The Third Reich at War, 1939-1945, by Richard L. Evans
Any historian attempting a survey of Nazi Germany during the second world war confronts formidable challenges. First, the available literature is so huge that it almost defies synthesis in a single volume, however substantial. Second, the author needs to avoid writing yet another Hitler biography. Third, the most appalling and dispiriting material must be studied. As Richard J. Evans writes in his preface, the subject is ‘sometimes shocking and depressing almost beyond belief’. Nevertheless, in this book, the third of his trilogy on Nazism, Evans achieves a remarkable degree of success in meeting the demands of this most intractable subject. He makes a sustained assault on the great mountain of published sources available and presents his summary in a remarkably lucid and vigorous narrative, mercifully free from theory. Instead, significant themes emerge clearly from a vast array of evidence.
Perhaps the most disturbing theme is the extent to which racialism in general and anti-semitism in particular permeated virtually every aspect of German policy, society and culture during the second world war. Evans draws on much recent research in the Federal Republic to bring out the direct role of the German army in many anti-semitic atrocities. On the Eastern Front it was commonplace for German soldiers to take part in the mass shootings of Jewish civilians. Some protested at the murders, like Colonel Helmuth Groscurth, a conservative opponent of the Nazi regime, but all Groscurth could achieve for the Jewish children in a village near Kiev was a brief stay of execution. Evans brings out the paradox that although Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was admired even by some in Britain, his victories opened up new opportunities for racialism. Together with military developments, Nazi genocide is a central focus of Evans’s account and there can be few more penetrating studies of the corrosive nihilism which results from racialist policies.
Evans emphasises Hitler’s delusion that somehow the Jews were responsible for bringing about the war and in consequence should experience their own annihilation. He writes that ‘it was Hitler’s murderous, but deliberately generalised, anti-semitic rhetoric, repeated on many occasions in the second half of 1941, that gave Himmler and his subordinates the essential impulse to carry out the killings’.Evans considers Hitler in sufficient detail, but does not allow him to take over the book. Instead he also brings into the discussion Hitler’s leading acolytes, lesser Nazi fry, and the ever-expanding range of their victims. Evans makes very effective use of diaries and letters to bring participants to life. Letters written home by soldiers on the Eastern Front are particularly revealing. Stalin not only had ‘General Winter’ on his side, but also countless millions of tiny auxiliaries who infested the clothing of German soldiers and in their patriotism bit the invaders unrelentingly. One infantryman complained in January 1943 of ‘the damned lice … they totally eat you up.’.
After the Sixth Army of General von Paulus was cut off at Stalingrad, Hermann Goering promised that his Luftwaffe would supply it from the air. When this method proved inadequate, Goering broadcast over the radio, comparing the Sixth Army to the Spartans who had died defending the pass at Thermopylae against the Persians. Goering’s hypocritical evasion of responsibility was compounded by his own life-style, which was anything but Spartan. Clad in a blue kimono and fur-trimmed bedroom slippers, he indulged himself by taking morphine and amassing jewels. Goering’s negligence drove one subordinate after another to commit suicide. By April 1944 the German Air Force had only 500 combat aircraft on the Eastern Front against 13,000 Soviet planes. But other prominent Nazis were equally reluctant to face military realities. Evans writes that Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, was ‘not a technocrat; he was a true believer, with a blind faith in Hitler’s powers’. All Speer’s efforts to increase armaments could only postpone the inevitable. They were ‘fundamentally irrational undertakings that ignored the basic impossibility of Germany’s out-producing its enemies.’ The unreason at the core of Nazi ideology and practice emerges emphatically from Evans’ study.
There are some quibbles. With so many endnotes it would be helpful to provide headers indicating which pages they refer to. Some of the maps would benefit from a scale indicating distances. The energetic account only falters once, in discussing military developments during summer 1944, when perhaps more reliance could be placed on chronology to arrange the material. But these few points aside, this is an outstanding survey, meticulous, informative, often as readable as Macaulay. If you have the time to read only a single book on Nazi Germany, this is the one.
A boxed set of Richard J. Evans’s Third Reich trilogy is available from Allen Lane at £100, with a limited run of 2,000 copies.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 29, 2008Tags: History, Military, World War 2