and colonial development. No improvement in distribution, no chemical ingenuity can give to an isolated and blockaded Europe the possibility of a tolerable standard of living.

So, apart from the question whether tanks and airplanes and the Gestapo can permanently extinguish the nationalist feelings of Frenchmen and Norwegians, Poles and Czechs, Danes and Dutch, it is impossible for Nazi Germany to settle down and look forward to a profitable development of its conquests. Hitler must either get much more or lose everything he has.


What will be the place of France in the Europe of the future? Only by an extraordinary stroke of luck can it be more than a secondary one. The swift collapse in May and June brought home with cruel vividness to the French people themselves and to the whole world something which only a few observers had suspected: that France is no longer the realm of Richelieu, of Louis XIV, of Napoleon, no longer Europe’s greatest power. The causes of France’s disastrous decline in relative strength are numerous. The birth rate has long been stationary, so that there were not enough soldiers, not enough workers, not enough farmers for the modern totalitarian war. The French genius was less adaptable than the German to modern industrial technique, at a time when this technique was all-important in terms of military power. There had been a disastrous indulgence in abortive revolutionary moods and movements just when the secular enemy across the Rhine had found a remedy for defeat and economic crisis in a brutally efficient, thoroughgoing revolution.

When I left France last June, I carried away the impression of a people so stunned and shell-shocked as to be incapable of collective positive action of any kind for a long time. I could not imagine them either rising in revolt against a foreign invader or carrying out an internal revolution of any genuine vitality. Events of the last few months have confirmed this impression.

The Pétain-Laval Government came into power as a result of the manœuvring of a few men behind the scenes in a time of unprecedented confusion, when many millions of French people were homeless fugitives, millions more were in regions under German occupation, and normal forms of political discussion had ceased to exist. It has been handicapped at every turn by the obvious German pressure, by the desperate economic problems which it has had to face.

Yet no alternative to the Vichy régime is in sight. The average Frenchman and Frenchwoman with whom I talked during the great flight from Paris to the South were full of disgust and disillusionment about everything, about the conduct of the war, about the politicians, — a favored subject of abuse, — about the Front Populaire, a convenient scapegoat. The mood was overwhelmingly negative, nihilistic. I cannot recall a person who showed positive faith in fascism, in communism, in monarchism, in anything else.

What Vichy has meant for France is a mixture of old-fashioned conservatism with diluted fascism and anti-Semitism. Behind it there is no trace of the popular enthusiasm that attended the coming into power of Mussolini and Hitler. A French fascism, should it assume coherent form (and nothing jells quickly in the chaotic atmosphere of divided France), would suffer from the handicap that proved fatal to German democracy after the World War; it would be associated in the popular mind with bitter memories of military defeat, of intense suffering, of the demands of an oppressive conqueror.

However, if Germany wins, France would have no alternative except to develop its own imitative type of fascism and assume a subordinate place in the German-organized Europe. Feelers in this direction were certainly put out during the talks between Hitler and Pétain and Laval. A final settlement has apparently been retarded, if not frustrated, by two factors. There are Pétain’s scruples against taking military action against England. And Hitler finds it difficult to reconcile Mussolini’s territorial claims at the expense of France with the need of the Vichy Government to show the French people a tolerable peace settlement as the reward of collaboration with Germany.

A clear-cut victory for England would be a great stroke of luck for France, just as the Allied victory over Germany in 1918 was a great stroke of luck for Russia, making possible the annulment without risk of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. France would almost automatically regain its previous territorial frontier, if not something better. There would be a good many French Vicars of Bray in such an event, men who were anti-war until September 1939, pro-war from September until June 1940, anti-war, anti-British, and anti-Semitic while Germany seemed to be the winner, and who would turn pro-British and pro-democratic if there should be another reversal of the situation.

There is still another possibility for a partial French ‘comeback.’ If England halts and weakens Germany without winning a positive victory, there may be a freer play of national politics in Europe. Then there might be a chance to try out one of the favorite ideas of Pierre Laval: the creation of a Latin bloc, including France, Italy, and Spain, which would preserve a certain independence in relation both to Germany and to England. One must recognize, however, that Talleyrand at Vienna faced an easy task compared with that which now confronts the French statesman who would try to restore to his country its former place among the European powers.

The best, perhaps the only philosophy for many French men and women in this dark hour is that of an elderly French woman in whose house, in a suburb of Bordeaux, my wife and I found shelter during France’s Great Flight.

‘We try not to think in these times,’ she said. ‘We only work and pray.’

Certainly there is an immortal France that will survive all the vicissitudes of the French temporal power, a France of luminous thought, of profound and playful tolerance, of deep skepticism and equally deep and imaginative conception of religious faith. In this immortal France, with its rich and varied strands of national culture, in the France of Notre-Dame and Chartres and the bookstalls of the Seine, of Voltaire and Anatole France, Molière and Montesquieu, Montaigne and Pascal, Renan and Balzac, many Frenchmen now find their surest sanctuary and refuge.


