The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans
No country better symbolizes the mysteries and intrigues of the twentieth-century, the ebbs and flow of science and faith, despotism and democracy, peace and war, than Germany. This is a nation that was ruled by a hereditary king at the start of the century, followed by a stillborn democracy, then a vicious dictatorship, and then split for nearly half-a-century between a western industrial democracy and a Soviet-puppet police state before emerging in the 1990s as a mature member of the international community and a leader in European unity. A country that was at the center of the century's two world wars, an unprecedented genocide, and yet produced some of the century's greatest artistic and technological achievements.
Of all these governmental iterations, the most horrendously exceptional must surely be the Nazi regime that ruled from 1933 until 1945. That such a violent, reductionist party could come to power in one of the most economically, culturally and scientifically advanced nations in the world continues to boggle the mind. For several decades, the standard popular work on the subject has been William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer was an American reporter working in Germany in the years leading up to World War II, and published his history in 1960 to great success in America. His thesis, that Nazism was a natural result of the German character for obedience and servitude, was not as widely accepted, particularly in academic circles.
Nevertheless, it has taken more than four decades for a worthy contender to emerge to rival Shirer's achievement. The chair of the history department at Cambridge University, Richard Evans, had been a scholar of modern Germany since the early years of a career that reaches back into the 1960s; but his focus on the Nazi era in particular did not emerge until much later, and his decision to publish a general history on the subject was sparked in part by his employment as an expert witness for the defense in the widely publicized libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving:
[O]ne of the major surprises of the work we did on the case was the discovery that many aspects of the subjects we were dealing with were still surprisingly ill-documented. Another, just as important, was that there was no wide-ranging, detailed overall account of the broader historical context of Nazi policies towards the Jews in the general history of the Third Reich itself, despite the existence of many excellent accounts of those policies in a narrower framework.
Thus while Evans complements Shirer's "journalist's eye for the telling detail and the illuminating incident," he notes that it was "universally panned by professional historians" and simply failed to grasp with the scholarship on the Nazi regime that was available in 1960, let alone that which has emerged in the half-century since. Evans is similarly critical of scholarship in the decades since which have attempted to reduce the Nazi era to a Marxist analysis of class warfare, or to whitewash the responsibility of the German people by exalting their "unpolitical" nature, or to categorize the Nazis as just one example of a totalitarian phenomenon which occurred in countries across the globe.
Thus Evans decided to embark on what was to become a comprehensive trilogy on the German Third Reich: one volume focused on German history leading up to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933; another volume exploring the Nazi state as it consolidated its might before the outbreak of war; and the final volume devoted to the regime from the World War II. In the first and best volume, titled The Coming of the Third Reich, Evans sought to explore the basic questions which have puzzled scholars and citizens alike for several generations:
How was it that an advanced and highly cultured nation such as Germany could give in to the brutal force of National Socialism so quickly and so easily? Why was there such little serious resistance to the Nazi takeover? How could an insignificant party of the radical right rise to power with such dramatic suddenness? Why did so many Germans fail to perceive the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring the violent, racist and murderous nature of the Nazi movement?
Evans opens his history with an excursion through German history beginning with the failed Revolution of 1848, in which a variety of liberal advances were eventually largely suppressed or reversed by a conservative backlash. This leads to the era of Bismarck, and in Evans' portrayal Bismarck emerges as an ambitious yet ambiguous figure, who felt "contempt for liberalism, socialism, parliamentarism, egalitarianism and many other aspects of the modern world," whose "domination over German politics in the second half of the nineteenth century was brutal, arrogant, complete," and yet whose "technique was to calculate the way events were going, then take advantage of them for his own purposes." In other words, Bismarck was to take advantage of existing trends, to "navigat[e] the ship of state along the stream of time," rather to simply direct it from above. As such, it is important for Evans to look at the underlying direction of German society, from the consolidation into the German Empire (e.g. the Second Reich) in 1871 to the rise of the Prussian military aristocracy, to the growing assaults on Catholicism, socialism, and other perceived enemies of the German state, and the resulting fragmentation of German society:
Thus Germany before 1914 had not two mainstream political parties but six - the Social Democrats, the two liberal parties, the two groups of Conservatives, and the Centre Party, reflecting among other things the multiple divisions of German society, by region, religion, and social class.
