The Coming of the Third Reich

 The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard J. Evans

I figured I ought to kick off the WWII Reading Challenge right, with a big fat Serious History Tome that has been sitting around and waiting for me for too long.  And, this is a really great work of history, and the perfect book to start with.

Most readers probably know that this is the first book in a three-volume work that covers the entire Nazi regime.  Evans' goal was to produce a solid, detailed history for the layperson that would give an overview of the whole thing.  He wanted it to feel immediate and relatable, so many terms that would usually stay safely foreign in German, such as Führer or Gauleiter, are instead rendered in English.*

This first volume deals mainly with a lot of background, and the development of the Nazi Party.  It ends in mid-1933, once Nazi power is consolidated.  This means that Evans actually starts -- pretty much -- with Bismarck, filling us in on such events as 1848 attempts at revolution and the consolidation of the German states as well as World War I and detailed analysis of the Weimar Republic.  

The big takeaway about the Weimar Republic is that almost nobody, including the people running it, actually liked the Weimar Republic.  Despite the fact that Germans were, on the whole, incredibly engaged in politics (they had a stunning 80% voting rate), nobody wanted a democracy.  They tended to want either a return to the past (if they couldn't get the Kaiser back, at least a similarly authoritarian government) or, less often, Communism.  The universally-believed myth about the "stab in the back" at the end of WWI reinforced it.

Before the Christmas break, I was driving two teens around (mine and our carpooling/pod friend) and they were talking about time travel.  Naturally, the question arose: would it be a good idea to go back in time and kill baby Hitler?  They decided that killing babies is bad (good job, kids), and then I opined that if you did, it quite possibly wouldn't change much; Hitler was just one in a crowd of contenders, and somebody else would probably have slipped into that spot.  Reading this history really brought that to life; all the things Hitler was doing -- violence, fascism, talking about The German Soul, and vicious anti-Semitism -- were fashionable, and popular with a certain segment of the population.  Hitler was just the best demagogue, so he beat out the competition.  That's not to say that things couldn't have gone differently.  This was not inevitable.  But a lot of people would have had to make different choices than they did.

Evans shows in detail exactly how the Nazis got started and came to power.  It took a combination of circumstances: the Weimar Republic's perceived lack of legitimacy and its constant undermining, the widespread popularity of authoritarianism and anti-Semitism, the cooperation of the police and other authorities in street violence, the Great Depression, and more.  Once they had some legitimate power, they quickly moved to take over and dominate not only politics, but culture, universities (students were enthusiastic Nazis), and business.   It's such a fascinating narrative, and I really got a lot out of it.

I marked so many passages, and here are some.  Too many, in fact, but they're all so interesting...

...the Party's official flag, personally chosen by Hitler in mid-1920: the field was bright red, the colour of socialism, with the swastika, the emblem of racist nationalism, outlined in black in the middle of a white circle at the centre of the flag, so that the whole ensemble made a combination of black, white and red, the colours of the official flag of the Bismarckian Empire.

The cult of violence, derived not least from the Free Corps, was at the heart of the movement. By 1929 it could be seen in operation on a daily basis on the streets. The Nazi movement despised the law, and made no secret of its belief that might was right. It had also evolved a way of diverting legal responsibility from the Party leadership for acts of violence and lawlessness committed by brownshirts and other elements within the movement. For Hitler, Goebbels, the Regional Leaders and the rest only gave orders couched in rhetoric that, while violent, was also vague: their subordinates would understand clearly what was being hinted at and go into action straight away. This tactic helped persuade a growing number of middle- and even some upper-class Germans that Hitler and his immediate subordinates were not really responsible for the blood shed by the brownshirts on the streets, in bar-room brawls and in rowdy meetings, an impression strengthened by the repeated insistence of the brownshirt leaders that they were acting independently of the Nazi Party bosses. By 1929 Hitler had attracted the support, sympathy and to some extent even the financial backing of some well-connected people, especially in Bavaria.  

In the increasingly desperate situation of 1930, the Nazis managed to project an image of strong, decisive action, dynamism, energy and youth that wholly eluded the propaganda efforts of the other political parties, with the partial exception of the Communists. The cult of leadership which they created around Hitler could not be matched by comparable efforts by other parties to project their leaders as the Bismarcks of the future. All this was achieved through powerful, simple slogans and images, frenetic, manic activity, marches, rallies, demonstrations, speeches, posters, placards and the like, which underlined the Nazis’ claim to be far more than a political party: they were a movement, sweeping up the German people and carrying them unstoppably to a better future. What the Nazis did not offer, however, were concrete solutions to Germany’s problems, least of all in the area where they were most needed, in economy and society. More strikingly still, the public disorder which loomed so large in the minds of the respectable middle classes in 1930, and which the Nazis promised to end through the creation of a tough, authoritarian state, was to a considerable extent of their own making.

The new situation after the Nazis’ electoral breakthrough not only sharply escalated the level of violence on the streets, it also radically altered the nature of proceedings in the Reichstag. Rowdy and chaotic enough even before September 1930, it now became virtually unmanageable, as 107 brown-shirted and uniformed Nazi deputies joined 77 disciplined and well-organized Communists in raising incessant points of order, chanting, shouting, interrupting and demonstrating their total contempt for the legislature at every juncture. Power drained from the Reichstag with frightening rapidity, as almost every session ended in uproar and the idea of calling it together for a meeting came to seem ever more pointless. 

