Lots of eagles, two elephants and a Kitty

Dictionary of the Third Reich
February 26, 1999

This book is the reincarnation of an earlier volume published by Grafton in 1987. But while the contents have remained virtually unchanged - notwithstanding Penguin's assurance that this is a "revised" edition - the book's outward appearance and market location have undergone a complete transformation. The Grafton paperback, printed on thick rough paper, boasted glossy covers in SS-black emblazoned with gold gothic titles and the Nazi eagle astride an oak-wreathed swastika. The blurb on the back informed readers that this "indispensable reference work, the first of its kind ... will fascinate not only history students and World War II buffs, but a wide audience of general readers who want to know about the most infamous period of 20th-century history". The Penguin edition sends out very different signals. The Nazi Hoheitsabzeichen on the cover has been replaced by a John Heartfield photomontage; the paper is finer and smoother; the blurb, which is otherwise substantially based on the Grafton original, drops the reference to "buffs" and substitutes "extraordinary" for "most infamous"; it also omits the claim that Taylor and Shaw's dictionary is the "first of its kind".

This was a wise decision on Penguin's part, for this book is far from being the first of its kind. Indeed many - though by no means all - of the entries to be found in it cover the same ground as Louis L. Snyder's serviceable Encyclopaedia of the Third Reich published by Robert Hale in 1976 and recently re-issued. In any case, Penguin's editors ought really to have looked the text over a little more closely before bestowing upon it the gravitas of the Penguin Reference imprint. Had they done so, they might have tripped over some of the errors and omissions that, though of no particular concern to buffs, will disappoint or mislead those students who purchase this volume as a reference guide to the Third Reich.

Take, for example, the entry on the German general Johannes Blaskowitz. Virtually every detail in it is wrong. He was not "von" Blaskowitz as the authors claim; he did not die in 1946, but in 1948; he could not have been fighting in Russia in 1942 and 1943 because he was training troops in France at that time (even the buffs will blanch at this). He was not brought to trial for war crimes in 1946, but in 1948 (an important distinction with implications for the context and gravity of his case) and he did not commit suicide "before the verdict" (which would imply that he feared the consequences of being found guilty), but on the morning before his trial began. And, most importantly, the authors have omitted to mention the single most noteworthy episode in Blaskowitz's life and the only one that would justify his inclusion in a paperback reference volume, namely his repeated and outspoken protests to the military leadership over atrocities committed by German police units in Poland during the autumn and winter of 1939-40.

It would be unfair to suggest that this entry is altogether typical of the book; it is probably the worst, and there are certainly many patches of lucid and useful synthesis. But the carelessness exemplified here crops up throughout. We are told, for example, that Kurt Schumacher became postwar leader of the "Socialist Party" in West Germany (he was in fact a Social Democrat); Karl Lueger and Leo Baeck are misspelt Luger and Back; the entry on Hindenburg suggests that he appointed Bruning chancellor upon taking up the presidency in 1925 (rather than in 1930; the mistake is not repeated in the entry on Bruning). Walter von Reichenau did not die in a plane crash, as the authors claim, but in a plane (from the consequences of a stroke); the justice minister was Otto-Georg Thierack, not "Otto Thierach" (a possible confusion with Baldur von Schirach?); the artist was Josef Thorak, not Thorek; and an entry on the "property-owning bourgeoisie" appears under the improbable title Berlitzburgertum , the result, one assumes, of a confusion with the language school.

There are also many residual concessions to the buffs who have been airbrushed from the covers. The entry on "Madam Kitty's", a brothel run by the SD and "staffed by SS girls", though of interest in a buffish way, seems out of place in a short reference volume. Particularly mystifying is the entry entitled " Deutscher Blick (the German Glance)". The authors inform us (correctly) that this term refers to an "exaggeratedly furtive glance over the shoulder, which preceded the telling of an anti-Nazi joke or story" and add (implausibly) that it was "sometimes used as a substitute for the Heil Hitler greeting". This is surely the mistranslation of an original German text observing that Deutscher Blick was a word-play on the term Deutscher Gruss (or "German Greeting", ie "Heil Hitler").

Students who turn to the section on further reading will find lean pickings. The referencing is arbitrary in the extreme, with dates, places and publishers included or omitted at random. The only other Penguin reference text cited is mistitled as R. J. Overy's Penguin Historical Dictionary of the Third Reich (it is in fact an "Historical Atlas"). Maruta Schmidt and Gabi Dietz, editors of Frauen Unterm Hakenkreuz (1983), are unkindly listed as " Elephanten " (Elefanten is in fact the name of the Berlin publisher). The choice of texts is equally whimsical: the only book listed on the Holocaust (apart from Reitlinger's early study of 1953) is Daniel Goldhagen's problematic bestseller Hitler's Willing Executioners - a gripping read for the buffs, no doubt, but a controversial choice for the student - there is no reference to Browning, Hilberg, Steinberg et al. The sole reference on art under National Socialism is an item from the Magazine of Art dated 1945.

Readers ought therefore not to be taken in by the authoritative imprint and sleek good looks of this dictionary. As an atmospheric browser it must have enjoyed a certain commercial success (why else would Penguin have bought it?) but as a reference guide to the Third Reich it simply will not do.

Christopher Clark is a fellow, St Catharine's College, Cambridge.

Dictionary of the Third Reich

Author - James Taylor and Warren Shaw
ISBN - 0 140 51389 2
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £8.99
Pages - 341

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments