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
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.