Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Third Reich: A New History

Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich: A New History is a wonderful single volume history of Nazi Germany.

Burleigh has a profound sense of the difficulties and responsibilities of running an advanced industrial country. His discussion of Weimar Germany shows, somewhat unusually among historians, considerable sympathy for the difficulties facing the SPD leadership.

He has a great eye for the practical and the revealing: such as explaining how “the dogmatism of the left about trivial matters” (p.41) got in the way of broadening support for the Weimar Republic. He explains how the continuing of intrusive wartime controls alienated farmers. And that democratic Socialists were a major conduit of information about the brutalities, tyrannies, slaughters and immiseration of the Bolsheviks (pp 38ff). Such comments are embedded in a deeply informative narrative about the disorientations of the collapse of the Kaiserreich and the politics of Weimar Germany.

More evidence is provided, if any was needed, of what a monster Lenin was and the mindset of Leninism. Such as the leader of the brief Bavarian Communist government saying of milk shortages:
What does it matter … Most of it goes to the children of the bourgeoisie anyway. We are not interested in keeping them alive. No harm if they die – they’d only grow into the enemies of the proletariat (p.40).
Exactly the language of Jacobin generals gloating over the slaughter of royalist men, women and children in the Vendee.
With the example of Russia before them—and the Bavarian soviet regime’s very public execution of prominent hostages—conservative forces in Germany showed an effective, somewhat indiscriminate, ruthlessness and suppressed this brief revolutionary flourish at the cost of about 600 dead.

Burleigh casts an intelligently critical eye over all the political forces in Weimar Germany, well aware that the success of the Nazis was also the failure of their competitors. He also notes that the Nazi surge predated the Depression. Which put them in an already strengthening position when the Depression hit. Burleigh’s presentation of the oft told story of Hitler becoming Chancellor manages to be lively and engrossing. As is his analysis of the dynamics of the regime.

In Burleigh’s analysis, Nazi volkisch rhetoric about the unity of the (scattered) German peoples was both sincere and set up underlying pressure for war, regardless of opportunistic gestures on the way through. (The dynamic of the jihadis is similar.)

While it is done gently, the Jacobin nature and origins of Nazism as a political religion are clearly identified in Burleigh’s analysis. Both in the similarities with Leninism (the politicising corrosion of institutions was similar; just slower and for racial rather than class reasons) and in the struggle to subvert Christianity.

The Hitler cult was the central thing, not neo-pagan wanderings. A cult whose rhetoric often invoked God, but was rarely about Christ since Hitler was clearly the substitute, volkisch Saviour and Messiah.

Burleigh is deeply empirical in his analysis. He does not have to explain away embarrassing facts because of some overarching theory. He makes it clear, for example, that the one class Hitler seems to have genuinely admired and identified with (both in private speech and public rhetoric) was workers.

He tells the story of how, over time, the underlying logic of the regime was revealed. He uses the counterpoint of Leninism to how this revelation of an underlying logic was not some peculiar feature of Nazism.

The mind of the regime, and Hitler’s political conceptions, we see in word and actions. Hitler’s brutal and limited concept of the British Empire—as distinct from the complex reality—reminds one of modern progressivist historical fantasies about the same. The difference is for Hitler the limited and brutal fantasy was an aim, not something to ostentatiously reject.

Burleigh reminds us that megacide denial was an activity of mainstream members of the leftist intelligentsia—George Bernard Shaw and Walter Duranty; but also those fellow-travellers, the Webbs—long before it spread to fringes elsewhere. (And even such denial was disingenuous.)

Burleigh takes us through the steps to war and then the War itself, in all its horrors. Burleigh shows a wonderful use of vignettes, which humanises the story as it also informs and reveals. Connecting the particular with general to illustrate the latter. We see how within Germany the rhetoric of nation (or race) had included folk, the rhetoric of class excluded folk: crucial to the Nazis outpolling the Left. Outside of Germany, the rhetoric of nation or race excluded more than did the rhetoric of class. But it was more than just rhetoric: the PoW death tolls (very few Western prisoners: millions of Slavic ones) revealing the brutal logic.

Burleigh’s history is a study of the blinding effects of ideology and the brutal consequences of ideology—particularly a transformative ideology—in power. As he takes us through the horrors of the Eastern front, it is almost unbearable reading. Particularly as we see that it was a struggle between competing horrors. People were already brutalised by Soviet barbarity—with the process of social atomisation already underway—now suffered a barbarity even worse in its democidal intent.

Though Burleigh also shows that the difference between slaughtering people on the basis of race and slaughtering people on the basis of class cannot bear the moral weight often given to it—particularly as the Soviets also killed on the basis of ethnicity and the Nazis also killed on the basis of class.

Part of what makes this such a powerful book is we see both perpetrators and victims. Feeling oneself to be part of a power elite—whether racial or not—was clearly intoxicating. The book is so powerfully informative because we see the human costs of barbaric ideas and their implementation.

Burleigh’s final comment seems very apt:
Our lives may be more boring than those who lived in apocalyptic times, but being bored is greatly preferable to being prematurely dead because of some ideological fantasy (p.812).
If you only read one book on Nazi Germany, read this one.

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