Nazi Germany, some conflicting perspectives
Richard Evans rounds off his recent contribution to Third Reich studies
Richard J Evans, The Third Reich in History and Memory, Little, Brown, London, 2015, 483 pp, £25
The Third Reich in History and Memory is a collection of previously published essays, predominantly book reviews. As its author Richard Evans remarks in the preface it constitutes an unofficial report on significant shifts in perspective concerning Nazi Germany over the past fifteen years. And, we might add, an examination of certain key issues in this field, notably the question “was the Holocaust unique?”
Sir Richard notes in chapter 7, entitled “Coercion and Consent” that a consensus emerged amongst historians in this period that Nazi Germany was a political system that enjoyed widespread popular approval. In Fascist Voices (2013), also reviewed herein (chapter 15, “Hitler’s Ally”) Christopher Duggan adopted a somewhat similar line apropos Mussolini’s regime (see my review of Fascist Voices at www.quarterly-review.org/?p=2246).
What has been called the “voluntarist turn” in Nazi studies entails the thesis that support for the regime was freely given by many Germans. Some historians contend that the idea of a “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) enjoyed widespread support after the “chaos of the Weimar years” (Evans page 125). In Life and Death in the Third Reich (2008), historian Peter Fritzsche underlined the fact that by the mid 1930’s only about 4000 political prisoners remained in concentration camps. (He failed however to mention the 23,000 political prisoners in Germany’s state prisons and penitentiaries).
The theory that Nazi Germany was a “dictatorship by consent” or Zustimmungsdiktatur was based on three main premises; first, that the Nazis won power legally in what Karl Dietrich Bracher calls a “legal revolution”; second, that Nazi terror and repression, including incarceration in concentration camps, mainly affected minorities, notably social outsiders, such as communists (sic), criminals, the mentally and physically handicapped and vagrants; and third, that the popularity of the regime was repeatedly demonstrated in national elections and plebiscites.
Professor Evans, however, both in this current volume and in his trilogy of books on the Third Reich, has consistently highlighted the role of violence and repression in the establishment of the Nazi regime and its dictatorial and manipulative elements thereafter. He upholds a Marxist, class warfare perspective on the Nazis’ consolidation of power, emphasising the destruction of institutions associated with the proletariat, notably the Communist and Social Democratic Parties and the trade unions. He emphatically dismisses the notion that the majority of Germans were not affected by coercion or repression. As he points out, in the Reichstag Elections of November 1932, the Social Democrats and Communists, mass parties whose officials were subsequently subjected to draconian measures, won 13.1 million votes compared to 11.7 millions for the NSDAP.
As regards the putative popularity of the Nazis as evidenced by elections etc, Evans notes that in the 1934 plebiscite on Hitler’s appointment as Head of State and, again, during the plebiscite in April 1938 on the Anschluss, gangs of storm troopers marched voters to poll stations where they usually had to vote in public. The institutions involved in the coercion of the German population included not just the Gestapo but also the SA (3 million strong by 1934), the Courts, the police and the prison system plus the ubiquitous block wardens of whom there were 2 million by 1939. Potential trouble makers amongst the work force could be compulsorily reassigned to work in war related industries far from home. The threat of withdrawal of welfare benefits was another means by which opposition to the regime was neutered.
From interviews of elderly Germans carried out in the 1990’s by Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband (who, like Robert Gellately, maintain that Hitler and National Socialism were immensely popular) Evans infers that support for the regime was strongest amongst the younger generation growing up in the Nazi era and exposed to constant indoctrination in school and in the Hitler Youth. People who had reached adulthood before 1933, however, were more resistant to such indoctrination. Former supporters and members of the Catholic Centre Party (wound up in 1933 after unremitting intimidation by the Nazi Party) provide a telling example. One time Communists and Socialists were also relatively unreceptive to the regime’s propaganda.
These facts give the lie to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s characterisation of the German people in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust as predominantly anti-Semitic.
But why, given all this underlying potential opposition to Hitler, was there no popular revolt against his regime especially once it became clear that Germany was heading for defeat? Evans points out in this context that during the war executions in Germany reached the figure of 4 to 5 thousand per year and that 30,000 troops, likewise, were executed by firing squads. Contra Fritzsche, he detects the influence of Goebbels in the supposedly spontaneous demonstrations of support for Hitler in July 1944 after he survived Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate him.
The supposedly unique status of the Holocaust is another recurring theme of The Third Reich in History and Memory. In his influential volume South-West Africa under German Rule 1894-1914 (1968), historian Helmut Bley described the German war against the Herero and Nama tribes in Namibia (1904-1907). In some respects, this was a dry run for the Holocaust, with summary executions, incarceration in concentration camps, women and children left to starve, forced labour and laws forbidding racial inter-marriage.
The deliberate attempt to exterminate the Hereros unquestionably constituted genocide, in Evans’ estimation. Ditto some other notorious historical episodes such as the Armenian Massacres and the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930’s or Holodomor. The Soviet authorities also killed or deported or imprisoned large numbers of the Polish elite in Poland’s eastern provinces. At the end of World War Two, the Germans of Eastern Europe (like the Poles before them) experienced ethnic cleansing (expulsion and forced migration) on a massive scale with the usual accompanying atrocities.
Yet the Holocaust still remains sui generis, in Evans’ judgement. Only the Nazis killed people solely because of their alleged racial identity and characteristics. And as Max Hastings has observed in his review of Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire (New York Review of Books, October 23, 2008) “the economic cost to the German war effort of the Final Solution and the Nazis’…efforts…to reshape Eastern Europe” were considerable. From a military and economic perspective, such policies “represented madness”.
According to Germany’s “General Plan for the East”, 85% of the Polish population and very large proportions of the Slavic populations throughout German occupied Eastern Europe would be left to die of hunger and disease. But whereas the Slavs, like the Hereros before them, were considered sub-human, merely an obstacle to German expansionsm, International Jewry was regarded as a threat to Germany’s very survival, as the “world enemy” or Weltfeind. The Jews were accused of fomenting socialist revolution in Germany in 1918 (the so called “stab in the back”) and of ultimately controlling Bolshevism in Russia and capitalism in the United States, countries which both supposedly posed an existential threat to the Third Reich.
At this point, however, one criticism – being left to starve by the Soviet Communists because you are ascribed to an allegedly parasitic class, the kulaks, comes to much the same thing as being shot in a ditch by the Einsatzgruppen because you belong to an allegedly inferior race. Dead is dead. Can were detect in Evans’ reflections on the uniqueness of the Holocaust some lingering notion that State Socialism was more progressive than National Socialism? But this is our only reservation about Professor Evans’ otherwise impeccable analysis.
Reviewed by Leslie Jones
Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR