The Close Scrutiny of History

Richard Evans, The Third Reich in History and Memory 

            Books about Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich continue to proliferate, filling the reading public’s seemingly insatiable desire for more information about one of history’s most odious regimes.  But spending one’s limited reading time on Hitler, the Nazis and the Third Reich is for most readers not a formula for uplifting the spirit.  Those who wish to broaden their understanding of the Nazi regime yet limit their engagement with the subject are likely to find Richard Evans’ The Third Reich in History and Memory well suited to their needs.  If Peter Hayes’ Why: Explaining the Holocaust, reviewed here earlier this month, was a vehicle to see the dense and intimidating forest of the Holocaust through its many trees, Evans’ work might be considered a close-up look at selected trees within the forest of the Third Reich.

          The Third Reich in History and Memory provides an indication of how broadly our knowledge of the Nazi regime has expanded in the first two decades of the 21st century alone.  The book is compilation of Evans’ earlier reviews of other studies of the Nazi regime, most of which have been previously published.  Evans uses the word “essay” to describe his reviews, and that is the appropriate term. The book consists, as he puts it, of “extended book reviews that use a new study of one or other aspect of the Third Reich as a starting point for wider reflections” (p.x). All reviews/essays were published originally in this century, most since 2010; the oldest dates to 2001. Evans, a prolific scholar who has been Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University, President of Cambridge’s Wolfson College, and Provost of London’s Gresham College, is also the author of the Third Reich Trilogy, a three volume work that is probably the most comprehensive single study of Nazi Germany.

          The “Memory” portion of Evans’ title alludes to what he considers the most remarkable change in historical work on Nazi Germany since the late 20th century, the “increasing intertwining of history and memory,” (p.ix), reflected in particular in several reviews/essays that address post-war Germany.  It is now almost impossible, Evans observes, to write about the Third Reich “without also thinking about how its memory survived, often in complex and surprising ways, in the postwar years” (p.ix). But memory “needs to be subjected to the close scrutiny of history if it is to stand up, while history’s implications for the collective cultural memory of Nazism in the present need to be spelled out with precision as well as with passion” (p.x; the collection does not include a review of Lawrence Douglas’ The Right Wrong Man, reviewed here in July 2017, an account of the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk and a telling reminder of the limits of memory of Holocaust survivors).

            The book contains 28 separate reviews, arranged into seven sections: German antecedents to the Third Reich; internal workings of the regime; its economy; its foreign policy; its military decision-making; the Holocaust; and the regime’s after effects.  Each of the seven sections contains three to six reviews; each review is an individual chapter, with each chapter only loosely related to the others in the section.  The collection begins with chapters on Imperial Germany’s practices in its own colonies prior to World War I and the possibility of links to the Nazi era; it ends with a chapter on post-World War II German art and architecture, and what they might tell us about the Third Reich’s legacy.  In between, individual chapters look at a diverse range of subjects, including Hitler’s mental and physical health; his relationship with his ally Benito Mussolini; the role of the Krupp industrial consortium in building the German economy in the 1930s and 1940s; and the role of the German Foreign Office in the conduct of the war.  In these and the book’s other chapters, Evans reveals his mastery of unfamiliar aspects of the Third Reich.

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            Germany’s pre-World War I colonies seemed an irrelevance and were largely forgotten in the years immediately following World War II.  But with the emergence of what is sometimes called post-colonial studies, historians “now put racism and racial ideology instead of totalitarianism and class exploitation at the center of their explanations of National Socialism [and] . . . the history of the German colonizing experience no longer seem[s] so very irrelevant” (p.7).  Evans’ two initial chapters, among the most thought-provoking in the collection, review two works addressing the question of the extent to which Germany’s colonial experience prior to World War I may have established a foundation for its subsequent attempt to subjugate much of Europe and eliminate European Jewry: Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History; and Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler.

          Germany’s pre-World War I overseas empire was short-lived compared to that of the other European powers.  It came into being, largely over Bismarck’s objections, in the 1880s, and ended abruptly with Germany’s defeat in World War I, after which it was stripped of all its overseas territories (along with much of its European territory).  But in the final decades of the 19th century, Germany amassed an eclectic group of colonies that by 1914 constituted Europe’s 4th largest empire, after those of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands.  It included, in Africa, Namibia, Cameroon, Tanganyika (predecessor to Tanzania), Togo, and the predecessors to Rwanda and Burundi, along with assorted Pacific Islands.

