Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10
The Third Reich at War
The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans. Penguin, hardbound, illus., 944 pages, $40, member price $32.
Richard Evans’ latest volume is third =in a trilogy on the history of Adolf Hitler’s “Thousand-year Reich.” The first two volumes (The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power) combine with it to form the finest full-scale study of Hitler’s Germany ever written, and this volume can now take its place as the most important English-language history of Germany in the Second World War.
This book is mandatory for anyone who wishes to have a fuller understanding of the conflict from the perspectives of Hitler and his lieutenants, as well as the common German soldier and civilian. It also meticulously and thoughtfully catalogs the history of Nazi Germany’s many victims, including the mentally ill, the elderly, criminals, gypsies, and masses of Slavic and Jewish peoples.
The violence that Hitler unleashed is horrifying. I found the atrocities, committed on nearly every page, so vivid and well-described that they often brought me to tears, and I had to put the book down to recover from the awful things I read. None of this violence is offered gratuitously; it is there because it was a fact of Hitler’s war. Every time I read about another child being murdered or a family being shot and bulldozed into a mass grave, I thought about Britain’s and Churchill’s determination to continue fighting when there was no one else left to fight. And that led me to think carefully about some claims that revisionist historians have made in the past.
Aside from offering a superb narrative and chronological history, Evans emphasizes two indisputable points: 1) Hitler was aware of, approved of, and in fact led every part of the war and its horrors, including the Holocaust. 2) The “ordinary German” participated in and approved of the genocide and destruction. Indeed the most fervent supporters of the Reich were younger people—especially those who had come of age after Hitler rose to power, and knew little of politics other than the Fuehrer’s racism, hate and cynicism.
There is little in this volume about Churchill, which may lead FH readers to wonder why it is being reviewed. The reason is that it is a hugely important contribution to the study of the seminal event of Churchill’s life. To understand Churchill’s momentous decision to fight on in 1940, we need to understand that Hitler was uniquely evil.
Yes, the 20th century produced a number of abhorrent individuals; Stalin and Mao murdered more people; but they had more time. Hitler’s aggressiveness, which knew no national boundaries, his thirst to wipe whole races off the map, and his lack of concern about unleashing the most terrible war in history, put him in a class by himself. As Fox News commentator Brit Hume put it recently, there were worse murderers, but calling someone a “Hitler” is the worst thing you can say.
And Evans does make it clear (as did Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw) that Churchill was Hitler’s main nemesis. Even during his last days in his bunker, Hitler was muttering that the war was Churchill’s fault; that even peace with Stalin would have been more likely than peace with the inexorable Briton who would never stop.
Many plaudits have been placed on Winston Churchill’s shoulders. His fifty-year political career was unmatched in recent history. But no honor is greater than to have been the arch-enemy of Adolf Hitler.
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