The Coming of the Third Reich
by Richard J. Evans
A review by Benjamin Schwarz
Three British historians have recently written commanding and lasting chronicles
of the Third Reich. In 2000 Ian Kershaw completed his two-volume Hitler a
masterpiece of academic biography, which perhaps will never be superseded and
Michael Burleigh published his one-volume narrative of Germany
under the Nazis, the best scholarly general history of the subject until now.
Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (he was the utterly convincing,
if prickly and pedantic, scholar whose testimony thwarted the libel suit of the
notorious David Irving), has published the first of a projected three volumes
that when finished will long remain the definitive English-language account. Although
Burleigh's history is written with more flair, it lacks the scope and depth of
Evans's, which probes far more fully into social, economic, labor, cultural, and
legal matters. And whereas Burleigh took a self-conscious and distracting condemnatory
approach (one would have thought a degree of moral agreement had already been
reached regarding the Nazis), Evans's tone is cool, and hence far more authoritative.
But his book is not without flaws. This volume ends in mid-1933, just after the
Nazis crushed the opposition political parties, abolished the trade unions, cowed
their conservative sometime allies, and brought the churches to heel and
Evans confirms Burleigh's emphasis on the central role played by the Nazis' skillful
deployment of street violence and political terror in engendering popular compliance
and in preparing the ground for the Nazification of all aspects of German life.
But whereas this portion of his work is both gripping and precise, the opening
sections the book's first 150 pages are diffuse and intellectually lazy.
In these chapters, devoted to historical background, Evans catalogues such topics
as the history of German anti-Semitism; the religious, regional, and class differences
that divided Bismarck's Germany; the Weimar Republic's structural political weaknesses;
and culture, the arts, and public morals in the 1920s. But he fails to link them
with exactitude to the subject of his book the rise of Nazism. The extent
to which Hitler and the Nazis were a natural or even an inevitable outgrowth of
forces embedded in German history and society is, of course, a subject of perennial
debate, and Evans can't really be faulted for failing to come up with a definitive
interpretation. But by letting the facts merely sit on the page, with almost no
attempt to interpret, shape, and dissect them, he essentially throws up his hands;
these flabby chapters mar the work as a whole, and they clash with Evans's crisp,
analytical, meticulously argued history, which emerges as soon as Hitler and the
Nazis enter the story. (Evans's closing chapter, in which he assesses both the
extent and the limits of the Nazis' electoral success and, concomitantly, Hitler's
use of both law and thuggery in establishing a one-party state, is as bracingly
intelligent a historical analysis as I've read.) An always reliable, often magisterial
synthesis of a vast body of scholarship, and a frequently deft blend of narrative
and interpretation, Evans's book is an impressive achievement. If in his subsequent
volumes he avoids the laxness that vitiates this one, his opus will be one of
the major historical works of our time.
Special Atlantic Monthly
subscription price for Powell's shoppers subscribe today for only $19.95.
Atlantic Monthly places you at the leading edge of contemporary issues plus the very best in fiction, poetry, travel, food and humor. Subscribe today and get 8 issues of the magazine delivered to you for only $19.95 that's a savings of over $19 off the newsstand price.
To order at this special
Powell's price click here.