History Thread: Richard J. Evans’ Third Reich Trilogy

Richard J. Evans focused primarily on the history of German feminism and social movements before his involvement in David Irving’s libel action against Deborah Lipstadt, where he systematically demolished Irving’s Holocaust denial (an experience recounted in his book, Lying About Hitler). This experience, and a quick perusal of the subject’s popular literature convinced Evans that general readers needed an updated history of Nazism. “The number of broad, general, large-scale histories of Nazi Germany can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” Evans writes, noting that William Shirer’s popular but outdated The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1961) and ideologically-driven monograms like Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History (2008) dominated the marketplace.

Obviously, this elides the work done by historians in the decades since Shirer’s angry, polemical attack on what he considered the subservient German character. But biographies like Ian Kershaw’s two-volume tome on Hitler, the works of German scholars Peter Longerich and Hans Mommsen or the specialized works of Christopher Browning and Robert Jan Van Pelt reached limited audiences. Esoteric arguments over the Fuhrerprinzip (how much power Hitler actually wielded over Nazi government), the functionalist vs. intentionalist arguments over the Holocaust and German society’s culpability in fascism were less easily consimed than military monograms and lazy works rehashing Shirer for non-discerning audiences. Thus, between 2003 and 2008 Evans published a trilogy of books – The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power and The Third Reich at War, which chronicled Hitler’s empire from conception to death, with both readable verve and scholarly insight.

Richard J. Evans

“Is it wrong to begin with Bismarck?” Evans begins The Coming of the Third Reich, which examines the birth of German nationalism after 1871 and concludes with Hitler consolidating power six decades later. He pommels the old sonderweg theory that Germany was predestined to dictatorship, instead depicting the nation as an arena of cultural ideas, from progressive socialists and traditional liberals to reactionary militarists and monarchists. Bismarck’s “Blood and Iron” unification, Evans argues, set the stage for Germany’s volkisch nationalism and its veneration of the Fuhrer figure, even as he introduced liberal policies that cemented the welfare state and expanded civil liberties for all Germans. This included Jews, who though distrusted by conservatives were long-integrated into German society; their very success made them targets for demagoguery. The pre-World War I Reich was a bundle of contradictions: nominally an absolute monarchy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it also afforded citizens a remarkable social safety net and, arguably, more political representation through the Reichstag than more “democratic” states in England and France.

The First World War destroyed Bismarck’s Second Reich, leaving the country humiliated and looking for scapegoats. Everyone from the milquetoast liberals who formed the Weimar Republic (Friedrich Ebert, the Republic’s first President, receives a layered but largely critical portrait here as a socialist in name only) to the socialists who opposed the war, the communists who tried to jumpstart revolution and especially Jews, who were blamed for stabbing Germany in the back. The German military, which had pressured the Kaiser to abdicate and end the war, latched onto this myth to exonerate themselves and assert their continued relevance. Ebert leaders forged a devil’s pact with the military and conservative elements to fend off a Communist revolution. Not impossible in the war’s immediate aftermath, with Rosa Luxembourg’s Spartacus League posing a serious threat, but increasingly unlikely as time went on. And yet the military remained an independent power, with the paramilitary Freikorps (a loosely-organized, but officially sanctioned conglomeration of demobbed soldiers, freebooters and fanatics) becoming a force unto themselves.

Extreme patriots: Freikorps units in Berlin, 1919

Thus the Republic became a literal battleground. As its leaders feebly staved off the Treaty of Versailles (no more unfair, Evans argues, than the terms Germany itself would have imposed had it won the war) and crippling economic inflation, states like Bavaria contemplated secession while the Freikorps battled communists and socialists in the streets of Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. In March 1920 a far-right conglomerate organized the Kapp Putsch, which would have toppled the Republic if not for a hastily-called general strike by the Social Democrats. In such an environment, democracy never found sure footing in Weimar Germany, with its own authors writing in a self-destruction clause (Article 48, granting the President emergency powers) that made dictatorship easier. Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists, originally a fringe Bavarian party, gained attention with a clear message, forceful rhetoric and violent tactics that soon eclipsed other far-right groups.

The Republic’s ineffectual efforts to marginalize Hitler only emboldened him; his attempted Beer Hall Putsch in Munich led to only a token prison sentence which enhanced his reputation. His aides, Joseph Goebbels and Gregor Strasser, used Hitler’s increased publicity to spread his message, sewing his hypernationalist message with a faux-populism that many working class Germans mistook for socialism. President Paul von Hindenburg and his conservative allies, themselves hostile to democracy, find a deadlocked Reichstag allowing them to rule by decree – but also causing Hitler and his allies to gain popular support, his brownshirted Sturmabteilung (SA) escalating its violence against leftists and racial undesirables. Thus the concord between Hindenburg and Hitler in January 1933, which Hindenburg viewed as a way of neutralizing Hitler’s demagogic power. Of course, granting power to a man who loudly proclaimed his intentions for dictatorship proved the last in a series of extremely unwise decisions.

