Anatomy of the Murderers

Richard Evans Dissects the Rise of the Third Reich

Early Supporters: Adolf Hitler attending a march of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, in 1932.
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Early Supporters: Adolf Hitler attending a march of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party, in 1932.

By Julia M. Klein

Published April 16, 2015, issue of April 17, 2015.

● The Third Reich in History and Memory
By Richard J. Evans
Oxford University Press, 496 pages, $29.95

However deranged his deeds, Adolf Hitler was not certifiably mad.

The German people did not voluntarily embrace the dictator, but acquiesced in his rule only after a campaign of terror that silenced or sidelined the political opposition.

And the Holocaust, compared to other 20th-century genocides, was unique in its global scope and ambition.

These are among the views that Richard J. Evans, the formidable Cambridge University historian, espouses in his lucid and informative essay collection, “The Third Reich in History and Memory.” Evans, best known for his three-volume study of the Nazi regime, originally wrote most of these pieces as book reviews; others appeared as journal articles. Apart from some repetition, the essays have aged well and provide a succinct overview of recent scholarly trends.

In his preface, Evans outlines these shifts in perspective: an attempt to situate Germany’s imperial aspirations and exclusionary ideology in a global context, a renewed emphasis on the extent of popular support for Hitler’s government, an examination of continuities between the Third Reich and Germany’s postwar democratic regime, and an interest in the relationship between history and memory.

The issue of domestic support for Nazism remains highly contested. It bears on both the thorny notion of collective guilt and on specific legal culpability for Germany’s crimes. And it helps explain the country’s generational lag in confronting the Holocaust.

Following World War II, Evans notes, the historical consensus was that the Third Reich was a police state with Hitler firmly in charge. Many Germans portrayed themselves as victims of the Nazis (not to mention Allied bombs and the brutal Soviet invasion). Later research complicated the picture. It uncovered the complexities of the Nazi bureaucracy, with its internecine rivalries, and suggested that there was space to resist the regime. Why then was resistance so minimal, at once so short-lived and so slow (as the war effort faltered) to re-materialize?

Some historians credit Hitler’s popularity. They believe, as Evans puts it, that the regime “rested not on police terror and coercion but on popular approval and consent.” The German historian Götz Aly, for example, has famously argued that social mobility and economic benefits — derived from the plunder of Jewish property and conquered countries — helped bolster Hitler’s support.

Evans is skeptical. “Nazi Germany actually was a dictatorship in which civil rights and freedoms were suppressed and opponents of the regime were not tolerated,” he writes. In “Berlin in the Twenties,” a dismissive review of Thomas Friedrich’s book “Hitler’s Berlin,” Evans writes that “mass violence underpinned the Nazi seizure of power at every level.”

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