Fear, corruption and lies

David Cesarani on a historiographical landmark that probes Germany's crippled society of ruins

November 13, 2008

Until the 1980s, few histories of Nazi Germany and the Second World War mentioned the persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jews. Nazi ideology was treated as a smokescreen for conventional, if ruthless, diplomacy, and more ink was spilt arguing whether the war was precipitated by a crisis of German capitalism than over the reality of lebensraum and Nazi empire building.

Such views would hardly be tenable today, thanks to the many studies revealing how every aspect of Nazi domestic and external policy was shot through with racism, shaped by ideology, and driven by Hitler. Yet this transformation is so great, and the literature so vast, that few historians have managed to produce a synthesis accessible to teachers, students and general readers.

For these reasons alone, Richard Evans' three-volume history of the Third Reich represents a historiographical landmark. The Third Reich at War brings the series to a triumphant conclusion. It displays, again, Evans' mastery of the sources and his gift for weaving the latest research into a lucid narrative interspersed with crisp and sensible commentary on heated debates.

The mass murder of the Jews is a theme running through the book. While Evans charts the impact of Nazi racial policies on various groups at home and in occupied countries, he repeatedly illustrates the singularity of Nazi "Jewish policy". To Hitler, and those politicised under National Socialism, Slavs and Gypsies were contemptible, while the physically and mentally disabled were "life unworthy of life". But the Jews were behind the war and threatened the Germans with annihilation if it was lost.

Evans especially disagrees with those who interpret the annihilation of the Polish Jews as economic policy with a racist inflection. Instead he follows Jeffrey Herf and Saul Friedlander, who argue that it stemmed from the Nazi understanding of the war as a mortal struggle against the racial enemy, overriding outwardly pragmatic considerations.

However, he concurs with Adam Tooze that the German economy was unable to sustain Hitler's fantasy of world domination, even after the conquest of western Europe and no matter what "miracles" Albert Speer could perform. When the war became prolonged, the Reich had to squeeze the conquered territories for raw materials and labour, creating a self-defeating cycle of resistance and repression. Germany's allies were actually an economic liability.

Evans shows convincingly that the Allies' bombing campaign degraded civilian morale and crippled armaments production as well as diverting weapons from the land fronts. In the face of defeat, Germans now living in a "society of ruins" lost faith in Hitler and were motivated by terror: of the Gestapo, the Russians and the Jews. The Final Solution was an "open secret" that Goebbels cunningly used to bind the population to the regime. Far from being ignorant of the genocide, many Germans attributed their ultimate plight to punishment for the treatment of the Jews.

Evans places violence at the heart of Nazism. Contrary to theories attributing German excesses to the barbarisation of warfare, he argues that police units, soldiers and civilians were primed by Nazi ideology. Unit cohesion and indoctrination, rather than disintegration and demoralisation, accounted for the barbarous conduct of army units. Senior officers continued to fight, against the odds, for fear of defeat and because of the convergence between their conservative nationalism and Nazi racial imperialism.

Despite the temptations of the subject matter, Evans never preaches or hectors his readers. He prefers to let contemporary actors speak with voices of complicity, indifference or moral outrage from the pages of letters, diaries and memoirs that have been selected with an unerring eye. Readable and compelling, The Third Reich at War is a monumental accomplishment.

The Third Reich at War

By Richard J. Evans

Allen Lane, 944pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780713997422

Published 2 October 2008

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