The Coming of the Third Reich
by Richard J. Evans
Penguin. 656 pp. $34.95

In the last several years, a new version of 20th-century history has been gathering momentum in Germany one in which Germans at last receive their own share of the contemporary world’s most precious moral commodity: victimhood. Pushed along by sensational books on subjects like the postwar expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe, this unattractive revisionism burst into the open during the lead-up to the Iraq war, when some German intellectuals and political figures began conflating their opposition to Bush-administration policy with the supposed victimization of their own country by Allied bombing during World War II.

The time is therefore opportune for someone once again to set the record straight about Nazi Germany This, indeed, appears to have been the aim of Richard Evans, a professor of history at Cambridge who has just released the first of three projected volumes on the Third Reich. Evans came to prominence in 2000 as a key witness for the defense team in the David Irving trial in London, where he convincingly demonstrated the systematic distortions, adding up to Holocaust denial, in Irving’s work.

Clearly, Evans has little patience for arguments tending to relativize Nazi crimes, whether advanced by revisionist historians or by slippery German politicians. In the preface to The Coming of the Third Reich, he promises to show instead how “the Nazis managed to establish a one-party dictatorship in Germany within a very short space of time, and with seemingly little real resistance from the German people.” If anything, this prosecutorial language calls to mind the approach taken in recent years by authors like Michael Burleigh (The Third Reich: A New History) and Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners).

But it turns out that Evans does not really want to play the part of a hanging judge. After his opening remarks, he rather surprisingly pledges “to avoid using language that carries moral, religious, or ethical baggage with it,” aiming instead to return to old-fashioned narrative history and, while avoiding hindsight, “to tell the story of the Third Reich in chronological order, . . . to show how one thing led to another.” Nor, he assures us, will his trilogy be addressed to specialists, but rather to “people who know nothing about the subject, or who know a little and would like to know more.” The result is rather more equivocal than these words might suggest.



Evans’s first volume takes us from Bismarck’s creation of the “Second” German Reich in 1871 up to the advent of the Third in 1933. Despite his expressed desire to avoid hindsight, inevitably his focus is on historical precedents that helped set the stage for Hitler’s triumph.

Evans begins his story with Bismarck’s controversial Kulturkampf against Catholics in the 1870’s, followed in the next decade by the emperor’s ban on the German Social Democratic party (SPD). In Evans’s telling, this two-pronged offensive against “enemies of the Reich,” which amounted to a “massive assault on civil liberties,” was not only tolerated but even applauded by many German liberals at the time. It also had lasting effects: although the country’s Catholics were eventually welcomed into the political mainstream, the anti-socialist law opened up an “unbridgeable political divide” between the SPD and the “bourgeois” parties that would “endure well into the 1920’s and play a vital role in the crisis that eventually brought the Nazis to power.”

Likewise leading to ominous developments in governance was World War I. Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, by “pushing the civilians aside” in 1916, set up what Evans calls a “silent dictatorship.” This went even farther than Bismarck in placing “severe curbs on civil liberties”—eerily foreshadowing “the more drastic fate that overtook German democracy and civil freedom less than two decades later.”

Finally, according to Evans, the Weimar republic established after the collapse of the German empire in 1918 was never able to strike deep roots. From the start, the police and judiciary retained a heavy “right-wing and anti-republican bias.” Lacking the old imperial color and ceremony, the republican regime remained “unloved and undefended by its servants in the army and bureaucracy.” As for the SPD, which emerged as one of the pillars of the governing establishment, its members were still seen by the police as dangerous “subversives,” just as they had been in Bismarck’s day and just as they would be again under the Nazis.

“Where the law and its administrators were against [the Republic],” Evans asks, “what chance did it have?” The question is rhetorical, but he nevertheless proceeds to answer it by methodically listing the “weaknesses of Weimar,” from the hostility of judges and business magnates, to the disturbing emergence of anti-Semitic paranoia in popular culture, to the gradual rise of Hitler’s Nazis from a fringe group of racists into a major political party, to the erosion of the pro-republican majority in the Reichstag as early as 1928. By the early 1930’s, Evans concludes, the Republic was moribund, the Reichstag powerless.



