Nightmare

08.13.15 5:00 AM ET

Could the Third Reich Happen Here?

The Nazis ruled by fear. Sir Richard Evans, probably our foremost authority on the Third Reich, explains how they did it and why that matters today.

Could it happen here?

That question should never be far from our minds. The terrifying 12 years of the Third Reich in power remain an enigma. Even into the ’30s, Germany was one of the world’s most economically advanced and educated countries, homeland of Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller, and many among the most important and humane individuals and democratic achievements of modern life. How did that country and the German people produce Hitler, a brutal racial empire, a world war resulting in the deaths of tens of millions, and the Holocaust, with its sadistic, assembly line extermination of Europe’s Jews and other so-called “subhumans?”

Sir Richard Evans has opened up more insights into that enigma and brought greater clarity to the rise and fall of the Third Reich than any previous historian. His new collection of 28 essays, The Third Reich in History and Memory, provides not only a manageable introduction to his thinking about the Third Reich in its many facets, but also offers a highly readable exploration of the most important issues in modern scholarship about the worst evil ever unleashed on humankind. Most important, he offers lessons about the consequences of life lived in a state of fear.

Evans, Cambridge University’s Regius Professor of History, is that rarity among academic historians, a brilliant scholar and an engaging writer, able to enliven his many books through compelling anecdote and colorful storytelling while building arguments about the course of past events. His Third Reich trilogy, including the final international bestselling volume, The Third Reich at War, paints a portrait of the rise of an embittered Austrian-born Great War corporal convinced that “international Jewry” lay behind his country’s defeat in that war and opposition to the German people’s rightful empire.

Discovering his abilities as a political leader, he turned his anti-Semitism and social Darwinian views into a political movement of unbridled violence that swept away Germany’s humane traditions to install a dictatorship bent on worldwide empire, continuous war, and genocide on a previously unimaginable scale.

How did he and the Nazi party do it? How could they keep the Germans enthralled for so long and engaged in such unbelievably horrifying acts, even as their world literally crashed around them?

Evans’s scholarship and argument have proved invaluable for me as I’ve researched and written my next book, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War (due out in spring 2016), about the bitter American debate over intervention and how the ongoing European (and Japanese) war shaped that debate and U.S. foreign policy. When World War II began in 1939, few Americans believed the destruction of civilization in Europe (or China for that matter) was an issue worth going to war over. Many leading citizens, including some of the country’s most prominent political and military leaders, shared Hitler’s racial and political views. Fortunately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his executive powers to their constitutional limits—and perhaps beyond—to prop up England and then Russia with military and other aid until finally, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States joined the Allies to defeat Hitler and Japan.

Evans’s essays collected in his new book create a kind of narrative arc, running from the origins of Nazism to the changes wrought by the war in Germany and elsewhere in the world. Most were written as reviews of new scholarly books. They cover topics including attitudes towards outsiders in prewar German society, Germany’s earlier brutality towards racial minorities in its small African colonies and its implications for the rise of Nazi racial laws and violence, the centrality of violence and fear to the rise of Nazism even in Germany, the roles played by Krupp, the weapons manufacturer, and the German Foreign Ministry during the Nazi era, as well as quirkier issues such as the mental state and sex life of Hitler—shockingly wholesome—and the place of the Volkswagen Beetle in Nazi Germany and its new life after the war as the popular “Bug” in the United States and Mexico. Other fascinating essays explore postwar planning and rebuilding of Europe’s blasted cities, and how the theft of cultural treasures from conquered lands has a history in its own right and why repatriation of stolen art and artifacts matters still.

A few essays repeat the same arguments or go into depths of evidence that will be of less interest to the nonscholar. But even in those essays, Evans displays both an ability to muster rational evidence about the nature of evil, a fair and deeply moral judgement about the criminality of the Nazis, and insights into how Germany was literally consumed by violence and fear and turned into the heartland of barbarism.

