£30,000 prize for 'work of genius' on Nazis

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A radical and compelling re-examination of the history of Nazi Germany won the UK's most valuable prize for non-fiction last night.

Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich, which was described by the judges of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction as a work of genius, was chosen from a list of six books that included three biographies, a study of evolution explained through the eyes of a crustacean-like animal, and an investigation of the catalogue of death and destruction in 20th-century Russia.

Mr Burleigh, a research professor in modern history at Cardiff University, is the author of six books, including Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Nazi Germany.

At a dinner held in the West End of London last night, the chairman of the judges, Andrew Marr ­ the BBC's political editor and a former editor of The Independent ­ said: "In a very close race, we felt in the end that here was something both urgent and magisterial and a book that, as judges, we wanted to read and recommend. It is a work of authentic historical genius."

The Third Reich sets the rise of Nazi Germany and its abandonment of liberal democracy within a European context and recreates the complexities of life under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The £30,000 prize, sponsored by a retired British businessman and philanthropist, is now in its third year. Shortlisted authors, who included Simon Carr, the parliamentary sketchwriter at The Independent, were each awarded £2,500. The inaugural winner was Antony Beevor for his book Stalingrad, which became a bestseller. Last year's winner was David Cairn's biography of Berlioz.

Mr Marr said the judging panel, which consisted of the historian Niall Ferguson, the scientist Steve Jones, the journalist and author Annalena McAfee and Suzanna Taverne, managing director of the British Museum, had all been gripped by the book as a narrative and thought it something special.

"If you read it from cover to cover, you will emerge knowing a huge amount about the subject," said Mr Marr. "So much about this ... has been written about almost as a kind of intellectual porn. There can hardly be a more important subject, and there can hardly be a better book on it."