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The Third Reich in Power

By (July 1, 2014) No Comment

third reich in power coverOur book today is The Third Reich in Power, the massive 2005 middle block volume in Richard Evans’s enormous Nazi Germany trilogy, the first volume of which covers the Hitlerian rise to power and is necessarily the sketchiest of the three and the third volume of which, The Third Reich at War (which I reviewed back in 2009 for my darling Open Letters Monthly), is powerhouse stuff but can’t help but feel over-familiar, considering how many thousands of books have been written on those exact same war years.

I found this fat orange Penguin paperback recently at a certain Boston used bookshop, and since it was in perfect condition and effectively free, I snapped it up even though I already have the whole trilogy over there on my history shelves (what can I say? I often require very little in the way of nudging in order to justify a re-reading) and plunged into it again, this middle volume The Third Reich in Power.

To my mind, it has a kind of creeping power not given to the other two. This is the longest of the volumes, almost a thousand pages, and in those pages Evans uses his stately prose style and incredibly compendious research to portray the tightening of a nightmare. This volume is the horrific testing-cage, the years, from 1933 to 1939, when the rabid and brutal Nazi regime, regardless of the deceit and chicanery it used to reach power, had a chance to become a state among other states. Among the many other things Evans’s account does so well, it demonstrates with cutting, crystalline sureness that a gang of brutal, sadistic thugs can never be a state and will seldom ever really want to be. As Evans makes clear, their goals ran counter to civilization’s goals right from the start:

War had been the objective of the Third Reich and its leaders from the moment they came to power in 1933. From that point up to the actual outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, they had focused relentlessly on preparing the nation for a conflict that would bring European, and eventually world, domination for Germany. The megalomania of these ambitions had been apparent in the gigantism of the plans developed by Hitler and Speer for Berlin, which was to become Germania, the new world capital. And the limitless scale of the Nazi drive for conquest and dominion over the rest of the world entailed a correspondingly thoroughgoing attempt to remould the minds, spirits and bodies of the German people to make them capable and worthy of the role of the new master-race that awaited them.

This is history in the grand Thucydidean mode, slightly removed, with a light frost over its objective dispassion. Much like Michael Burleigh’s great one-volume history of the Third Reich from 2000, this Evans book is clearly intended to be monumental rather than intimate. We get the sweep of constricting policies as they were felt all across the widening stretch of the Nazi dominion, and Evans handles it all marvellously. But occasionally the sheer person drama of events pulls his narrative to a halt lucy reads richard evansand focuses it, for a moment here and there, on almost unbearably personal details:

The endgame was now under way. Overcoming his fury at the Italians, who compounded their offence by offering to call a conference with the British and the French to impose a settlement on the lines of the Munich Agreement, Hitler made a last effort to secure Anglo-French neutrality. Further meetings with [British ambassador Sir Neville] Henderson failed to budge the British on the crucial issue of their guarantee to Poland in the event of armed conflict. Much of what Hitler had to say, including the offer of a plebiscite in the Corridor coupled with the return of Danzig to Germany, was no more than window-dressing designed to assure the German public that he had made every effort to maintain peace. When Ribbentrop communicated the offer to Henderson in the Reich Chancellery at midnight on 29 August 1939, he read it out at a speed too great for the ambassador to make proper notes, then flung it on the table saying it was out of date anyway. The interpreter at the meeting later reported that the atmosphere was so bad he thought the two men would come to blows.

This account by Evans is magisterial and yet makes gripping reading. It comes festooned with praising blurbs, and it deserves them all even in a summertime re-reading virtually designed to notice dry spells and weak spots. This particular re-reading was an odd digression for me – unforeseen thousand-pagers always are! – but I’m very glad I did it. And who knows? Maybe I’ll re-read the other two volumes as well now. Maybe – radical thought – I’ll read the copies I already have, instead of happening upon a cheap extra!