For the past few months, we have been subjected to a tedious, hysterical stream of comparisons of Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. As a reader of this book, The Coming of the Third Reich, will quickly figure out, such comparisons are both vicious and ignorant. One thing is clear to the reader of this book, the first of massive trilogy covering the Third Reich, and that is there is little evidence that we are heading the way of 1920s and 1930s Germany—but that if we are, it has nothing at all to do with Donald Trump. Nonetheless, this is an interesting book of history, and just because it’s not a warning, per se, does not mean that it does not contain interesting lessons.
Nothing in this book is new, as the author, Richard Evans, freely admits. This is a “broad, general, large-scale history of Nazi Germany.” It is a chronological history, not a cultural examination, much less a view of Germany through the lens of the forgotten common man or some such unoriginal and unhelpful frame. Those looking for a revisionist take on this period of history should go elsewhere. In this book, the same bad people do the same bad things that anyone who has read about this period already knows about. The emphasis, perhaps, is more on violence than on political maneuverings, but that’s hardly revisionist.
Of course, there have been innumerable books about this topic. One reason for this is that we tend to care about Germany because, deep down, we feel that Germany is, and Germans are and always have been, Just Like Us—rational, civilized Westerners. We focus less on dreadful things done by the Russians, the Chinese, the Mongols, etc., because they are alien, and we, in practice, hold them to different standards. We think that, in essence, “there but for the grace of God go I”—or rather, since we lack humility, we think “there, but for my good efforts, go my political opponents, where they really want to go.” Either way, though, the fear is that since the Germans are like us, we may someday follow their path. Unfortunately, this book does nothing to dispel that fear, which is a perfectly valid fear based on a solid view of human nature and history, with parallels in all modern Western societies, past and present. But the parallels say more about human nature and less, or nothing, about the next Hitler.
Evans begins with the first of six sections: “The Legacy of The Past.” Here he covers the period of the Bismarckian Reich and World War I, focusing on what Evans views as the progenitors of the Nazis, nationalist and anti-Semitic movements of the late 19th Century. As with most of the western European upper classes, excessive anti-Semitism was generally viewed as, well, excessive, but a modicum was viewed as just fine, and plenty of people, especially among the merchant and academic classes, went further. Along came the war, the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Communism, the revolts of Communists immediately after the war, and all the well-known instabilities of post-war Germany, to which today’s talking heads compare our society.
But Germany’s instabilities are inconceivable to us. Here, a few dirty beggars of the “Occupy” movement risk nothing and march in the streets, threatening occasional violence because they know they face no threat. A few “anti-fascists” with delusions of grandeur and a dubious grasp of history burn trash cans and cause mild disorder to shut down speech, but only on campuses and in cities totally friendly to them. Germany, on the other hand, had fifteen years of constant disorder and violence in the streets, where hard men across the political spectrum risked life and limb to foment disorder and raise the banner of their political views.
All this was possible, of course, because of the weakness of the state and the emasculation of the ruling class. We have our problems, and we do have an emasculated ruling class, but organized violence is not permitted or desired, much less political assassinations. The closest analog in America is not today, but the widespread leftist violence of the 1970s, something we are still very far from. Nor is there now unseemly violence in Congress, as there was in Weimar (and in the run-ups to both the Spanish Civil War and the American Civil War). Sure, maybe we’ll get there. But there’s precious little evidence of that, and much more evidence of Huxley-ite enervation of the masses and the elites by entertainment and drugs of various types, not the political awakening of a hard core and their turn to violence.
Throughout the book, Evans several times cites Raimund Pretzel, whose posthumously published memoirs (under the pseudonym Sebastian Haffner) are very much worth reading, in part because they were written in 1939, and give an excellent first-hand overview of this time from the perspective of a politically disengaged, “Aryan” German. In particular, Pretzel notes the erosion of the rule of law in the legal profession (he was a lawyer). Actually, if I had to choose, I would recommend Pretzel’s memoirs over Evans’s; there is a lot less detail, but basically the same story, and the first-hand perspective adds a lots to the reader’s grasp that litanies of fact do not.
