Triumph of the will to war turns souls into soldiers

The Third Reich in Power
March 24, 2006

From the moment he gained power, Hitler placed the drive to battle at the heart of Nazi policies, observes Richard Bessel

Only a couple of years ago, Richard Evans published the first of his projected three-volume history of the Third Reich. Now, on schedule, the second volume has appeared: a 900-page blockbuster covering the period 1933-39 between the Nazis' capture of power and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Of the projected three volumes, this - the middle one - presents perhaps the greatest challenge. For the first, there was a self-evident narrative: the collapse of German democracy, the rise of the Nazi movement and the capture of power by Hitler. In the last, the war and the campaigns of mass murder no doubt will provide a clear narrative thread. But the path through "the Third Reich in power" - the unfolding of what was set up in the first volume, the preparations for what will be described in the third - is less immediately apparent.

Faced with this problem, Evans has made the right choice. As he states bluntly in his preface, "dominating everything was the drive to war". In all the chapters that follow, "the overriding imperative of preparing Germany and its people for a major war emerges clearly as a common thread".

At the centre of this was Hitler: "It was without question Hitler, personally, who drove Germany towards war from the moment he became Reich Chancellor." Everything that was done by the regime, from the economic recovery to the redrawing of the cultural agenda and the corrupting of the German language, was done to prepare for war.

Alongside this, a second major theme emerges: the modernity of the Nazi regime. The Third Reich, as Evans asserts, "was not a throwback to some earlier age", as many have liked to think. "Nazism did not try to turn the clock back... Here was a regime that wanted the latest machinery, the latest gadgets, the latest means of communication." The Nazi state was a forward-looking modern state that harnessed science and technology to barbarism.

These might strike some general readers as rather bold statements, and Evans likes to be bold. However, the stress on these two themes - Nazi war and Nazi modernity - is hardly news to those who have delved into the history of the Third Reich. Evans's volume does not offer startlingly new perspectives on the history of Nazi Germany. But that is not its function.

Its function is to offer a readable, reliable and comprehensive account based on a mountain of historical literature. Indeed, the book is a testimony to the quality of recently published research.

Placing the will to war at the centre of this account has implications for the treatment of that other central theme of the history of Nazi Germany, the assault on the Jews. Evans is clear: to describe the assault on the Jews merely as a "regression to barbarism" misses the point, for driving the Jews out of German social and economic life between 1933 and 1939 was also "part of a general preparation for war".

Evans does not tackle the assault on the Jews head on until the last third of the book, after analysing the building of the police state, culture, "converting the soul", the economy and society under the Nazis. Then, it is situated in a chapter on building the Nazi "racial utopia", in which policies against Gypsies, African-Germans and homosexuals are described before the spotlight is turned on the fate of the Jews. This is not to minimise the importance of Nazi racism generally or of the assault on the Jews specifically; rather, it presents the context in which this assault took place before describing the assault itself.

This volume picks up where the first left off: the point at which the Nazi dictatorship was consolidated in the summer of 1933. Once the last vestiges of democratic government were destroyed and the one-party state established, Germany could proceed down the path to war. It is appropriate therefore that Evans's account begins with the creation of the Nazi police state and the events leading up to the Night of the Long Knives.

In so many ways, this bloody purge paved the way for what was to follow: the sanctioning of murder by the head of the German Government, the dispensing with the rule of law, the collaboration with Hitler by the army leadership, the subsequent popular approval for the "decisive" way in which the Nazi leader had dealt with the "threat" allegedly posed by the Sturmabteilung's (SA's) "Chief of Staff", Ernst Rohm. The conservatives buckled under, the Army became an accomplice to murder in order to secure its role as the German state's sole bearer of arms, and the population expressed relief and approval.

One of the greatest challenges when describing the "Third Reich in power"

is how to make sense of the increasingly messy structures of the regime under Hitler. Evans does an admirable job, using (not uncritically) the concept of the "dual state" developed by Ernst Fraenkel some 65 years ago, and outlining how the confusion and arbitrariness of Nazi rule meant that the "normative" state was overwhelmed by the "prerogative" state in which Hitler's word quite literally became law. Drawing on his own research on the death penalty in Germany and on Nikolaus Wachsmann's fine study, Hitler's Prisons , Evans graphically outlines how the rule of law was dismantled by Nazis and conservative veterans in a criminal-justice system increasingly determined to root out "aliens" from the German "racial community". It is a terrifying story, well told.

The more we learn about Nazism, the more awful it appears. Relying particularly on the excellent research of Frank Bajohr, Evans exposes the mendacity, corruption and immorality of people who ran and profited from the Nazi regime. This ranged from those who profited handsomely from the "Aryanisation" of Jewish businesses and used the opportunity to shake down defenceless Jews to the political elite - including Hitler himself - who made millions out of the dictatorship. From top to bottom, Nazism brought out the worst in people.

Evans's treatment of his subject accurately reflects the changes in emphases that have characterised the study of Nazi Germany over the past few years. Not too long ago, a fascination with the history of "everyday life" tended to underscore the degree of popular consent and support for the Nazi regime; more recently, however, the pendulum clearly has swung towards a focus on fear and coercion. Where the "banality" and opportunism of the Fuhrer's servants once were emphasised, attention has focused more recently on their ideological commitment. Where historians once earnestly discussed whether the Third Reich represented a "primacy of economics" or a "primacy of politics", economic interests now are viewed as subordinated to the drive to war.

Even when discussing the peacetime domestic policies of the Nazi regime and popular attitudes towards it, Evans is clear that the central focus was war. His treatment of the German economy under the Nazis takes issue with the idea that policy really was dominated by rearmament only from the mid-1930s. Referring to how firms got arms contracts almost from the moment Hitler took power, he demonstrates that war, rather than the desire to get the unemployed back to work, stood at the centre of the regime's economic policies right from the beginning.

If a criticism can be levelled at this treatment of Nazi Germany's peacetime years, it is that Evans does not give the military quite the attention it deserves. The Wehrmacht leadership appears predictably at crucial points in the rather standard narrative of "the road to war".

However, in an account that, rightly, places the drive for war at its centre, perhaps more should have been said about life in uniform, the development of German military strategy, the involvement of the military in the economic preparations for war, and the development of careers in the rapidly expanding military establishment.

That said, Evans has produced a remarkably readable and reliable account.

Judicious use of published memoirs, heavy reliance on the reports gathered by the Social Democratic underground about life in the Third Reich and illuminating sketches of prominent figures both flesh out important themes and hold the reader's interest. The book satisfies just about all the requirements of a standard text. Rarely does Evans put a foot wrong; typographical errors are few and far between. The volume is dotted with informative maps and is remarkably well produced. Other publishers should take note.

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

The Third Reich in Power

Author - Richard J. Evans
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 941
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9649 8

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


Featured jobs