Before Nightfall

The Third Reich at War

by Richard EvansPenguin, 2009

The Second World War is poised on the twilight cusp between the daylight of shared, remembered experience and the long night of history, across which will flicker only the dreams of interpretation and re-interpretation. You can chart the oncoming night by the dying of warriors. With every passing year, more and more of the men and women who fought for and against the Nazis, more and more of the men and women whose lives were touched by the war, are gone. Oral history has long since given place to the sifting of records, but there’s a kind of touchstone comfort in knowing the oral histories are out there. It isn’t rational: we know that Grandpa is just as capable of error and falsification as written records are. But it nevertheless feels like Grandpa offers an important separate accountability, and soon he won’t be there anymore.

 I’ve had to offer my condolences over three such losses in the last four years – three old men with weak hands and watery eyes, happy just to sit in the sun one more day, all died. In their youths, those men fought a vast evil with their eyes wide open, and they did it voluntarily, for poor pay and a decent pension if you lived long enough to collect it. They made actual history happen; the textbook names like Patton and Montgomery gave the textbook orders, and it fell to these men to see that things got done (they had to give their fair share of orders too). And when the war was over, they packed up and went back to their homes and wives. Those wives were warriors too – they had to be. I lost one of those tough old ladies myself this year. Soon, they’ll all be gone.There’s a vertigo that accompanies this change, a question that only feels natural at twilight: who owns the day? A fierce territoriality pervades epic events – the participants tend to say “we lived this, we know how it was – you have no right to speak of it.” The discipline of history itself was born of such a contention … both Herodotus and Thucydides ground their accounts of the great Persian Wars on their own memories and the memories of the survivors – and their very willingness to hold up rumors for examination underscores their contempt for second-hand accounts done shabbily. At twilight the future historians are gathered and waiting, theories at the ready, while the old guard can still revisit actual memories.Those memories are of a world in which the series of convulsive shockwaves that birthed the 20th century were about the crest in the worst, greatest, most far-ranging war in history. Even those who could recall the upheaval of the First World War twenty years before found themselves stunned by the stark new realities Nazi aggression created. “The Germans are attacking Britain with massive daylight raids,” wrote the indomitable Countess of Ranfurly from Palestine in June of 1940:

An almighty struggle is going on in the air. As radio news reaches us, day after day, we are amazed at the courage of our fighter pilots and the damage they are doing to enemy planes. But we are fearful of this onslaught – for all our people. Meanwhile it is vital we get the French Fleet to join us or destroy it. The Vichy government has broken off relations with Britain. A Frenchman called de Gaulle is trying to rally the French in England. No letters are reaching us. We are all trying not to show our deep anxiety – we dress well, make up our faces carefully and talk cheerfully. But really we are terrified.

That terror was everywhere, because the Second World War was really five wars: Nazi Germany against an isolated England, Nazi Germany against the rest of the Old World (including former allies like Italy and the Soviet Union), Nazi Germany against the United States, the United States against the empire of Japan, and the most pitiably lopsided of all these wars, Nazi Germany against the Jews of Europe. Each of these separate conflicts has received countless pages of analysis; each alone deserves its Homer. And the mosaic they form, the Second World War as a whole, has likewise attracted thousands of historians.Richard Evans, in The Third Reich at War, concludes his massive three-volume history of Nazi Germany’s rise and fall. The book is 800 pages long, with 200 further pages of close-packed notes and bibliography. His insights are always measured, his research is always prodigious, and the balance of his scope very nearly does complete justice even to his sprawling subject. When you combine The Third Reich at War with the previous two volumes, The Rise of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power, you get an achievement of monumental power and precision. Those endnotes contain a treasure-trove of first-hand accounts, depositions, interviews with hundreds of survivors, a greater selection of such primary oral sources than has ever been used in a mainstream production of this kind. The greatest of all wars has found the greatest of its twilight historians. Evans sees this divide as clearly as anybody:

History does not repeat itself: there will be no Fourth Reich. Neo-Nazism still finds its supporters, but nowhere has it shown any signs of even coming close to achieving real political power. The legacy of the Third Reich is much wider. … The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism, and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others.

When the Nazis attacked Poland in 1939, they triggered a war that would eventually envelope the whole world in a struggle for hegemony – and yet the story keeps coming back to that ugly, persistent note Evans mentions: treating some people as less human than others. Other nations may have been fighting for territorial expansion or self-defense or imperial aggrandizement, but Nazi Germany from the very first to the very last was fighting a war for racism – not just for breathing space, but explicitly to deprive other kinds of people of their own breathing space, not because their breathing hampered Germany’s, but because their breathing was an offense against nature. Even in the final days of the war in 1945, a young German woman could write:

As wonderful as things were under the Leadership of Adolf Hitler, they can no longer be for a long time. The newspapers are telling lies and screwing up their propaganda beyond measure. Behind all this stands the Jew. Will the world ever realize that the Jew is the evil for us all?

