The Great Terror

(Jacket Photo © Scherl/sv-bilderdienst)
Reviewed by John Lukacs
Sunday, January 29, 2006



By Richard J. Evans

Penguin Press. 941 pp. $37.95

Looking at the enormous -- and incessant -- tide of books and articles written about Hitler and the Third Reich, we may note an interesting discrepancy. The majority of non-German historians and authors have devoted and are still devoting their main interests to Hitler's war and crimes, to the second six years of the Reich, 1939-45. The majority of German historians and authors have devoted their main interests to topics and themes about the first six years, 1933-39. This is understandable. In 1939 Hitler chose war, with the results of total defeat for Germany and Germans. But what led up to that? What happened to the German people before that fatal turning point?

The Third Reich in Power is Richard J. Evans's attempt to answer many of those questions through historical synthesis. The second part of this British historian's planned three-volume history of Nazi Germany, it is crammed with information (data, statistics, official and private records and reminiscences), sustained by the author's knowledge of German and his acquaintance with all kinds of German sources, many of them relatively recent ones. This heavy volume amounts to something like a massive handbook of a very big subject. It consists of seven large parts, made up of four chapters each, moving from the history of the Nazi police state to that of propaganda, religion, artistic and intellectual life, economy and finance, class structure, Jews and finally "The Road to War" -- that is, Hitler's foreign policy.

Yet there are things wrong with both the content and the writing of this massive book. Its long chapters about economics, finance and nationalization of German industry, detailing their difficulties, miss the essence of Hitler's thinking. "Why should I nationalize the industry?" he once said. "I shall nationalize the people" -- which is what he did (alas, quite successfully). Compared to that, Evans's citing of the occasional private grumblings of industrialists such as Gustav Krupp are largely devoid of meaning.

His judgments are sometimes contradictory. On page 370, he writes that "the economy was clearly in no shape to sustain a prolonged conflict in 1938-1939." ("Clearly"? And did Hitler plan for "a prolonged conflict"?) But on page 409, he states that "the economy had recovered from the Depression faster than its counterparts in other countries. Germany's foreign debt had been stabilized, interest rates had fallen to half their 1932 level, the stock exchange had recovered from the Depression, the gross national product had risen by 81 per cent over the same period. . . . Inflation and unemployment had been conquered." Another contradiction: "Everything that happened in the Third Reich took place in this pervasive atmosphere of fear and terror, which never slackened and indeed became far more intense towards the end." Yet on many other pages, Evans mentions umpteen examples of the regime relenting its pressures for tactical purposes (for example, before and during the 1936 Berlin Olympics).

This heavy book is chock-full with statistics. Yet there is no mention of such very telling numbers as the increase in German marriages from about 511,000 in 1932 to 611,000 in 1936; the jump from 921,000 births in 1932 to 1,280,000 in 1936, meaning that for every two children born in Germany in 1932, three were born just four years later; the fact that in 1938 and 1939, most marriages in all of Europe were registered in Germany, exceeding the numbers among even the prolific people of Eastern Europe; or the statistic that suicides committed by young people under 20 dropped by 80 percent (!) during the first six years of the Hitler regime -- all symptoms of a great and ominous rise of German national confidence.

Moreover, Evans does not write well. Consider this example of his style: "A conceptualization of Nazism as a political religion, finally, is not only purely descriptive but also too sweeping to be of much help; it tells us very little about how Nazism worked, or what the nature of its appeal was to different groups in German society." This is a very valuable insight, but what does "purely descriptive" mean? Two of the parts of this book bear the titles "The Mobilization of the Spirit" and "Converting the Soul"; but are spirit and soul separate and distinguishable essences?

Another oddity of this book is Evans's rendering of German titles and names into English, an unnecessary and inaccurate practice; for example, the Nazis' daily newspaper, the infamous Völkischer Beobachter, appears here as the Racial Observer. But v ö lkisch means the people's or popular, not racial. There are also some errors. He writes that in March 1936, the French were "potentially able to enforce Germany's obligation [under the Versailles treaty] by marching across the Rhine and occupying the country's biggest industrial region, the Ruhr." No; they were neither "potentially" nor actually able to do so.

But all in all, this book is a definite contribution to the history of National Socialist Germany, with a mass of useful (and some new) materials. Definite, not definitive -- because history, unlike law, is an unending process: A "definitive" history does not and cannot exist. ·

John Lukacs is the author of numerous books, including "Five Days in London: May 1940," "The Hitler of History" and, most recently, "Democracy and Populism."

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