The Third Reich at War: 1939-1945
by Richard J. Evans
Evans Completes His Opus
A review by Doug Brown
With The Third Reich at War, Richard J. Evans has finally concluded his trilogy on the Third Reich. The Coming of the Third Reich covered the post-WWI period, detailing how a democracy became a dictatorship. The Third Reich in Power covered from 1933 to 1939, during which the Nazi party consolidated their hold on power and rebuilt Germany — and Germany's war machine. The Third Reich at War covers 1939 to 1945, from the start of the war to the post-war trials. Altogether, this magisterial work is an important resource for folks interested in the period.
While the military aspects of the war are of course covered in The Third Reich at War, the emphasis is on the people. The movements of armies provide the backdrop for the primary story Evans has been telling all through his work. The Reich leaders of course form much of the focus, but day-to-day life for ordinary Germans is a major theme. I was surprised to learn how open the press was, and how people often protested against actions of the Nazi party. SS security reports gave surprisingly honest accounts of the mood of the people, often including popular jokes which Evans relates. One example from the time when nightly bombing raids were becoming common:
People were officially advised to snatch some sleep in the late afternoon before the bombings started. The joke then ran that when someone came into the air-raid shelter and said 'good morning', this meant that they had indeed been sleeping. If someone arrived and said 'good evening', this meant they hadn't. When a few arrived and said 'Hail, Hitler!' this meant they had always been asleep.
The Holocaust gets a full section of the book, detailing its piecemeal origins. While Hitler may not have issued a direct order to carry out the killings, his rhetoric made it clear how his underlings were intended to solve the Jewish question. The story is of course told in more depth in books devoted to the subject like Christopher Browning's the Origins of the Final Solution, but Evans provides a solid overview. This is an area of Third Reich history he researched in depth when he worked defending Deborah Lipstadt against the Holocaust denier David Irving in British court (Irving lost his bid to sue her for libel when she stated he deliberately misrepresented evidence about the Holocaust). Evans wrote about the trial in his book Telling Lies About Hitler, which deals not just with the court case but how we know what we know in history.
As the war wore on, Hitler took over more and more of the military leadership. His generals secretly maintained that they could have won the battle in the Eastern Front if Hitler had just let them get on with it. Evans argues that this was just a myth; Germany simply didn't have the resources, either in material or men, to defeat Russia. Germany was outproduced on all fronts. Evans makes a good case that the eventual outcome would have been the same even if the strategy favored by the generals had been followed.
There's not much to say in conclusion beyond highly recommending this work to anyone interested in WWII in Europe, and particularly the Third Reich. In these three volumes Evans has created a history of the Reich to stand alongside Burleigh's single volume tome The Third Reich: A New History. Evans is skilled at telling a vast story in human terms, often by letting diary entries and letters speak for themselves. The Third Reich at War completes a trilogy that will certainly be a primary general reference on one of recent history's darker hours.