Once the election was announced, Hitler could hardly avoid standing as a candidate himself. Several weeks passed while he dithered, however, fearful of the consequences of running against such a nationalist icon as the hero of Tannenberg. Moreover, technically he was not even allowed to stand since he had not yet acquired German citizenship. Hurried arrangements were made for him to be appointed as a civil servant in Braunschweig, a measure that automatically gave him the status of a German citizen, confirmed when he took the oath of allegiance (to the Weimar constitution, as all civil servants had to) on 26 February 1932.  His candidacy transformed the election into a contest between right and left in which Hitler was unarguably the candidate for the right, which made Hindenburg, extraordinarily, incredibly, the candidate for the left.

Papen’s self-appointed task was to roll back history, not just Weimar democracy but everything that had happened in European politics since the French Revolution, and re-create in the place of modern class conflict the hierarchical basis of ancien régime society.  As a small but potent symbol of this intention, he abolished the use of that classic symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine, for executions in parts.of Prussia where it had been introduced in the nineteenth century, and replaced it with the traditional Prussian instrument of the hand-held axe.

The Nazis acted on the premise that they, and they alone, through Hitler, had an inner knowledge and understanding of the German soul. The millions of Germans who had refused to support the Nazi Party - a majority, as we have seen, even in the semi-democratic elections of 5 March 1933 - had been seduced, they believed, by ‘Jewish’ Bolshevism and Marxism, the ‘Jewish‘-dominated press and media, the ‘Jewish’ art and entertainment of Weimar culture, and other similar, un-German forces which had alienated them from their inner German soul. The Ministry’s task was thus to return the German people to its true nature.

 It was above all the students who drove forward the co-ordination process in the universities. They organized campaigns against unwanted professors in the local newspapers, staged mass disruptions of their lectures and led detachments of stormtroopers in house-searches and raids. Another tactic was to underline the political unreliability of some professors by arranging visiting lectures by politically correct figures such as Heidegger, who could be relied upon to give the regime the enthusiastic endorsement that others sometimes failed to provide. At Heidelberg University, one Nazi activist disrupted the work of the physicist Walter Bothe by conducting lengthy marching sessions for SS men on the roof of his institute, directly above his office.  In one university after another, respected Rectors and senior administrators were elbowed aside to make way for often mediocre figures whose only claim to their new position was that they were Nazis and enjoyed the support of the Nazi students’ organization.

The Nazi Party was a party of protest, with not much of a positive programme, and few practical solutions to Germany’s problems. But its extremist ideology, adapted and sometimes veiled according to circumstance and the nature of the particular group of people to whom it was appealing, tapped into a sufficient number of pre-existing popular German beliefs and prejudices to make it seem to many well worth supporting at the polls. For such people, desperate times called for desperate measures; for many more, particularly in the middle classes, the vulgar and uneducated character of the Nazis seemed sufficient guarantee that Hitler’s coalition partners, well educated and well bred, would be able to hold him in check and curb the street violence that seemed such an unfortunate, but no doubt temporary, accompaniment of the movement’s rise to prominence.

The Nazi vote was above all a protest vote; and, after 1928, Hitler, Goebbels and the Party leadership recognized this implicitly by removing most of their specific policies, in so far as they had any, from the limelight, and concentrating on a vague, emotional appeal that emphasized little more than the Party’s youth and dynamism, its determination to destroy the Weimar Republic, the Communist Party and the Social Democrats, and its belief that only through the unity of all social classes could Germany be reborn. Antisemitism, so prominent in Nazi propaganda in the 1920s, took a back seat, and had little influence in winning the Nazis support in the elections of the early 1930s. More important by far was the image the Party projected on the street, where the marching columns of stormtroopers added to the general image of disciplined vigour and determination that Goebbels sought to project.

 ________________________________________

*This policy, enforced generally over the entire book by British editors, led to something that gave me a laugh: at one point it says a minor character who has been doing Communist infiltration in California is "arrested and imprisoned in St Quentin."  San Quentin, like so many other California places, has kept its Spanish name and has never been changed to English.  That tiny change to "St Quentin" makes it sound like a small medieval village church in the English countryside instead of a prison.

Comments

  1. I've never heard of this title or author, but this sounds excellent. Are you planning to read the other two volumes? I'll probably add all three to my wishlist.

    Kudos to your kids! My 16-year old told me the other day that she learned of a rumor that Hitler may have been rescued from drowning in his youth; what would have happened had he not been rescued? Obviously, as you discussed, so many factors were already in place to create the storm. Hitler was just the front man who gets all the credit or blame.

    Have you read Hitler's Mein Kampf? I feel like it was through that book that I learned how he didn't begin with a hatred of the Jews, but it was his involvement w/ Nazi figures, literature, and propaganda that influenced him, as it did so many others. The propaganda worked, in other words. Every problem in Germany was associated with and blamed on the Jews.

    I can see today in our own country how easy it is to spread lies to people who won't think for themselves. :(

    Thanks for sharing! I'm going to check this out right now.

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  2. Ruth, I do plan to read the other two books! They're available at work (the library I work for) but I can't actually go there right now. So they'll have to wait for me...

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  3. Bummer. When will your library be open to the public? Are they not allowing curbside p/u?

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  4. The public library is open -- maybe I should get it there! I work at a community college library. I could go, but I'd have to get permission from my dean, plus it's half an hour away. My pile of WWII books is so large that I don't feel the need to get them right away, though.

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