Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich At War

The third and final volume in Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans’ monumentally ambitious history of the Third Reich begins with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and does not conclude until the fate of the last Nazis – those who were ushered through underground networks out of Europe to Brazil and Argentina – has been sealed, either by their own hand or their eventual capture and execution. Even with 800 pages to work with, that’s a lot of ground to cover: the invasions of Poland, France, Denmark, and Norway; the Blitz; Operation Barbarossa, the disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union; the prolonged battle for North Africa; the dramatic naval battles in the Atlantic; and, of course, Nazi domestic policy, beginning with the persecution of the “racially unfit” and culminating in the so-called “Final Solution,” the systematic extermination of six million of Europe’s Jews. Nor is this a mere recounting of the events as they unfolded. On the contrary, Evans scours diaries, letters, government transcripts, newspapers and memoirs to give his readers the most comprehensive possible impression of what life at this time was like, for everyone involved. Needless to say, this is not a book for the faint of heart.

One of the themes of not only this book but the entire series is the extent to which the events that transpired, from 1939 onward, were the direct consequence of the ideology of Nazism, evident from the very beginning. Readers of Mein Kampf well know the foundations of Nazi policy were set down, and made publicly available, in 1925: the championing of a racial hierarchy, with Jews and Slavs at the bottom; the importance of “struggle” and conflict; and the need for “lebensraum,” living space, to be provided by deporting or murdering the peoples of Eastern Europe. Evans quotes Hitler, from a meeting on August 22, 1939, with his leading generals, preparatory to their invasion of Poland:

Our strength lies in our speed and our brutality. Genghis Khan hunted millions of women and children to their deaths, consciously and with a joyous heart. History sees in him only the great founder of a state… I have issued a command – and I will have everyone who utters even a single word of criticism shot – that the aim of the war lies not in reaching particular lines but in the physical annihilation of the enemy. Thus, so far only in the east, I have put my Death’s Head formations at the ready with the command to send man, woman and child of Polish descent and language to their deaths, pitilessly and remorselessly… Poland will be depopulation and settled with Germans.

Nearly 15 years after the publication of his memoir/manifesto, Hitler was given the opportunity to act on his precepts. The invasion of Poland was almost a foregone conclusion, enabling the Nazi bureaucracy to go to work, in a process that would be repeated and refined over the ensuing years.

The Germanization of the incorporated territories began when 88,000 Poles and Jews were arrested in Posen in the first half of December 1939, taken by train to the General Government and dumped there on arrival. Fit and able-bodied men were separated out and taken to Germany as forced labourers. None of them received any compensation for the loss of their homes, their property, their businesses or their assets. The conditions of their deportation, in the middle of winter, with inadequate clothing and supplies, in unheated freight trucks, were murderous. When one trainload arrived in Cracow in mid-December 1939, the receiving officials had to take off the bodies of forty children who had frozen to death on the journey.

Polish children, orphaned by the invasion but deemed ethnically suitable – by whatever arbitrary criteria the Nazis employed – were collected in camps, given German names and identity papers, and sent to German foster families. “All of this led to a kind of officially sanctioned black market in babies and small children, in which childless German couples acquired Polish infants and brought them up as Germans. 80 percent of the deported children never returned to their families in Poland.” Not only Polish lives but Polish culture itself came under assault: schools were shut down; museums, archives, libraries and publishing houses destroyed; monuments to important Polish historical figures were torn down; Polish intellectuals were rounded up and shot, or sent to concentration camps; and textbooks and other teaching materials burned. The Jews of Poland were particularly vulnerable, and particularly persecuted. It is worth reading, in full, Evans’ description of the Warsaw ghetto, to appreciate both the scope of their suffering and the comprehensiveness of Evans’ reporting:

