Modern history



This book is the first of three on the history of the Third Reich. It tells the story of the origins of the Third Reich in the nineteenth-century Bismarckian Empire, the First World War and the bitter postwar years of the Weimar Republic. It goes on to recount the Nazis’ rise to power through a combination of electoral success and massive political violence in the years of the great economic Depression from 1929 to 1933. Its central theme is how the Nazis managed to establish a one-party dictatorship in Germany within a very short space of time, and with seemingly little real resistance from the German people. A second book will deal with the development of the Third Reich from 1933 to 1939. It will analyse its central institutions, describe how it worked and what it was like to live in it, and recount its drive to prepare people for a war that would reinstate Germany’s position as the leading power in Europe. The war itself is the subject of a third and final book that will deal with the rapid radicalization of the Third Reich’s policies of military conquest, social and cultural mobilization and repression, and racial extermination, until it ended in total collapse and destruction in 1945. A concluding chapter will examine the aftermath of the twelve short years of the Reich’s history and its legacy for the present and the future.

These three books are addressed in the first place to people who know nothing about the subject, or who know a little and would like to know more. I hope that specialists will find something of interest in them, but they are not the primary readership for which the books are intended. The legacy of the Third Reich has been widely discussed in the media in recent years. It continues to attract widespread attention. Restitution and compensation, guilt and apology have become sensitive political and moral issues. Images of the Third Reich, and museums and memorials calling attention to the impact of Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945, are all around us. Yet the background to all this in the history of the Third Reich itself is often missing. That is what these three books aim to provide.

Anyone embarking on a project such as this must inevitably begin by asking whether it is really necessary to write yet another history of Nazi Germany. Surely we have had enough? Surely so much has already been written that there is little more to add? Undoubtedly, few historical topics have been the subject of such intensive research. The latest edition of the standard bibliography on Nazism, published by the indefatigable Michael Ruck in 2000, lists over 37,000 items; the first edition, which appeared in 1995, listed a mere 25,000. This startling increase in the number of titles is eloquent testimony to the continuing, never-ending outpouring of publications on the subject.1 No historian can hope to master even a major portion of such an overwhelming literature. And indeed, some have found the sheer volume of information that is available so daunting, so seemingly impossible to pull together, that they have given up in despair. As a result, there have, in fact, been surprisingly few attempts to write the history of the Third Reich on a large scale. True, recent years have seen the publication of some excellent brief, synoptic surveys, notably by Norbert Frei and Ludolf Herbst,2 some stimulating analytical treatments, particularly Detlev Peukert’s Inside Nazi Germany,3 and some useful collections of documents, of which the four-volume English-language anthology edited with extensive commentaries by Jeremy Noakes is outstanding.4

But the number of broad, general, large-scale histories of Nazi Germany that have been written for a general audience can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first of these, and by far the most successful, was William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1960. Shirer’s book has probably sold millions of copies in the four decades or more since its appearance. It has never gone out of print and remains the first port of call for many people who want a readable general history of Nazi Germany. There are good reasons for the book’s success. Shirer was an American journalist who reported from Nazi Germany until the United States entered the war in December, 1941, and he had a journalist’s eye for the telling detail and the illuminating incident. His book is full of human interest, with many arresting quotations from the actors in the drama, and it is written with all the flair and style of a seasoned reporter’s despatches from the front. Yet it was universally panned by professional historians. The emigré German scholar Klaus Epstein spoke for many when he pointed out that Shirer’s book presented an ‘unbelievably crude’ account of German history, making it all seem to lead up inevitably to the Nazi seizure of power. It had ’glaring gaps’ in its coverage. It concentrated far too much on high politics, foreign policy and military events, and even in 1960 it was ‘in no way abreast of current scholarship dealing with the Nazi period’. Getting on for half a century later, this comment is even more justified than it was in Epstein’s day. For all its virtues, therefore, Shirer’s book cannot really deliver a history of Nazi Germany that meets the demands of the early twenty-first-century reader.5

An entirely different kind of survey was provided by the German political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The German Dictatorship, published in 1969. This was the summation of Bracher’s pioneering and still valuable studies of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi seizure of power, and it was strongest on the origins and growth of Nazism and its relation to German history, precisely those areas where Shirer was at his weakest. Nearly half the book was devoted to these subjects; the rest contained somewhat less extensive coverage of the political structure of the Third Reich, foreign policy, economy and society, culture and the arts, the wartime regime, and the breakdown of the Nazi system. Despite this unevenness, its coverage is masterly and authoritative, and it remains a classic. The great virtue of Bracher’s treatment is its analytical clarity, and its determination to explain, account and interpret everything it covers. It is a book that one can return to again and again with profit. However, it is not only uneven in its treatment of the subject, it is also avowedly academic in its approach; it is often hard going for the reader; and it has inevitably been overtaken by research in many areas during the past three and a half decades.6