If the nineteenth-century laid the foundations of later events in German society, it was the shocking defeat in World War I and its troubling aftermath that laid the battle lines most clearly. It is commonly understood that German humiliation and resentment toward the peace terms demanded at Versailles were a key ingredient in the Nazi's eventual rise, but this a rather abstract conception that fails to grapple with the intervening decade and a half that connects the two events. Evans does not argue that the terms of peace treaty were necessarily harsh or unfair; instead he focuses on the virtually unhinged German reaction:
Given the extent of what Germans had expected to gain in the event of victory, it might have been expected that they would have realized what they stood to lose in the event of defeat. But no one was prepared for the peace terms to which Germany was forced to agree in the Armistice of 11 November 1918... These provisions were almost universally felt in Germany as an unjustified national humiliation. Resentment was hugely increased by the actions taken, above all by the French, to enforce them. The harshness of the Armistice terms was thrown into sharp relief by the fact that many Germans refused to believe that their armed forces had actually been defeated. Very quickly, aided and abetted by senior army officers themselves, a fateful myth gained currency among large sections of public opinion in the centre and on the right of the political spectrum... many people began to believe that the army had only been defeated because... it had been stabbed in the back by its enemies at home.
The "stab in the back" theory would eventually become the Nazi's favorite basis for violent oppression of any group or individual they deemed potentially dangerous to the German state, particularly as the prospect of another war approached in the late 1930s. Evans spends several subsequent chapters exploring the "failure of democracy" we now call the Weimar Republic, which was disliked by many on both ends of the political spectrum, never gaining the popular legitimacy it would have needed to survive that turbulent economic and political era:
The conflicts that rent Weimar were more than merely political or economic. Their visceral quality derived much from the fact that they were not just fought in parliaments and elections, but permeated every aspect of life... People arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. One indication of this could be found in the extremely high turnout rates at elections - no less than 80 per cent of the electorate in most contests. Elections met with none of the indifference that is allegedly the sign of a mature democracy. On the contrary, during election campaigns in many parts of Germany every spare inch of outside walls and advertising columns seemed to be covered with posters, every window hung with banners, every building festooned with the colours of one political party or another.
With temperatures running so high, it is no surprise that these years saw a particularly robust and nasty proliferation of partisan press, attacks on the arts and any movement associated with modernity (feminism, socialism, etc), the rise of various youth movements aimed at indoctrinating future members of particular ideologies at the earliest possible age, and other signs that Germany society was fragmenting into virtual domestic warfare. In these chapters, Evans excels at demonstrating how various events in these pivotal years laid the groundwork for Nazi power without any of the key power brokers ever having such an intention. The rising violence on the streets, the curbs on civil liberties, the flouting of the rule of law, many of these trends were provoked or promoted by those who had little self-interest in the rise of a group like the Nazis, or little conception of the possibility of just such an outcome:
The slide away from parliamentary democracy into an authoritarian state ruling without the full and equal participation of the parties or the legislatures had already begun under Bruning. It had been massively and deliberately accelerated by Papen. After Papen, there was no going back. A power vacuum had been created in Germany which the Reichstag and the parties had no chance of filling.... In such a situation, only force was likely to succeed.
The growing popularity of the Nazis, reflected most disturbingly at the polls, is portrayed as largely a protest vote rather than any widespread commitment to the Nazi platform. After all, the Nazi platform was virtually non-existent. It was a movement birthed in hate and racism, burgeoned by anger and resentment and trafficking in rhetorical excess:
In the increasingly desperate situation of 1930, the Nazis managed to project an image of strong, decisive action, dynamism, energy and youth that wholly eluded the propaganda efforts by other parties to project their leaders as the Bismarcks of the future. All this was achieved through powerful, simple slogans and images, frenetic, manic activity, marches, rallies, demonstration, speeches, posters, placards and the like, which underlined the Nazis' claim to be far more than a political party: they were a movement, sweeping up the German people and carrying them unstoppably to a better future. What the Nazis did not offer, however, were concrete solutions to German's problems, least of all in the area where they were most needed, in economy and society.... Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic... Many middle-class voters coped with Nazi violence and thuggery on the streets by writing it off as the product of excessive youthful ardour and energy. But it was far more than that, as they were soon to discover for themselves.
In the end, Evans points to several major factors for explaining the Nazi rise: the Depression, which doomed the nascent Weimar Republic; the crude appeal of the dynamic Nazi movement and its charismatic leader; and the significant overlap between Nazi rhetoric and the political ideologies of the other major German political parties, which had increasingly shifted to the right. Evans also takes care to distinguish two distinct phases of the Nazi rise to power: the political rise which resulted in Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933, and the seizure of power marked by the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Enabling Act, the abolition of elections, and a variety of other measures wholly flouting any sense of obligation to a rule of law. Of course the Nazi revolution was not confined to the political realms, with dramatic measures taken in the academic, artistic, religious, and economic spheres as well:
Now the Nazis would set about constructing a racial utopia, in which a pure-bred nation of heroes would prepare as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible for the ultimate test of Germany racial superiority: a war in which they would crush and destroy their enemies, and establish a new European order that would eventually come to dominate the world. By the summer of 1933 the ground had been cleared for the construction of a dictatorship the like of which had never yet been seen. The Third Reich was born: in the next phase of its existence, it was to rush headlong into a dynamic and increasingly intolerant maturity.
Evans explores that phase in the second volume of his trilogy, which I will discuss on Friday.