The creation of the Warsaw ghetto involved the concentration of nearly a third of the city’s population into 2.4 per cent of its territory. After a further 66,000 Jews from the surrounding district were brought in during the first three months of 1941, some 445,000 people were crammed into an area of about 400 hectares in extent, with an average density, according to an official German estimate, of over 15 people per apartment or between 6 and 7 to a room, double the density of the population living in the rest of the city. Some rooms no more than 24 square meters in area had to provide living accommodation for as many as 25 or 30 people. Fuel was so scarce that few apartments were heated, even in the coldest winter. The death rate among Warsaw’s Jewish population rose from 1 per thousand in 1939 to 10.7 in 1941; in Lódź it was even higher, at 43.3 in 1940 and 75.9 the following year. Children were particularly vulnerable; one in four children in the Warsaw ghetto shelters died in June 1941 alone, and so bad was the situation of children overall that a number of families treid to give their offspring away to non-Jewish families in the surrounding city. Orphaned children began to roam the streets of the ghetto in growing numbers. ‘A terrifying, simply monstrous impression is made,’ Emanuel Ringelblum confessed, by ‘… the wailing of children who… beg for alms, or whine that they have nowhere to sleep. At the corner of Leszno and Markelicka streets,’ he reported, ‘children weep bitterly at night. Although I hear this weeping every night, I cannot fall asleep until late. The couple of pence I give them nightly cannot ease my conscience.’

Such suffering defies comprehension. But the Warsaw ghetto represented only a temporary “solution” – it took the discovery of an efficient killing method, first put into effect on the most helpless members of society, to bring the Nazis closer to their ultimate goal.

In August of 1939, the Reich Committee for the Scientific Registering of Serious Hereditary and Congenital Illnesses issued an order to hospitals to register all “malformed” new children. “These included infants suffering from Down’s syndrome, microcephaly, the absence of a limb or deformities of the head or spine, cerebral palsy, and similar conditions, and vaguely defined conditions such as ‘idiocy.'” Doctors and nurses were further incentivized in this process via payment: two Reichsmarks for each child registered. Simultaneously, a series of “clinics” were established, where these poor children were to be exterminated.

This whole process of registration, transport and killing was initially directed not at infants and children who were already in hospitals or care institutions, but at those who lived at home, with their parents. The parents were informed that the children would be well looked after, or even that removal to a specialist clinic held out the promise of a cure, or at least an improvement in their condition. Given the hereditarian bias of the diagnoses, a large proportion of the families were poor and ill-educated, and a good proportion of them were already stigmatized as ‘asocial’ or ‘hereditarily inferior.’ Those who raised objections to the removal of their offspring from the family home were sometimes threatened with withdrawal of benefits if they did not comply. […] Once admitted by the social and medical services, the children were put in special wards, away from the other patients. Most of the killing centres carried out their task by starving the children to death or administering overdoses of the sedative Luminal in their food. After a few days the children would develop breathing problems and eventually succumb to bronchitis or pneumonia. Sometimes the doctors left these diseased untreated, sometimes they finished the children off with lethal injections of morphine.

Evans estimates that some 5,000 children lost their lives in this fashion over the course of the war. Next to be targeted were the adult residents of Germany’s various asylums, some 70,000 in total, whose various illnesses, ranging in severity from schizophrenia to depression, marked them for death. But here the Nazis ran into a problem of scale: killing 5,000 children might have proven easy, but to murder tens of thousands of adults required forethought. It was SS officer Albert Widmann, with a background in chemistry, who concocted the idea of the gas chambers, which were quickly implemented at killing clinics across Germany. Asylum patients selected for death were picked up in large grey vans and transported to the gas chambers, where the procedures followed would become infamous at places like Auschwitz and Majdanek:

They were given an identity check and a perfunctory physical examination aimed mainly at gaining hints for a plausible cause of death to enter in the records; those with valuable gold fillings in their teeth were marked with a cross on the back or shoulder. An identifying number was stamped or stuck on to their body, they were photographed (to demonstrate their supposed physical and mental inferiority) and then, still naked, they were taken into a gas chamber disguised to look like a shower room.

In this manner, thousands could be killed with ruthless efficiency. As for staff, Evans reports on a festivity at the Harkheim killing center, where the staff celebrated their ten-thousandth killing with a party around the naked body of the final victim. Never one to spare his reader, Evans follows this up with excerpts from the harrowing letters written to the asylums by friends and family of the deceased, frantically wondering what has become of their loved ones.

There are, of course, disadvantages to this style of history, so all-encompassing that it cannot dwell on any one event for too long. Key battles are often passed over in a page (the sinking of the Bismarck merits only a sentence), and the barrage of horrific details – a thousand dead here, ten thousand there – is often stupefying. And yet the final result – a comprehensive survey of six years of the worst atrocities committed in the history of our species – delivers on the promise of the first two books, and leaves the reader with a clearer understanding of how it all happened – and how great is the imperative never to allow this history to repeat itself.