Examining a New View of the Third Reich
“Once we attain power,” the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, “we will never give it up until our dead bodies are carried from office.” In this at least, Goebbels, purveyor of the “big lie” that led to the Holocaust, was honest.
January 30, 2018 marked the 85th anniversary of Goebbels’ master Adolf Hitler fatefully rising to power. It is perhaps fitting then that a new book examining Nazi Germany has appeared to inform readers about an event that, while slipping from living memory, remains indelibly imprinted on today’s world.
In The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, historian Thomas Childers provides readers with a thorough chronicle of the rise and fall of the Nazi party that Goebbels so slavishly served. The final result is perhaps the most popularly accessible history of Nazi Germany to appear in decades.
Childers, a recently retired professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying and writing about the subject for more than four decades. His works on the composition of the Nazi party, for example, are widely cited and influential.
His latest book is a tour de force of great writing and tragic history.
Books on Nazi Germany, varying in emphasis and scope, are a dime a dozen. New and often important biographies of Hitler, Goebbels, and SS leader Heinrich Himmler, among others, have appeared in recent years. Yet a thorough and highly readable look at fascist Germany hasn’t appeared in several decades.
William Shirer’s 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is among the most noteworthy. Shirer, a journalist who lived and reported from Nazi Germany, wrote a bestseller that, while well-written, is now dated. More than a half-century later, Childers, with an academic’s learning and a natural writer’s flair, has produced a worthy successor that both scholars and, perhaps more importantly, the general public can appreciate.
Appropriately, Childers begins with Hitler himself. The first chapter, “The Serpents Egg,” examines how Hitler became Hitler. The son of an middling civil servant in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, young Adolf was always aloof and an eccentric dreamer. He was saved from a career as an obscure and failed artist in Vienna by the outbreak of World War I.
It was in war that Hitler found meaning. And it was in the chaos that followed the Great War’s end that Hitler’s hatreds were given fertile soil.
Yet as Childers makes clear, the Nazi rise to power 85 years ago was far from guaranteed. A confluence of events and chance made tragedy possible.
The story of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in the 1920s is well known. The group’s fortunes ebbed and waned with a clumsy, failed coup attempt in a Munich beer hall in 1923, Hitler’s brief stint in jail, a regrouping, and electoral losses.
The popular narrative has it that, but for the Great Depression, the Nazis would have never gained the foothold that they needed.
Indeed, in the May 1928 elections for the German parliament (the Reichstag), the Nazis only won 2.6 percent of the vote. But as Childers notes, “The elections of 1928 reveal not that German democracy was on solid ground but rather offer subtle manifestations of a momentous transformation within the Weimar party system and within the middle-class electorate in particular.” The elections evidenced a “steady growth of special-interest, single-issue, and regional parties” that, aided by Weimar’s system of proportional representation, earned seats and middle class support.
These 30-odd small parties would provide a base for a more organized Nazi party to cull once the “more desperate circumstances” of the Depression kicked in. The Nazis’ relative success demonstrated that a message of contempt for the status quo could find support from small homeowners, civil servants, small businessmen, and others supposedly removed from the fringes of 1920s German politics.
Childers shows how the Nazis were able to learn from electoral losses and enhance their appeal, aided by a sophisticated and well-organized propaganda machine and often contradictory platforms. The specifics mattered less, he points out, than the images made and the emotions conjured.
While electoral appeals were malleable, however, the animating force of Nazism was always antisemitism. This history of Nazism doesn’t shy away from the importance and the vehemence of Nazi ideology. One key message: Political pragmatism is not synonymous with political moderation, a lesson that Western leaders seeking to accommodate Hitler in the 1930s would learn at great cost.
The construction of the Nazi terror state is told in gripping fashion, as the rogues gallery of its leaders built an artifice that would, shortly after its creation, menace its people, its neighbors, and the world.
The story of how and why this happened is masterfully written by Childers, who has provided the best single-volume popular history of Nazi Germany to date. By authoring an accessible yet scholarly book, Childers has performed a service. The historian and slain French resistance fighter Marc Bloch noted that history is “an endeavor toward better understanding.” The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany succeeds in this mission.
Sean Durns is a Washington D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst.