Richard J. Evans. The Third Reich in Power. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. xvii + 941 pp. $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-303790-3.
Reviewed by Paul Moore (School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, University of London)
Published on H-German (February, 2007)
Rituals and Retribution
One afternoon in late June 1934, three friends from Dresden went for a drive in the surrounding countryside. Their destination, which at least two of their number were "all agog to see," was not a local beauty spot or picturesque village, but an altogether more contemporary place of interest, namely Hohnstein concentration camp. The friends consumed coffee and cream opposite the gate of "The Hell of Saxony," before driving home past a group of its inmates building a road under the watchful eyes of armed guards. The sight prompted one of the friends, a judge, to remark on the "healthy outdoor life" the forced laborers enjoyed; a second, concurring, was also moved to comment on the "absolutely ideal surroundings" with which prisoners were privileged, adding that, contrary to the impression she had been given that concentration camps were "really horrible," "certainly these prisoners have nothing to complain of." The very next day, the same woman was deeply shocked to learn that a friend of hers had been killed during the "Night of the Long Knives": "I cannot understand it. What comes next in this unhappy country?"
That such a seemingly surreal sequence of events could be possible in mid-1930s Germany is brought home effectively in this monumental book. The second part of a planned trilogy of works, this volume picks up where the preceding volume, The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), left off and will be followed by The Third Reich At War, intended to complete the story by not only covering the conflict itself but also "exploring the legacy of Nazism in Europe and the world in the rest of the twentieth century and on to the present" (p. xv). This is an ambitious project on a grand scale, and accordingly this weighty second volume has the avowed aim of telling "the story of the Third Reich from the moment when it completed its seizure of power in the summer of 1933 to the point when it plunged Europe into the Second World War" in September 1939 (p. xv). This focus is necessary: despite the profusion of books on the Third Reich, born in part of a continuing British cultural obsession with the Nazis (to the chagrin of many German observers), English-language books that look specifically and deeply into the prewar years remain very few. This shortage may occur because ending the narrative in 1939 prevents an analysis of either the Second World War or the Holocaust, the two historical facts, quite correctly, most associated with the Third Reich in the public mind. Many books cover the Third Reich in its twelve year entirety, but these inevitably cannot devote as much discussion to the first six years as a text looking specifically at 1933-39. Michael Burleigh's general history, for example, covers the prewar Third Reich in just over 250 pages.
The main body of the work is divided into seven chapters dealing with, in turn, repression and policing; propaganda and culture; religion and education; the economy; society and everyday life; anti-Semitism and racial policy; and foreign policy. As in the previous volume, the structure is thematic, with the chapters broken down into chronological subsections mixing narrative, description and analysis. It is exceptionally well-illustrated, with forty-one well-chosen pictures representing the themes of the text and twenty-two maps. Though primarily an extremely well-researched and detailed work of synthesis, an element of primary research has also been incorporated into the text and Evans makes use of both contemporary newspapers and the unpublished diaries of Hamburg schoolteacher and convinced supporter of the regime, Luise Solmitz.
The main body of the book commences, as did an earlier work by Norbert Frei, with an examination of the "Night of the Long Knives," its causes and its consequences. The Nazi crushing of opposition, both within and without, is thus dealt with in one and the same chapter, the first, albeit within separate sections. Here the structure of the book itself works to reinforce the interconnectedness of the regime's persecutions of all its enemies, which should indeed be dealt with as a whole. This strategy also fits into the author's broader thesis, which emphasizes Nazi terror where some historians have played it down: the "regime intimidated Germans into acquiescence"; "the threat of arrest, prosecution and incarceration loomed over everyone in the Third Reich, even ... over members of the Nazi Party itself" (p. 117). The section dealing specifically with concentration camps feels a little scant, however, at a mere fifteen pages (pp. 81-96). Even allowing for the desire not to make a lengthy book even longer, this is perhaps a bit brief for a discussion of what many readers will perceive as the central feature of the Third Reich.
For readers perhaps less familiar with the history of this period, Evans is careful to point out that the component parts of Nazi ideology were not new and were all to be found to a greater or lesser extent in German society long before 1933. Only Hitler's integration of these "into a coherent whole" was novel (p. 7). Just as importantly, he draws attention to the often striking similarities between some of the Third Reich's policies and "those pursued elsewhere in Europe and beyond during the 1930s" (p. xvi). Evans stresses the rapid and extensive change wrought by the Nazi regime, but also points to continuities with the past. The central argument is that while the state was brought under total control in a matter of months, in many ways society changed very little in these years, at least for the broad mass of the population lucky enough not to fall within the government's hated categories. Evans rejects the idea that an "economic miracle" took place under Nazi auspices, arguing that economic gains in this period were partial at best and the fruit of policies initiated by earlier administrations, Franz von Papen's in particular (pp. 333-336).
