Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich.
Penguin Books, 2003,
2004, 2005. 0143034693.
xxxiv + 622 pp.
This is the first volume of a planned three-volume history of the Third Reich.
(The second volume, The
Third Reich in Power, has just been published). Like many historians,
especially historians of the Third Reich, the author begins with a preface that compares
his work to others in the field and argues why a new work in this area is necessary.
I think his arguments are quite reasonable. Shirer's popular
Rise and Fall
of the Third Reich shows that its author was a journalist, not a
historian. Many of the books written by professional historians, on the other hand,
are either too academic in style or too narrowly focused.
Then there's Kershaw's recent
two-volume biography of Hitler,
which is a fine work, but focuses (understandably enough) on Hitler himself, leaving some
other aspects of Nazi Germany less thoroughly covered.
Third Reich: A New History covers some topics more thoroughly than others,
and the author is sometimes too preoccupied with condemning Nazi Germany rather
than describing it. I very much agree with this latter comment, as it has already
annoyed me when I was reading Burleigh's book: there is a vaguely and annoyingly
pompous undercurrent in it, the author spews forth obscure words as if he had just swallowed
a dictionary, and one can't help feeling that the book was written by a self-satisfied and
conservative don who considers himself, as well as the ideas he believes in, to be
quite clearly superior to pretty much everything else, while things he disagrees with
are not to be argued against, let alone refuted, but merely brushed aside with a passing
insult. His closing sentences are a truly disgusting statement of bourgeois conservatism:
“There are no ‘quick-fix’ leaps to happiness, even assuming that
that is a desirable objective [...] The regimes established by what have been called
‘armed bohemians’ produced nothing of any lasting moment. Their leaders
embodies the negation of everything worthwhile about being human; their followers
demeaned and shamed themselves. [...] the more pragmatic ambitions, the talk of
taxes, markets, education, health and welfare, evident in the political cultures of
Europe and North America, consistute progress [...] Our lives may be more boring than
those who lived in apocalyptic times, but being bored is greatly preferable to
being prematurely dead because of some idological fantasy.” That's right, kids!
Keep your noses to the grindstone! We quite evidently live in the best of all possible worlds!
Excuse me for a moment, I think I've got to throw up. And here's a notable harangue
from ch. 3, sec. 3: “[Hitler's] claim to being an artist-revolutionary
depended upon a contrast with the complacent, hypocritical and satiated bourgeoisie,
a clichéd conceit of the alienated, which spares them the effort of
understanding decency, dignity, propriety, self-restraint and the non-apocalyptic
virtues of a contented life.” Truly the
Samuel Johnson prize
could not have been given to a more appropriate recipient.
Anyhow, Burleigh was a good read, but an annoying one as well.
Evans is much better from this point of view; much more calm and patient,
he doesn't waste his time on pointless fulminations, nor intimidate the
reader with ostentatious diction. I very much agree with his comment on p. xx:
“it seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in
the luxury of moral judgment. For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another,
it is arrogant and presumptuous.”
I think it's a great
idea to aim for three volumes — it gives the author enough space to
discuss things at length, to go into details, to explain enough background,
to cite illustrative anecdotes, etc. The book begins with an interesting
chapter on the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine periods; Bismarck left in the public
memory an appealing image of a strong leader;
Pan-German associations began calling for a more aggressive foreign policy;
various ideologies (anti-Semitism,
racism, social Darwinism, eugenics, etc.) were spreading in
the Wilhelmine period that would later become an inspiration to Nazism.
The end of the WW1 brought a widespread surprise at the supposed harshness
of the Versailles peace terms, and the public eagerly embraced the myth
(encouraged by the army) that the defeat was due to the army having been
“stabbed in the back by its enemies at home” (p. 61).
Inspired by the supposed spirit of camaraderie and self-sacrifice of the front generation,
many who were too young to fight in WW1 would later join various paramilitary
formations in the post-WW1 period (p. 69).
The fall of the Weimar democracy is a melancholy story. Basically it fell
because it had so few supporters left, especially among the influential parts of
society. The army wanted a more authoritarian country; so did the conservatives,
including president Hindenburg (some even wanted the monarchy to be reintroduced);
the big industrialists wanted to suppress the labour movement and the trade unions;
the communists considered the Weimar republic to be a bourgeois thing and wanted
to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat instead;
and the Nazis, of course, wanted to demolish the republic so that they could take over
the power into their own hands (they offered few concrete policy proposals except
vague ideas of national re-unification and regeneration, but that was quite enough
to gain them the votes of many disaffected people (especially among the middle classes, p. 265)
in the years of the big economic crisis; indeed for some the lack of a programme
was a distinct plus, p. 324). Many important institutions, such as the
army and the civil service, felt loyal to an abstract notion of a German Reich,
rather than specifically to the Weimar republic (pp. 100–2, 135).