If Shirer represented the popular and Bracher the academic side of writing about Nazi Germany, then, recently, one author has successfully bridged the gap between the two. The British historian Ian Kershaw’s two-volume Hitler successfully embeds Hitler’s life in modern German history, and shows how his rise and fall were linked to wider historical factors. But Kershaw’s Hitler is not a history of Nazi Germany. Indeed, following Hitler’s own increasing isolation during the war, its focus inevitably becomes progressively narrower as it goes on. It concentrates on the areas to which Hitler devoted most attention, namely foreign policy, war and race. It cannot by definition adopt the perspectives of ordinary people or deal very much with the many areas with which Hitler was not directly concerned.7 One of the principal aims of the present book and its two succeeding volumes, therefore, is to cover a wide range of major aspects of the history of the Third Reich: not only politics, diplomacy and military affairs but also society, the economy, racial policy, police and justice, literature, culture and the arts, with a breadth that for various reasons is missing in earlier approaches, to bring these together and to show how they were related.

The success of Kershaw’s biography demonstrated that research into Nazi Germany is an international business. The most recent large-scale general account to appear of the subject has also been by a British historian: Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History. It brings home to readers right from the start the violence at the heart of the Nazi regime, to an extent and degree that no other book manages to do. Too often, as Burleigh rightly complains, academic authors paint a somewhat bloodless, almost abstract picture of the Nazis, as if the theories and debates about them were more important than the people themselves. His book dramatically redresses the balance. Burleigh’s major purpose was to deliver a moral history of the Third Reich. The Third Reich: A New History concentrates mainly on mass murder, resistance and collaboration, political violence and coercion, crimes and atrocities. In doing so, it powerfully reasserts a vision of Nazi Germany as a totalitarian dictatorship that has been too often underplayed in recent years. But it omits any detailed consideration of foreign policy, military strategy, the economy, social change, culture and the arts, propaganda, women and the family, and many other aspects of Nazi Germany that have been the subject of recent research. Moreover, in prioritizing moral judgment, it has a tendency to downplay explanation and analysis. Nazi ideology, for example, is dismissed as ‘guff’, ‘pretentious nonsense’ and so on, to highlight the immorality of Germans abandoning their moral duty to think. But there is something to be said for a different approach that, like Bracher’s, takes these ideas seriously, however repulsive or ridiculous they may seem to a modern reader, and explains how and why so many people in Germany came to believe them.8

This history tries to combine the virtues of previous accounts such as these. It is, in the first place, like Shirer’s book, a narrative account. It aims to tell the story of the Third Reich in chronological order, and to show how one thing led to another. Narrative history fell out of fashion for many years in the 1970s and 1980s, as historians everywhere focused on analytical approaches derived mainly from the social sciences. But a variety of recent, large-scale narrative histories have shown that it can be done without sacrificing analytical rigour or explanatory power.9 Like Shirer, too, this book attempts to give voice to the people who lived through the years with which it deals. The partisan distortion of German historical scholarship under the Nazis, the cult of personality, and the veneration of leadership by history-writers in the Third Reich, caused German historians after the Second World War to react by editing individual personalities out of history altogether. In the 1970s and 1980s, under the influence of modern social history, they were interested above all in broader structures and processes.10 The work this generated immeasurably advanced our understanding of Nazi Germany. But real human beings almost disappeared from view in the quest for intellectual understanding. So one of the purposes of the present work has been to put individuals back into the picture; and all the way through I have tried to quote as much as possible from the writings and speeches of contemporaries, and to juxtapose the broader narrative and analytical sweep of the book with the stories of the real men and women, from the top of the regime down to the ordinary citizen, who were caught up in the drama of events.11

