Godwin's law, the adage that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one", reflects the fact that one of the surest ways to discredit an adversary is to suggest that he or she is a Nazi.
Flickr/EU exposed. Some rights reserved. For critics of the European Union (EU), this tactic has been used for decades. When the Six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) explored plans for a common defence policy in the form of the European Defence Community in 1952, journalists in London and Moscow suggested that a “European army” involving a rearmed Germany would simply revive the Nazi war machine.
In the decade following the creation of the EU in 1993, writers expressed their anxiety that an “ever-closer union” would approximate “Hitler’s desire to establish a single political entity in the whole of Europe”. Today, Angela Merkel is considered the most powerful politician in Europe, and Germany’s economic dominance of the Eurozone precipitates familiar allegations of the EU being little more than an updated version of German plans to control the continent. The rumour that the EU is in some way a realisation of Nazi plans for Europe is certainly an enduring one. But to what extent is it correct?
The Nazi-EU argument
By 1941, the Nazis found themselves in control of Europe, to misuse de Gaulle’s phrase, “from the Atlantic to the Urals”. At the time, they developed a number of projects for the reorganisation of Europe under Nazi control. A typical example is the plan for a “European Confederation”, drafted in 1943 under Foreign Minister Ribbentrop. As John Laughland (one of the more eloquent proponents of the Nazi-EU argument) describes it, the scheme spoke of the “common destiny of European peoples”, aimed “to ensure that wars never break out among them”, and foresaw “trade based on the principle of European preference vis-à-vis non-European countries”. Such a description clearly resonates with any reader used to hearing similar phrases from the European Commission. On the surface, it would appear that there must be something to the argument that Nazi plans for Europe have quite a bit in common with today’s EU.
On closer inspection, however, the argument falls apart. The most obvious reason is that this plan for a “European Confederation” never came to anything – it remained a hypothetical project that was never put into practice. This is true of virtually all of the purportedly crypto-EU plans cooked up under various Reich officials, many of which were never endorsed by Hitler. Not only were the plans never realised, but the plans were generally not read and certainly never championed by the architects of post-war European integration. While it is interesting to muse on what Europe might have looked like had such plans been realised (indeed, this has inspired a number of pieces of speculative fiction), in reality these ideas had no influence on the post-war path Europe followed.
More substantially, the content of such plans would have to be interpreted very differently in the context of a Nazi-dominated Europe. Hitler’s “Europe” was a profoundly hegemonic construction, with Germany at the centre of an expanding empire, with all other states within that empire subservient to Germany. This was justified by muddled racial explanations and brute military superiority. Collaborators of the Reich across Europe were motivated by the desire to secure for their country an influential if still secondary role in a German Europe. References to equal partnership or a community of states were wilful misinterpretations and propaganda engineered to promote collaboration with the Reich.
Moreover, states joined “Europe” under the Nazis because they had been conquered militarily. This is a far cry from the EU (and its forerunner, the European Economic Community (EEC)), in which countries choose to apply for membership. The closest the EU gets to coercion is explaining the advantages of joining the EU – and the drawbacks of being excluded. Yet the decision to join remains entirely up to individual states. For its part, Britain, for example, decided it wanted to join the EEC and doggedly pursued membership for twelve long years before finally joining in 1973.
Moreover, the policies expressed in the aborted Nazi project can only be understood in the context of a Europe largely occupied and dominated by the Reich. Preference for intra-European trade, for example, meant trade within the lands conquered by the Nazis, which made sense for two reasons – one practical and one ideological. First, the Reich was at war with most of its neighbours and it lacked the naval power to undertake significant overseas trade, so goods were bought and exchanged within the expansive Nazi empire. Second, the Nazi economic model was founded on the basis of autarky (economic self-sufficiency), which necessitated conquest in order to secure further resources. This is a far cry from the liberal foundations of the EU.
Similarly, the stated aim that war should never break out among the countries conquered by the Reich must be placed in its proper context. This goal should not be seen as the precursor to the liberal democratic post-war peace in Western Europe, but should instead be understood in the context of empire. Just as the British Empire would aim to avoid a war between any of its colonies, so too did Germany want to avoid any uprisings or outright wars among the territories it had conquered. Indeed, the Third Reich bore more resemblance to the British Empire or even the United States (particularly in the nineteenth century) than to the EU. Both expanded their territory by displacing or subjugating the indigenous population. Hitler himself expressed admiration for the American settlement of the Wild West and the British Empire’s expansion into India, although his understanding of both was filtered through his thick ideological lens. The Nazi vision of an expanding, hierarchical empire, with power emanating from – and wealth flowing to – the metropolis sounds rather more like the British Empire than the EU.
An enduring myth
Given the profound differences between a Nazi-occupied Europe and the European Union, how do we explain the enduring appeal of this comparison?
First of all, it is a simple expression of anxiety about a thriving Germany being the strongest economic and political power in Europe. In much of southern Europe, associating Angela Merkel’s calls for unpopular austerity measures, particularly in Greece, with Nazi dictates is a convenient way to attempt to discredit the policies. Taking the historical example of German dominance of Europe under Hitler and likening it to the economic and political clout of Germany today is easy, but ultimately unhelpful. It should be remembered that European integration began as a French initiative meant in part to strengthen France’s place in the world by harnessing the German economy, thus lending greater volume to France’s voice on the international stage. The fact that Germany has displaced France as the largest economic and political force in Europe is more a testament to the flexibility of the structure of the EU.
The enduring appeal of this myth in Britain is in large part due to that fact that it plays on public perceptions of the country’s experience in the Second World War. Flickr/EU Exposed. Some rights reserved. Talk of Hitler harks back to Britain’s finest hour, when Britain, so the national narrative goes, was able to defeat the Nazis that had overrun Britain’s continental allies, thanks to the strength of Britain’s national character, its empire, and its special relationship with the US. This rhetorical flourish concludes that today Britain ought to stand outside of Europe, as it did during the Second World War, and is accompanied by appeals to the “special relationship” – and even the Commonwealth – to prop up Britain’s power.
Such proposals are anachronistic and unrealistic. While its empire and its navy once gave Britain the status of a superpower, the political reality today is that Britain’s voice on the international stage is significantly amplified by its mambership of the EU. Labelling the EU as the fruit of Nazi projects may be a roundabout way of stoking up national pride, but the actual desired outcome – opposing the EU from the outside – would be disastrous for Britain.
There are indeed many legitimate grounds for criticising the EU. The EU’s policies since the eruption of the Eurozone crisis have often lacked vision and have weakened support for the EU in many member states. There is a troubling disconnect between the seemingly distant and arcane institutions of the EU and the everyday concerns of its 500 million citizens.
Even some of the historical assertions meant to legitimise the EU are questionable – the EU’s claim to have prevented war in Europe since 1945 consciously ignores the decisive role played by the superpowers and the context of the Cold War.
Nevertheless, the suggestion that today’s EU is in any way modelled on Nazi plans for Europe, or indeed that the Nazis had any plans for the continent resembling today’s EU, is fallacious and misleading. Instead of blaming the EU’s problems on some nebulous link to a Nazi past, the debate should instead focus constructively on how to solve the existing problems facing the EU and its member states – without resorting to labelling one's opponents as Nazis.