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Saturday, July 3rd, 2004


The Coming of the Third Reich

by Richard J. Evans

A review by Doug Brown

In recent years a number of scholarly tomes on the Third Reich have been written, from Ian Kershaw's two-volume Hitler biography to Michael Burleigh's monumental The Third Reich: A New History. Richard Evans now enters the fray with a solid first volume of what will ultimately be a three-part history of the Nazi regime. Evans, a professor of history at Cambridge, first gained attention as an expert witness in the libel case in which Holocaust denier David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for claiming in her book Denying the Holocaust that Irving was a poor scholar who intentionally misrepresented data. Irving lost, and Evans wrote about the experience in his book Lying about Hitler.

The Coming of the Third Reich covers events in Germany from the late 19th century through mid-1933. The Bismarckian Reich, Versailles, the Weimar Republic, and Germany's hyperinflation are all covered, along with the strand of antisemitism in European culture. The Nazis were just one of many right-wing parties that appeared in Germany after WWI. Nationalism was strong, and the fear that Bolshevism and Communism were out to undermine Germany gave strength to these parties, who often violently clashed with Communists in the streets. Through the 1920s and 1930s the Catholic Church often aligned itself with fascistic right-wing regimes because they opposed Communism, which the church saw as an atheistic force; they formed a Concordat with the Nazis in 1933.

In the early 1930s the Nazi party pushed more and more for elections, which they performed increasingly well in. They received 18% of the vote in the September 1930 Reichstag election, and by July 1932 they had doubled this. They held far more Reichstag seats than any other party, though still not enough to command an absolute majority. Even though the party had enough seats for Hitler to come to power heading a coalition government, Hitler wasn't interested in sharing power. Thus he held out while the Brownshirts carried out a campaign of violence in the streets. Finally Hitler was appointed Chancellor to bring the violence under control in January 1933.

This was not when the Nazis truly came into power, however. As chancellor, Hitler still depended on the Reichstag and the president to get things done. It took an act of terrorism for the Nazis to really take over. On February 27, 1933, an unemployed Dutch Communist named Marinus van der Lubbe broke into the Reichstag Building and set it ablaze. While subsequent conspiracy theories have tried to pin the fire on the Nazis, van der Lubbe appears to have been working on his own. But the Nazis saw their chance and took it, beginning with the Reichstag fire decree. Among its provisions, the decree "allowed the police to detain people in protective custody indefinitely and without a court order, in contrast to previous laws and decrees, which had set strict time limits before judicial intervention occurred." Hermann Göring spoke to the Reich cabinet, "claiming that van der Lubbe had been seen with leading Communists...shortly before he entered the Reichstag. The Communists, he said, were not only planning the destruction of public buildings but also the 'poisoning of public kitchens' and the kidnapping of the wives and children of government ministers. Before long, he was claiming to have detailed proof that the Communists were stockpiling explosives." Police were stationed at railway stations and bridges to support the regime's claim that such places were potential terrorist targets. Hitler took advantage of an article in the Weimar constitution which gave him the power to rule in an emergency for an interim period. However, the Nazis used it as the basis for a fictitious permanent state of emergency that lasted until the end of the war.

As a result of the suspension of due process, jails quickly filled with Communists and other suspected terrorists. The Nazis thus created a series of camps for storing the political prisoners, the first in a suburb of Munich called Dachau. These prisons were not very professionally run, and torture was common. The Bavarian state prosecutor unsuccessfully tried to investigate the torturing death of three Dachau prisoners in 1933, and the next year charges were brought against Stormtroopers and police officials running the Hohnstein camp in Saxony. In a quote straight from today's headlines, the Reich Minister of Justice stated the torture of inmates at Hohnstein "reveals a brutality and cruelty in the perpetuators which are totally alien to German sentiment and feeling."

The Coming of the Third Reich is sober reading when compared against current events; the temptation to draw parallels is great. The Nazis never quite won a popular election, and cemented their power base by restricting civil liberties and selling fear to the German people in the wake of a terrorist attack. They held political prisoners without due process and restricted access of humanitarian groups like Red Cross to these prisons. However, the old adage "history repeats itself" is untrue; patterns often reappear, but each event in time is a new occurrence with unique circumstances. The past can nonetheless inform the present, and Evans offers much information on how a democracy became a fascist dictatorship in less than five years. Almost excruciatingly documented — seventy-two pages of notes, and forty-nine pages of bibliography — The Coming of the Third Reich is a lucidly written addition to Third Reich scholarship.

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