Recounting the experience of individuals brings home, as nothing else can, the sheer complexity of the choices they had to make, and the difficult and often opaque nature of the situations they confronted. Contemporaries could not see things as clearly as we can, with the gift of hindsight: they could not know in 1930 what was to come in 1933, they could not know in 1933 what was to come in 1939 or 1942 or 1945. If they had known, doubtless the choices they made would have been different. One of the greatest problems in writing history is to imagine oneself back in the world of the past, with all the doubts and uncertainties people faced in dealing with a future that for the historian has also become the past. Developments that seem inevitable in retrospect were by no means so at the time, and in writing this book I have tried to remind the reader repeatedly that things could easily have turned out very differently to the way they did at a number of points in the history of Germany in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. People make their own history, as Karl Marx once memorably observed, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Those conditions included not only the historical context in which they lived, but also the way in which they thought, the assumptions they acted upon, and the principles and beliefs that informed their behaviour.12 A central aim of this book is to re-create all these things for a modern readership, and to remind readers that, to quote another well-known aphorism about history, ‘the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’.13

For all these reasons, it seems to me inappropriate for a work of history to indulge in the luxury of moral judgment. For one thing, it is unhistorical; for another, it is arrogant and presumptuous. I cannot know how I would have behaved if I had lived under the Third Reich, if only because, if I had lived then, I would have been a different person from the one I am now. Since the early 1990s, the historical study of Nazi Germany, and increasingly that of other subjects too, has been invaded by concepts and approaches derived from morality, religion and the law. These might be appropriate for reaching a judgment on whether or not some individual or group should be awarded compensation for sufferings endured under the Nazis, or on the other hand forced to make restitution in some form or other for sufferings inflicted on others, and in these contexts it is not only legitimate but also important to apply them. But they do not belong in a work of history.14 As Ian Kershaw has remarked: ‘for an outsider, a non-German who never experienced Nazism, it is perhaps too easy to criticise, to expect standards of behaviour which it was well-nigh impossible to attain in the circumstances.’15 At this distance of time, the same principle holds good for the great majority of Germans, too. So I have tried as far as possible to avoid using language that carries a moral, religious or ethical baggage with it. The purpose of this book is to understand: it is up to the reader to judge.

Understanding how and why the Nazis came to power is as important today as it ever was, perhaps, as memory fades, even more so. We need to get into the minds of the Nazis themselves. We need to discover why their opponents failed to stop them. We need to grasp the nature and operation of the Nazi dictatorship once it was established. We need to figure out the processes through which the Third Reich plunged Europe and the world into a war of unparalleled ferocity that ended in its own cataclysmic collapse. There were other catastrophes in the first half of the twentieth century, most notably, perhaps, the reign of terror unleashed by Stalin in Russia during the 1930s. But none has had such a profound or lasting effect. From its enthronement of racial discrimination and hatred at the centre of its ideology to its launching of a ruthless and destructive war of conquest, the Third Reich has burned itself onto the modern world’s consciousness as no other regime, perhaps fortunately, has ever managed to do. The story of how Germany, a stable and modern country, in less than a single lifetime led Europe into moral, physical and cultural ruin and despair is a story that has sobering lessons for us all; lessons, again, which it is for the reader to take from this book, not for the writer to give.


Explaining how this happened has occupied historians and commentators of many kinds since the very beginning. Dissident and émigré intellectuals such as Konrad Heiden, Ernst Fraenkel and Franz Neumann published analyses of the Nazi Party and the Third Reich during the 1930s and 1940s that are still worth reading today, and had a lasting effect in guiding the direction of research.16 But the first real attempt to put the Third Reich in its historical context after the event was written by the leading German historian of the day, Friedrich Meinecke, immediately after the end of the Second World War. Meinecke blamed the rise of the Third Reich above all on Germany’s growing obsession with world power from the late nineteenth century onwards, beginning with Bismarck and getting more intense in the age of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the First World War. A militaristic spirit had spread through Germany, he thought, giving the army a balefully decisive influence over the political situation. Germany had acquired impressive industrial might; but this had been achieved by an over-concentration on a narrowly technical education at the expense of broader moral and cultural instruction. ‘We were searching for what was “positive” in Hitler’s work,’ wrote Meinecke of the educated upper-middle-class elite to which he belonged; and he was honest enough to add that they had found something they thought met the needs of the day. But it had all turned out to be an illusion. Looking back over a life long enough for him to remember the unification of Germany under Bismarck in 1871 and everything that happened between then and the fall of the Third Reich, Meinecke concluded tentatively that there was something flawed in the German nation-state from the very moment of its foundation in 1871.

Meinecke’s reflections, published in 1946, were as important for their limitations as for their brave attempt to rethink the political beliefs and aspirations of a lifetime. The old historian had stayed in Germany throughout the Third Reich, but, unlike many others, he had never joined the Nazi Party, nor had he written or worked on its behalf. But he was still limited by the perspectives of the liberal nationalism in which he had grown up. The catastrophe, for him, was, as the title of his 1946 reflections put it, aGermancatastrophe, not a Jewish catastrophe, a European catastrophe or a world catastrophe. At the same time, he gave primacy, as German historians had long done, to diplomacy and international relations in bringing about the catastrophe, rather than in social, cultural or economic factors. The problem for Meinecke lay essentially not in what he referred to in passing as the ‘racial madness’ that had gripped Germany under the Nazis, but in the Third Reich’s Machiavellian power politics, and its launching of a bid for world domination that had eventually led to its own destruction.17

For all its inadequacies, Meinecke’s attempt to understand raised a series of key questions which, as he predicted, have continued to occupy people ever since. How was it that an advanced and highly cultured nation such as Germany could give in to the brutal force of National Socialism so quickly and so easily? Why was there such little serious resistance to the Nazi takeover? How could an insignificant party of the radical right rise to power with such dramatic suddenness? Why did so many Germans fail to perceive the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring the violent, racist and murderous nature of the Nazi movement? 18 Answers to these questions have varied widely over time, between historians and commentators of different nationalities, and from one political position to another.19 Nazism was only one of a number of violent and ruthless dictatorships established in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, a trend so widespread that one historian has referred to the Europe of this era as a ‘Dark Continent’.20 This raises in turn the questions of how far Nazism was rooted in German history, and how far, on the other hand, it was the product of wider European developments, and the extent to which it shared central characteristics of its origins and rule with other European regimes of the time.

Such comparative considerations suggest that it is questionable to assume that it was somehow less likely for an economically advanced and culturally sophisticated society to fall into an abyss of violence and destruction than it was for one that was less so. The fact that Germany had produced a Beethoven, Russia a Tolstoy, Italy a Verdi, or Spain a Cervantes, was wholly irrelevant to the fact that all these countries experienced brutal dictatorships in the twentieth century. High cultural achievements across the centuries did not render a descent into political barbarism more inexplicable than their absence would have done; culture and politics simply do not impinge on each other in so simple and direct a manner. If the experience of the Third Reich teaches us anything, it is that a love of great music, great art and great literature does not provide people with any kind of moral or political immunization against violence, atrocity, or subservience to dictatorship. Indeed, many commentators on the left from the 1930s onwards argued that the advanced nature of German culture and society was itself the major cause of Nazism’s triumph. The German economy was the most powerful in Europe, German society the most highly developed. Capitalist enterprise had reached an unprecedented scale and degree of organization in Germany. Marxists argued that this meant that class conflict between the owners of capital and those they exploited had been ratcheted up until it reached breaking point. Desperate to preserve their power and their profits, big businessmen and their hangers-on used all their influence and all the propagandistic means at their disposal to call into being a mass movement that was dedicated to serving their interests - the Nazi Party - and then to lever it into power and benefit from it once it was there.21

This view, elaborated with considerable sophistication by a whole variety of Marxist scholars from the 1920s to the 1980s, should not be dismissed out of hand as mere propaganda; it has inspired a wide range of substantial scholarly work over the years, on both sides of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe during the Cold War between 1945 and 1990. But as a broad, general explanation it begs many questions. It more or less ignored the racial doctrines of Nazism, and altogether failed to explain the fact that the Nazis directed such venomous hatred towards the Jews not only in rhetoric but also in reality. Given the considerable resources devoted by the Third Reich to persecuting and destroying millions of people, including many who were impeccably middle-class, productive, well-off and in no small number of cases capitalists themselves, it is hard to see how the phenomenon of Nazism could be reduced to the product of a class struggle against the proletariat or an attempt to preserve the capitalist system that so many Jews in Germany contributed to sustaining. Moreover, if Nazism was the inevitable outcome of the arrival of imperialistic monopoly capitalism, then how could one account for the fact that it only emerged in Germany, and not in other, similarly advanced capitalist economies like Britain, Belgium, or the United States?22