Evans also rejects the conceptualization of Nazism as a political religion, advanced most recently in Burleigh's work. While its "use of quasi-religious symbols and rituals was real enough," this was "more a matter of style than substance" (p. 259). One could just as easily "interpret Nazism by means of a military image" (p. 258) and the political religion thesis "is not only purely descriptive but also too sweeping to be of much help; it tells us very little about how Nazism worked, or what the nature of its appeal was to different groups in German society" (p. 260). This study differs from Burleigh's in a stylistic sense, refraining from the latter's moralizing tone, which, although quite understandable given the subject matter, is actually a less effective approach. It is often precisely those accounts of repression and atrocities that are unemotional and measured in language that move the reader the most; the grisly details carry their own weight, without a gloss that tells us how to feel. More trivially, Burleigh's occasional quirky, though engaging, digressions onto such diverse and decidedly more contemporary issues as newspaper supplements, marketing and ageing hippies in seaside towns are likewise not emulated by Evans. Presumably reflecting the book's more general target readership, historiographical disputes are largely consigned to the footnotes, of which only a tiny minority are discursive as opposed to recording references and nothing more. To cite one of very few examples, having noted in the text that plebiscite results are "completely unreliable as an indicator of popular attitudes" due to the intimidation and falsification involved in their production (p. 113), he takes Robert Gellately and Hans-Ulrich Wehler to task for their different stance on using these as evidence (p. 728, n. 227). Gellately is alluded to, albeit obliquely, in the text itself, when Evans states that to suggest "that the Nazis did not rule by terror at all" and describe theirs as "a society engaged in 'self-surveillance' ... understates the element of top-down terror and intimidation in the functioning of the Third Reich" (p. 114).
Accessibility is the watchword at all times. Thus, while the book is clearly intended to form a unity with its preceding volume, Evans makes allowances for readers unfamiliar with the latter. A brief prologue is included that recapitulates the period covered in the previous text, taking Bismarck's Reich as a starting point in its explanation of the rise to power of the Nazis. In addition, even commonly-known German words and phrases are habitually eschewed by the author in favor of their English translations, to wit, My Struggle wins out over Mein Kampf, Julius Streicher's rag is The Stormer rather than Der Stürmer and "National Community" is preferred over Volksgemeinschaft.
Throughout the book Evans provides the reader with character sketches and case studies in order to illuminate the wider issues raised by his narrative. Nor are these limited to big political figures: men like Otto Ohlendorf, eventually a leading personality within the SS, yet little known today outside the academic community, are examined in this way. The difficulty individuals faced in adapting themselves to the new order is highlighted by the presentation of cases such as that of Hans Fallada, who, having hit literary pay dirt in the dying months of Weimar with Little Man, What Now? (1932), subsequently attempted with varying degrees of success to adjust his style to the literary policy prescribed by a regime that did not care for the gritty realism of his famous novel before eventually finding himself incarcerated in a prison for the criminally insane. Through such biographical sketches Evans reveals to the reader how policy worked in practice, affecting all in complex ways and eliciting equally complex responses. For example, even ardent enthusiasts such as Solmitz (who, to cite an entirely representative instance, immediately began to use the new, more "Germanic" calendar encouraged by the regime after 1935), experienced disillusionment as the same government's encroaching restrictions on Jewish life impinged on her husband, a proud and patriotic First World War veteran who had furthermore acted as a block warden in the Third Reich's first year, thereby himself enforcing anti-Semitic regulations against his, in the regime's estimation at least, fellow Jews.
The danger of such a personalizing approach is that it is open to the accusation of sentimentalizing the subject, and appealing to an instinct for human interest at the expense of the analysis of the broader picture. Yet Evans is careful never to lose sight of the wider issues and strongly relates his discussion of individuals to an analysis of society more generally. Furthermore, in a general work of this type, the use of personal case studies has the useful effect of engaging readers who may not be inclined to wade through narrower historical monographs. It does mean, however, that Evans is occasionally forced to insist on the universality of the experiences he describes: Ohlendorf is described as "[t]ypical of this generation" (p. 52); the Gebensleben family, headed by a Braunschweig city planning bureaucrat, is treated similarly, with the patriarch "typical in many ways" (p. 449) of his social stratum. The "conformity of middle-class families like the Gebenslebens" is presented as general (p. 454). In these instances, therefore, Evans does not always make it clear to readers new to the subject that exceptions to the perceived norm did exist at all levels of society; the full diversity of experiences and responses to the Third Reich is not always revealed.
In addition, at least one apparent contradiction in the narrative relates to an important historical issue. Evans is no doubt correct to dismiss the once-fashionable contention that the rise of the National Socialists can be explained by supposedly inherent "long-term weaknesses in the German national character," the most pertinent being that they are "inclined to follow ruthless leaders and susceptible to the appeal of militarists and demagogues" (p. 2). Yet precisely two pages later, he notes that, after the Iron Chancellor had departed the political scene, "the image of Bismarck conjured up a mythical nostalgia for a strong and decisive political leader" (p. 4). This observation appears a second time later on, when we are told that the Nazis were able to exploit a "widespread ... longing for a strong leader in the tradition of Bismarck" (p. 216). The man was arguably somewhat militaristic himself (even Evans, in The Coming of the Third Reich, describes Bismarck as engineering war) and the distinction between admiring this quality and admiring strong and decisive political leaders goes unmade in the text. One looks in vain for clarification in the footnotes. Here, surely, is an issue that could have been discussed at slightly greater length. As it is, many readers are likely to remain confused as to what the author's opinion is on this historiographical issue. Details are also occasionally repeated, perhaps inevitably in a book of this size and scope. These are minor criticisms of what remains an impressive achievement, likely to become the standard general work on the period and an invaluable reference source, with much to offer both to academics and the broader reading public.
. Madeleine Kent, I Married a German (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1938): 253-6.
. Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2000): 149-404.
. Norbert Frei, National Socialist Rule in Germany: The Fuehrer State 1933-1945, translated by Simon B. Steyne (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993): 9-27.
. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Penguin Books, 2004): 13.
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