Drifting into murderous morality

The Third Reich
March 30, 2001

Writing about Nazi Germany goes through phases and fashions. Not so long ago, theories of fascism, structural and pseudo-structural examinations of the relationship between capitalism and fascism and of class and class conflict were regarded as the way forward. But this approach proved inadequate before the principal challenge facing the historian of the Third Reich, namely, how to explain the greatest crimes committed by human beings in modern history.

In recent years, the focus of writing on Nazi Germany has shifted to these crimes, and Michael Burleigh has been one of the most important agents of this historiographical shift. His previous work, on the disreputable conduct of the German academic community under Hitler and on the Nazi racial state and euthanasia in the Third Reich, has established him as an authority on Nazi Germany and an often shrill critic of Marxist and Marxisant approaches to its history. It is fitting that he should now write a general history of his subject.

In Burleigh's words, his book is about "what happened when sections of the German elite and masses of ordinary people chose to abdicate their individual critical faculties in favour of politics based on faith, hope, hatred and sentimental collective self-regard for their own race and nation". This is a story of (abdi-cated) moral responsibility, of a successful "assault on decency" and the "moral breakdown and transformation of an advanced industrial society".

Burleigh begins his book with the first world war. In so doing, he discounts older accounts that looked for the roots of the Nazi catastrophe in longer-term structural factors. When Burleigh writes that "some vital moral threshold was crossed during the war, transforming the conduct of German politics", he may not be saying something terribly new, but he hits the nail on the head.

This book is a good read - although it could have been shortened. Burleigh revels in the clever turn of phrase and pours scorn on "historians and other contemporary commentators whose investment is often in some methodological dogma or theory rather than in the spirit of those times". His discussion of charity in the Third Reich will come as an eyeopener to many; his writing on eugenics and euthanasia is predictably excellent; he is trenchant when stressing the importance of the demise of the rule of law, without which no civilised society can function. And the material at the core of the book, on the racial war against the Jews, offers an excellent account that brings the best of recent research into a coherent narrative.

How new is Burleigh's New History ? In one sense, the answer is: not particularly. This book rests on a wide and intelligent use of a vast secondary literature by a historian clearly on top of his brief. There are no great surprises here, no major revelations, no grand theories. In his introduction, Burleigh admits that his study "is emphatically not the first time that Nazism has been studied as a form either of political religion or of totalitarianism, although it is only since the early 1990s that these approaches have once again become fashionable". Emphasising parallels between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, he regards totalitarianism as a useful concept for discussing Nazism. This may be true, but it is hardly new.

However, the treatment is new in that it skilfully presents recent research, reflects recent trends in the historiography of the Third Reich and offers many insights. Burleigh raises thoughtful doubts about whether the chaotic nature of Nazi government, emphasised by historians over the past three decades, was either so exceptional or really holds the key to the destructive power of the Third Reich. Similarly, his insistence that "Nazism was not merely aberrant or straight science run riot" is a welcome corrective to "the modern over-emphasis upon Nazi biologistic politics".

Nevertheless, Burleigh's approach raises questions. He points to the success of Nazism as a political religion that "offered intense inclusivity in a society that had been scarred by deep divisions". However, this intense inclusivity, something noted by most historians who have examined the rise of the Nazi Party, could melt away as rapidly as it coalesced. Of course, there were Nazi fanatics and lunatics who looked forward to the apocalypse, but these were the minority. The vast majority of Germans, if they "chose to abdicate their individual critical faculties in favour of politics based on faith", did so conditionally, drifting into the Nazi orbit when it seemed propitious and drifting out again when it did not. The "assault on decency" and, ultimately, the monstrous crimes committed in Germany's name were made possible not only by fanatical adherents of a new political faith but also by many otherwise unremarkable people who at various points were prepared to jump on a murderous bandwagon.

Burleigh has not written a history of the Third Reich, but a history of the criminality of the Third Reich. This determines which topics he examines in detail. Consequently, his picture of the Third Reich appears as a chamber of horrors. Certainly, it was a chamber of horrors, and an attempt to make it appear normal would trivialise it. However, an approach that focuses so resolutely on the criminality of the Nazis and their supporters, and tends to ignore daily life, runs the risk of making Nazi Germany seem almost not of our world. There is little reference to the vast literature on Alltag - everyday life -generated during the 1980s, and after reading this book, one could be forgiven for wondering whether there was such a thing as everyday life in Nazi Germany.

This is not the only absence. There is slight mention of the Nazi economy, and readers looking for a step-by-step account of Nazi foreign policy will not find it here. These absences may be understandable, as they are not central to Burleigh's main concern. Less understandable, perhaps, is the paucity of discussion of Germany's military build-up during the 1930s and of the readiness of Germany's military elites to serve their new commander-in-chief.

Of course, with such a vast and complicated subject, no author can cover everything. Even when discussing the murder of the Jews, Burleigh admits that he can offer "nothing more... than a few carefully selected routes into the continent-wide catastrophe". This is where his choice of subjects -the demise of the rule of law, eugenics and euthanasia, the racial war in Russia -makes sense.

However, just what viewing Nazism as a misplaced faith really explains remains an open question. Perhaps this is a subject that is beyond rational explanation. Burleigh's work suggests that the ultimate responsibility of the historian is to write about morality. His book exudes a strong whiff of moral superiority -something not terribly difficult to feel when discussing a "moralising little creep" such as Himmler; there is little modesty here, false or other-wise. No doubt this will attract readers who like confirmation that they are on the side of the angels. But they would do well to reflect on what Burleigh writes, for example, about the ambiguities of resistance to Nazism.

History is not simply about moral absolutes, but also about the deeply disturbing compromises that make up the lives of people struggling to survive in the most indecent of times.

Richard Bessel is professor of 20th-century history, University of York.

The Third Reich: A New History

Author - Michael Burleigh
ISBN - 0 333 64487 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - 25.00
Pages - 922

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