Just such a question was what many non-Germans asked during the Second World War, and at least some Germans posed to themselves immediately afterwards. Above all in the countries that had already experienced one war against the Germans, in 1914-18, many commentators argued that the rise and triumph of Nazism were the inevitable end-products of centuries of German history. In this view, which was put forward by writers as varied as the American journalist William L. Shirer, the British historian A. J. P. Taylor and the French scholar Edmond Vermeil, the Germans had always rejected democracy and human rights, abased themselves before strong leaders, rejected the concept of the active citizen, and indulged in vague but dangerous dreams of world domination.23In a curious way, this echoed the Nazis’ own version of German history, in which the Germans had also held by some kind of basic racial instinct to these fundamental traits, but had been alienated from them by foreign influences such as the French Revolution.24But as many critics have pointed out, this simplistic view immediately raises the question of why the Germans did not succumb to a Nazi-style dictatorship long before 1933. It ignores the fact that there were strong liberal and democratic traditions in German history, traditions which found their expression in political upheavals such as the 1848 Revolution, when authoritarian regimes were overthrown all over Germany. And it makes it harder, rather than easier, to explain how and why the Nazis came to power, because it ignores the very widespread opposition to Nazism which existed in Germany even in 1933, and so prevents us from asking the crucial question of why that opposition was overcome. Without recognizing the existence of such opposition to Nazism within Germany itself, the dramatic story of Nazism’s rise to dominance ceases to be a drama at all: it becomes merely the realization of the inevitable.

It has been all too easy for historians to look back at the course of German history from the vantage-point of 1933 and interpret almost anything that happened in it as contributing to the rise and triumph of Nazism. This has led to all kinds of distortions, with some historians picking choice quotations from German thinkers such as Herder, the late eighteenth-century apostle of nationalism, or Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century founder of Protestantism, to illustrate what they argue are ingrained German traits of contempt for other nationalities and blind obedience to authority within their own borders.25 Yet when we look more closely at the work of thinkers such as these, we discover that Herder preached tolerance and sympathy for other nationalities, while Luther famously insisted on the right of the individual conscience to rebel against spiritual and intellectual authority.26 Moreover, while ideas do have a power of their own, that power is always conditioned, however indirectly, by social and political circumstances, a fact that historians who generalized about the ‘German character’ or ’the German mind’ all too often forgot.27

A different current of thought, sometimes put forward by the same writers, has emphasized not the importance of ideology and belief in German history, but their unimportance. Germans, it has sometimes been said, had no real interest in politics and never got used to the give-and-take of democratic political debate. Yet of all the myths of German history that have been mobilized to account for the coming of the Third Reich in 1933, none is less convincing than that of the ‘unpolitical German’. Largely the creation of the novelist Thomas Mann during the First World War, this concept subsequently became an alibi for the educated middle class in Germany, which could absolve itself from blame for supporting Nazism by accepting criticism for the far less serious offence of failing to oppose it. Historians of many varieties have claimed that the German middle class had withdrawn from political activity after the debacle of 1848, and taken refuge in money-making or literature, culture and the arts instead. Educated Germans put efficiency and success above morality and ideology.28 Yet there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, as we shall see in the course of this book. Whatever Germany suffered from in the 1920s, it was not a lack of political commitment and belief, rather, if anything, the opposite.

German historians, not surprisingly, found such broad and hostile generalizations about the German character highly objectionable. In the aftermath of the Second World War, they tried their best to deflect criticism by pointing to the wider European roots of Nazi ideology. They drew attention to the fact that Hitler himself was not German but Austrian. And they adduced parallels with other European dictatorships of the age, from Mussolini’s Italy to Stalin’s Russia. Surely, they argued, in the light of the general collapse of European democracy in the years from 1917 to 1933, the coming of the Nazis should be seen, not as the culmination of a long and uniquely German set of historical developments, but rather as the collapse of the established order in Germany as elsewhere under the cataclysmic impact of the First World War.29 In this view, the rise of industrial society brought the masses onto the political stage for the first time. The war destroyed social hierarchy, moral values and economic stability right across Europe. The Habsburg, the German, the Tsarist and the Ottoman Empires all collapsed, and the new democratic states that emerged in their wake quickly fell victim to the demagogy of unscrupulous agitators who seduced the masses into voting for their own enslavement. The twentieth century became an age of totalitarianism, culminating in the attempt of Hitler and Stalin to establish a new kind of political order based on total police control, terror, and the ruthless suppression and murder of real or imagined opponents in their millions on the one hand, and continual mass mobilization and enthusiasm whipped up by sophisticated propaganda methods on the other.30

Although it is easy enough to see how such arguments served the interests of Western exponents of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s by implicitly or explicitly equating Stalin’s Russia with Hitler’s Germany, the concept of both as varieties of a single phenomenon has recently undergone something of a revival.31 And certainly there is nothing illegitimate about comparing the two regimes.32 The idea of totalitarianism as a general political phenomenon went back as far as the early 1920s. It was used in a positive sense by Mussolini, who along with Hitler and Stalin made the claim to a total control of society that involved the effective re-creation of human nature in the form of a ‘new’ type of human being. But whatever the similarities between these various regimes, the differences between the forces that lay behind the origins, rise and eventual triumph of Nazism and Stalinism are too strikingly different for the concept of totalitarianism to explain very much in this area. In the end, it is more useful as a description than as an explanation, and it is probably better at helping us to understand how twentieth-century dictatorships behaved once they had achieved power than in accounting for how they got there.

