[Crossposted from New Books in History] The term “totalitarian” is useful as it well describes the aspirations of polities such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (at least under Stalin). Yet it can also be misleading, for it suggests that totalitarian ambitions were in fact achieved. But they were not, as we can see in Catherine Epstein’s remarkably detailed, thoroughly researched, and clearly presented Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (Oxford UP, 2010).
Greiser was a totalitarian if ever there were one. He believed in the Nazi cause with his heart and soul. He wanted to create a new Germany, and indeed a new Europe dominated by Germans. As the Gauleiter of Wartheland (an area of Western Poland annexed to the Reich), he was given the opportunity to help realize the Nazi nightmare in the conquered Eastern territories. But, as Epstein shows, he was often hindered both by his own personality and the chaos that characterized Nazi occupation of the East. Grieser emerges from Epstein’s book as someone who wanted to be a “model Nazi,” but couldn’t really manage it because he was a crooked timber working in a crooked system. His personal life was an embarrassing tangle of marriages, affairs, and break-ups that at points threatened his career. His professional life was marked by ambition, ego-mania, and fawning, none of which endeared him to most of his colleagues and superiors. And his murderous attempts to “work toward the Führer” in the Wartheland–by displacing Poles, murdering Jews and other “undesirables,” and populating the East with Germans–were stymied by the cross-cutting jurisdictions, conflicting agendas, and professional jealousies that were one of the hallmarks of Nazi rule. Grieser did his best (or his worst, depending on how you look at it) to Germanize the Wartheland. He improvised, maneuvered, and “worked the system” such as it was in pursuit of the Nazi totalitarian project. Thankfully, he failed, demonstrating again that totalitarian dreams, though they can be horribly distructive, are a far reach from totalitarian realities.