           In its relatively brief period as an overseas colonizer, Germany earned the dubious distinction of being the only European power to introduce concentration camps, “named them as such and deliberately created conditions so harsh that their purpose was clearly as much to exterminate their inmates as it was to force them to work” (p.6). Violence, “including public beatings of Africans,” was “a part of everyday life in the German colonies” (p.10). In a horrifying 1904-07 war against the Herrer and Nama tribes in Namibia, Germany wiped out half of the population of each, one of the clearest instances of genocide perpetrated by a European power in Africa. Germany alone among the European powers banned racial intermarriage in their colonies.  Yet Evans, writing both for himself and the two works under review, cautions against drawing too direct a line between the pre-World War I German colonial experience and the atrocities perpetrated in World War II.  German colonialism, he concludes, “does seem to have been more systematically racist in conception and more brutally violent in operation that that of other European nations, but this does not mean it inspired the Holocaust” (p.13).

         Almost all chapters in the book intersect in some way with the Holocaust and thus with Hayes’ work.  But that intersection is most evident in the sixth of the seven sections, “The Politics of Genocide,” where Evans reviews Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire and, in a chapter entitled “Was the ‘Final Solution’ Unique?,” a compendium of German essays addressing this question.  This chapter, itself originally in German but revised and translated into English for this volume, confronts the argument that the Holocaust was a crime without precedent or parallel in history, so appalling that it is “illegitimate to compare it with anything else” (p.365).  Evans dismisses this argument as “theological.”

          Comparison “doesn’t mean simply drawing out similarities,” Evans argues, it also means “isolating differences and weighing the two” (p.365).  If the Holocaust was unique, the “never again” slogan becomes meaningless.  Ascribing categorical uniqueness to the Holocaust may be rewarding for theologians, he writes.  But, sounding much like Hayes, he reminds us that the historian must approach the Holocaust in the “same way an any other large-scale historical phenomenon, which means asking basic, comparative questions and trying to answer them at the level of secular rationality” (p.365).  Asking comparative questions at this level nevertheless leads Evans to find a unique quality to the Holocaust, without parallel elsewhere: its sweeping, racialist ideological underpinnings.

          The Nazi genocide of the Jews was unique, Evans contends, in that it was intended to be geographically and temporally unlimited.  To Hitler, the Jews were a world enemy, a “deadly, universal threat” to the existence of Germany that had to be “eliminated by any means possible, as fast as possible, as thoroughly as possible” (p.381).  The Nazis’ obsessive desire to be “comprehensive and make no exceptions, anywhere, is a major factor distinguishing the Nazis’ racial war from all other racial wars in history” (p.376-77).  Young Turkish nationalists launched a campaign of genocide against the Armenian Christian minority in Anatolia.  But the Armenians were not seen as part of a world conspiracy against the Turks, as the Germans saw the Jews.  The 1994 assault by Hutus on Tutsis in the former German colony of Rwanda was also geographically limited.   Moreover, both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany occupied Poland during World War II after the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact (detailed in Roger Moorhouse’s The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, reviewed here in May 2016).  The Soviet occupation of Poland, albeit brutal, was carried out to implement ideological goals but was “not an attempt to exterminate entire peoples” (p.367).

           This difference between the Soviet and Nazi occupation in Poland leads Evans to a severe reproach of Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder’s otherwise highly-acclaimed examination of the mass murders conducted by the Soviets and the Nazis in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the Baltic States during the 1930s and the war years, in which Snyder emphasizes similarities between the policies and practices of the two regimes.  Most prominent among Evans’ numerous objections to Bloodlands  is that its comparison of Hitler’s plans for Eastern Europe with Stalin’s mass murders in the same geographic areas “distracts attention from what was unique about the extermination of the Jews. That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on” (p.396).  Bloodlands, Evans concludes, “forms part of a post-war narrative that homogenizes the history of mass murder by equating Hitler’s policies with those of Stalin” (p.398).  We “do not need to be told again about the facts of mass murder,” he petulantly intones, but rather to “understand why it took place and how people could carry it out, and in this task Snyder’s book is of no use” (p.398).

         Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire, the third work under review in the section on the Holocaust, draws a more sympathetic review. Mazower considered the policies and practices of the German occupation of much of Europe during World War II against the backdrop of the British and other European empires.  Hitler’s empire, Evans writes, was the “shortest-lived of all imperial creations, and the last” (p.364).  But for a brief moment in the second half of 1941, it seemed possible that the Nazis’ megalomaniac vision of world domination, taking on Great Britain and the United States after defeating the Soviet Union, might become reality.  The Nazis, however, had “no coherent idea of how their huge new empire was to be made to serve the global purposes for which it was intended” (p.358).  Mazower’s “absorbing and thought-provoking account,” Evans concludes, paradoxically “makes us view the older European empires in a relatively favorable light.  Growing up over decades, even centuries, they had remained in existence only through a complex nexus of collaboration, compromise and accommodation. Racist they may have been, murderous sometimes, even on occasion exterminatory, but none of them were created or sustained on the basis of such a narrow or exploitative nationalism as animated the Nazi empire” (p.364).