To be sure, there were some similarities between Russia and Germany before the First World War. Both nations were ruled by authoritarian monarchies, backed by a powerful bureaucracy and a strong military elite, confronting rapid social change brought about by industrialization. Both these political systems were destroyed by the profound crisis of defeat in the First World War, and both were succeeded by a brief period of conflict-ridden democracy before the conflicts were resolved by the advent of dictatorships. But there were also many crucial differences, principal among them the fact that the Bolsheviks completely failed to win the level of mass public support in free elections which provided the essential basis for the Nazis’ coming to power. Russia was backward, overwhelmingly peasant, lacking in the basic functions of a civil society and a representative political tradition. It was a dramatically different country from the advanced and highly educated industrial Germany, with its long-nurtured traditions of representative institutions, the rule of law and a politically active citizenry. It is certainly true that the First World War destroyed the old order all over Europe. But the old order differed substantially from one country to another, and it was destroyed in differing ways, with differing consequences. If we are looking for another country with comparable developments, then, as we shall see, Italy, nineteenth-century Europe’s other newly unified nation alongside Germany, is a much better place to start than Russia.

Searching for an explanation of the origins and rise of Nazism in German history undeniably runs the risk of making the whole process seem inevitable. At almost every turn, however, things might have been different. The triumph of Nazism was far from a foregone conclusion right up to the early months of 1933. Yet it was no historical accident, either.33 Those who argued that Nazism came to power as part of an essentially Europe-wide set of developments are right to have done so up to a point. But they have paid far too little attention to the fact that Nazism, while far from being the unavoidable outcome of the course of German history, certainly did draw for its success on political and ideological traditions and developments that were specifically German in their nature. These traditions may not have gone back as far as Martin Luther, but they could certainly be traced back to the way German history developed in the course of the nineteenth century, and above all to the process by which the country was turned into a unified state under Bismarck in 1871. It makes sense to start at this point, therefore, as Friedrich Meinecke did in his reflections of 1946, when searching for the reasons why the Nazis came to power little over six decades later and wrought such havoc on Germany, Europe and the world with so little opposition from the majority of Germans. As we shall see in the course of this book and the two succeeding volumes, there are many different answers to these questions, ranging from the nature of the crisis that overtook Germany in the early 1930s, to the way in which the Nazis established and consolidated their rule once they had achieved power, and weighing them all up against each other is no easy task. Yet the burden of German history undeniably played a role, and it is with German history that this book, therefore, has to begin.


The early twenty-first century is a particularly good moment for undertaking a project of this kind. Historical research on the Third Reich has gone through three major phases since 1945. In the first, from the end of the war to the middle of the 1960s, there was a heavy concentration on answering the questions addressed primarily in the present volume. Political scientists and historians such as Karl Dietrich Bracher produced major works on the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi seizure of power.34 In the 1970s and 1980s the focus shifted to the history of the years 1933 to 1939 (the subject of the second volume of this study), aided by the return of vast quantities of captured documents from Allied custody to the German archives. In particular, Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen produced a series of path-breaking studies of the internal structures of the Third Reich, arguing against the prevailing view that it was a totalitarian system in which decisions made at the top, by Hitler, were implemented all the way down, and examining the complex of competing power centres whose rivalry, they argued, drove the regime on to adopt steadily more radical policies. Their work was complemented by a mass of new research into the history of everyday life under the Nazis, concentrating in particular on the years up to the outbreak of the Second World War.35 Since the 1990s research has entered a third phase, in which there has been a particular focus on the years 1939-45 (the subject of the third volume of this study). The discovery of new documents in the archives of the former Soviet bloc, the increasing public prominence given to the persecution and extermination of the Jews and others, from homosexuals to ‘asocials’, from slave labourers to the handicapped, by the Nazis, have all generated a large quantity of important new knowledge.36 The time seems right, therefore, to attempt a synthesis that brings the results of these three phases of research together, and to take advantage of the great quantity of new material, from the diaries of Joseph Goebbels and Victor Klemperer to the records of the meetings of the German cabinet and the appointments book of Heinrich Himmler, that has become available recently.