The fundamental unchangeable economic fact that is governing all Hitler’s actions today is that Europe, in order to breathe and live, must have either free access to t he foodstuffs and raw materials of Asia and Africa and the Americas or, at the very least, a substantial Lebensraum outside its own limits. So Hitler cannot stop. To do so, despite conquests that look large on the map, would be to admit defeat, to expose the Third Reich to the same fate as its predecessor: downfall through exhaustion and the slow strangulation of the blockade.

Broadly speaking, there are four means by which the German dictator may hope to extricate himself from the prison of his own conquests. The most attractive and the most decisive would be a knockout blow against the British Isles. With the fall of the directing centre in London, the British blockade could not be maintained with its present efficiency, even if there were an effort to continue the war from bases in Canada, India, and the Far East. Wavering countries all over the world, from Tokyo to Madrid, would come down on the German side of the fence. The Americas would most probably be safe against direct attack, but numerous fragments of the British and French colonial empires would fall into Hitler’s hands, and his Germanized Pan-Europe would obtain its indispensable appendage of foreign sources of food and raw materials.

If the knockout blow cannot be delivered, Hitler has three other visible alternatives. One which is already being tentatively tried out, with the Italian invasion of Egypt, the attack on Greece, and German diplomatic pressure on Bulgaria and Turkey, is a thrust into the Near East. This would be an attempt to break the important link in the blockade represented by Suez and the Eastern Mediterranean. Should the attempt be successful, the Axis would enrich itself with cotton from Egypt and oil from Irak, and the chances of effective coöperation with Japan would be enhanced.

Another means of covering Europe’s deficit in food and raw materials would be to subjugate the Soviet Union. This vast Eurasian realm is a natural reservoir of primary products for thickly settled, industrial Europe. Before the establishment of the Soviet régime, Russia was the granary of Europe. There is an abundance of iron and coal in Ukraina, Siberia, and the Urals, of oil and manganese in the Caucasus, of copper, lead, and zinc in Siberia and Central Asia, of cotton in Turkestan.

Theoretically, of course, Germany might obtain much of what it requires from Russia by means of trade. And it is not unlikely that Molotov’s recent talk with Hitler in Berlin was partly concerned with such a possibility. But in actual practice the inefficiency of the Soviet system of production is a formidable handicap to the building up of a significant export surplus in Russia for the use of Germany or any other power. While the pact with Stalin was a military and political success of the first order for Hitler, its economic fruits, according to the best available information, have been very scanty.

Only a complete German control of the Soviet economy, with German engineers and technicians directing the industries and the transportation system (this method was used with good effect in Franco’s territory during the Spanish civil war), would realize substantial food and raw-material dividends from Russia. If this situation could be established with little force, or with a mere show of force, it would give Hitler a second means of breaking out of the prison of his conquests.

A third means would be a drive against Gibraltar with a view to breaking the blockade at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, opening up a route to Central and Western Africa, and perhaps making possible some blockaderunning to the countries of South America.

Whatever may be the course of the war, Europe’s ultimate alternative would seem to be union in some form or chaos. If Hitler wins, Europe will obviously be compulsorily united and welded into a German-dominated economic bloc which will also take in such colonial spoils as may be acquired in Asia and Africa. And if England wins, the pre-war system of unrestricted national sovereignty, while it may be respected in form, will scarcely be restored in substance.

Mr. Churchill has recently expressed the opinion that a period of desperate struggle for survival is not suitable for the publication of a blueprint of the world as it will be after the end of the war. Certainly one cannot foresee what shifts may take place before the conclusion of peace, even what the final line-up of the contending powers may be. But if Great Britain should come out victorious after such a narrow escape from destruction, there will not be, one imagines, a repetition of the negligence and the apathy which characterized the two decades of twilight zone between war and peace that followed Versailles. Great Britain and whatever allies it may possess at the conclusion of hostilities will probably organize a close military league, largely based on superiority in air power, for the purpose of guaranteeing peace in the future. Small states will not be permitted to remain aloof from this arrangement and to imperil the common security by their weakness. The day of the unrestricted sovereignty of the small state has passed — one of the many casualties of the mechanization that has so vastly diminished the elements of time and space and given the strong still greater advantages as against the weak.

Economic union will almost certainly go hand in hand with political and military union. Great Britain, like Germany, given the premise of victory, can efficiently take the lead in organizing an economic Pan-Europe. The minds of progressive British economic and social experts of various schools of thought have been working in the direction of greater international regulation of capital investment and distribution of raw materials for a generation. There will be the strongest reasons for desiring a realization of the productive advantages of a closer European economic union. England will desperately need a revival of normal trade and industry as a means of meeting the post-war crisis of demobilization of men and war machines.

There is indeed one alternative to the post-war union of Europe under either British or German hegemony. This is a lapse into sheer chaos, into the condition of social dissolution that prevailed not only in Russia, but in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe after the end of the first World War. This is the stake for which Stalin was playing when he did everything in his power to promote war between the other European powers through the inspired campaigns of his subsidized Communist parties in foreign countries and then quickly bowed himself out of the conflict by concluding his non-aggression pact with Hitler. The longer and more destructive the war, the greater the possibility that chaos will prevail over any kind of order when it is ended.

  1. Europe normally imports 4,000,000 tons of wheat and rye, 5,500,000 tons of oats, barley, and corn, 1,342,000 tons of fats, and 327,000 tons of sugar. — AUTHOR