Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-60015-0002 / Giso Löwe / CC-BY-SA 3.0 By Dave Dentel
History’s most notorious criminals compel a certain fascination, though we are well-advised not to become too enthralled.
St. Paul encouraged us to dwell on the true, just and lovely, a discipline no doubt meant to keep us from being enticed by the trappings of evil, the power it sometimes imbues (however briefly), or from forgetting that except for divine grace tyrants like Adolf Hitler might exist as the rule rather than the exception.
Then again, speaking the truth is always a defense against malevolence. And few have unveiled the utter depravity of Hitler’s regime in as meticulous detail as historian Richard J. Evans.
Getting at those details, however, requires some effort given the scope and style of Evans’ work.
Rich in Detail
The author breaks down his examination of the Third Reich into three books.
The first deals with how the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s; the second explores how Hitler consolidated his hold on Germany and began to implement his policies. The final book examines the Third Reich from its invasion of Poland in 1939 to its crushing defeat in 1945.
Evans’ histories are only loosely narrative. They offer slight treatment of the vast conflict the German war machine provoked from the Arctic Circle to the Horn of Africa.
The books are instead primarily topical, focusing on the politics, policies and attitudes expressed by Germans of all ranks during the rise, rule and fall of Hitler’s oppressive regime.
To achieve this, Evans cites journals, letters, and reports—including those compiled by reporters tasked with observing Nazi society. These ranged from journalists such as William Shirer, to members of the SS, and even clandestine operatives from the deposed Social Democratic political party.
Groundwork for Lawlessness
Again, much of what Evans unveils is simply a more elaborate recounting of how Hitler’s personal hatred and violence was institutionalized into murder and destruction on an unprecedented scale.
Still, there is much for even the most well-read World War II aficionado to learn. Here are just a few things in Evans’ books I found novel and interesting.
During his ascent toward becoming dictator, much of what Hitler said and did was not without precedent.
His antisemitism reflected racist ideas held by many in Germany at the time.
After his failed coup in 1923 (during a period of widespread political violence), Hitler turned more or less to legitimate politics.
He built a large political organization and campaigned vigorously. And though it’s true his National Socialists augmented their canvassing for votes with street brawling and thuggery, they were by no means outliers in the use of these tactics.
All the major political organizations in Weimar Germany apparently fielded paramilitary groups. This included the Communist Party, the Social Democrats, and even a veterans association known as the Steel Helmets.
Nor did Hitler commit an aberration by circumventing parliament and invoking emergency powers after being named chancellor. The precedent had already been established by several of his predecessors.
Early on Hitler also took care to obtain legal cover for his atrocities. After his purge of Nazi stormtroopers in 1934, for example, he persuaded his cabinet to draft a statute retroactively justifying these political murders.
One especially perplexing fact is, once the Nazis gained power, the extent to which they labored to put their stamp on German society as a whole. Evans points out how in order to continue functioning, even village sports leagues and choral societies were forced to become nazified—by excluding so-called undesirables and instituting a pledge to the Fuhrer, for example.
Not until the war commenced, of course, were the Nazis able to realize their full plans for genocide and colonization. Ironically, the brutality and cynicism with which they implemented their policies eventually undermined their primary means for achieving conquest—terror and superior war-making.
Germany lacked the manpower to match the Allies in the production of weapons and supplies, for example. So the Third Reich relied heavily on prisoners of war and conscripted foreigners. But these workers were not simply mistreated—quite often they labored under conditions designed to kill them.
Granting for a moment that mass murder ranked fairly high on the Nazis’ list of priorities, one still has to ask how they failed to see that massacring their workforce threatened to undercut even loftier goals—like winning the war.
One way Evans illustrates this dark irony is through his discussion of the V-2 rocket. He points out that the advanced weapon killed about 5,000 enemy combatants and civilians, while 20,000 workers involved in its production died from disease, starvation and other causes.
Evans also notes that the Nazis were so single-minded about killing Jews that they spent increasingly scarce resources toward this aim even late into the war. Not satisfied with butchering most of the Jews on the European continent, Hitler’s minions went so far as to pressure communities on remote Mediterranean islands to hunt down and hand over these supposed arch-enemies of the German people.
This effort continued even while Nazi leadership could offer no effective means for protecting their cities from American and British bombers or halting the advance of marauding Soviets.
Believing Their Own Lies
Equally dumbfounding is how Nazi leadership sought to rationalize their crimes by vilifying Jews through nonsensical propaganda.
On one hand, the party line went, Jews deserved their fate because they were a filthy sub-human rabble incapable of contributing to society.
On the other hand, Hitler also accused Jews of being wealthy, influential conspirators who were manipulating the world’s most powerful nations into warring against Germany.
Whether or not the self-proclaimed leader of the so-called master race actually believed his own grotesque falsehoods is probably unanswerable. That he dared to excuse his brutality with such banality simply proves that the first victim evil targets is always the truth.
Yet ultimately, Evans sees in the history of the Nazis a warning to us all.
“The Third Reich,” he writes, “raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us.”
And giving into this hatred simply lays the foundation for self-destruction, as the Germans discovered to their own despair.
As Evans notes: “The violence at the core of Nazism had in the end been turned back on Germany itself.”