For any historian, a task such as this is a bold, if not rash or even foolhardy undertaking: doubly so for a historian who is not German. However, I have been thinking about the historical questions dealt with in this book for many years. My interest in German history was first seriously awakened by Fritz Fischer, whose visit to Oxford during my time there as an undergraduate was a moment of major intellectual significance. Later, in Hamburg researching for my doctorate, I was able to share a little of the extraordinary excitement generated by Fischer and his team, whose opening up of the question of continuity in modern German history created a real sense of ferment, even crusade, among the younger German historians whom he gathered around him. At that time, in the early 1970s, I was interested mainly in the origins of the Third Reich in the Weimar Republic and the Wilhelmine Empire; only later did I come to write about the ways in which Nazi Germany aroused heated controversy amongst modern German historians, and to do some archival research on the period 1933-45 myself, as part of a larger project on the death penalty in modern German history.37 Over these years I was lucky enough to be helped in many ways by a whole range of German friends and colleagues, notably Jürgen Kocka, Wolfgang Mommsen, Volker Ullrich and Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Numerous, often lengthy stays in Germany generously funded by institutions such as the Alexander von Hum-boldt Foundation and the German Academic Exchange Service helped educate me, I hope, into a better understanding of German history and culture than I set out with at the beginning of the 1970s. Few countries could have been more generous or more open to outsiders wishing to study their problematic and uncomfortable past. And the community of specialists on German history in Britain has been a constant support throughout; early on, during my time at Oxford, Tim Mason was a particular source of inspiration, and Anthony Nicholls guided my researches with a sure hand. Of course, none of this in the end can ever compensate for the fact that I am not a native German; but perhaps the distance that is inevitably the result of being a foreigner can also lend a certain detachment, or at least a difference of perspective, that may go some way to balancing out this obvious disadvantage.

Although I had written about the origins, consequences and historiography of the Third Reich, researched part of its history in the archives, and taught a slowly evolving, document-based course on it to undergraduates over a period of more than twenty years, it was not until the 1990s that I was prompted to devote my attention to it full-time. I shall always be grateful, therefore, to Anthony Julius for asking me to act as an expert witness in the libel case brought by David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers, and to the whole defence team, and most especially leading counsel Richard Rampton QC and my research assistants Nik Wachsmann and Thomas Skelton-Robinson, for many hours of fruitful and provocative discussion on many aspects of the history of the Third Reich that surfaced during the case.38 It was a privilege to be involved in a case whose importance turned out to be greater than any of us expected. Apart from this, one of the major surprises of the work we did on the case was the discovery that many aspects of the subjects we were dealing with were still surprisingly ill-documented. 39 Another, just as important, was that there was no really wide-ranging, detailed overall account of the broader historical context of Nazi policies towards the Jews in the general history of the Third Reich itself, despite the existence of many excellent accounts of those policies in a narrower framework. This sense of the growing fragmentation of knowledge on Nazi Germany was strengthened when I was asked soon afterwards to sit on the British government’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, considering claims for the restitution of cultural objects alienated unjustly from their original owners in the years from 1933 to 1945. Here was another area where answering specialized questions sometimes depended on historical knowledge of the wider context, yet there was no general history of Nazi Germany to which I could direct the other members of the panel to help them in this regard. At the same time, my direct confrontation with these important legal and moral dimensions of the Nazi experience through working in these two very different contexts convinced me more than ever of the need for a history of the Third Reich that did not take moral or legal judgment as its frame of reference.

These, then, are some of the reasons why I have written this book. They may help to explain some of its distinctive features. To begin with, in a history such as this, directed to a wide readership, it is important to avoid technical terms. Since this is a book for English-language readers, I have translated German terms into the English equivalent in almost every instance. Retaining the German is a form of mystification, even romanticization, which ought to be avoided. There are only three exceptions. The first is Reich, which, as Chapter 1 explains, had particular, untranslateable resonances in German far beyond its English equivalent of ‘empire’, with its associated term Reichstag, referring to the German national parliament. This is a word which ought to be familiar to every English-speaking reader, and it would be artificial to speak, for example, of the ‘Third Empire’ instead of the ’Third Reich’ or the ‘Parliament fire’ instead of the ’Reichstag fire‘. The title Kaiser has also been retained in preference to the rough English equivalent of ’Emperor’ because it, too, awakened specific and powerful historical memories. Some other German words or terms associated with the Third Reich have also gained currency in English, but in so doing they have become divorced from their original meaning:Gauleiter for instance just means a Nazi tyrant, so to give it a more precise meaning I have translated it everywhere as ‘Regional Leader’. Similarly, Hitler is referred to throughout not as Führer but as the English equivalent of the term, ‘Leader’. And although everyone is familiar with the title of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, few probably know that it means My Struggle unless they know German.

