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Monday, May 4, 2009

The Reich Falls

A definitive history

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A little more than halfway through The Third Reich atWar (Penguin Press), the concluding volume in Richard J. Evans' mammoth and masterful trilogy of the history of Nazi Germany, appears a statement that could serve as its central theme: "The obsessive pursuit of the Jewish population all over occupied Europe continued, irrespective of the economic utility or otherwise of their extermination."

The previous two volumes, equally as superb, had definite, stated themes. In the first, The Coming of theThird Reich, it was the question of how the Nazis managed to establish a one-party dictatorship within a short period of time and with little resistance from the German people. In the second, The Third Reich in Power, it was the overriding drive to war, controlled personally by Adolf Hitler from the moment he became chancellor in January 1933.

To be sure, in the present volume the central concern is the war itself. Given the impossibility of covering every aspect of the war in so massive a work as this, Evans focuses instead on its major turning points: the conquest of Poland and France and the Battle of Britain in the first year, the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43, and the strategic bombing of German cities in 1943. In doing so, he gives a good picture of what it was like for Germans to take part in those conflicts.

That notwithstanding, the thread the reader runs across more than any other is, roughly stated, this: Round up and kill Jews; no matter what else is going on, no matter how badly things are going, no matter that it makes little sense to the fate of the nation. No matter: Kill Jews.

In this, too, Hitler was the driving force, but he and his Nazis had plenty of help, and not just from fellow Germans. Over and over again the author shows how willing other nationalities were to join the slaughtering.

Croatians not only committed atrocities against Jews, but took advantage of the situation to attack "schismatic" Orthodox Serbs. Exterminations of Jews by Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were widespread, inspired by a deeply implanted anti-Semitism and by greed to loot the possessions of those executed.

Romania was the worst, Evans says: It murdered the largest number of Jews (as many as 380,000) of any independent country apart from Germany.

Sometimes, in this stew of inhumanity, it is the absurd, nearly surreal elements that stick out. For instance, in a monstrous version of adding insult to injury, the killing centers to which people were sent would delay the official announcement of death in order to continue to receive pensions and other financial benefits paid to the victims. And, in a town in Ukraine in 1941, the German security police provided a table laden with food and alcoholic drinks as refreshments during intervals of the killing of Jews by Ukrainians and ethnic Germans.

Evans, a professor of modern history at Cambridge University, shows that the Germans' early victories belied serious weaknesses. Some, like Hitler adviser Fritz Todt, knew the war was lost within two years of its start. Hitler seems to have suspected as much, but never let himself admit it.

The conquest of France marked the high point of Hitler's popularity. From 1942 on, he increasingly disappeared from public view, his health deteriorating. With all effort and resources going to the war, the country was effectively leaderless on domestic issues.

The empire began to crumble with the defeat at Stalingrad early in 1943. By that spring, Evans says, "the fabric of German society" was seriously falling apart. Allied bombing had a disastrous effect on German morale.

"The Reich was running faster and faster to stay in the same place," he notes. Tellingly, more than a third of German military deaths occurred in the last four months of the war.

"Hitler and the Nazis were living out the fantasies that had impelled them into politics in the first place: fantasies of a great and resurgent Germany, expunging the stain of defeat in 1918 by establishing an imperial domination on a scale the world had never seen before," Evans writes.

Aside from their sheer bulk, what sets this volume and its companions apart from the thousands written about Nazi Germany are Evans' narrative command of the innumerable components of the history and the breadth and depth of his synthesis. Rarely has the term "definitive history" been more applicable than here.

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