The rise and fall of the Third Reich is a disturbing subject, perhaps the most disturbing in history. It’s also a profoundly human subject and that makes it central to understand how such barbarity came about and took over so much of the world for a period. Evans makes clearer than any previous historian the various contextual aspects of German and European life that led to history’s most horrifying mass criminal acts by seemingly the most civilized people. Ultimately he concludes, “Fear was all-pervasive in the Third Reich,” such that even to the death, Hitler’s terrifying grip never let Germany go.

Could it happen here? Not if we learn from Germany’s experience.

Evans and I exchanged emails about the Third Reich:

Why did Germany become the epicenter of fascism? Was the nation predisposed to be receptive to militarism, authoritarianism, racial hierarchies, and social order enforced by state violence in ways that Britain, Russia, the U.S., France, or other Western nations might not have been, or was it a matter of historical circumstance?

The old argument of Allied wartime propaganda put forward by historians like A.J.P. Taylor and William L. Shirer that Germany was somehow predestined to succumb to the appeal of Nazism was exploded long ago. One only has to point to the history of the Social Democratic Party, representing Germany’s huge industrial working class: it rejected anti-Semitism, advocated social equality, and abhorred militarism, a topic on which its leading figures such as August Bebel and Karl Liebknecht wrote savage critiques before World War I. In the final free election of the Weimar Republic, in November 1932, the Left won more votes than the Nazis. Both the Social Democrats and the large Catholic Center Party held on to most of their votes up to 1933; both were very critical of German racism in the colonies the country held before 1914. Germany was more democratic than, say, Britain up to 1914, with universal male suffrage, and up to 1928, with female suffrage still restricted in the U.K. The executive power in Germany was stronger, but there was a vibrant political culture which forced it increasingly to make concessions and triumphed with the creation of the Weimar Republic.

Was genocide fundamental to fascism or was it something akin to colonial conquests such as occurred so often during the 19th and early 20th centuries, driving the resident populations out of their homelands with terrible and murderous results?

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Racism was certainly central to fascism, deriving from the era of late imperialism: both the Italians in their two invasions of Ethiopia (1896 and 1935) and the Germans in their extermination of the rebellious Herero tribe in the German colony of Namibia in 1906 took an extremely harsh line towards indigenous peoples in the colonies they had, or wanted to possess. However, one cannot draw a straight line from the genocide of the Herero to the genocide of the Jews; too few people were involved in both, and the Hereros were seen as an obstacle to German colonization while the Jews were the “world enemy” bent on destruction of Germany, in the Nazi view.

Germany had a notion of lebensraum—expansion to the east and removal of non-Germanic people—even before Hitler came to power. Without Hitler would Germany still have become a state bent on creating an imperial Reich in possession of the lands to its east?

It is not true to say that anyone apart from Hitler and the Nazis wanted to remove non-Germanic people from Eastern Europe. Certainly there was a “drive to the East,” also during World War I, and the way in which conquered areas there were administered between the Spring of 1918 and the end of the war was based firmly on racial discrimination against Poles and other minorities. But there was no idea of exterminating or removing them.

The Nazi Party won less than 3 percent of the vote in the 1928 election, but held absolute power five years later. Was the Depression the wood needed to burn up Germany and Europe?

Absolutely. By 1932 the Nazis had become the largest party in Germany, with 37.4 percent of the vote (it is important to remember however that they never won a majority in a free election, or in other words, that nearly two-thirds of Germans were opposed to them). The unemployment rate had shot up to more than 35 percent by July 1932. The Communists were the party of the unemployed par excellence, and their continued rise, even in November 1932, when the Nazis lost many votes in the elections, frightened the middle classes into supporting the Nazis; the middle-class parties, liberal and conservative, lost almost all their votes, while the Nazis won the votes of first-time voters among women and the young, and picked up votes from the unorganized working class, too.

You write that the assembly line extermination of Jews had no precedents and was different in kind from the elimination of the Slavs, the earlier Armenian genocide, or any other paroxysm of mass genocidal murder. How do you distinguish one from the other?

