Breathtaking Co-ordination

Jonathan Wright

  • The Third Reich in Power by Richard Evans
    Penguin, 941 pp, £12.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 14 100976 4
  • The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze
    Penguin, 800 pp, £12.99, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 14 100348 1

Richard Evans’s history of the Third Reich – it will be completed by a third volume covering the war – is an invaluable work of synthesis. The mass of specialist studies we now have makes a general history all the more useful, and not only, as Evans suggests, for those who know little about the subject. Evans, a social historian, aims to cover ‘not only politics, diplomacy and military affairs but also society, the economy, racial policy, police and justice, literature, culture and the arts . . . to bring these together and to show how they were related.’

The first volume, The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), traces its prehistory, from Bismarck to the consolidation of the Nazi regime in the summer of 1933. Its central questions are ‘How did this revolution occur?’ and ‘Why did the Nazis meet with no effective opposition in their seizure of power?’ Evans is keenly aware of the twin sirens of modern German history: on the one hand, the lure of determinism (German history leads inevitably to Nazism); on the other, the illusion of contingency (Hitler was an accident). Similarly, there is a balance to be maintained between admitting the peculiarities of German history – its much debated Sonderweg, or ‘special path’, to modernity – and seeing the Third Reich as simply the most horrific example of a much more general failure of democracy in interwar Europe. Evans acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of each view. He reminds us at the outset that ‘things could easily have turned out very differently.’

His discussion of pre-1914 Germany is a good example. Dangerous precedents were established when Bismarck divided nationalism from liberalism and set a powerful example of authoritarian rule, militarism, anti-Catholicism, anti-socialism and discrimination against Prussia’s Polish minority. Parallels for each of these policies can be found in other European countries: ‘Yet in no nation in Europe other than Germany were all these conditions present at the same time and to the same extent.’ Similarly, Evans locates the roots of Nazi ideology in the anti-semitic and racial hygiene movements that existed before 1914, but with the qualification that ‘the great majority of Germans still most probably believed’ in ‘freedom of thought, representative government, tolerance for the opinions of others and the fundamental rights of the individual’. War, defeat and revolution then tipped the scales alarmingly towards an authoritarian nationalism by polarising the electorate and rendering the right politically homeless in the Weimar Republic, which they saw as the creation of Germany’s enemies.

Evans goes on to give deft accounts of the growth of political violence, the unsettling impact of the great inflation, the energy of Weimar culture, its impact on education, crime and the judiciary, the new welfare state and the illiberal concepts of social health to which it could give rise: for example, the belief among a number of doctors and social workers that criminal behaviour could be inherited, and treated by compulsory sterilisation. Some even advocated involuntary euthanasia for the mentally or incurably sick.

Was the republic doomed? Evans is ambivalent but generally pessimistic about its chances. Even at its best, in the mid-1920s, it was ‘extremely fragile’. It might have survived ‘in other circumstances’ but ‘the idea that democracy was on the way to establishing itself in Germany at this time is an illusion created by hindsight.’ Yet later, when assessing the position of the Nazi party in 1929, ‘still very much on the fringes of politics’, he says: ‘The republic seemed to have weathered the storms of the early 1920s – the inflation, the French occupation, the armed conflicts, the social dislocation – and to have entered calmer waters. It would need a catastrophe of major dimensions if an extremist party like the Nazis was to gain mass support.’ In the concluding chapter he summarises: ‘Even without the Depression, Germany’s first democracy seemed doomed; but the onset of one of history’s worst economic slumps pushed it beyond the point of no return.’

It is worth pausing to ask a question that Evans does not pursue: what would have happened without the Depression? The view that the republic was doomed rests mainly on the proposition that it had won no significant converts since 1919; indeed, some who then rallied to it for fear of something worse, namely Bolshevism, were starting to distance themselves. The Catholic Centre Party, for example, had been part of the republican majority in 1919, but by 1928 was starting to give religious issues a higher priority than the defence of democracy.

By 1924, however, it was perfectly possible to believe, even if you were not a democrat, that the republic had come to stay. The question then became not whether it would be overthrown by the right or the left, but how to influence it. In retrospect, the growth of a pragmatic acceptance of the regime among elite groups is easy to overlook. It affected even some of those institutions, such as the army, whose generally obstructive behaviour Evans emphasises. Once General von Seeckt had been forced into retirement in 1926, his successors realised that operating as a state within a state had become counter-productive, and when General Groener became minister of defence in 1928 he insisted on obtaining cabinet approval of the secret rearmament programme. He also accepted that, given Germany’s military weakness, defence policy had to defer to the foreign policy of the long-serving foreign minister and leader of the centre-right liberal People’s Party, Gustav Stresemann, who wanted to renegotiate the Versailles Treaty by means of a détente with the Western powers.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in