The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J Evans

The resistible rise of a demagogue
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The Independent Culture

To judge by the recent appearance of two films about Hitler, Max and Hitler: the rise of evil, the fascination with Nazism has not abated, even if it has palpably waned compared to the intensity of the period 1995-2000. Then, Nazis were hardly out of the news and 12,000 books on the Third Reich were published.

Greater emotional distance means that we can begin to evaluate the era more dispassionately and the two, rival films exemplify different approaches. The subtitle of the recent television film proclaims the familiar story of Hitler's inexorable, demonic ascent. By contrast, Max played with the intriguing (if historically wayward) notion that after the First World War Hitler was still wavering between a career in art and one in politics. Max explored the contingency of his transformation into a demagogue and compelled its audience to think much more carefully about what the "pre-Hitler" Hitler was saying and thinking.

Writing for the non-expert curious to discover the background to the still-ubiquitous presence of Hitler and Nazism in our culture, Richard J Evans strives for a similar effect. He briskly dismisses the old, teleological explanations for Hitler's success, such as a preference in the German character for authoritarian leadership or a local failure to cope with modern "mass society". What happened in Germany was not so different to the pattern in Italy or Hungary, where shaky democracies crumpled in the face of military failure and social discord. At the same time, Evans points out that events in Germany cannot be subsumed in some general crisis that resulted in generic "totalitarian" rule.

The Third Reich was rooted in the German past, although Evans carefully insists that saying this is not the same as ascribing cause and effect. To be sure, the unification of Germany by war under Bismarck bequeathed a model of personal governance and an exaggerated respect for military virtues. Imperial Germany was deeply fissured by religion, region and class, divisions Bismarck aggravated. Evans observes that many of the fault-lines running through the Weimar Republic date from Bismarck's time. Imperial Germany seethed with anti-semitism, racism and eugenic planners.

Even so, these elements were politically marginal, and were dwarfed by the progressive movements that seemed destined to capture the future. It took the brutalising effect of the 1914-18 war and the revolutionary chaos that followed to shake up society so that ideas previously dismissed as lunatic became persuasive.

In a clever piece of orchestration, Evans first writes about the maelstrom years from 1918 to 1924 without once mentioning Hitler. The effect is striking, though perhaps not what he intended. He wants the reader to understand that the ideas comprising Nazi ideology were commonplace and that political violence was endemic in Germany before a single Brownshirt raised his fist. But the brilliant depiction of political cynicism among the republican leadership, the ingrained vio- lence of the returned trench veterans, the rabid anti-Marxism of the right, and the blood-curdling anti-semitism on all sides, leaves you wondering why Germans needed Hitler and the Nazis? After a glimpse into that poisonous cauldron the "rise of evil" does, indeed, seem nothing less than inevitable.

Evans points out that from June 1920 a majority of German voters consistently cast their ballots for parties antagonistic to the new republic. Weimar's legitimacy was fatally undermined by its implementation of the punishing Versailles peace treaty and the nightmarish period of hyper-inflation in 1922-23. The republic also had bad luck: its most adept leaders tended to die young while its adversaries prospered into old age.

Yet the Nazis would have remained a splinter party of the far right if it had not been for the Depression. Evans gives a terrific explanation of why the Wall Street Crash had such a ghastly impact on Germany. By 1932, one fifth of the population was facing poverty and starvation while centrist parties alienated voters by pursuing harsh, deflationary measures that only worsened the crisis. This was the soil in which Nazism eventually flourished.

If the Weimar Republic was ill-starred, the opposite held for Hitler. Between 1924, when he was released from prison after leading an unsuccessful coup in Bavaria, and 1929, he refashioned the NSDAP as a "catch-all party of discontent". Short on detailed policies, it offered Germans an alluring vision of a reborn nation, restored to greatness, purged of troublesome "alien" elements (notably Jews), its people united by blood and a shared culture which drew on traditional values. The bourgeois, democratic (liberal, Marxist and Jewish) politicians who lost the war and plunged Germany into misery would be expelled and, with them, social division would go.

This vision resonated deeply with conservative and patriotic convictions, and fed off more recent disillusionment. It was promoted with fantastic energy by the Nazi rank and file, overwhelmingly young men, who were armed with outstanding propaganda thanks to Josef Goebbels.

However, there was always a tension between the movement's quasi-revolutionary, anti-bourgeois rhetoric and its appeal to middle-class voters. Hitler had endless trouble with his left-leaning subordinates; but was blessed with incompetent opponents. At crucial junctures Otto and Gregor Strasser, leaders of the left-wing Nazis, flounced off in a pique, leaving Hitler to scoop up middle-class voters panicked by the relentless advance of Communism.

But they would still not have got anywhere without the machinations of the army and bourgeois politicians. These men had already dismantled democratic safeguards and created the precedents for authoritarian rule. It was they who offered the highest office to Hitler in order to bring his mass movement to buttress the status quo and fend off the Red threat. Evans skilfully leads the reader through elections and backroom intrigues. If there is one weakness, it is the absence of Hitler. We get no sense of his nail-biting brinkmanship as he held out for the Chancellorship, driving his lieutenants to despair as the movement, broke and exhausted, threatened to fall apart.

On the other hand, Evans writes illuminatingly about how narrowly Kurt von Schleicher, the chief plotter in the retinue of President Hindenburg, missed out on setting up an alternative regime at the moment when Hitler's fortunes had dimmed. Ironically, it was because the Nazis seemed to have peaked that Hindenberg's other advisers urged him to offer Hitler the Chancellorship. They were afraid that if they waited too long, the socialists and liberal parties might stage a comeback and save Weimar.

Brought into power legally, Hitler then used a mixture of law and violence to establish a one-party police state. Evans spares nothing of the brutality with which Hitler crushed rival parties and cowed his conservative allies. He has little sympathy for the trend in recent research that stresses the extent of popular consent to Nazi rule as against terror-induced compliance: "Far from being directed against particular widely unpopular minorities, the terror was comprehensive in scope, affecting anyone who expressed dissent in public, from whatever direction, against deviants, vagabonds, nonconformists of every kind."

Nevertheless, swathes of society succumbed to Nazification and the violent exclusion of Jewish colleagues with barely a murmur because they shared Nazi values. It was sadly typical that the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, when actually defending some Jews, declared that "If the struggle against Jewry is directed in the main against those artists who are rootless and destructive themselves... then that's just fine."

David Cesarani is professor of 20th-century European Jewish History and Culture at Southampton University. His book about Adolf Eichmann will be published by Heinemann next year