Subject: [IP] THEY STOOPED TO CONQUER
Begin forwarded message:
From: Bob Frankston <Bob19email@example.com> Date: November 8, 2005 12:53:36 PM EST To: Dave Farber <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: THEY STOOPED TO CONQUER
This is a review that appeared in a recent issue of the economist. While I
don't want to claim history repeats itself exactly there is some
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THEY STOOPED TO CONQUER Oct 27th 2005
HISTORIES of Hitler get bigger all the time. Five years ago, Sir Ian Kershaw concluded his monumental two-volume life of the German dictator. Now, Richard Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, is bringing out a three-volume study of the Third Reich and its origins. The escalating size of these histories is easily explained. There is more secondary literature on Hitler and the Nazis than could possibly be read in a lifetime, while historians have moved away from offering simplistic explanations for what happened in Germany in the middle of the 20th century.
In the 1960s, Hitler, and fascism in general, were dismissed by Marxist historians as capitalism's panic-driven response to the inter-war economic and social crisis. Other historians focused on Hitler's personal history as if this were emblematic of the wider story. The German people were seen as prisoners of his madness; mere victims. Now the big questions are different. The reality is immensely complex. There are many causes, not one.
This is the thrust of Mr Evans's argument in the second volume of his trilogy. Dictatorships are ultimately based on terror--not necessarily overt repression, but the knowledge that lurks at the back of every citizen's mind that there are lines that cannot be crossed without incurring terrible penalties. These are not necessarily conventional lines established by an easily recognised social morality. Second-guessing what National Socialism might regard as a political crime was a risky business. Silence was preferred; the averted gaze replaced the straight stare. Only a very few brave Germans tried to keep other political options alive, often earning a spell in a camp for their pains. News of how awful the camp experience was rippled out from the families who had suffered, resulting in an efficient, private compliance.
Germans prided themselves on their respectability, which was why they hesitated to confront the illegal Nazi regime, or simply argued to themselves that the dictatorship was a necessary stabiliser. Mr Evans has interesting things to say about how few qualms party bosses (and minor functionaries) seemed to have about not being respectable in the old-fashioned bourgeois sense. They lined their pockets, stole Jewish property and helped each other along. The sense that the dictatorship was utterly corrupting of conventional morality has been fiercely debated, especially since April, when Gotz Aly, a visiting historian at Frankfurt University, published his "Hitlers Voltsstaat" (Fischer), about the wholesale robbery in which Germans were engaged during the war.
Mr Evans writes about the regime's efforts to remould the German mentality, but he suggests that long-established Christian conventions were hard to break down. The dictatorship worked best in areas where the peculiarities of German Christianity matched the prejudices of the new system--in penalising, for example, social "outsiders" of all kinds, from homosexuals to gypsies. He also makes a great deal of the race question, and shows that this was by no means only about Jews. The 1930s were filled with efforts to purify the race, encourage a high birth rate among the most "Aryan" in the ethnic German population and stamp hard on anything that smacked of race defilement, including abortion, prostitution and homosexuality.
There were grim ironies in all this. The 115,000 married SS men, who were chosen for their racial characteristics and subjected to pompous propaganda on the child-rich life, could manage only an average of 1.1 children per household. The gap between racial utopia and the muddled biological reality of the German population eventually supplied one of the most damaging and long-lasting legacies of the system. Millions of Germans could come to terms with life after dictatorship in 1945, but the 300,000 men and women compulsorily sterilised were scarred for life.
Mr Evans has produced a rich and detailed description of just what the Third Reich did in every compartment of the state and every corner of society. He does not follow the fashionable view that Hitler was a weak dictator, who was unable to rein in the growing radicalisation of the system and with little interest in the routines of governing. Indeed, he concludes his vast survey by reminding the reader that Hitler was always "in the driving seat, determining the general direction in which things moved". This interpretation seems irrefutable in the face of the evidence. Hitler is there at the heart of major affairs of state, which he viewed as the work of a messianic leader.
Mr Evans's writing is a model of clarity and intelligence, but there are a few areas where the book is less sure-footed. The treatment of foreign policy, from the occupation of the Rhineland to the outbreak of war in 1939, leaves out much that is needed to understand the eventual outcome. The complicated stories about economic revival and military expansion would benefit from the occasional chart of statistics. The economic issues are described, but not explained in any great detail. Hitler's financial "wizard", a banker named Hjalmar Schacht, is given the credit for rescuing Germany's finances, but there is no economic analysis of how he did this.
These are not key areas for Mr Evans. The text comes most to life when he is talking about society, culture and politics. One final concern: many German titles have been translated into English. While it might work to cast "Mein Kampf" as "My Struggle", some other terms will seem more exotic in English than in German. For example, Julius Streicher's rabidly anti-Semitic paper "Der Sturmer" is translated as the "Stormer", although this term is never used in the English-language literature on the Third Reich. It would be like insisting that THE ECONOMIST should be DER VOLKSWIRT when it is cited in Germany. But this is a minor quibble. Mr Evans's magisterial study should be on our shelves for a long time to come. The Third Reich in Power: 1933-1939 By Richard J. Evans Penguin Press; 941 pages; $37.95. Penguin/Allen Lane; GBP30
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