Few of those who followed the David Irving libel trial held in London three years ago could avoid being struck by the calm but towering presence of the British historian Richard Evans. One of the chief witnesses for the defense, Evans succeeded, more than anyone else, in exposing David Irving as a foul, mendacious apologist for and admirer of Adolf Hitler. And a prolific one to boot. Over the course of several decades, Irving produced one volume of history after another, honing what Evans has called his “denier’s credo”–that gas chambers either did not exist or were insignificant instruments in Hitler’s policies; that the number of murdered Jews has been vastly exaggerated; and that in fact the Holocaust as such is nothing but a myth created by the war-time Allies and by “Jewish Zionists.”
In preparing his testimony, Evans–no stranger to the literature on Nazi Germany–found to his astonishment that in the enormous bibliography on this subject (37,000 items by 2000, one scholar calculated) there are virtually no histories for the general audience, and that the few volumes that have succeeded, however impressively, in combining an academic with a popular approach suffer from one flaw or another. Thus Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography of Hitler focuses on those areas in which Hitler was personally involved, and rather neglects aspects with which Hitler was not directly concerned. Some excellent works are cast in an academic jargon that make them hard to digest for the more average reader, while others, Evans writes, “indulge in the luxury of moral judgment…. 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 are] for the reader to take…not for the writer to give.”
Both appalled and energized by this discovery, Evans embarked upon a work that would combine some of the best features of previous tomes (such as the emphasis on narrative in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer), while identifying features distinctive in bringing about the emergence of Nazi Germany. It is remarkable that after years of assiduous research, despite the appearance of thousands of scholarly works, after all the multitude of memoirs and diaries, we are still haunted by the same questions: How could Germany, of all countries, so civilized, so rich in intellectual, scientific and artistic achievement, Goethe’s fabled country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), produce, “in less than a single lifetime,” as Evans notes, such an unspeakably monstrous system as Nazism? How did it happen that a country where Jews constituted around 1 percent of the total population could seek their complete extermination? How could a leader of a powerful state, who enjoyed the docile support of the vast majority of his subjects, become so relentlessly bent on self-destruction? Can the lessons of previous generations be unalterably lost upon their successors?
These are some of the enduring questions that Evans set himself to explore. The present volume, which covers the period up to Hitler’s consolidation of power in 1933, will be followed by two more, the third ending with the demise of Nazi Germany in 1945. Not surprisingly, Evans brings to his task the same qualifications that made him such an outstanding witness in the Irving trial–a solid mastery of facts, both large and minute, a gift for distinguishing between similar and misleadingly similar phenomena and a straightforward, lucid style.
In the first part of his book, Evans discusses the ideology of German expansionism developed by groups like the Pan-German League in the late nineteenth century, and the lacerating impact of World War I and the Versailles Treaty, and asks whether these ideas and events can be regarded as direct roots of Nazism. His view is that, however appalling, and however strikingly evocative of Nazism, the emergence of an antiliberal, militaristic and Jew-hating German right in the late nineteenth century does not suffice to explain its provenance. Although “most of the elements that went into its eclectic ideology were already current in Germany before 1914,” these ideas could acquire mass appeal only after World War I. Nazism was born in the “atmosphere of national trauma, political extremism, violent conflict and revolutionary upheaval” that characterized Germany in the 1920s, when the country was on the brink of disaster. “The dramatic collapse of Germany into political chaos,” writes Evans, “provided the spur to translate extreme ideas into violent action. The heady mixture of hatred, fear and ambition…suddenly gained a crucial extra element: the willingness, determination even, to use physical force.”