THE COMING OF THE THIRD REICH
By Richard J. Evans
Penguin UK / Allen Lane, Rec. price: $69.95
Almost 60 years have elapsed since the collapse of Nazi Germany, yet interest in the phenomenon of Nazism has not abated. Most perplexing is the question of how it was possible for such a regime to come to power and wreak so much havoc, particularly when one considers that by 1900 Germany was one of the most advanced societies in the world.
Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, in this first of three projected volumes covering the rise, progress and fall of the Nazi regime, explores the factors that contributed to the rise and initial consolidation of the Nazi regime.
In this volume, Evans surveys key events and trends in German history from Bismarck and the emergence of a united Germany. From the federation of 1871, Germany had an elected parliament, and minority groups such as Jews enjoyed equal civil rights with their fellow citizens.
Indeed, so integrated were Jews into German society by World War I that most Jews considered themselves Germans, Judaism being their religious affiliation.
Anti-semitic trends were present; however, it was in a new form as it did not use religious, but rather racial, ideas based on Darwin’s theories and eugenics.
Evans then goes on to explore the impact of the aftermath of WWI, particularly the treaty of Versailles and the rise of the Weimar Republic. Germans generally regarded the Treaty of Versailles as an insult to Germany’s honour, particularly its demands that Germany acknowledge responsibility for WWI, pay reparations, together with the loss of territory.
The reparations bankrupted Germany, as demonstrated by the inflation that peaked in 1923 and failure to pay reparations led to the occupation of the Ruhr by the French.
Ironically, Germans laid the blame for these calamities not upon the Kaiser’s regime, which had led them into war and under which Germany had been defeated, but upon the Weimar Republic that had had to pick up the pieces.
Evans emphasises the fact that the Weimar regime – despite some of its notable successes particularly in stabilising the currency under Stresemann and being able to re-negotiate the payment of reparations in the wake of the 1930s Great Depression – never gained legitimacy in the mindset of the German people.
In the wake of Communist attempts to seize power in the immediate aftermath of Germany’s defeat, there remained the fear amongst Germans that the Communists would again attempt a coup.
All of these factors were integral in the Nazi’s seizure of power. However, Evans argues that the Depression was the important catalyst as in the 1928 election – the last prior to the Depression – the Nazis scored a mere six per cent of the votes.
They were generally regarded as a fringe right wing party and popular support for them in elections actually declined just before they seized power with Germany showing the first signs of emerging from the Depression.
Evans acknowledges the charismatic personality of Hitler, but emphasises the power of Nazi rhetoric. The Nazis offered few solutions, instead they focussed on issues of discontent, such as the Treaty of Versailles, Jews, etc.
The impact of street fights and other aspects of violence the Nazi stormtroopers used against their opponents, particularly the Communists, are explored and Evans argues that many came to believe that the only way to contain the violence was to facilitate the Nazi rise to power.
Evans also places great emphasis upon the slide towards dictatorship within the Weimar republic during and due to the pressures wrought on it by the Depression. Chancellor Bruning, and particularly his successor Von Papen, used considerable powers granted to them by the Weimar constitution by governing more and more without reference to the Reichstag.
Given the significant support the Nazis enjoyed (peaking at 37 per cent of the popular vote), there was considerable pressure for them to be given integral government posts.
Hitler was ultimately appointed Chancellor on January 30, 1933, with the endorsement of President Hindenburg.
It was believed that this appointment would contain him and the Nazis and would further the decline in their popular support.
Hitler’s establishment of a Nazi dictatorship thus has to be seen in the light of trends in German politics in the wake of the Depression.
He consolidated and furthered what his predecessors had begun and Evans argues that had Hitler not established a Nazi dictatorship, another right-wing dictatorship may well have emerged.
The final section examines the Nazis’ consolidation of power in 1933 and the first part of 1934, particularly the effective use of violence and coercion that included the establishment of concentration camps.
Evans’s account is extremely readable and interesting and is supported by extensive research and documentation.