Lest all this began to sound like an exercise in the hindsight he promised to avoid, Evans does admit that the “Nazi party was in decline” in the months before Hitler’s accession to power, reeling from losses of over 2 million voters in the November 1932 elections and nearly bankrupt. He also allows that many Germans who voted for the Nazis did not share the party’s anti-Semitism (which Hitler often downplayed depending on his audience), and that a clear majority voted against the Nazis in March 1933, even after the Reichstag fire (which the Nazis used as a pretext to terrorize opposition parties). But where other historians have regarded such facts as crucial to any sober assessment of German responsibility for what followed, Evans does not think they mattered much in the end. Democracy was fated for destruction, whether destined to be replaced by “a Nazi dictatorship or a conservative, authoritarian regime backed by the army.” Either sort of government, he writes, “would almost certainly have imposed severe restrictions on the Jews” and waged a future war of aggression against the Soviet Union.

As if to underline this near-inevitability of the Nazi triumph, Evans dwells heavily on the ways in which individual Germans rationalized the onset of political terror in their society. One respectable Hamburg woman to whom he introduces us would later recall her shock at hearing Nazis singing in the streets about “the blood of the Jews which would squirt from their knives,” while at the same time admitting that she thought little further of it: “Who took that seriously then?” On the other hand, so many civil servants stampeded to join the new ruling party that Nazi leaders grew “disgusted” by their opportunism.

This broad social background, Evans suggests, is what facilitated the cruel efficiency of Nazi purges of Jewish influence in music, the arts, and the universities, not to mention the boycotts of Jewish businesses and even the murder of Jews in the streets by Nazi storm troopers—events, he reminds us, that were well under way as early as the summer of 1933, when he wraps up his story.



It is in writing about the social background to Nazism that Evans becomes most animated, and is consistently lucid and convincing. Throughout this volume, he displays greater interest in the thoughts and actions of “ordinary” Germans than in the decisions of powerful men. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, of course. But in an avowedly “comprehensive” narrative account for the general reader, it is far from sufficient. Such an account cannot be complete without grappling with economics, war, and diplomacy—matters that unfortunately do not engage Evans’s interest to anything like the same degree.

Thus, World War I, a cardinal event that by his own lights helped lower the threshold for violence in Germany, merits all of six pages in The Coming of the Third Reich (and those pages are not without errors). Major diplomatic developments are nearly invisible: although Evans notes that “clandestine training sessions in Russia” allowed the postwar German army to test new weapons illegally, he seems unaware of the Rapallo treaty of 1922 that made this possible. German war reparations receive but passing mention, as if they were one minor annoyance among many; we get no sense of how critical this issue was for the Nazis, who exploited it mercilessly, and no idea of the crushing burden it presented to Germany’s republican government, over which it hung like a sword of Damocles.

The Depression is another subject that is shortchanged; in the five pages he devotes to it, Evans does not even begin to explore the crucial matter of wages and unemployment that lay at the heart of the polarized debate of the early 1930’s. Readers will likewise learn little here about the bitter struggle on the Left, which saw Germany’s Communists, on orders from Moscow, denouncing SPD leaders as “social fascists” and often collaborating with the Nazis against them.

When it comes, finally, to the critical events in Hitler’s path to power, much is again simply missing. Astonishingly, Evans passes over the tense encounters in which Hindenburg, now president of Germany, twice sought emphatically to rebuff Hitler. On the second such occasion, Hindenburg let it be known through a widely publicized press release that appointing the Nazi leader to the German chancellorship was “something he could never reconcile with his oath and his conscience.” How, then, was Hindenburg later convinced to violate both oath and conscience by doing just that? Having failed to pose the question, Evans cannot provide an answer.



By ignoring the cruel dilemmas faced by statesmen like Hindenburg, and instead lumping together all of Germany’s conservative politicians and generals as “fellow-ideologues,” Evans implies that they were all guilty of something, if not exactly the same thing as the Nazis. But in doing so he in effect also absolves them of responsibility for their own actions, since, in his reading, everybody—conservatives, generals, and Nazis alike—was equally to blame, and in any case Weimar democracy was doomed.

In this respect, Evans’s narrative follows, though in a much less extreme way, the circular approach taken by Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, for whom all of German society was infected with an “exterminationist” strain of anti-Semitism. But if the triumph of Nazism was historically fated, whether on account of shared genocidal tendencies (Goldhagen) or of institutional inevitability (Evans), then there is nothing anyone could have done to stop it. And if everyone was guilty, then no one was. In that last proposition, one begins to glimpse the secret of Goldhagen’s peculiar popularity in Germany, as well as the seeds of today’s fantasy of German victimization.

What is needed as an antidote to such false and self-contradictory theories is a history of Nazism that invites readers to grapple with the problem of individual responsibility, and with the critical decisions made (or not made) by key players that helped bring about the catastrophe. Although it is not too late for volumes two and three, thus far Richard Evans has not proved to be the man for the job.


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