Life and Death in the Third Reich

April 3, 2008

Peter Fritzsche's book is one that will undoubtedly court controversy. His aim is to show that "more Germans were Nazis" and that Germans were "more National Socialist" than has been previously accepted. Central to his argument is an analysis of the effort that Germans made to become Nazis. He investigates the appeal of Nazi ideas and the extent to which "Germans made deliberate, self-conscious and knowledgeable political choices in the Third Reich". Fritzsche examines the ways in which the German population participated in Nazism and analyses what they knew and were able to comprehend about the genocide of the Jews perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

In the first of four chapters, Fritzsche shows the extent to which Germans participated in the Nazi racial project for national renewal. He examines the appeal of the "national community", considering the impact of pageantry and public spectacles, the Heil Hitler greeting, as well as involvement in Nazi formations and voluntary organisations.

Next, Fritzsche deals with "racial grooming" and investigates Nazi aims to reformulate the nation as a racial compact and Germans' attempts to adjust to new racial identities. He explores ancestry, biology, educational camps for "Aryans", racial propaganda, anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic policies in the period up to the outbreak of the war.

The third chapter examines the war and conquest of empire by the Nazi regime. It considers the acquisition of "living space" in Poland and the policies of imperial domination, as well as the development of anti-Semitic policies and the "dynamic of unconditional destruction" that led to the Holocaust.

The final chapter examines how Germans and Jews understood the war, the Holocaust and the prospect of German defeat. Fritzsche argues that mass shootings were talked about frankly by Germans, but that knowledge of the death camps was more imprecise. He notes that the course of the war impacted on how Germans picked up and passed on knowledge of the Holocaust. Near the end of the war "many people deliberately screened out information about the Jews, the camps, and the murders". As the tide turned and as Allied bombs pounded the German home front, Germans came to see themselves as victims.

Fritzsche's use of letters and diaries adds a poignant personal dimension. These sources reveal the complexities of life in the Third Reich. Fritzsche examines the public and private thoughts of people who lived through the era, offering an insight into the way they came to terms with National Socialism. For example, he suggests that "anti-Semitism was tried on, and often it fitted". He probes the fears, reservations and desires of the German people, suggesting contradictory approaches and shifts in positions, a coming round to an acceptance of Nazism and the acquisition of new (Nazi) vocabulary.

Fritzsche argues that "mastery and jeopardy existed in a diabolical relationship with each other throughout the twelve years of the Third Reich". He shows the oppositional relationship between the life of the German nation and the destruction of its enemies.

The writing style, although undoubtedly accessible, may be considered a little too informal in places, and a concluding chapter to sum up the overall argument of the book would have been useful. These points notwithstanding, this book combines a compelling historical narrative with a thought-provoking analysis and will be of much interest to scholars in the field as well as a more general readership.

Life and Death in the Third Reich

By Peter Fritzsche
Harvard University Press
384pp
£18.95
ISBN 97806740930
Published 29 March 2008

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