Archive for September 2011

The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans

September 25, 2011

“Ich bin der Geist, der stets verneint!”

This third and final volume covers the more familiar events of the war itself, as well as experience for civilians at homefront. As a successor and rival to Shirer’s well-known (and still selling) Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the three-volume set, at least half-again as long as the earlier work, makes liberal use of diaries of ordinary citizens, as well as major figures (such as Goebbels) to tell the story. It is not the book for those interested in a history of the Second World War; the focus is Germany, so politics in Britain, France, Italy, etc. get only brief treatment. Military actions are not subject to equal coverage–there is great detail on the invasion of France, Operation Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Kursk, etc., but little on operations in Africa and Italy.

The dedication of civilians to the regime suffered strain through the repeated Allied bombings and terrific casualties in the East. The bombing of Hamburg on July 27 and 28, 1943, killed 40,000 in the firestorm. There was little recorded desire for vengeance among the survivors–they said that the Allies were just doing their duty. Later, the survivors of air raids began to see them as retribution for their treatment of the Jews. Jokes that couldn’t have been told without risk of internment began to circulate openly:

“A man from Berlin and a man from Essen are discussing the extent of the bomb damage in their respective cities. The man from Berlin explains that the bombardment of Berlin was so terrible that window-panes were still falling out of the houses five hours after the attack. The man from Essen answers, that’s nothing, in Essen, even a fortnight after the attack, portraits of the Leader were flying out of the windows.”

This last illustrates one small fault of the book–Evans has decided to translate into English nearly all German terms, even those that are familiar to English speakers, such as Führer. A more serious fault is that the charts sprinkled throughout the book need to be in color; this reader could not distinguish among three or four shades of gray used to denote differences in population, troop strengths, etc.

Evans doesn’t spend much time on assigning blame, and generally leaves that for the reader. His earlier volumes described German Catholics as more resistant to the Nazis’ appeal during the rise to power, but there are few points of light during the war years. Bishop von Galen of Münster successfully protested against the T-4 operation, which involved the gassing of mentally and physically disabled German citizens. Pius XII comes in for some measured disapproval for failing to act to prevent the deportation of Italian Jews to Auschwitz. At nearly the same, time, however, Evans notes (though without connecting it to the roundup of the Italian Jews), “an open condemnation of the killing of ‘the innocent and defenceless mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent'” by the Catholic bishops of Germany, following the publication of the encyclical Mystici Corporis, was read out from the pulpits in Germany. “The breadth of the terms in which it was couched was remarkable. Its overall effects were minimal.” The “Nazi bishop,” Alois Hudal, and a Croatian priest who blessed the execution squads also are mentioned. Evans quotes from the letters of Wehrmacht Captain Wilm Hosenfeld, who helped the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman to survive in the ruins of Warsaw and died in a Soviet POW camp.

Evans includes the propaganda broadcasts of “Lord Haw Haw,” but not P.G. Wodehouse.

The V-1 and V-2 programs were intended to use the best technology to deliver destruction to the British. The earlier purge of Jewish scientists took its toll here. Just as important, the lack of access to raw materials otherwise needed for more conventional weapons doomed the program to little more than a sideshow. The two wonder weapons killed 9,000 people, but even more died as slaves in the factories producing them.

The diarist Victor Klemperer, who serves as the book’s chorus of a lost, liberal Germany, survived the bombing of Dresden:

“Above us, building after building was a burnt-out ruin. Down here by the river, where many people were moving along or resting on the ground, masses of the empty, rectangular cases of the stick incendiary bombs stuck out of the churned-up earth. Fires were still burning in many of the buildings on the road above. At times, small and no more than a bundle of clothes, the dead were scattered across our path. The skull of one had been torn away, the top of the head was a dark red bowl. Once an arm lay there with a pale, quite fine hand, like a model made of wax such as one sees in barber’s shop windows. Metal frames of destroyed vehicles, burnt-out sheds. Further from the centre some people had been able to save a few things, they pushed handcarts with bedding and the like or sat on boxes and bundles. Crowds streamed unceasingly between these islands, past the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession.”

He was able to regain a university position and publish works of criticism in the GDR.

Victor Klemperer


The Third Reich in Power, by Richard J. Evans

September 13, 2011

The pride of people that were
Bound neither to Cause nor to State.
–Yeats, “The Tower”

This continues a three-part history of the Third Reich–from 1933 to 1939–from the seizure of power to the beginning of WWII.

This volume borders on an encyclopedic approach. The author covers themes in each chapter, while trying to be chronological as well. This results in some overlap; or in other cases, leaving some important issues unaddressed or unexplained until later. The approach is not always successful.

Teachers were indoctrinated and expected to indoctrinate their pupils, who would inform on them if they did not. If parents expressed disagreement with Nazi policy, children were expected to inform on them. Employees denounced their employers. Neighbors, who held grudges for other reasons, informed on their neighbors.

Evans describes the Nazi touring exhibition of “Entartete Kunst”–“degenerate art.” Viewers were expected to tsk, tsk, but many sought out the exhibition because they couldn’t otherwise see the works. Goebbels, it turns out, was a fan of modern art, despite Nazi policy, and might have encouraged a broader view, if he could have had his way.

The Nazis tried desperately to get the economy out of the dumps while at the same time expelling some of the most productive citizens, in conformance to racial policy. The autobahns are a famous building project, though car ownership was never great (even the KdF-Wagen–Strength-Through-Joy-Car; the future VW–never went into mass production).

In order to raise the birthrate, couples were given interest-free loans upon their marriage, with fairly generous repayment terms. Other benefits came with each new child born. Still, the birthrate never took off.

The concentration camps were founded at the beginning of Nazi power and housed all sorts of dissidents and undesirables. Dachau, outside of Munich, was one of the first. With the takeover of the courts and abandonment of any more than a pretense of justice, often a convict was released at the end of a prison term to be met at the gates and taken straight to a concentration camp.

Many Jews emigrated in the first years of the Third Reich and were encouraged to do so. Others stuck it out and saw their civil rights restricted more and more. By 1936, some began to return, in a belief that the worst excesses of the SA were over. Kristallnacht in November 1938 began a new phase in Nazi policy.

The last chapters of the book describe the road to war and Hitler’s successes in the Saar, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. These gave him a sense of destiny, that Providence was guiding and protecting him. The string of diplomatic victories does appear fated. This is so even though Joachim von Ribbentrop was originally posted to Great Britain in 1935, where he earned the nickname “Ribbensnob” and, for such blunders as giving King George VI clicked heels and a Nazi salute, “Von Brickendrop.”

The cover of the book, uncredited, shows a group of preteen girls giddily welcoming–whom? Hitler? Parading soldiers? — while they gaily wave swastika pennants. I would love to know if anyone tracked them down after the war, if they survived it. Did they change their minds? Did they even have an opinion at the time that the photo was taken, or just do what their parents and teachers told them to do?