Richard J. Evans’ The Coming Of The Third Reich

One of my most vivid high school memories is of sitting in my history class, back straight, eyes on my notebook, as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had lectured for an hour, without pause, on the rise of Nazism in Germany. That was his style, whether the subject was the Kennedy assassination or the civil rights movement – uninterrupted lecturing, with his classroom of teenage boys furiously scribbling notes to keep up with the barrage of names and dates, expertly woven into a coherent and compelling narrative. The story of Hitler’s revolution in Germany particularly captivated me, knowing, as I did, that the street brawls and beer haul speeches would culminate in a global conflict and industrial mass murder. I still have my notebook from that class, more than a decade later; the pages are filled to the margins with barely-legible scribbles, but the notes themselves rival anything I wrote in college in their comprehensiveness. I mention this, because reading Richard J. Evans’ The Coming Of The Third Reich, the first in a trilogy of books dealing with Nazi Germany, transported me back to my high school self and my first encounters with the thrill of history, the sense that the past could be made vivid and real and terrifying.

As Evans points out in his Preface, the subject of Nazi Germany has drawn endless historical study, often in the minutest detail, but general surveys of the topic, aimed at the lay public, are rare. The monumental exception is William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which has sold millions of copies since its 1960 publication, but, Evans argues, has also earned the opprobrium of historians for numerous errors and oversights, as well as the air of inevitability its narrative arc lends to the history of Nazi Germany. Could it have been otherwise, or was the rise of Hitler and his one-party dictatorship somehow Germany’s destiny, given its history of nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism? Evans seeks to answer this question by covering “a wide range of major aspects of the history of the Third Reach: not only politics, diplomacy and military affairs but also society, the economy, racial policy, police and justice, literature, culture and the arts.” This is indeed a massive undertaking, attested to by the 200+ pages of footnotes, but the payoff is a panoramic perspective on the social and political collapse of an entire country.

Of particular interest to me, reading about events taking place within the last century, were some of the less-remarked upon causes of the political upheaval that made the Nazi party attractive to – at its height – some 37% of the German voting public (as measured in the last free election, before Hitler unleashed the brown shirts to intimidate rival candidates, parties, and even opposition voters). The two most commonly offered causes for Hitler’s rise include, first, Germany’s humiliating defeat in the First World War, coupled with the widely believed myth that their loss was not a military defeat but a betrayal at the hands of disloyal Germans (the “stabbed-in-the-back” narrative); and second, the extreme hyperinflation that decimated the German economy, resulting in men and women carting their life savings out of banks in wheelbarrows simply to purchase a loaf of bread or piece of meat. In truth, these two causes are related, for the German government that fought the First World War was running large deficits, on the assumption that victory would mean the vanquished would foot their bills. Instead, their defeat resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, and the infamous “war guilt clause” that mandated reparations payments from Germany that not only added to their financial woes but handicapped their politicians: raising taxes, the usual means of dealing with a budget shortfall, became political suicide, for it rendered the fiscally responsible politician susceptible to the charge that they were taxing the Germans to pay the French. This much is generally understood, forming the bulk of the received wisdom, but there was another cause of resentment I had not been aware of: Austria.

[…] the American President Woodrow Wilson had declared, in his celebrated ‘Fourteen Points’ which he wished the Allied powers to be working for, that every nation should be able to determine its own future, free from interference by others. If this applied to the Poles, the Czechs and the Yugoslavs, then surely it should apply to the Germans as well? But it did not. What, the Allies asked themselves, had they been fighting for, if the German Reich ended the war bigger by six million people and a considerable amount of additional territory, including one of Europe’s greatest cities? So the union was vetoed. Of all the territorial provisions of the Treaty, this seemed the most unjust. Proponents and critics of the Allied position could argue over the merits of the other provisions and dispute the fairness or otherwise of the plebiscites that decided the territorial issue in places like Upper Silesia; but on the Austrian issue there was no room for argument at all. The Austrians wanted union; the Germans were prepared to accept union; the principle of national self-determination demanded union. The fact that the Allies forbade union remained a constant source of bitterness in Germany and condemned the new ‘Republic of German-Austria,’ as it was known, to two decades of conflict-ridden, crisis-racked existence in which few of its citizens ever came to believe in its legitimacy.

Now, consider the fate of moderate, well-intentioned German politicians, eager to abide by international law. If they sought to remedy Germany’s financial crisis, they were denounced as traitors, aiding the hateful French occupiers (France kept forces stationed in the industrial Ruhr area, both to quell dissent and ensure the timely delivery of their reparation payments). If they were silent on the fairness of the hugely unpopular Treaty of Versailles – and what other option did they have? – then they were arming the more radical fringes of German politics, who could denounce the Treaty with impunity and be assured of finding sympathetic ears among the German public.

Another consequence of the hyperinflation of the German currency, and one that I was previously entirely unaware of, was a sharp increase in crime, particularly theft. When money becomes worthless, goods become extremely valuable, particularly food, and armed standoffs between farmers and starving peasants were a common sight in the countryside. “Convictions for theft, which had numbered 115,000 in 1913, peaked at 365,000 in 1923. Seven times more offenders were convicted of handling stolen goods in 1923 than in 1913.” Foreign shipping firms, aware of the magnitude of the crisis, sought to dock their goods at other ports. German cinema came to reflect the national mood, with famous crime and horror films such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s M all appearing in this period. Here is Evans, explaining the widespread impact of hyperinflation:

Hyperinflation became a trauma whose influence affected the behaviour of Germans of all classes long afterwards. It added to the feeling in the more conservative sections of the population of a world turned upside down, first by defeat, then by revolution, and now by economics. It destroyed faith in the neutrality of the law as a social regulator, between debtors and creditors, rich and poor, and undermined notions of the fairness and equity that the law was supposed to maintain. It debased the language of politics, already driven to hyperbolic over-emphasis by the events of 1918-19. It lent new power to stock fantasy-images of evil, not just the criminal and the gambler, but also the speculator and, fatefully, the financially manipulative Jew.

In a country so debased, that went from being Europe’s economic and perhaps even cultural powerhouse prior to World War I to the victim of crippling economic and social disasters, radical politics took on an unusual appeal. Evans makes vivid for his readers the regular battles between communists and fascists, far left and far right, that transpired in pubs or in the streets. The more extreme the political party, the more likely it had a paramilitary wing eager to do battle on its behalf, and wholly uninterested in the humdrum fixtures of the democratic process: discussing, debating, compromising.

Mixing anecdotes and data, diary entries and political speeches, Evans makes all of this horrifyingly real for his readers, vivifying the self-destruction of an entire culture and the descent, of an entire people, into madness.