Hitler and Hindenburg

Evans breaks little new ground in revisiting this oft-told story: surely there’s no modern state more written about than the Third Reich, and Hitler’s rise has been studied in remarkable detail by biographers, political scientists and general historians. A learned reader could criticize Evans for glossing over the First World War or not spending much time on events like the Kapp Putsch and the 1922 assassination of Finance Minister Walther Rathenau which demonstrated the power of the Far Right long before Hitler. Even so, his book is valuable for demonstrating that, while Weimar was weakened (and perhaps fatally compromised) from the beginning, Hitler’s rise to power was by no means inevitable, but the result of the right (or wrong) collection of circumstances enabling it to happen. As a more recent book has argued, Hindenburg, Franz von Papen and other conservatives served as “gravediggers” for German democracy; much as they condescended to the “Bohemian Corporal,” they viewed his rule as preferable to the uncertainties of democracy.

As a student of German history, Evans has a feel for the country’s regional, cultural and religious tensions that bely the musings of many lesser writers on failures of the “German character.” If such a “German character” existed, Evans argues, it was largely a construct that mated 19th Century nationalism and racial theories more than it drew on history. He also demonstrates that the Nazis, even after seizing power, failed to win a majority of votes in the March 1933 elections: they successfully courted their core constituencies (the lower middle class, always susceptible to nationalist appeals clothed in anti-elite populism; businessmen who preferred oppressive order to egalitarian chaos) and neutralized the opposition, which at any rate was hopelessly divided between communists, socialists and center parties. By the time of the Reichstag Fire, dictatorship was already a fait accompli; the Enabling Act simply put a final stamp on the death of German democracy.

The trilogy’s second book, The Third Reich in Power, begins with a graphic account of the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s power play in June 1934 to purge his political enemies: not just Ernst Rohm and the unruly SA, as Evans makes clear, but a variety of socialists, anti-Nazi conservatives (including former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher), rivals within the movement (Gregor Strasser, once Hitler’s most effective subordinate) and prominent Jews were targeted as well. Although the purge (which claimed up to 1,000 lives) ended Nazi Germany’s early period of political violence, its shadow hung over the regime like a cloud: a reminder that even slight dissent would be punished with imprisonment or summary execution. Thus began a dictatorship rivaled in its time only by Stalin’s Soviet Union in brutality and oppression. For bloodshed was necessary to set the stage, Evans asserts, for “a cultural revolution, in which alien influences…were eliminated and the German spirit reborn.”

Apotheosis at Nuremberg

The Nazi government thus embarked upon a massive social engineering campaign. Education was reformed to stress nationalism and the centrality of military conflict; traditional youth organizations were obliterated by the Hitler Youth. The Nazis alternately courted and crushed established religion; one of the book’s more illuminating passages discusses propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ efforts to promote an obscure Protestant sect, the German Evangelical Church, as a state-sponsored religion akin to the Church of England only to abandon the scheme due to lack of enthusiasm. The press fell under state control, the arts crushed into conformity (sending many artists, actors, authors and musicians into exile), labor unions dismantled and the military forced into obedience (General Werner von Fritsch, who opposed Hitler’s expansionist policies, was blackmailed into resigning with spurious charges of homosexuality). Existing power structures quickly accommodated themselves to the regime, while opponents fled abroad or enacted brave but largely feeble acts of resistance. The Nazis sought to dominate all aspects of Germans’ waking lives, and sometimes even their unconscious ones; one author collected a bizarre volume showing that even in their dreams, Germans couldn’t escape the Fuhrer.

Evans makes clear that despite Hitler’s total authority, the regime was remarkably sensitive to popular pressures. Thus they sought to win over the German people, especially the Mittelstand (roughly, middle class and small business owners) which they viewed as their core constituents. Goebbels’ massive propaganda apparatus was a mixed success: openly propagandistic films tended to flop, while Goebbels was forced to close an exhibit of “Decadent Art” when it proved more popular than state-approved portraiture. But Hitler’s regime offered programs which appeased the public while serving Nazi purposes: patriotism fostered by volunteer groups and increased conscription, the Strength Through Joy program providing workers vacations and benefits in lieu of unions, an Autobahn that benefited civilian drivers while enabling fast military deployments, low cost transistor radios that could only receive government-approved stations. It’s difficult to extrapolate from Evans’ account that ordinary Germans were enthusiastic Nazis, as writers from Shirer to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have argued, but neither did they resist in any meaningful way. Instead, there was sullen acquiescence, with resistance limited to private grumbling, sardonic jokes and individual acts of defiance.

