Richard J Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich

In his preface, Richard Evans fishes up a phenomenal statistic. The standard bibliography of works on the Nazi period stood at more than 37,000 entries in the year 2000, having increased from 'a mere 25,000' in 1995. This is an average rate of 2,400 new items a year. I know that it is untrue to claim that the only bit of history now taught to British school pupils is the Third Reich. But it probably is true that it is the only bit of history they are almost all taught about.
What is going on? Here we are in 2003, almost 60 years since Hitler sent for the pistol and the cyanide, and the flow of English-language books about the Nazis - not just specialist studies, but great big respectable mainline 'bookburgers' of narrative history - is still accelerating. I mean no disrespect to Professor Evans. He has written an admirable book, as I want to show. But I find more and more that it is the German reflections on the Third Reich which matter.
This summer, for instance, Joachim Fest wrote an obituary essay in Der Spiegel on the mighty Observer journalist Sebastian Haffner, mostly about how Haffner advised and criticised Fest as he worked on his own biography of Hitler. Here was the living stream of continuity with the German past, the flashing, constantly changing perceptions of moral, political and cultural connections which affect how one judges the Germans and Germany of today.
But the gap between that sort of intimate self-discovery and the books written by American and British scholars is widening. Have we, the foreigners, reached a point at which none of our modern historians makes the A-list unless he or she has done a Third Reich book? Most of this stuff in English is high-quality history, but why is so much of it being produced?
Richard Evans recognises that this question deserves an answer. Many people will remember him as the star defence witness during David Irving's disastrous 'Holocaust denial' libel action two years ago. At the Irving trial, he was amazed to discover that 'no general history of Nazi Germany' existed which he could recommend. This book is the outcome, and it is only the first of three. This volume runs up to Hitler's accession to power in 1933; the second will cover the prewar period of Nazi rule, while the last volume will deal with the apocalypse of Hitler's Germany between 1939 and 1945.
But there was another reason. As Evans explains in his preface, he considers many previous Third Reich histories to be contaminated by the rage or horror of their authors. This offends Evans's professional conscience: '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.' The reader, in other words, is apparently in for a unique experience: a value-free history of the Nazis. That would be drab indeed.
Luckily, it works out differently. The book is, in fact, full of moralising outbursts, but coming from contemporary witnesses rather than from Evans himself. And the events themselves grow only more horrifying as their details are magnified by the author's research.
Instead of moral judgments, Evans puts in lively and often contentious historical judgments. He, for instance, thinks that German history before about 1813 is totally irrelevant to the rise of National Socialism; he won't hear the old argument that Luther contributed to an ethos of resigned obedience to Satanic rulers. I think he might be wrong about that. But he is absolutely right about another irrelevance, when he warns that the consumption of high culture (Bach, Cranach, Goethe and all that) tells you nothing whatever about whether the consumer will take to political barbarism. To my regret, he also demolishes my own belief that the Weimar Republic did have a few 'golden years' and might have succeeded.
Even in such a large-scale work, there are gaps. Richard Evans underplays the overwhelming pull of the Volksgemeinschaft idea (the concept of racial and virtual equality and unity). And the reader gets a clearer notion of how offensive traditionalists found the cultural and sexual experiments of Weimar than of the delight and freedom they brought to the urban young. But his cool way of narrating makes many tangled episodes - the Munich Soviet of 1919, or the Reichstag fire - more understandable. And his account of the tsunami of terror and sadism which burst over Germany after the Nazis took power is all the more appalling because it concentrates on small detail rather than on big adjectives.
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