For the Nazis, as their propaganda clearly shows, the Jews were engaged in a global plot to destroy the German race. They were the “world-enemy,” to be exterminated wherever they could be found. They were the unseen power behind Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin (though we know Stalin was deeply antisemitic, the Nazis persistently portrayed him as the tool of the Jews). “Slavs” and others were not a “world-enemy” but a regional obstacle to German settlement and colonization. The Nazis planned to kill up to 45 million of them in what would have been the greatest genocide in history, but they did not subject them to the ritual sadism and humiliation to which they subjected so many Jews.

Should World War II be understood as primarily a racial war expressed through nations?

Only the Nazis thought of it as a racial war, a war that also involved the purification of the German race by murdering mentally ill and handicapped Germans. Stalin and the Soviet Union understood the war as a struggle against a particular version of imperialist late capitalism, a class struggle in which they were reluctantly forced to find capitalist allies; and a “great patriotic war” in which Russia defended itself against an evil invader. Britain and the U.S. did not see the war in racial terms: it was both a war fought to defend British and American interests globally, and a war to defend civilization and decency against Nazi barbarism.

You write that “Nazi decision making was fundamentally irrational at its core,” yet you also write that Hitler was not physically or mentally ill, though he was obsessed with cleanliness, Social Darwinian racial categories, and of course anti-Semitic hatred. Is there a contradiction here?

Unfortunately many sane people hold irrational ideas, so there is no real contradiction here. Social Darwinism was a very widely held ideology in the first half of the 20th century, though very few held the extreme version espoused by the Nazis. The forcible sterilization of social deviants and the mentally handicapped was not just carried out in Nazi Germany but also in several states in the U.S. Anti-Semitism was also widespread, though again not in the extreme and violent Nazi version. Decision-making in Nazi Germany was irrational because Nazi ideology was irrational, but many other ideologies have been irrational, too.

How was Hitler’s hatred of Jews at the root of his motivation to wage wars of conquest?

I don’t think you can say it was: His wars of conquest were directed against Britain, the Soviet Union, France, Greece, and so on, not in themselves against the Jews, and they aimed to build up German power and dominance in Europe. Hitler regarded the international Jewish conspiracy, as he saw it, as an obstacle to the achievement of this aim.

You are often wary of exercising moral judgment on the German people as a whole. Yet they supported what some term a “plebiscitary dictatorship,” effectively consenting to Hitler’s rule. Were the majority compelled by violence and fear to support Nazi ideology?

In two lengthy articles in the book, I challenge the currently popular view among historians that the Nazi dictatorship was set up and run on the basis of popular consent. I argue that it is time to remember that it was a dictatorship with no civil liberties or freedom of expression: 100,000 Germans were imprisoned for resisting the Nazi takeover in 1933, and the judicial and prison systems were used to arrest and punish dissidents (23,000 of whom were in prison in 1935, for example). However, one has to distinguish between different aspects of Nazi ideology and policies. Nazi foreign policy was popular (not least because its triumphs did not involve war, and even in 1940 the defeat of France was quick and involved little loss of German blood). Nazi religious policy was unpopular, though the Nazis forced the secularization of church schools. Nazi economic policy was only popular in the late ’30s. Nazism was more popular among the young, who were more easily indoctrinated. The 99 percent of the votes won by the Nazis in plebiscites were overwhelmingly the result of electoral fraud, violence, and intimidation. Probably no more than a few million people were enthusiastic about every aspect of Nazism, including anti-Semitism.

Questions abound about Hitler’s ultimate ambitions. Would his lust for a 1000-year German Reich have ended with the conquest of the Soviet Union?

This was not going to happen: the Soviet Union was too strong, even without the help of the British and Americans. Nazism was a doctrine of permanent struggle: as Hitler’s unpublished 1928 “Second Book” [of Mein Kampf] shows, had he actually defeated Stalin he would most likely have gone on to try and conquer the U.S.; a people who were not constantly fighting, he believed, were doomed to decay. Thus self-destruction was built into the Nazi vision of the future.

Why did the Germans keep on supporting Hitler and the Nazis even when the war was obviously lost?

