Editor's Choice November 2005

War Without End

What to read this month

Still more books about World War II?! Yes, and as exasperating as this may seem, it's only appropriate that the cataclysm aptly characterized by John Keegan as "the largest single event in human history" should generate a disproportionate number of significant works. This one, the second part of a three-volume history of Nazi Germany, covers the period from the Nazi seizure of power, in 1933, to the start of the Second World War, in 1939. A wonder of synthesis and acute judgment, this work when completed will be the definitive study for at least a generation. Although repetition and an occasional diffuseness mar Evans's magnificent achievement (these flaws vitiated his first volume as well), when his game is on, as it usually is, few can rival his ability to write crisply argued history. Evans, a Cambridge historian, assesses the corrosive effects on German society of the Nazis' network of surveillance and intimidation, the extent to which the Nazis effected a social revolution, the Catholic and Confessing Churches' equivocal but nonetheless meaningful opposition to the Nazis, the degree of popular support for the regime, the usefulness and limits of viewing Nazism as a "political religion," and Germany's anti-Jewish policies in comparison with those of other states in Eastern and Central Europe in the 1930s. His final chapter, on German foreign policy from 1933 to the start of the war, is the most fluent and sound analysis I've read of that intensely debated subject. (Though he cogently argues that the Nazi state subordinated nearly every goal to the imperative of preparing for a major war, he fails to analyze military matters in detail here; presumably he'll assess these retrospectively in his final volume, on the Third Reich at war.)

With a few exceptions, such as the "Night of the Long Knives," in 1934, and Kristallnacht and the Munich crisis, in 1938, Evans's chronicle lacks dramatic events and hence narrative focus. Rather, his story is perforce one of processes. Having deftly seized power through a combination of legal means and hooliganism, crushed the opposition political parties, and abolished the trade unions, the Nazi regime in this period consolidated and extended its hold by cowing its conservative sometime allies, regimenting big business, bringing the churches to heel, and bullying and co-opting the military. Violence allowed the Nazis to win power, but now they demolished the rule of law and built the apparatus—the Gestapo, the prison camps—that allowed them to sustain it through fear of informants and denunciation. Evans traces the means by which the regime so marginalized and demonized the Jews that the population passively accepted expulsion as the best solution to the "Jewish problem" within the Reich. And he demonstrates the ways in which it restored national pride and social, economic, and political order, undercutting the appeal of any oppositional elements—and thereby winning the nearly complete acquiescence of the German people. (Conditioned by Nazi propaganda and immersed in the regime's ideology and world view, German youth, Evans repeatedly shows, were a good deal more than just acquiescent toward the new society the Nazis were haphazardly building.) At its best, then, Evans's coolly precise, profoundly disquieting history gives the most thorough answer yet to the question that will nag humanity for a thousand years: What accounts for the German people's support—at times passive, at times fervent—for the vicious and often ridiculous thugs who ruled over them for nearly twelve years?

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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