Evens turns to analysis of political structures in the next section, “The Failure of Democracy.” Here he talks about the poorly structured political institutions of Weimar democracy and their shallow roots, the difficulties proceeding from which were compounded by economic turmoil, including hyperinflation, resulting in social turmoil of various kinds. None of this is new, but then, it’s not supposed to be. Evans does a good job of communicating the basic facts about the various mainline political parties (Social Democrats, Center Party, Nationalists, People’s Party) including their views, their support (both from voters and from sectors of society, such as the army, civil service and judiciary, and their geographic strengths), as well as the rising power of the Communists, who, of course, took orders from Moscow and had every interest in destroying the republic, but were tainted by the rebellion in 1919.
One interesting thing that Evans notes is “the state employment sector was extremely politically diverse.” Unlike in America, on the Continent being a so-called civil servant, i.e., a bureaucrat, was always both socially prestigious and honorable, such that talented people of diverse views entered the civil service. (Whether there are still diverse views on the Continent I doubt, but the prestige remains.) In America, on the other hand, today we have a leftist monoculture totally dominating the bureaucracy, mostly devoted to the success of the Democratic Party, and to leftist goals, the latter usually triumphing if there is any conflict between the two. In America government service has usually lacked the prestige it does on the Continent, with a high percentage of civil servants being placeholders, or those who lack gumption and the ability to succeed in other areas of life. (There are exceptions, of course, in prestige, focus and ability.) Thus, American bureaucrats have rarely viewed themselves as a true elite; they have always had a chip on their shoulder, since most citizens look down on them. There is no, and has never been any, American equivalent of the Prussian Rechtsstaat, where the civil service is regarded as a critical component of the rule of law, and the antithesis of arbitrary authority, therefore serving as a brake on the other divisions of government, notably the monarch. The American civil service has gotten steadily worse since the Progressive Era, where it became acceptable to work for the government as a way to achieve desired social change by imposing your radical views on the deplorables at gunpoint, and the government has simultaneously grown ever larger and more powerful. In America, the civil service today, the administrative state, takes the lead in the destruction of the rule of law and imposes a leftist ideology in a vast range of areas of life on the people though its arbitrary and largely unappealable authority, by creating mechanisms explicitly designed to avoid constitutional rule and to be immune to democratic oversight, such as regulatory “guidance.” We’ll see if Trump is able to hack this overgrowth back, preferably with napalm.
Evans notes that “The conflicts that rent Weimar were more than merely political or economic. Their visceral quality derived much from the fact that they were not just fought out in parliaments and elections, but permeated every aspect of life. . . . People arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. . . . There seemed to be no area of society or politics that we immune from politicization.” Evans notes, for example, that turnout was “no less than 80 percent of the electorate in most contests.” We, of course, don’t have that level of political engagement, nor are we likely to, between rational indifference, laziness and ignorance. In 1920s Germany, hundreds of newspapers of every political stripe were avidly consumed; for better or worse, few consume newspapers nowadays, instead consuming YouTube tripe and Facebook cat memes, and the newspapers people do consume are monolithically culturally leftist. But our society is, certainly, over-permeated with politics in every aspect of life, not the least indication of which is the tiresome comparison of the Third Reich to everything that happens (meant not as an argument but as a way to shut people up, of course). The difference, I suppose, and the explanation for our low voter turnout combined with politicization of daily life, is that one side, the Left, is focused on politicizing daily life, in its never-ending quest to remake the world to achieve Utopia for all and transcendence (along with, not coincidentally, power and a feeling of superiority) for themselves. The natural end state of this is a reaction from the other side increasing political participation and pushback, the beginnings of which we may be seeing. We may well wish that we could go back to laziness and political disengagement. But we can’t, because, as always in America, it’s because of the Left that we can’t have nice things.