Only the social democrats and the Catholic
centre party were consistent in their support for the Weimar system even in the early 1930s;
and by then, this was not enough to preserve it. The fact that democracy is a frail
thing is well known, and there are several examples of that already from ancient history;
but the fall of the Weimar republic is perhaps the best illustration of this fact altogether.
In fact on reading this book (as well as when I had been reading Kershaw's biography
of Hitler) I was surprised by how many occasions there were when only a slight
difference in the course of events could mean that the Nazis would never have come
to power at all and all the horrors of the Third Reich would have been avoided.
If only Hindenburg, Papen and their ilk had been a little more patient with democracy,
a little more willing to cooperate with the parliament, with the Social Democrats,
they might have been a little less keen to install Hitler as chancellor, and in a
year or two, as the economy would begin to recover, the support of the Nazi party
would begin to decline (pp. 295, 305).
Perhaps one of the important weaknesses of the Weimar republic was the
fact that the president could assume considerable powers in emergency situations,
and could even be used by a government to bypass the parliament and rule by decree.
Its use in the 1920s (pp. 80–1) formed a precedent that could later
be drawn upon by von Papen's government, and then of course by the Nazis as well.
This confirms me in my belief that under absolutely no conditions, no matter how
great the supposed national emergency is, should anyone be allowed to assume
dictatorial powers. Consider the Romans, for example; they meant well, and limited
their dictators to a term of six months; but eventually Caesar came along and forced
the senate to grant him a ten-year tenure.
And just now, under the pretext that this is necessary to combat the threat of
terrorism, the Britons are extending the amount of time that a person can be
imprisoned without being accused of anything — I hear they are extending it to
28 days, and came very close to extending it to 90 instead. Can there be a better
recipe for dictatorship than that? Needless to say, on the ninetieth day you say
“oh well, looks like he was innocent”, and have a couple of policemen
catch him as he exits the prison gates, and then you lock him up for the next 90 days
again, and so on. Surely everybody must realize that this is how it will be done?
It's the oldest trick in the book. Every totalitarian regime has done it that way.
Lawmaking should always work from the assumption that, whenever even the slightest
possbility exists that power might be abused in some situation, it can be safely
assumed that it will indeed be abused — at the largest scale possible, and then some.
Of course, another big factor in the downfall of the Weimar republic were its economic
difficulties. Unemployment grew “under the twin impacts of rationalization
and generational population growth” (p. 114), and the bargaining power of
workers in their negotiations with employers consequently decreased; together with
the great economic crisis after 1929, this led to the dismantling of the Weimar welfare
state (pp. 140–2, 254), pushed many people into poverty, drove them into the arms of extremist political
parties, and encouraged the growth of political violence in the streets.
In 1934, Theodore Abel, a U.S. sociologist, asked people who had joined the Nazis before
1933 to describe their motivation for joining and committing to the Party. The
resulting collection of essays shows that, for ordinary party activists, “the most important aspect of
the Nazi ideology was its emphasis on social solidarity — the concept of the
organic racial community of all Germans — followed at some distance by extreme
nationalism and the cult of Hitler. Antisemitism [...] was of significance only to a
minority [...] The younger they were, the less important ideology was at all” (p. 218).
Many just wanted to belong to something and to have an excuse for brawling in the streets (p. 221).
An important factor in the success of the Nazis was the strong commitment of many
ordinary party members. Their willingness to contribute money or unpaid work
made it possible for the party to keep campaigning despite its lack of support from
big business, trade unions, or foreign aid (such as the Communists had from the Soviet Union) (p. 224).
There is an interesting discussion of the weaknessess of the German Communist Party
on pp. 241–3. The party was so firm in its rejection of the Weimar system
and in its optimistic expectation of the imminent downfall of capitalism
that it could not even cooperate with the Social Democrats, nor was it able to
realize how dangerous a Nazi ascent to power would be; it was also plagued by lack
of money; many people left the party after having been members for only a few months.
The early 1930s saw an increase in political violence both on the streets and
in the propaganda. Posters of many parties featured pictures of a ‘giant
worker’ pushing their competitors aside (p. 291 and Plate 19).
To make the Nazi party more appealing to the respectable middle classes who were turned off
by the street violence of the SA brownshirts, the party leaders would limit themselves
to violent but vague rhetoric, while the lower echelons of the party got used to reading
between the lines and translated this vague rhetoric into specific violent actions (pp. 230, 337).
They also tuned down their antisemitism when addressing middle- or upper-class audiences (pp. 245–6).
And more generally, the Nazis were deft at adapting their message to different target
audiences (p. 257). Even when Hitler became chancellor, the Nazis organised,
to temporarily reassure their conservative coalition partners,
a special inauguration ceremony that strongly invoked the traditions of Prussia and
the Wilhelmine Reich, and showed plenty of deference to Hindenburg (p. 350).
