Book Review: 'The Third Reich at War' by Richard J. Evans

Review by Benjamin Carter Hett
Sunday, May 10, 2009


By Richard J. Evans

Penguin Press. 926 pp. $40

The Third Reich is the historian's Rorschach test. Everyone agrees that Hitler's Reich was evil almost beyond measure, but when it comes to defining the essence of and reasons for this evil, we tend to see what we bring to the question. Historians have concluded that the crimes of Hitler's Reich were the result of too much democracy, or too little; too much Christianity, or too little; too much sex, or too little. It all depends on who is doing the telling, and more important, when they are telling it.

Now we have the third volume of Richard J. Evans's trilogy on Hitler's Germany, "The Third Reich at War." This is a history of the Third Reich for the early 21st century, a time that has known renewed campaigns of genocide and terror, but not so much "conventional" war.

Fittingly, then, Evans's emphasis is on the virtually inconceivable orgy of violence let loose by the Nazis when Hitler launched his war in 1939. Evans makes clear that this is not a history of World War II, and it isn't: A more accurate title might have been "The Third Reich at Occupation." In the first chapter, for instance, Poland has surrendered by page 9, and there follow nearly 100 pages on occupied Poland as a laboratory for the Nazi utopia. Poland's western regions were annexed to the German Reich, and all Poles and Jews in those areas were expelled into the so-called "General Government," while ethnic Germans were brought in from elsewhere to replace them. During the military campaign, special SS killing squads had been turned loose on Jewish as well as non-Jewish civilians. Poland had scarcely surrendered when such infamous Nazi leaders as Reinhard Heydrich began planning to concentrate and imprison all of Poland's Jewish population in "ghettos" in such towns as Lodz, Cracow and Warsaw.

As the grim story unfolds and the Nazis expand their empire over most of the European continent, Evans keeps track of the horrifying statistics: 1.7 million Jews killed at the "Reinhard Action" extermination camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (out of the total of 3 million Jews murdered in camps); about 700,000 more murdered in mobile gas vans; and 1.3 million shot by SS Task Forces. The overall total of Jewish victims likely lies close to the often-cited figure of 6 million. At the same time, Evans is careful to show how much of a pan-European phenomenon the Holocaust was, as for instance when he notes that the 280,000 to 380,000 Jews killed by the Romanians constituted the largest number murdered by an independent European country apart from Germany itself.

Evans's other major theme is that Germany's relative economic and industrial weakness meant that it was all but fated to lose the kind of war that Hitler had led it into. In 1944, for instance, despite the efficient Albert Speer's reorganization of the aircraft industry, Germany was producing fewer aircraft than each of its major enemies, and together the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union outbuilt Germany by more than five to one. The statistics for other modern industrial weapons were similar. When the Germans came up with impressive technological innovations, like the Me 262 jet fighter, the impact tended to be blunted or erased by political infighting and inefficiencies within the Nazi bureaucracy. "The writing was already on the wall in 1942," as Evans writes, and by 1944 "it was clear for all to read."

Not that Evans's book is all about numbers. He uses extensive quotes from diaries and memoirs of people who lived through the war -- Germans and non-Germans, Jews and non-Jews -- to give a visceral sense of what these events meant in people's lives. Evans is clearly up on all the latest research on Nazi Germany, no mean achievement in a field in which tens of thousands of books have been published. But his goal is to appeal to the general reader rather than the professional historian, and he succeeds brilliantly, producing a book that is beautifully written and, despite its length and grim subject matter, easily digestible, even gripping.

Most impressive of all are his consistently balanced and nuanced judgments about such emotional and controversial issues as the responsibility of ordinary Germans for mass murder, or the role of resistance to the Third Reich. While his book forms a remorseless record of the Nazi horrors, Evans never forgets that ordinary Germans were human beings, too, facing hardships and challenges that most of us have never known.

This is history in the grand style, the kind of large-scale narrative that few historians dare to write these days. It is difficult to imagine how it could be improved upon, let alone surpassed.

Benjamin Carter Hett is associate professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author most recently of "Crossing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand."

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