           Three of the works which Evans reviews will be familiar to assiduous readers of this blog: R.H. Douglas’ Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War (reviewed here in August 2015); Heike Görtemaker’s Eva Braun: Life With Hitler (March 2013); and Ian Kershaw’s The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45 (December 2012).   All three earn Evan’s high praise.  Douglas’ book tells the little-known story of the expulsion of ethnic Germans, Volkdeutsch, from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania in 1945 and 1946, into a battered and beaten Germany.  It is one example of research on post-war Germany, where the “subterranean continuities with the Nazi era have become steadily more apparent” (p.x).

            Douglas breaks new ground by showing how the ethnic cleanings of “millions of undesirable citizens did not end with the Nazis but continued well into the years after the fall of the Third Reich, though this time directed against the Germans rather than perpetrated by them” (p.x).  His work thus constitutes a “major achievement,” at last putting the neglected subject matter on a scholarly footing.  Orderly and Humane “should be on the desk of every international policy-maker as well as every historian of twentieth century Europe.  Characterized by assured scholarship, cool objectivity and convincing detail,” Douglas’ work  is also a “passionate plea for tolerance and fairness in a multi-cultural world” (p.412).

           The central question of Görtemaker’s biography of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress (and his wife for 24 hours, before the newlyweds committed suicide in the Berlin bunker on the last day of April 1945), is the extent to which Braun was knowledgeable about, and therefore complicit in, the enormous war crimes and crimes against humanity engineered by the man in her life.  Evans finds highly convincing Görtemaker’s conclusion that Braun was fully cognizant of what her man was up to: “There can be little doubt that Eva Braun closely followed the major events of the war,” he writes, and that she “felt her fate was bound inextricably to that of her companion’s from the outset” (p.160; I was less convinced, describing Görtemaker’s case as based on “inference rather than concrete evidence,” and noting that Görtemaker conceded that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered”).

            Ian Kershaw is a scholar of the same generation as Evans who rivals him in stature as a student of the Nazi regime — among his many works is a two-volume biography of Hitler.  His The End provides the grisly details on how and why Germany continued to fight in the second half of 1944 and the first half of 1945, when it was clear that the war was lost.  It is, Evans writes, a “vivid account of the last days of Hitler’s Reich, with a real feel for the mentalities and situations of people caught up in a calamity which many didn’t survive, and which those who did took years to overcome” (p.351).

            The remaining chapters in the collection address subjects equally likely to be unfamiliar yet of interest to general readers.  Of course, the advantage of a collection of this sort is that readers are not obliged to read every chapter; they can pick and choose among them.  One editorial weakness to the collection is the absence of any indication at the beginning of each chapter of the specific work under review and where it was first published.  Evans rarely mentions the work under review until well into the chapter. There is a list of “Acknowledgements” at the end that sets out this information.  But the initial entries are in the wrong order, adding confusion and limiting the utility of the list.

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            Evans’ reviews/essays are impressive both for their breath and their depth.  Throughout, Evans proves to be an able guide for readers hoping to draw informed lessons from recent works about the Third Reich.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 25, 2018

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4 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History

4 responses to “The Close Scrutiny of History

  1. I would think that the genocide committed by the Nazis were unlike any other because they had a worldwide vision and a worldwide ambition about race, and succeeded in winning over a sizable part of Germany and part of some other nations. For them only Aryans would do, even Germans were not good enough if they were no healthy. The lebensborn program was a vibrant testimony to that unique ideology.

    • A nice point, Chanh, reflected more in Peter Hayes’ book on the Holocaust, reviewed in August prior to my review of Evans’ book. Hayes is telling us, at least implicitly, that yes, it could happen elsewhere, including countries that could be considered as “civilized” as Germany. But, that said, Hayes is also intent upon showing us that it was the product of very German historical circumstances.

  2. David Gross

    This is some meta work: a book review about a book full of book reviews. It seems like something for a reader who is really interested in the state of the current scholarship of the Holocaust. Never forget.

    You read some of these already, Tom. Did Evan’s work cause you to put any more on your reading list?

    • Thanks, Dave. The book I’d most like to read is Timothy Synder’s Bloodlands, Evans’ review of which is discussed in my review. I passed on Snyder’s book when it first appeared for reasons I can’t quite recall (probably that it was too long). But Evans’ review was so petulant and mean spirited that it perked my interest. In internet research, I learned that Evans’ review had stirred quite a brouhaha in the academic world as an example of “payback time”: Snyder had been less than complimentary in an earlier review of one of Evans’ books. You can read about this academic “spitting contest,” to use the polite term, at:

      https://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital/2010/11/snyder-book-evans-review

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