Of course, the Nazis employed a much different tone as little as two days later,
when the Enabling Act was being passed in the parliament (p. 351).
After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, matters proceeded with an impressive speed.
The Nazis used a very effective combination of laws (e.g. the Reichtag fire decree, p. 333,
and later the Enabling Act, p. 351), illegal political manoeuvres (p. 453),
and violence (beating up political opponents, etc.;
the SA were enlisted as ‘auxiliary police’; p. 341);
the result was “a regime whose extreme ruthlessness and
total disregard for the law were difficult for decent, law-abiding democrats to grasp” (p. 361).
Besides, the fact that law seemed to be on their side ensured the cooperation
of conservatives, civil servants, etc. (p. 452).
(At the same time, there is no doubt that the Nazis' “contempt for the
law, and for formal processes of justice, was palpable, and made plain on innumerable ocasions”;
From February to July 1933, they suppressed first the communists, then the social democrats, then the Catholic Centre party
(p. 365), and finally the right-wing parties, including the Nazis' coalition partners the Nationalists (p. 372).
Another thing that helped the Nazis was that the police,
the courts (p. 336), the civil service, etc. all tended to lean towards the right,
and were there quite keen to suppress the left-wing parties. Coordination (Gleichschaltung) of other
aspects of the society, e.g. health care (pp. 376–7), the law (pp. 431–2),
the civil service (p. 382), and numerous other institutions and associations (pp. 385, 389),
also took place in the spring and summer 1933.
Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry was established in March and led the coordination of the
media and the arts (p. 396), orchestras (pp. 399–401; persecution of jazz music,
pp. 402–3), cabarets (p. 403), movies (pp. 405–6), radio
(p. 407), newspapers (p. 408; “Germany had more daily newspapers than
Britain, France and Italy combined, and many more magazines and periodicals of every conceivable
type”), literature (pp. 410–411), abstract painting (pp. 413–6),
the universities (pp. 420–6; Heidegger's pro-Nazi enthusiasm is well known;
interestingly, an important role in the coordination of universities was played by
zealously pro-Nazi student associations, pp. 426–7: it was they who organized
the notorious book-burning in May 1933). The first anti-Semitic laws were introduced in April
Despite all the crackdown on the left-wing parties after Hitler became chancellor,
they still won quite a lot of seats in the parliament at the 1933 elections.
Thus, to be able to pass the Enabling Act, the Nazis had to resort to such blatantly
illegal manoeuvres as declaring that the (absent) Communist representatives were
not members of the parliament at all (pp. 351–2).
The first concentration camp was opened at Dachau in March 1933. It was not just
“an improvised solution to an unexpected problem of overcrowding in the gaols,
but a long-planned measure that the Nazis had envisaged virtually from the very beginning”
This is slightly different from the impression I received from
but now after rereading that passage in his book I think I must have misinterpreted it somewhat
(“The earliest camps were ad hoc affairs, set up by local Party
bosses the police and the SA, whose object was to concentrate prisoners too
numerous for the regular penal system, which was too rule-bound to be an effective
form of terror”, ch. 2, sec. 4, pp. 198–9).
The book ends with a splendid conclusion (the last part of ch. 6, pp. 441–61).
There is an interesting what-if scenario on pp. 442–3; Evans says that
by the time Papen took over the government, the democratic institutions had become so
weak that the only realistic possibilities were a Nazi takeover of power or a military
coup; he then goes on to speculate on how things might have continued if such a coup
had actually taken place.
During the hyperinflation of 1923: “Pilfering in the Hamburg docks,
where workers had traditionally helped themselves to a portion of the cargoes
they were paid to load and unload, reached unprecedented levels. Workers were said to be refusing to load
some goods on the grounds that they could not use any of them.” (P. 110.)
During 1919, a Soviet-style “Bavarian Council Republic” was briefly
proclaimed in Munich, led by a “ ‘regime of coffee-house anarchists’ ”.
Their pleasantly bizarre ideas are described on p. 158.
I have read in Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler that his party number was not 7
as is sometimes claimed, but actually 555 (there was even a photo of his membership card).
Here, however, there is the additional
interesting fact: like many parties, the NSDAP started numbering their members at 501
to give the impression that the party is larger than it really was (p. 170).
So he was actually the 55th rather than the 555th member.
Hans Frank (later well-known as
the governor of German-occupied Poland) was a lawyer and often defended his fellow Nazis in courts
in the years before 1933. “Soon after he
defended some Nazi thugs in court for the first time, a senior laywer who had been one of his
teachers said: ‘I beg you to leave these people alone! No good will come of it!
Political movements that begin in the criminal courts will end in the criminal courts!’ ”
(P. 179.) What a prophetic sentence!
