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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, February 10th, 2004


 

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In 2000 Ian Kershaw completed his two-volume Hitler — a masterpiece of academic biography, which perhaps will never be superseded — and Michael Burleigh published his one-volume narrative of Germany under the Nazis, the best scholarly general history of the subject until now.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.


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