Richard J. Evans on the Use and Abuse of the Third Reich

Richard J. Evans has an interesting essay in the Guardian on changing perspectives on Germany history among historians and the public at large:

Nazism, the society it created, the world of the Third Reich and the people who lived through it all appear as a kind of moral drama where the issues are laid out starkly before us with a clarity we are no longer able to achieve in the morally complex, confusing and compromised world we live in today. It has become commonplace to classify the inhabitants of Nazi Germany and the countries it conquered and occupied as “perpetrators”, “victims” or “bystanders”, as if the Third Reich was one single, gigantic act of criminality to be retrospectively judged as if history were a court of law. Occasionally we might nod in the direction of the few who resisted, but their numbers shrink into insignificance in comparison with those considered guilty or innocent, the actively criminal and their passive victims.

Yet we have not always approached the history of nazism in this way. Indeed, the predominantly moral perspective from which Hitler and the Germany he created are currently viewed is a relatively recent one. For a long time after the end of the war he launched in September 1939 and lost five and a half years later, Hitler was a comparatively neglected topic for historians, as were the Nazi movement and the Nazi state. Evidence was piled up for the Nuremberg trials, but the focus was very much on “war crimes”, the years before 1939 were more or less out of the visual range of the prosecutors, and the death camps at Treblinka, Auschwitz and elsewhere were not the central point of the investigation.

…Sweeping generalisations about “the Germans” are out of place both in serious historical scholarship and in an informed public memory. Wartime propaganda damned all Germans past and present for the rise of nazism and the murderous triumph of antisemitism, but nazism, it should not be forgotten, was a tiny fringe movement until the very end of the 1920s. The regime had to work hard to get popular support once it came to power in 1933, and violence played as important a role as propaganda. Prominent Jews in the Weimar Republic, notably the foreign minister Walther Rathenau, were not despised, marginal figures but enjoyed huge popular support and admiration, expressed in the national outpouring of grief on his death.

It has become increasingly difficult to sustain the view, rooted in wartime allied propaganda and given more sophisticated expression in the work of the dominant school of left-liberal West Germans of the 1970s to 1990s, that the roots of nazism lay deep in the German past. Often seen against the long-term background of modern German history since the era of Bismarck’s unification of the country in the 19th century, the Third Reich is now increasingly also viewed in a broader international, even global context, as part of the age of imperialism, its drive for domination building on a broader tradition of the German quest for empire.

 

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