The Coming of the Third Reich: Richard Evans Has Written Two Articles for History Review Explaining How a Modern, Progressive Country Surrendered to a Brutal and Murderous Dictatorship. in the First, He Traces Hitler's Rise to the Chancellorship

By Evans, Richard | History Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The Coming of the Third Reich: Richard Evans Has Written Two Articles for History Review Explaining How a Modern, Progressive Country Surrendered to a Brutal and Murderous Dictatorship. in the First, He Traces Hitler's Rise to the Chancellorship


Evans, Richard, History Review


There was nothing inevitable about the coming of the Third Reich. It used to be argued that there was something peculiar about German culture that made it hostile to democracy, inclined to follow ruthless leaders and susceptible to the appeal of militarists and demagogues; but when you look at the nineteenth century, you can see very little of such traits.

Bismarckian Background

After the collapse in 1806 of the Holy Roman Reich, Germany was disunited until the wars engineered by Bismarck between 1864 and 1871, which led to the creation of what was later called the Second Reich, the German Empire ruled by the Kaiser. In many ways this was a modern state. It had a national parliament that, unlike its British counterpart for example, was elected by universal manhood suffrage; elections attracted a voter turnout of over 80 per cent; political parties were well organised and an accepted part of the political system, and the largest of these by 1914, the Social Democratic Party, had over a million members and was committed to democracy, equality, the emancipation of women and the outlawing of racial discrimination including antisemitism. Germany's economy was the most dynamic in the world, rapidly overtaking the British by the turn of the century, and in the most modern areas, like the electrical and chemical industries, outperforming even the Americans. Middle-class values, culture and behaviour were the dominant ones by 1900.

Of course, there was a downside to the Bismarckian Reich. Aristocratic privilege remained entrenched in some areas, the national parliament's powers were limited and the big industrialists were deeply hostile to unionised labour. Bismarck's persecution, first of the Cathlolics in the 1870s and then of the fledgling Social Democratic Party in the 1880s, got Germans used to the idea that a government could declare whole categories of the population 'enemies of the Reich' and drastically curtail their civil liberties. In the 1890s, small extremist political parties and movements emerged, arguing that Bismarck's work of unification was incomplete because millions of ethnic Germans still lived outside the Reich.

While some politicians began to argue that Germany needed a big overseas Empire, others began to tap lower-middle-class feelings of being overtaken by big business, the small shopkeeper's fear of the department store, the male clerk's resentment of the growing presence of the female secretary, the bourgeois sense of disorientation when confronted by Expressionist and abstract art, and many other unsettling effects of Germany's headlong social and economic modernisation. Such groups found an easy target in Germany's tiny minority of Jews, a mere one per cent of the population, who had mostly been remarkably successful in German society and culture since their emancipation from legal restrictions in the course of the 19th century. Soon political parties like the Catholic Centre and the Conservatives were losing votes to these fringe parties of antisemites, and responded by incorporating into their own programmes the promise to reduce what they described as the subversive influence of the Jews in German society and culture. At the same time, Social Darwinists and eugenicists were beginning to argue that the German race needed to be strengthened by discarding the traditional Christian respect for life and by sterilising or even killing the weak, the handicapped, the criminal and the insane.

Yet these were minority strands of thought before 1914; nor did anyone weld them together into any kind of effective synthesis. If a time-traveller had gone back to the year 1910 and told a well-informed contemporary that within less than half a century a major European nation would deliberately murder six million Jews, and asked which nation the contemporary thought it would be, the answer he'd have got would probably have been France, where there had been mass antisemitic demonstrations at the time of the Dreyfus affair, or more likely Russia, where Tsar Nicholas II's Black Hundred murder gangs had killed thousands of Jews in the aftermath of the 1905 revolution; but not Germany, where overtly violent antisemitism was extremely rare. …

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The Coming of the Third Reich: Richard Evans Has Written Two Articles for History Review Explaining How a Modern, Progressive Country Surrendered to a Brutal and Murderous Dictatorship. in the First, He Traces Hitler's Rise to the Chancellorship
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