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.”

Nevertheless, “such ideas still remained those of a minority even after 1918, and the use of physical force to put them into effect was still confined to a tiny, extremist fringe. German society and politics were polarized into extremes by the collapse of 1918-19, not converted to a general enthusiasm for extreme nationalism. And, crucially, the centre ground of politics was still occupied by people and parties committed to the creation of a stable, functioning parliamentary democracy, to social reform, to cultural freedom and to economic opportunity for all.”

Not, alas, for long. The center would not hold. Gradually, antidemocratic, xenophobic and cataclysmic notions, once championed by extremist groups, were taken over by mass political movements. In a country obsessed with discipline and order, the Füehrerprinzip–the belief in a single, powerful leader–was at first adopted by small sects, then by more established political parties and eventually (with the help of the Italian Fascists, whose Duce principle Hitler admired) became enshrined by the Nazis in the person of Adolf Hitler. The German Social Democrats, the one party committed to the defense of the Weimar Republic, had themselves split between those who supported World War I and those who opposed it, finally resulting in the emergence of two competing social democratic parties, the more radical of the two drawing closer to and finally merging with the Communists, bitter foes of the parliamentary system and of the republic.

The Social Democrats (SPD), furthermore, gave the country its first democratically elected president, Friedrich Ebert (1919-25), but endowed him with vast personal power he could and did use against any real or perceived threats to the republic. In fact, Ebert employed this power on no fewer than 136 separate occasions, dislodged legitimately elected governments, introduced censorship and, most appalling of all, made use of the Free Corps, the semi-fascist authoritarian paramilitary group, to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two highly popular revolutionary leaders who in 1919 tried to organize a left-wing putsch in Berlin. Following their assassination, over a thousand of their followers were butchered on the streets of Berlin.

I have often wondered why the postwar SPD named its major foundation after the pathetic figure of Ebert. He was indeed for many years the leader of the party. He was not a right-winger and not a fascist. And the attempted putsch by Liebknecht and Luxemburg was an act of suicidal recklessness, threatening the fledgling democracy of the German republic. Yet to employ the Free Corps was rather like using gas to douse a fire. And it played straight into the hands of demagogues, above all Hitler and his followers.

With the same attention to detail and rigorous logic that Evans employed to demonstrate the malleability of those forces that, all similarities with the Nazi movement notwithstanding, did not determine its growth, he now explains the intransigence of the right-wing forces and their ideologies, and the political, moral and economic climate in postwar Germany that facilitated their eventual triumph.

The punishing terms imposed by the Versailles Treaty on a prostrate Germany, the awesome reparations it was forced to pay, the gradual destruction of the country’s industry and the mammoth inflation–in the 1920s prices reached a billion times their prewar level, incomparably higher than in any other European country–followed by the financial crash of the late 1920s and even worse impoverishment, profoundly alienated Germany’s working and middle classes. In addition, these developments intensified the authoritarian tendencies within the Catholic Church and its anti-Semitic obsessions, never far below the surface.

Anti-French feelings, also never far below the surface, grew as Germans became convinced that their traditional foe was pursuing policies designed to eviscerate the German nation. (Evans cites an entry in I Will Bear Witness, the diaries of Victor Klemperer, a moderately conservative Jewish scholar, who despised and feared Nazism and anti-Semitism but also detested the French; for wasn’t it the French who occupied the Saar and Ruhr valleys?) Vengeful nationalism espoused by the Nazis, with their demonic mass rallies, untrammeled demagogy and poison-ous Jew-hatred led to violent brawls and military clashes.

In a fascinating chapter on the explosion of the arts–literature, theater, cinematography, painting, music–Evans shows how the corrosive cynicism, scorn for “bourgeois” values, penchant for mysticism and sexual license (think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the Threepenny Opera) were all in fact a reflection of the disillusionment that swept the country in the 1920s. The disproportionate presence of Jews in the arts–as in other areas of public life–further inflamed passions against the enemies and traducers of “ancient German values.”

I have focused on the first two-thirds of the book not because the rest of it, which brings the story up to the creation of the Nazi state in 1933, is any less significant, penetrating or absorbing. Evans’s painstaking discussion of the rise of the Nazi party, its internal schisms, the role of the military, the impact of the struggle between the Communists and Socialists on the growth of Nazism and the vignettes of various political leaders is mesmerizing. If I concentrate on the processes that led to the victory of Hitler and his allies, it is because it is there that we find the fundamental problems raised by the book–the whys and wherefores of Nazism–most compellingly spelled out. One finally puts down this magnificent volume thirsty, on the one hand, for the next installment in the Nazi saga yet still haunted by the questions Evans poses and so masterly grapples with. When all is said and done, was Nazism, then, inevitable–more than likely–or, despite everything, not? The Coming of the Third Reich is an overwhelming book. But having read and admired it, I remain unsure about the answers to these questions.