19 March 2015
The stains of history can never be washed away. Greek politicians have recently invoked, with bitterness, the Nazi occupation; Putin’s Russia has a pathological neurosis over Ukraine that stretches back to 1941. We might think by now that the horrors and the crimes of the Second World War had been fully absorbed and understood. But this collection of essays from the noted scholar Richard J Evans underscores the necessity for continuing to explore the darkness.
Many of the essays featured in this history of the Third Reich have been previously published in journals such as the London Review of Books – but the advantage of bringing them together in a collection, rather than reading them in fragments, is that the broad sweep of Evans’s arguments comes through. From the personal – was Hitler simply insane? – to the broader international context – did America’s growing power inadvertently help the rise of Nazism? – Evans focuses on new discoveries and recent theories, while providing vignettes that give insights into crucial moments.
“Tell me, papa, that you are happy,” said the daughter of French premier Georges Clemenceau on the signing of the Armistice at the end of the First World War. “I cannot say it,” he replied, “because I am not. It will all be useless.” For years it was held that reparations demanded by the Allies led to a boiling German resentment that aided the rise of Hitler; but by the late Twenties, as shown by historians such as Adam Tooze, Weimar Germany was pulling clear of the debt and the anger; then came the Wall Street crash, and the banking aftershocks that rippled around the world. Evans considers that the Nazis were lucky in their timing, coming to power just as Germany was pulling out of the deepest slough of depression.
These essays are dazzlingly varied in focus. We are given close-ups of Hitler’s medicine cupboard – “sedatives, analgesics, stimulants, laxatives, painkillers”, an array of pills to be swallowed daily. There is a fascinating chapter outlining the life of Hitler’s partner Eva Braun; her rise from photographic lab assistant to the Führer’s wife, via a couple of suicide attempts.
But this book is really about the enduring and almost unanswerable questions. How did so many ordinary Germans come to collude in the Holocaust and the pitiless murder of so many millions? What was the terrifying and psychotic trigger that provoked German soldiers into not just slaughtering Jews, but also sadistically humiliating them? The general populace knew what was happening; what was Hitler’s hold over them? Each successive age has produced different theories: Evans digs beneath assertions that for most Germans, life under the Nazis was, before the war, comfortable and affluent. In fact, Nazi apparatchiks were planted in every corner of society, down to the people who ran apartment block associations; just because most people weren’t being actively terrorised didn’t mean that the terror wasn’t there. The state was underpinned with the threat of violence and death, and everyone knew it.
Threaded throughout is the sense that there is still so much more to be unearthed. As Evans points out, the post-war aftermath for thousands upon thousands of Germans, deported from Hungary, Romania and Poland, and sometimes in the same cattle trucks that had been used to transport Jews, is a story that lay in the shadows for decades. After all, what were their sufferings compared with the nightmares that had been inflicted on the conquered and persecuted?
There are some frustrations. Evans is crushing about Timothy Snyder’s acclaimed history Bloodlands, which focused on benighted eastern Europe from the Thirties Stalinist terror onwards. In the aftermath of this LRB article, notable historians, including Norman Davies, came galloping to Snyder’s defence. But there is no right of reply here. Also, inevitably, as the author points out, there is a certain amount of repetition, as different essays cover overlapping territory. These are small gripes, though, for the book sweeps together a military, cultural, social and economic overview of Hitler’s Germany in a way that engages and startles.
496pp, Little Brown, Telegraph offer price: £20 (RRP £25, ebook £8.96). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk