I spent the last few weeks reading Richard J. Evans’s masterful trilogy on the history of the Third Reich.
The first volume (which I had previously read a few years ago but decided to reread), The Coming of the Third Reich, covers the origins and causes of Nazism, culminating in Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. The second, The Third Reich in Power, covers Nazi Germany from 1933 to the onset of war in 1939. The last, The Third Reich at War, covers Nazi Germany from the invasion of Poland to the end of the war, with a little bit of what happened after.
This was almost 2,000 pages of reading. Here is a short summary, for my own benefit, of what I took away from these books. Some of this I already knew, but it was useful to see it all connected together in book form.
Volume 1, on the origins of Nazism:
Nazism was not inherent in German history or philosophy or in the German people. In fact, historically there was a strain of human rights in German thought. But we can’t escape the fact that Nazism happened in Germany, not elsewhere. Why? It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the ingredients really began to take shape under Bismarck; militarism, German nationalism, an overheated political atmosphere, the rise of science and a “scientific” approach to racial hygiene, antisemitism not just as a religious concept (which could be avoided by religious conversion) but as a “modern” racial concept (something inextricable from one’s identity). Hitler grew up in this milieu, absorbed it, and synthesized it into something that could appeal to people as a unified concept, and it came at a time when people were looking for a solution to their problems. Would Nazism have happened without Hitler? Perhaps or perhaps not, but all the ingredients were already there. He didn’t create them.
The post-WWI Weimar Republic never had much of a chance; few people truly loved it, and it was actively undermined by communists on the left and by conservative German nationalists on the right. Once the Depression began, any hope for its success disappeared; the political center disintegrated, leaving the Nazis and the Communists to fight each other for power. The Nazis won through shrewd use of propaganda and the political system, although interestingly, they never actually received majority support in any popular election; but they received pluralities, which was enough. Once Hitler gained power, he ended elections, and eventually most people were willing to accept Nazi dictatorship if it meant German economic improvement and success. Much of the population was actively pro-Nazi, but many were just going along, not fanatically in support or opposed. (And there were those who were quietly opposed, or even not so quietly – and some who were not outright opposed but at least uncomfortable with them.)
Volume 2, on Nazi Germany before the war:
What was Nazism about, once in power? Quite simply, it was about the alleged superiority of the German “race,” and about preparing for war in order to achieve “living space” (lebensraum) for the German race; and it was also about hatred of Jews more than any other group of people. While other racial groups, such as Slavs and gypsies, were seen as racially inferior and wholly dispensable, the Jews were seen as worse: not just racially inferior, but dangerous villains bent on subversive and insidious world domination, the “Jewish bacillus.” The Slavs, the gypsies, the mentally and physically handicapped, and the homosexuals were seen as obstacles to the propagation of the superior German race, but the Jews were seen as terrible villains bent on world conquest.
Later in the twentieth century some political scientists tried to categorize Nazism as anti-communist and pro-capitalist; but Nazis saw Jews as controlling both the communists and the capitalists. Hitler purposely appealed to (non-Jewish) business leaders to win their political and financial support, but Nazi Germany was not philosophically a pro-capitalist free-market economy; big business and industry was useful only as a way to build up armaments for war. When government control and direction of industry became necessary to further the military buildup, so be it. The ultimate goal, again, was war in order to achieve living space for the superior German race. The overriding philosophy of Nazi Germany was not about the role of government; it was about race.
Volume 3, on the Third Reich at war:
The Nazis went to war in 1939, but they had essentially lost by 1943. At first Germany had the advantage of surprise (in the blitzkrieg), but ultimately Germany never had a chance against the industrial and demographic power of the United States, Britain, and — importantly, as we in the West often forget — the Soviet Union. The last two years were a slow, but expected, German defeat. As Germany began to lose, and the Western allies began to bomb German cities, German morale deteriorated and Nazi Germany collapsed, but not before millions of Jews, and smaller but still substantial numbers of others, were horrifically murdered. The book goes into grim detail about the Holocaust, which makes for difficult reading at times.
We must always remember Nazi Germany, but there will never be a Fourth Reich; if Nazism revives, it will more likely happen elsewhere. The Nazis are a cautionary lesson not just for Germany, but for humanity.