The twists and turns that begot a monster

The Coming of the Third Reich

April 2, 2004

It seems astonishing that, among the tens of thousands of books devoted to the history of Nazi Germany, we have no satisfactory recent general account of the Third Reich. No one can claim that the demand does not exist.

William Shirer's famous Rise and Fall of the Third Reich , for all its flaws, has not been out of print since it was first published in 1959. The recent attempt by Michael Burleigh to offer a "new history" of the Third Reich, for all its merits, leaves important themes out of the frame. Jeremy Noakes' massive annotated collection of documents on Nazism, while effectively presenting a history of Nazi Germany, in essence serves a different purpose and comes in a very different format. And Ian Kershaw's widely praised study of Hitler is a biography of the dictator rather than a history of the dictatorship.

It is this rather surprising gap that Richard Evans intends to fill. Given the challenge of mastering so huge a secondary literature and taking account of the mountains of documentary evidence now available, it is an ambitious undertaking to write an accessible and comprehensive history of Nazi Germany. And no one could accuse Evans of a lack of ambition. This book is the first of a projected three-volume general history of Nazi Germany, in which he aims to do justice to all the major themes without sinking in a sea of footnotes, jargon or moralising. Does he succeed?

On two basic levels, the answer must be yes. Evans' account is both readable and knowledgeable. He writes briskly and well; he displays impressive knowledge of the literature; he charts a clear path through complicated events; he hardly puts a foot wrong; and his book is remarkably free of the minor errors that blemish so many otherwise excellent texts.

Although Evans has written his book expressly for a general rather than for an academic audience, no doubt many historians of modern Germany will refer to it as a standard account for some time to come.

The fact that most of Evans' monographs have not focused primarily on the Third Reich does not seem to have done any harm. Indeed, it may have helped to relieve him of the temptation to skew the account towards areas on which he has done specialised research and away from areas with which he might be less conversant or obsessed.

In the introductory chapters, Evans offers informed comment on the relationship between the history of Germany under Bismarck and the Kaiser, and the subsequent rise of Nazism decades later. He devotes considerable attention to anti-Semitism - from the anti-Semitic politics of the pre-1914 empire through the rising tide of anti-Semitism during the Weimar period to the central importance of anti-Semitism and "racial hygiene" for National Socialism - and yet remains resolutely critical of the one-sided account of Daniel Goldhagen, which enjoyed such popular (if not critical) acclaim a few years ago.

At the same time, Evans does not lose track of either economic or social structural themes, without subordinating his account to heavy theoretical perspectives that were the fashion a few decades ago. He is also refreshingly clear in his dismissal of the idea that Nazism was backward-looking and pre-modern (an argument that "rests on a simplistic equation of democracy with modernity").

He gives due weight to the defeat in the first world war and the chaos of the revolution and inflation that followed it, to the deep structural problems affecting the Weimar Republic even during the relatively good years of the mid-1920s, to the "culture wars" that raged in Weimar Germany, and to the compromises to the rule of law made even before the advent of the Hitler government. His account of the crisis-ridden Weimar Republic, and of the profoundly disturbed society that emerged from defeat in the first world war, is clear and compelling, and admirably sets the stage for the account of the rise of the Nazis that follows. He also deserves credit for the clarity with which he describes the complicated twists and turns that put Hitler in the driver's seat in 1933.

No less praiseworthy is the emphasis he places on the violence-soaked campaign that turned a Nazi-conservative coalition government - in which Hitler and his "party comrades" were in a distinct minority - into a Nazi dictatorship within a few months. Here, Evans grasps the key factors that drove the Nazi capture of power and "coordination" of German public life in the first six months of 1933: violence and fear. Thus, according to Evans, "society had been reduced to an anonymous and undifferentiated mass and then reconstituted in a new form in which everything was done in the name of Nazism".

While Evans is no proponent of the idea of historical inevitability, he clearly lines himself up among the pessimists with regard to the health and prospects of German democracy even during the so-called golden years of the mid-1920s. Following interpretations that have become increasingly accepted in recent years, he underscores that the rise of the Nazi movement should be regarded more as a consequence than a cause of the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Evans thus resists the temptation to put the cart before the horse, and his account of the rise of the Nazi movement and its leader begins only in the second third of the book.

In numerous places, Evans is obviously setting up themes that should loom large in the next two volumes of the planned three-volume opus. Thus, he stresses the importance of the growing conviction of so many officials in the Weimar criminal-justice and social-welfare system that the people with whom they had to deal were incorrigible largely because of an inherently degenerate character. He also takes up the theme, recently articulated so impressively by Michael Wildt, of the "generation of the unbound" - well-educated young radicals who were attracted to radical, racist nationalism in the 1920s and who two decades later committed the crimes of the century.

It is inevitable that readers may wish that more attention had been paid to one theme or another. Personally, I would like to have seen more discussion of the idea and appeal of the "people's community" ( Volksgemeinschaft ), as well as of army-Nazi relations on the ground in eastern Germany before 1933. (In Evans' account, Werner von Blomberg comes out of nowhere to become war minister in the Hitler government of January 1933.) On the whole, however, little of major significance has been left out.

That said, those familiar with the story of the rise of Nazism - and this is a story with which people are more familiar than just about any other in recent European history - will find few surprises. This is not a work that offers startlingly new insights, but rather one that faithfully and reliably assimilates a mass of secondary literature and recent research to present coherent, sober analysis. This is not to say that Evans shies away from presenting sharp judgements or that he neglects to offer interesting glimpses into the personalities who figure in this tragic and depressing story. However, on display here is his skill at selecting and presenting the salient points of research carried out by others.

Where Evans may come in for criticism is in two general areas. First - and this follows from the point made above - his book does not really offer anything new, and one might say that to justify adding yet another book to the heap of literature on the Third Reich it ought to contain some new research or insight.

Second, some may raise objections to Evans' determination to offer a work of historical narrative and analysis and not an exercise in moral judgement. The Third Reich is a subject where the temptation to write history as an exercise in morality - not only to stress the horrors of Nazism but also to lay out the moral position one should take with regard to it - is particularly great. Such is the approach taken by Burleigh, of whom Evans is quite critical (and vice versa), and it is an approach that Evans explicitly resists.

Nevertheless, Evans' own moral standpoint does make itself felt, for it is difficult to be dispassionate when describing the vicious, uncivilised, criminal behaviour of Hitler and his supporters. As Kershaw has demonstrated, it is not necessary to wear one's moral convictions on one's sleeve to demonstrate how awful the Third Reich was. The historian's duty is not in the first instance to act as moral guardian, but to present evidence and analysis, on the basis of which the reader can make moral judgements.

Evans is writing a history of the Third Reich for our times, reflecting the focus on anti-Semitism and Nazi racism that has increasingly characterised research on Nazi Germany in recent years, and he offers a reliable distillation of the interpretations generally accepted by reputable historians working in the field. If the quality of the present book can be sustained through the next two volumes, he will have to be congratulated on a major achievement.

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

The Coming of the Third Reich

Author - Richard J. Evans
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 622
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9648 X

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