Blood and steel: Hitler and Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Hallbach

Meanwhile, economic and agricultural policies under Hitler proved borderline incoherent. Paying lip service to “socialist” collectivism, the Nazis in fact enriched capitalists like Krupp steel and the chemical giant I.G. Farben with lucrative contracts and slave convict labor. Party leaders like Hermann Goering heinously gorged off the profits, making a joke of their earlier leveling rhetoric. Indeed the German “economic miracle” of the 1930s, often touted even by nonfascist writers, was built on sand. Admittedly unemployment decreased but wages remained steady, the standard of living only marginally improved and autarkic trade policies led to shortages in supplies and foodstuffs even before war began. Farmers infuriated by the bizarre schemes of Agriculture Minister Walther Darre to create hereditary small farms were driven to borderline revolt; Economics Minister Hjalmar Schacht, dismayed that Hitler and Goering largely ignored his advice, complained that he could only “howl with the wolves.” Nonetheless, as Evans comments, the Mittelstand generally didn’t mind: “what really mattered to them was that they were making a decent living, better than they had done in the Depression years, and they could live with that.”

Ultimately, all of these projects served two purposes: war and genocide. Whatever economic gains Hitler managed led inexorably to mobilization, rebuilding the German military for wars of conquest against France, Britain and especially the Soviet Union. And whatever benefits Germany’s population received from Nazi employment and welfare programs, the underclasses were punished. Women were pushed out of the work force and encouraged to become homemakers; abortion was outlawed as German women were encouraged to have large families (they refused, however, to acquiesce in attempted bans on cosmetics and modern fashion). Homeless and unemployed citizens were branded “work-shy” and deposited in concentration camps; gay and lesbian Germans, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romani and other religious minorities, were heavily persecuted. And a widespread campaign against the mentally ill and physically handicapped, resulting in segregation and forced sterilization, put the era’s most odious eugenics concepts into effect.

Broken glass: Kristallnacht (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

But the primary targets, of course, were the Jews, the subject of Hitler’s obsessive hatred. An escalating series of laws dispossessed German Jews of businesses, property and legal rights: marriages with non-Jews were banned, Jewish children were eventually excluded from public education and adults fired from jobs. Jewish businesses and property were “Aryanized” and given over to Party leaders and Gentile businessmen. The government pressured Jews into emigration (which, shamefully, foreign countries decided to restrict) and isolation, making it easier to paint them as an Other. And the German state, from SA ruffians and Heinrich Himmler’s black-shirted SS to Julius Streicher’s insane propaganda sheets, subjected them to constant terror and humiliation. There was no explicit, tactical road map for the Holocaust at this point, but Hitler’s intent was always clear. And once the Night of the Broken Glass triggered a national pogrom in November 1938, the Final Solution had effectively begun.

The final chapters tackle familiar events: Hitler’s alliances with Italy and Japan, intervention in the Spanish Civil War, the Anschluss with Austria (a long held dream of the Austrian-born Hitler) and “Rape” of Czechoslovakia, Anglo-French appeasement and the nonaggression pact with Stalin, leading to World War II. Evans offers less fresh material here, though his narrative emphasizes how war wasn’t merely the result but the essence of Nazi ideology. He also rebuffs recent attempts to rehabilitate Neville Chamberlain and friends by showing them at best naïve, at worst perfectly fine with signing over much of Europe to fascism. Power ends with the Wehrmacht poised to invade Poland, with Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich achieving its apotheosis – and its Gotterdammerung.

The trilogy continues, and concludes with The Third Reich at War. It might seem a fool’s errand for even a gifted historian to publish another book about World War II, and Evans admits that he’s covering ground much more familiar than his previous works. Hitler’s stupendous early military victories in Poland, France and the Balkans, his failures to subdue Britain and catastrophic invasion of the Soviet Union, and the long, slow and painful turning of the tide are all chronicled here, ably if not outstandingly. The book rarely spends much time on military tactics (only Stalingrad and Kursk, the two largest battles on the Eastern Front, receive detailed analysis) because Evans shows more interest in the effects of battles rather than their blow-by-blow details. A war that’s reduced to tactics and tanks risks becoming merely a game; a war’s immense human cost is worthy of study outside chat rooms filled with History Channel buffs. And Evans does an exemplary job detailing the horror the Second World War wrought both in Germany and the countries it attacked and occupied.