Another fascinating anecdote involving Frank is on p. 454. Although the
Nazis tried to cover their actions during the seizure of power by “a legalistic
fig-leaf” (p. 452), much of the violence employed e.g. by the SA or SS against
supporters of the left-wing parties was plainly and flagrantly illegal. Therefore,
many of these Nazis were prosecuted by the state prosecutors throughout 1933 (p. 454).
“The Bavarian Justice Minister who tried to prosecute acts of torture in
Dachau in 1933, for example, was none other than Hans Frank”! However, these
legal initiatives came to nothing and were blocked by Nazi leaders such as Himmler or
Hitler (p. 454).
An observation by one of the onlookers of the torchlight procession organized by
the Nazis in Berlin when Hitler became chancellor:
“ ‘you see the con trick. They're constantly marching round in a circle
as if there were a hundred thousand of them.’ ” (P. 310.)
Another well-known anecdote regarding this procession is that
it from his presidential residence, thought (he was 85 by then and was occasionally
drifting into senility) that it was the WW1 again: “Ludendorff,
how well your men are marching, and what a lot of prisoners they've taken!”
(P. 311; and Ludendorff was not even there at the time.) Evans' authority for this anecdote
is John W. Wheeler-Bennet's
1936 book, Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan, p. 435.
The well-known statement usually attributed to Göring, “When I heard the
word culture, I reach for my gun!” is apocryphal and is actually based on a sentence
from Hanns Johst's play Schlageter: “When I hear ‘culture’, I
release the safety catch of my Browning!” (P. 418.)
Unlike most of the books about the Third Reich that I've read so far, the author
purposedly avoids using German terms if they can be translated into English.
Thus Hitler is ‘Leader’, not ‘Führer’, his
book is My Struggle, not Mein Kampf;
‘Stahlhelm’ is always ‘Steel Helmets’, etc.;
even ‘Heil Hitler’ is scrupulously translated as ‘Hail Hitler’ (p. 212).
When a term occurs
for the first time, the German form is also provided, but after that it's always
just in English. “One of the purposes of this translation is to allow
English-speaking readers to gain a feeling for what these things actually meant; they
were not mere titles or words, but carried a heavy ideological baggage with them.”
(P. xxxii.) I think it's an interesting idea. My understanding of German
is poor, but nevertheless good enough that I can usually make sense of WW2-related
terms I find in books even if they aren't explicitly explained; but now that I think
about it, I can imagine that readers who never learnt any German whatsoever really
might find such German words opaque: “although everyone is familiar with the
title of Hitler's book Mein Kampf, few probably know that it means
My Struggle unless they know German.” (Ibid.)
The book also has an interesting section of plates. It ends with a curious 1933
propaganda postcard featuring Frederick the Great, Bismarck, and Hitler.
The curious thing is the expression on Frederick's face: eyes wide open,
he seems (in hindsight) to be saying, in shock and surprise, ‘my god,
what are these madmen doing to my country?’
Anyway, to conclude this meandering post, this is a very fine book, thorough,
pleasant to read, well documented, generous both with anecdotes and with analysis,
and I'm certainly looking forward to reading the second and third part of
Evans' trilogy on the history of the Third Reich.
Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius: War
Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity and German Occupation in World War I (Cambridge, 2000).
Cited by Evans on p. 284: “Wilhelm von Gayl [...] had helped to create a racist,
authoritarian, military state in the area ceded to Germany by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.”
I have long found the Brest-Litovsk treaty
a most fascinating document. Russia had long been in retreat on the Eastern front, and
after the October revolution the Bolsheviks were in a hurry to withdraw from the war
altogether in order to focus on consolidating their grip on power in Russia. Therefore the
Germans were in a position to drive a hard bargain indeed; Russia would have lost huge tracts of land
by that treaty, and Germany would have become vastly more powerful in Eastern Europe.
The treaty was signed
in March 1918, but in November 1918 Germany lost WW1 in the west; the entente powers of course
wanted a weaker Germany, not a stronger one, and so declared the Brest-Litovsk treaty void
(see e.g. §433 of the Versailles treaty).
Anyway, in that period between March and November 1918, some of the first steps towards
implementing the Brest-Litovsk treaty must obviously have already been taken, and I am
terribly curious to find out what they were; what had already been done, and what was
being planned. The German war aims in the East grew during WW1 until they were scarcely
less ambitious than Hitler's during WW2.
John Wheeler-Bennett's book Hindenburg: The Wooden Titan (London, 1936)
has already been mentioned above. I'm not terribly interested in Hindenburg anyway,
but in Wheeler-Bennett's Wikipedia page
I found that he also wrote a book about Brest-Litovsk:
Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace, March 1918 (1938).
Melita Maschmann: Account Rendered: A Dossier on my Former Self. London, 1964.
Memoirs of a former “serious and idealistic young middle-class Nazi” (p. 225).