Was Adolf Hitler a grotesque freak who sprang from nowhere? Or was he a product of Germany's political traditions? Those are questions Germans discuss these days. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder touches on them when he argues that Germany should now be considered a "normal" nation, like the others. He believes the Nazi period was an interregnum, separate from what came before and after.
But Hitler claimed he was reviving the grand old German spirit.
That's why he called his regime the Third Reich, borrowing Arthur Moeller van den Bruck's term. A propagandist well ahead of his time, Bruck proposed in a 1923 book that the nation recover its greatness by rebranding itself under that name.
The word reich means empire, but why Third? Because, Bruck explained, the first was the Holy Roman Empire, founded by Charlemagne in 800 and finally dismantled by Napoleon in 1806.
The second was proclaimed by Otto von Bismarck in 1871, a confederation of all the German states. It fell in 1918 but still lived in national memory as a time of patriotism and happiness. Bruck imagined a new era in which all Germans would unite in recreating the empire. The Third Reich would exist on a "lofty spiritual plane of political philosophy."
Bruck died in 1925, but the Nazis made his term their own. Hitler announced that the Third Reich would last for 1,000 years, like Charlemagne's. That was typical of his rhetoric. He appealed to the warmest nostalgia of the Germans, their proud feelings about themselves and their yearnings. He sounded what Abraham Lincoln called "The mystic chords of memory." The Germans had been great before, he said, and would be great again.
In recent years a revisionist camp has arisen among German historians, journalists and politicians. It argues that Hitler's regime was a parasite, almost a separate nation, that somehow attached itself to the otherwise healthy body of Germany. This notion contradicts the writings of most historians since 1945, but it has official backing. Schroeder, typically, stood on the Normandy beach on June 6, celebrating the 60th anniversary of D-Day alongside leaders of the countries that destroyed the Third Reich. He sympathizes with Germans who say they, too, were victims of the Nazis.
These opinions were obviously on the mind of Richard J. Evans, the distinguished Cambridge historian, when he wrote The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin Press), the recently published 622-page first volume of a planned trilogy. Evans began thinking about this project when he headed the research team that defeated David Irving in his suit against Deborah Lipstadt, whose book had suggested Irving was an apologist for the Nazis.
Evans realized, as he doggedly exposed Irving's many lies, that there was no wide-ranging account of the history in which the Holocaust was perpetrated. He set out to write one, and produced in this first volume (which runs from Bismarck's time to 1933) the kind of scholarly book that can be read without difficulty by people who know little of the background.
Evans hopes scholars will learn something from it, but he mainly seeks the untutored reader who wants to know why a great civilization suddenly turned barbaric.
The German revisionists will not read his book with pleasure.
Evans sees powerful continuities between Hitler's Germany and the various Germanies that came before. "Nazism," Evans writes, "linked itself symbolically to key traditions from the German past." As in the matter of the Third Reich.
Between Jan. 30 and July 14, 1933, the Nazis leveraged Hitler's chancellorship (in a coalition government dominated by non-Nazi conservatives) into a one-party state with a single ideology. They purged culture and the arts, brought universities and schools into the Nazi orbit and drove their opponents out of the civil service. In just about no time at all they made it a crime to be an enemy of the Nazis. They began isolating and marginalizing the Jews while putting in place the laws that would reshape society.
"Why did the Nazis meet with no effective opposition in their seizure of power?" Evans asks. Partly because, he answers, the Bismarck tradition had left no room for democracy to flourish and partly because many members of the educated elites were predisposed to embrace key Nazi principles, such as discipline, order and national pride. Evans sees Hitler's success not as an abnormality but as a product, in part, of the earlier stages in German life. His book makes a large contribution to one of Europe's most fascinating historical debates.