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How Lots of Little Nazis Turned Germany Into the Third Reich

Joe Mysak / Bloomberg | April 3 2006

Look at the little schoolgirls on the side of the road, crowding off the curb, waiting for the parade. See how happy they are. They are waiting for someone, who is probably riding in a big, open car.

Perhaps it is Dr. Goebbels. Maybe it is the Fuhrer himself. The little schoolgirls are waving swastika pennants.

It's hard to imagine a more perfect cover for ``The Third Reich in Power'' (Penguin, 941 pages, $37.95), the second volume of a planned trilogy on the Third Reich by historian Richard Evans. The picture captures innocence in the service of irredeemable evil.

When Cambridge professor Evans began this monumental work -- Part 1, ``The Coming of the Third Reich,'' was published in 2003 -- he decided to write a book that described how the Third Reich worked and what it was like to live there.

Evans wrote in the first volume's preface that he would try to avoid what he called the luxury of moral judgment. He would cover the usual staples of such books, like military strategy and foreign policy, but he would also write about the economy, social change, propaganda, culture and the arts, women and the family.

``The purpose of this book is to understand: it is up to the reader to judge,'' he writes. One effect of withholding judgment is that it allows Evans to be all-inclusive. He also decided to translate all German terms into English: ``Retaining the German is a form of mystification, even romanticization, which ought to be avoided.''

Popular History

It has been 61 years since the Third Reich collapsed, and the Fuhrer-book industry marches on undiminished. Among the past decade's highlights have been the definitive Hitler (Ian Kershaw, in two volumes), the Holocaust Hitler (Ron Rosenbaum's ``Explaining Hitler''), the historical Hitler (John Lukacs's ``The Hitler of History'' and Evans's own ``Lying About Hitler'') and two sorts of comparative Hitler (Richard Overy compared Hitler and Stalin in 2004, while Andrew Roberts compared Hitler and Churchill in 2003).

So much attention has been paid to Hitler that comparatively little has been spent on everyday life inside the Third Reich, at least for readers in English.

``The Third Reich in Power'' treats the years 1933 to 1939, from the Nazis' seizure of power to the beginning of World War II. This was when they created the modern police state but well before they enthusiastically embraced genocide.

No One Answer

Evans set out writing this trilogy by asking why there was so little resistance to the Nazis. There's no one answer. The Nazis were popular, and swift, and brutal. Organized opposition was crushed, the leaders killed, exiled or sent to concentration camps. At the same time, the Nazis purged the civil service and moved to bring all organizations, from sports associations to clubs to choirs, under Nazi control.

This was known as the politics of coordination. The Nazis rapidly insinuated themselves into every aspect of German life. They determined how the newspapers were written and what movies were made, which works of art and music were appropriate, what children should be taught and how they should spend their time out of school. They reduced or eliminated churches as centers of real or potential alternative ideologies and built up an effective welfare system.

Details of Living

``The Third Reich in Power'' doesn't contain any new or especially startling insights. What it does contain are some new details of how life was lived by the average German, often including quotations from correspondence and memoirs. It is also an enormous work of synthesis: The book has 1,639 footnotes and a bibliography listing 1,531 sources, most of those in German. Evans is writing what is likely to be the standard history of the Third Reich in the English language.

In February 1933, after the Reichstag was set aflame, the German government passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended the constitution and established a state of emergency. In less than six months, the Nazis -- the democratically elected ruling party -- would eliminate by threat, legislation and decree all civil and political opposition and win for their leader the absolute power of dictatorship. They redefined all political opponents as enemies of the state. By July 1933, there was one party in the Reich.

People -- that is, those who weren't prostitutes, homosexuals, handicapped, drunks, tramps, Jews, the ``work-shy,'' gypsies, ``habitual criminals,'' all of whom the Nazis were in the process of removing from society -- went along.

They went along, says Evans, for a lot of reasons. They went along because of the fear of surveillance and of being turned over to the Gestapo for not showing sufficient enthusiasm for the regime. They went along because the Nazis offered stability after the chaos of Weimar. They went along because Jews were less than 1 percent of the population. They went along, even if they were indifferent to aspects of the Nazi program, because Hitler seemed to be restoring Germany to its rightful place in the world. And then, when it all turned out so badly, most pretended they had never waved his way.

 

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