Saturday, November 19, 2005

BOOK: Richard Evans, "The Coming of the Third Reich"

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. Burleigh's The 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”; p. 455.) 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 (pp. 437–40).

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” (p. 346). This is slightly different from the impression I received from Burleigh, 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 Hindenburg, watching 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).


Blogger Keir said...

Terrific review. I enjoyed Burleigh's tome, but was intrigued by his condemnation of Evans- the covering of old ground, fixation of the same sources found everywhere else, idea that all the boxes had to be checked regardless of focus or argument.... I found Evans's first volume a bit lacking for one devoted entirely to the Weimar years, but use his intro as you have to offer an understanding of what history is and cannot be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012 7:34:00 PM  

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