These two introductory sections take up about a quarter of the book. Evans then focuses on what is, after all, the point of the book: “The Rise of Nazism.” We get Hitler’s background, the Bavarian Revolution of 1919, and the evolution of the NSDAP. We get the personalities involved, some who played a role in later years (Himmler; Goebbels), some who later dropped away or died (Strasser; Röhm). We get the range of movements later associated with the Nazis, but which earlier had totally separate (and often originally much greater) influence on society, such as the Steel Helmets. We get the back-and-forth evolution of the Nazis from being focused on violence to being focused on gaining political power through legitimate channels, though with the goal of keeping that power once gained. We get the various ideological struggles and workings-out of Nazism, including the sometimes-more, sometimes-less emphasis on left-wing elements such as socialism. We get the early version of Hitler’s management style, designed such that “the most ruthless, the most dynamic and the most efficient would rise to positions of power within the movement.” We also get the early usage of bemoaning violence publicly, but condemning it vaguely enough that the rank-and-file take the condemnation as an endorsement (something we see in recent cut-rate American political violence, but as I say, we have thin gruel compared to 1920s Germany).
Next Evans covers the road “Towards the Seizure of Power.” The Depression intervenes; the very real threat of Communism grows (and the Germans were very much aware that Communist power would lead to mass slaughter on a scale just as great as that Hitler ultimately implemented, as it has every place Communism has ever gained power). Unemployment and economic despair fuel the search for new solutions and scapegoats. The ruling class is weak and divided. Propaganda becomes more effective; Horst Wessel, a seedy minor thug, is turned into a hero. Evans covers the political machinations in detail, ultimately leading, as everybody knows, to the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in January, 1933.
Evans then takes us a few months forward, in “Creating the Third Reich”; here is where the Gleichschaltung begins, the Reichstag Fire happens, and so forth. Despite many people’s best efforts since then to use this period for analogies, none of this history really teaches us anything new, other than those who want power are prone to use any means to hand, and that in the modern world, those include propaganda, forced conformity, and seizing emergencies to expand both. Evans notes the increased use of violence and torture by the Nazis as soon as they gained power, calling it, contrary to myth, “makeshift sadistic anarchy,” rather than organized (at this stage). There were lots of arrests, and lots of people in concentration camps—but cycled through concentration camps, often just for a few weeks or months (with some deaths along the way), with the goal of control and intimidation, not the later goals of permanent incarceration or death. The Social Democrats and the trade unions, then immediately after the various groups allied or semi-allied to the Nazis, were quickly “co-ordinated,” thus consolidating Nazi control.
Finally, Evans spends a long time, too long to really interest me, on “Hitler’s Cultural Revolution.” The Nazis focused both on Jews in high culture and, theoretically separately, on generally degenerate culture (in fairness, Weimar produced an awful lot of the latter). For example, using a technique we sometimes see used to suppress speech today, the conductor Otto Klemperer (the cousin of the diarist) had his performances cancelled “on the usual specious grounds that public safety could not be guaranteed if he appeared on the rostrum.” This cultural suppression was hit or miss in the early days, but increased in severity and harm to people, and of course resulted in substantial emigration. Evans notes that the Nazis did not propagandize about the past; they, like Mussolini, the Italian Futurists, and the American Progressives, were focused on the future, which perhaps held (idealized) elements of the past, but which was to be a new thing, excluding all real aspects of the past. And then the book ends, to be followed by two more volumes, taking Germany through the war.
A final note. I “read” this book by listening to the Audible audiobook. The narrator, Sean Pratt (some D-list actor) was dreadful. He spoke slowly, and, more importantly, he continuously (and I mean in every sentence) paused slightly at random places. He also can’t pronounce German, which seems like it’d make him an odd choice for this book. He may be a nice guy (or he may not be) but as a narrator, the net effect was like nails on a chalkboard. I sped the narration up to 2X, which helped. But it was still fifteen hours at that speed, and it materially made finishing the book harder.