THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE THIRD REICH 1933-1945

By Pierre Aycoberry

Translated From the French by Janet Lloyd

New Press. 380 pp. $30

Deeply buried in The Social History of the Third Reich is a valuable survey of German society under Nazi rule that could provide a welcome counterpoint to Hitler's Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen's simplistic bestseller of a few years ago, and remind its readers that the study of societies, especially of one as perverse as Nazi Germany, is a complex undertaking that requires much circumspection. The book could also prove that, in spite of the old cliche, it is possible to understand without justifying. But it won't do any of these things because, I'm afraid, nobody will read it.

It is, in many ways, a good book, though, a subtle book even, one that eschews facile generalizations and sensational accusations, and is full of prudent qualifications and warnings that what was true in one place and one time was not necessarily true 20 miles away or one year later. This extreme circumspection can be irritating at times, but it very efficiently brings home the author's main point, namely that Nazi rule managed progressively to destroy all the structures that held German society together without replacing them with anything, turning Germany into something akin to a "kicked-in anthill."

What Aycoberry says of the Holocaust, that in its horror it tends "to paralyze the means -- of comprehension and explanation -- historians usually use," could be extended to his entire topic, just like what he says of the reaction of the German people to the presence of concentration camp inmates in their midst: "It is not possible to define an attitude typical of the German civilians. Studies . . . reveal a population now uniformly hostile, now -- in more isolated places -- compassionate, now indifferent . . . In a destroyed society, what could be expected other than individual reactions?" Set adrift from their traditional political and moral anchors, German citizens responded to the regime and its actions in purely individualistic, and often opportunistic, ways.

Aycoberry's Germans aren't, for the most part, the enthusiastic killers depicted by Goldhagen. They aren't hapless victims of Hitler and his minions, either. Free-floating particles in an atomized society, they bear the full moral weight of the choices they made, without even the excuse of being heirs to a depraved culture. Most of them neither very actively opposed nor very actively supported the regime and its worst policies. They merely accommodated it, often acting as political "consumer-clients" busy calculating costs and benefits. At a time when, as Aycoberry clearly shows, even the Christian churches, those alleged beacons of righteousness, actively resisted the regime only when it threatened their narrow corporatist interests, it is hardly surprising that many individuals should have behaved opportunistically rather than morally. It is no justification, either.

Most important, Aycoberry's readers, unlike Goldhagen's, aren't given any reason to believe that early 20th-century German society was particularly susceptible to a fall into savagery. That's a good thing to be reminded of, well worth an effort from the author, the publisher and the translator to put out a readable product. Apparently, they didn't think so.

Indeed, The Social History of the Third Reich is, to put it mildly, unreadable. Will scholarly translators ever be paid enough to do more than hurriedly replace each word of the original with the closest available English equivalent? The result is sentences like this: "They were the only people in a position in which it was possible to believe in the open society they had been promised, and they manifested their gratitude through a variety of signs of loyalty."

Just imagine 350 pages in the above style, plus a few blunders and literary allusions that make little sense out of their original context. Accounting for Hitler's success by mentioning his charisma, we are told, is an explanation "worth no more than an assertion of the soporific powers of opium." Those with a French education will recognize a famous line from Moliere's "Imaginary Invalid," often used to make the point that merely naming a phenomenon shouldn't be confused with explaining it. Other readers will perhaps wonder if, on top of everything else, Hitler dealt drugs.

To be fair, it's not all the translator's fault. Aycoberry obviously writes for people who already know what he is talking about. He is often maddeningly allusive. The chronology of events stuck in the back is much too sketchy to be of use. As for the endnotes, which consist mostly of highly abbreviated references to confidential scholarly works in German, they're downright scary. Historians complain that serious history doesn't sell. Go figure.

Laurent Cartayrade is a Washington historian and writer.