Certainly, the most destructive war in history bore an immense cost. And Evans brings it home to readers: from the war’s very beginning, German bombers terrorized Poland as soldiers murdered civilians, losing any pretense towards honorable conduct. This method continued into Operation Barbarossa, which quickly descended into an all-out race war between the Germans and Slavic Russians, whom Hitler saw as the embodiment of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Soldiers often massacred prisoners, and those Red Army troops who were captured suffering starvation, killing and forced labor in Germany; civilians were subject to rape, pillage and murder (which the Soviets, when the war’s tide turned, repaid in kind). Meanwhile the SS Einsatzgruppen swarmed behind the line of advance, massacring hundreds of thousands of Jews. The latter spearheaded Hitler’s “Final Solution,” an increasingly organized, systematic destruction of European Jewry and other “undesired” groups that resulted in an unfathomable death toll. But, as Evans makes clear, the regular Army was perfectly capable of their own atrocities: the “clean Wehrmacht” was waist-deep in blood, while the German people raised little outcry against the Holocaust.

Clean Wehrmacht? Germans on the Eastern Front

One throughline of previous volumes is Evans’ commentary on the ambivalence of ordinary Germans towards the Nazis. This carries through here, even at the apex of fascism’s national madness. Certainly Germans were ecstatic at Hitler’s early, bloodless conquests, but the onset of war with Poland was received with a grim resignation by most Germans. The regime’s propaganda convinced them that it was a war of national defense, not imperialist aggression, and the population responded with acceptance rather than enthusiasm. As the war dragged on, the German public began to see through the regime’s lies: civilians traded caustic jokes about incompetent generals and the Nazi leadership (jokes which seemed less funny to Hitler’s henchmen as the war went sour) while desertions rose and volunteering reached a standstill. Germans would defend their country against Western “encirclement” and Stalin’s Bolshevik hordes, but they were less excited to die in the charnel house of Eastern Europe for a dimly defined New Order whose main characteristic seemed to be killing.

And as Allied bombings brought destruction home to Germany, Evans argues, the public’s resolve grew weaker still. In this Evans does differ from most accounts of the war, which often argue that terror bombing stiffened rather than weakened German resolution to resist. But the government’s inability to protect its own people further demonstrated how little Hitler cared about the average German (a point brought home by the Fuhrer’s rantings about Germany’s failure to serve him). As thousands perished in Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden and other infernos, public disillusionment turned not against the Allies (although downed pilots were often lynched by angry mobs) but against the Third Reich itself. Unable to cope with destruction or food shortages, the regime resorted to bombastic propaganda which no longer seemed attached to reality – and fanned the public’s ambivalence.

Unclean war: massacre at Babi Yar

But “ambivalence” doesn’t mean open hostility, either. Most Germans inured themselves to the war with “dull conformity,” unhappy with the regime but not willing to act. Organized resistance against the Nazis was nearly impossible at any rate: the few who tried were arrested or summarily executed by a police state that honed repression to a science. Catholic bishops protested the T4 extermination of the mentally disabled but were silent on the destruction of Jews; the military complained about Hitler’s tactics but proved reluctant to move against him so long as victories piled in. The most effective resistance cell, the leftist “Red Orchestra,” provided valuable intelligence to the Soviets but did little to directly challenge the regime. Youth movements like the “Swing Kids” and Sophie Scholl’s White Rose, however brave, provided minor headaches at best. When the military finally steeled itself to move against Hitler (the 20 July plot), their coup was so mismanaged that failure became inevitable. In turn, the failure of Stauffenberg and Co. triggered a massive wage of purges, excelling even the Night of the Long Knives, that eradicated perceived and real enemies to the Reich. Thus Germany was forced to fight to the last man as the Allies converged on it, with Hitler playing out the Reich’s absurd final act in the Fuhrerbunker.

Firestorm: Hamburg after Allied bombings

By war’s end, Hitler had laid waste to an entire continent. Jews, Romani and other groups had been virtually exterminated; tens of millions of Russian and other Soviets had been killed; countries from France to Belarus were leveled; Germany’s public had been traumatized, its cities destroyed and image irrevocably stained. It took years of occupation, education and self-reflection for Germans to accept their complicity in Hitler’s regime and rebuild themselves into a liberal democracy. Perhaps it’s trite for Evans to end on a message that what happened to Germany could happen anywhere; the precise events that gave rise to Hitler are hard to replicate, even if modern rightists provide shuddering reminders. Even so, it’s useful to recall that Germany, an advanced country with proud traditions of art, intellectualism and progressive thought, fell under sway of reactionary, racist madness that its people did precious little to impede or oppose. Sadly, it’s a lesson humanity seems determined to ignore.