One of the purposes of translation is to allow English-speaking readers to gain a feeling for what these things actually meant; they were not mere titles or words, but carried a heavy ideological baggage with them. Some German words have no exact English equivalent, and I have chosen to be inconsistent in my translation, rendering national variously as ‘national’ or ‘nationalist’ (it has the flavour of both) and a similarly complex term, Volk, as ‘people’ or ‘race’, according to the context. The translations are not always mine, but where I have taken them from existing English-language versions I have always checked them against the originals and in some cases altered them accordingly. Specialist readers who know German will probably find all this rather irritating; they are advised to read the German edition of this book, which is published simultaneously under the title Das Dritte Reich, I: Aufstieg, by the Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt.

In a similar way, bearing in mind that this is not a specialist academic monograph, I have tried to limit the endnotes as far as possible. They are designed mainly to enable readers to check the statements made in the text; they are not intended to provide full bibliographical references to the topics under consideration, nor do they, with very few exceptions, include discussion of detailed subjects of secondary interest. I have tried, however, to point the interested reader to relevant further reading where he or she would like to pursue a topic in greater depth than has been possible in this book. Where there is an English translation of a German book, I have tried to cite it in this edition in preference to the German original. To keep the notes within bounds, only information necessary to locating the source has been provided, namely, author, title and subtitle, place and date of publication. Modern publishing is a global business, with the major players based in a number of different countries, so only the principal place of publication has been given.

One of the most difficult problems in writing about Nazi Germany is posed by the permeation of the language of the time by Nazi terminology, as Victor Klemperer long ago noted in his classic study of what he called Lingua tertii Imperii, the language of the Third Reich.40 Some historians distance themselves from it by putting all Nazi terms into inverted commas, or adding some disapproving epithet: thus the ‘Third Reich’ or even the ‘so-called “Third Reich”’. In a book such as this, however, to adopt either of these procedures would seriously compromise readability. Although it should not be necessary to say this, it is as well that I note at this point that Nazi terminology employed in this book simply reflects its use at the time: it should not be construed as an acceptance, still less approval, of the term in question as a valid way of denoting what it refers to. Where the Nazi Party is concerned I have used the capital initial letter for Party, where other parties are referred to, I have not; similarly, the Church is the formal organization of Christians, a church is a building; Fascism denotes the Italian movement led by Mussolini, fascism the generic political phenomenon.

If all of this makes what follows clearer and more readable, it will have served its purpose. And if the book itself is, as I hope, easy to follow, then much of the credit must go to the friends and colleagues who kindly agreed to read the first draft at short notice, expunged many infelicities and rooted out errors, in particular, Chris Clark, Christine L. Corton, Bernhard Fulda, Sir Ian Kershaw, Kristin Semmens, Adam Tooze, Nik Wachsmann, Simon Winder and Emma Winter. Bernhard Fulda, Christian Goeschel and Max Horster checked through the notes and located original documents; Caitlin Murdock did the same for the stormtrooper autobiographies stored in the Hoover Institution. Bernhard Fulda, Liz Harvey and David Welch kindly supplied some key documents. I am greatly indebted to all of them for their help. Andrew Wylie has been a superb agent whose persuasive powers have ensured that this book has the best possible publishers; Simon Winder at Penguin has been a tower of strength in London, and it has been a pleasure to work closely with him on the book. In New York, Scott Moyers has buoyed me up with his enthusiasm and helped greatly with his shrewd comments on the typescript, and in Germany, Michael Neher has performed a miracle of organization in getting the German edition out so quickly. It was a pleasure to work once again with the translators themselves, Holger Fliessbach and Udo Rennert, and also with András Bereznáy, who drew the maps. I am also grateful to Chloe Campbell at Penguin who has put so much effort into helping with the picture research, obtaining permissions and tracking down originals for the illustrations, to Simon Taylor for his generous help in providing some of the pictures, to Elizabeth Stratford for her meticulous copy-editing of the final text, and to the production and design teams at both publishers for putting the book together.

Finally, my biggest debt, as always, is to my family, to Christine L. Corton for her practical support and her publishing expertise, and to her and to our sons Matthew and Nicholas, to whom these volumes are dedicated, for sustaining me during a project that deals with difficult and often terrible events of a kind that we have all been fortunate not to have experienced in our own lives.

Cambridge, July 2003

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