Increasingly, the Nazis applied intimidation and violence, especially after German morale began to sink following the defeat at Stalingrad and the mass bombing of German cities in 1943. Germans were also (rightly!) afraid of the Red Army, and many fought on for patriotic reasons to defend Germany rather than Nazism. Many continued serving the government because they believed it should be obeyed. Soldiers fought out of loyalty to their comrades. But Nazism was collapsing as an ideology long before the end of the war. While there was a resistance movement in every country conquered by the Nazis, there was never any resistance to the Allied occupation of Germany in 1945.

You describe the mass expulsions of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after the war as ethnic cleansing on a scale that rivaled the Germans’ own removal and destruction of Jews and Slavs from conquered territories. George Orwell called it an “enormous crime.” Few know today about the mass removal of the German populations after the war, but you write that the expulsions darken the commonly held view of the “war as a wholly good fight by the Allies against the evils of Nazism and German aggression.” Was it a crime or was it an understandable response to the crimes perpetrated by Germany during the war?

The violent expulsion of 11 million ethnic Germans, many of whom had not been involved in Nazi crimes, after the war, was sanctioned as a form of “ethnic cleansing” by the Allies in order to remove the kind of potential for destabilization in multi-ethnic countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia that had been encouraged by the Nazis before the war. The murders, appropriations, and other crimes that occurred during the expulsions were motivated by a spirit of revenge, and far too little was done to try and ensure that the expulsions were orderly and humane. The idea of a multicultural society was in short supply in Europe in 1945. I don’t think murders and atrocities are understandable in any circumstances. Even if the idea was understandable it was not implemented in anything like an orderly or humane manner.

Germany’s reputation after the war and even today depends “on its ability to convince the world that it has come to terms openly and honestly with the Nazi past.” Has it succeeded in that effort?

By and large it has. Go to Berlin and you will find memorials to the victims of Nazism everywhere. Concentration camps are now sites of memory and education. The world knows that Germany has come to terms with its past in a way that Japan, for example, has not.

What remains unclear or unknown about Nazi Germany and about Hitler? What more can studying them, writing about them, and retelling that terrible history teach us that we don’t already know?

New evidence is continually being discovered, especially in Eastern Europe. The research discussed in my book has added hugely to our knowledge, for example, of Hitler’s medical history, or the role of food and famine in determining the outcomes of the war. Perspectives are constantly changing: thus for instance the way in which we now see Nazi foreign and war policy in the context of the larger history of Empire and Imperialism has changed and enlarged our understanding of it. At the same time there are new trends I try and criticise in my book, such as the reduction of the Holocaust to just another genocide, or the argument that Nazism was a “dictatorship by consent.” Merely by arguing about such issues, we deepen and refine our understanding of them.

You criticize some books for lacking “personal detail, anecdote and color.” You clearly make the effort to enrich your book with all three, which appeals to readers far and wide. Does this lead to colleagues looking at your books as popular, not “serious,” works of history?

There is a role for historians who try and communicate the results of academic research to a wider readership, as I do, and in order to engage readers I think you have to tell interesting stories about individuals as well as draw the larger lines of interpretation and analysis. This has not led to my being regarded as a popular historian and not a serious one; I’m about to go to Oxford to receive an honorary degree from the university for my scholarship, for instance, and I was elected Regius Professor at Cambridge after two of my three volumes on Nazism had been published.

Your studies deal with horrors and cruelties beyond our worst imagining. They can be unbearable to read about in your vivid works. How do you sustain optimism in the face of such history? What do you do to find relief from studying that terrible past?

As an historian I was able to distance myself from these horrors while writing, though I felt it necessary to write about them because so many people nowadays don’t seem to realize the depths of barbarism and cruelty to which the Nazis sank. But of course while writing these works I had my family to fall back on, everyday issues of family life and work, as well as music, art exhibitions, walks in the countryside, and much more. However, I am now writing a book on Europe in the 19th century, which was by and large a rather more civilized epoch than the Nazi period, and that’s a relief, too.