A second rise for the Third Reich

The Third Reich - Hitler's Germany
February 25, 2000

 

In the February issue of History Today , Sean Lang surveys recent changes in A-level history and notes a trend that has become obvious to those who teach modern history in Britain: "the massive upsurge in the numbers studying the European dictatorships of the 1930s, especially the Third Reich". Such is the emphasis on and fascination with Nazi Germany that, as Lang puts it, "for many students history and Hitler are fast becoming synonymous".

This may disquiet historians teaching in universities, but it does not seem to upset publishers. For them the Third Reich offers an easy and insatiable market. Never mind whether good monographs cannot find a publisher; there must be a constant stream of new textbooks on Nazi Germany, complete with swastikas and pictures of Hitler on their covers.

So, how do these two textbooks measure up? Both are useful, predictable, and should find a ready market among students.

The first, Christian Leitz's collection of essays, presents 11 solid essays on what is now the standard catalogue of Third Reich topics from A level to special subject: rise of the Nazi Party, seizure of power, foreign policy, economy, army, working class, police, women, Hitler as dictator, resistance and the Holocaust. There are no surprises here; this is what one would expect in a reasonably up-to-date and intelligently assembled if conventional collection. The essays are of high quality, written by respected authors, and some are classics.

Not surprisingly, many of the authors number among those found in David Crew's excellent recent collection, Nazism and German Society . Certainly no student of this period should miss Ian Kershaw's reflections on the nature of the Nazi dictatorship in his essay on "Working towards the Fuhrer"; it is difficult to imagine a collection of this sort without a contribution by Richard Overy on the economy, Robert Gellately on the Gestapo, or Christopher Browning on the Holocaust; and one can only applaud the inclusion of Alf Ludtke's thought-provoking essay on "The appeal of exterminating 'Others': German workers and the limits of resistance".

Roderick Stackelberg's book on Hitler's Germany is a different kettle of fish: a predictable textbook rather than a predictable collection of essays. Stackelberg aims "to provide a brief but accurate reconstruction of the National Socialist experience from 1933 to 1945 while placing this period in a larger historical context", and this is what he delivers. Nearly half the text deals with either the pre-1933 or post-1945 periods, and students will probably like the neat division of the chapters into page-length sub-divisions on key subjects. There are no intellectual fireworks here, just a clear, well-organised if rather conventional text that covers a huge subject and assimilates a substantial literature.

Both Leitz's and Stackelberg's are solid books that will be used with profit by students in search of good grades and sold by publishers in search of good profits, secure in the knowledge that indeed "history and Hitler are fast becoming synonymous".

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

The Third Reich: The Essential Readings. First Edition

Editor - Christian Leitz
ISBN - 0 631 20699 X and 20700 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 307

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