History will never know the shape the war might have taken if the Nazis hadn’t wasted so much time, effort, and resources in their lavish and unrelenting indulgence in this uninhibited racism. As it was, no aspect of their conquests was free of it, and the picture is always the same:
From the very beginning, too, Nazi party officials, storm troopers, civilian officials and especially junior army officers and ordinary soldiers joined in, to be followed in due course by German settlers moved into Poland from outside. Arrests, beatings and murders of Poles and especially Jews became commonplace, but what was even more striking was the extent of the hatred and contempt shown towards them by ordinary German troops, who lost no time in ritually humiliating Jews in the street, laughing and jeering as they tore off their beards and made them perform degrading acts in public.

At the outbreak of war, the German army, navy, and air force achieved a string of conquests whose sheer speed was unparalleled since the days of Alexander the Great: Poland conquered in 27 days, Norway in 23, Greece in 21 days, Crete in 21 days, Belgium in 18 days, Yugoslavia in 12, Holland in 5 days, Denmark in one – France itself in only 39 days. And everywhere, these spectacular victories were followed up by the same unthinking, petty, logistically draining exercise of racism … massive commitments of troops, support personnel, and transportation all devoted not to any military aim but to the persecution and annihilation of the Jewish populations everywhere the army went. These exercises were furtive, costly, and clearly compulsive. When the end of the war was at hand and Germany’s downfall was assured, overseers at Auschwitz and Sobibor and the other Nazi death-camps increased their slaughter-rate, as though trying to finish the job before they were forced to stop. When you do such a thing before fleeing for your own safety, you reveal your abandon.Not that the anti-intellectualism fostered by the Nazis made for a pretty picture at any stage of the war. Evans pauses often to note this particular brutishness on the part of German soldiers:

German army units amused themselves in the various palaces that dotted the countryside around St. Petersburg by machine-gunning mirrors and ripping silks and brocades from the walls. They took away the bronze statues that adorned the famous fountains of the Peterhof Palace to be melted down, and destroyed the machinery operating the fountains. The houses in which famous Russian cultural figures had lived were deliberately targeted: manuscripts at Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana were burned in the stoves, while the composer Tchaikovsky’s house was trashed and motorcycles driven over the musical manuscripts that littered the floor.

It’s not just ransacked homes and wrecked furniture – the key image is those motorcycle-tracks, the evidence they give of repeated, emphasized contempt for the arts. You see this not when conquering troops burn libraries, but when they go out of their way to keep burning libraries:

In Italy itself, the Germans’ outrage at the defection of the Italians found expression in numerous acts of gratuitous vandalism and vengeance. On 26 September 1943, after encountering some minor resistance as they marched into Naples, German troops poured kerosene over the shelves of the university library and set it alight, destroying 50,000 books and manuscripts, many of them irreplaceable. Two days later, while the library was still burning, German soldiers discovered 80,000 more books and manuscripts from various archives deposited for safe keeping in Nola and set them alight…

In fact, these and countless similar acts by the Germans prompt a consistent irritation with many Second World War histories, and despite the vast array of his scholarship, Evans also occasionally irritates in just this way: time and again, historians seem to feel the need to counter-balance those jeeringly destroyed Tchaikovsky scores with seemingly objective praise of the German army’s fighting skill and camaraderie. Yes, it’s admitted, these German soldiers forced venerable Jewish elders down onto all fours and rode them around the village square like circus ponies – but these same soldiers were also the greatest fighting force the modern world had ever seen, and they shared a bond because of it:

These were groups of men [like the battle-hardened German infantry divisions] bound together by ties of mutual loyalty forged in the heat of battle. Even when, as they increasingly did after Stalingrad, they began to doubt whether victory could ever be attained, they continued to fight out of a sense of comradeship and mutual support in adversity.

The military achievements of this band of brothers are extolled as if in compensation for their brutality. Writing of Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union in 1942 (code-named “Barbarossa”), one historian strikes the common note:

By any standard of military accomplishment, except that required by BARBAROSSA, the achievement of the German army in Russia was incomparable. This superb instrument, the most superb land force ever known, won the biggest victories in the history of war. As exponents of modern warfare, the Germans were on average far superior to their opponents…

It isn’t saying too much to maintain that such accolades dishonor the valiant dead, but even in terms of factual assessment, they’re more mythological than material. The speed of all those early blitzkrieg conquests was made possible by the paper-mache strength of the resistance they faced as much as it was by the alleged superiority of the Wehrmacht, as is clearly demonstrated by the bungling incompetence German forces so often displayed during Barbarossa (the wrong supplies, the wrong searching for new supplies, the wrong horses, the wrong shoes for the wrong horses, etc), when they faced real, effective resistance. Evans joins the majority chorus of Second World War writers in rightly recognizing Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union as the key decision of the war – and the failure of that attack as a major turning point for the fortunes of Nazi Germany (although he resists the typical melodrama of calling it the “graveyard” of the Reich). The Soviets would experience 1,677,000 casualties in the course of the campaign – ten times the German number. “The profligacy of Stalin and his generals with the lives of their men,” Evans writes, “was breathtaking.”That profligacy was mirrored on the German side, and in both cases it was achieved with the equivalent of a pointed bayonet. German and Soviet soldiers may have felt the sense of comradeship Evans mentions, but it isn’t why they continued to fight. They fought because their superiors would kill them – and often their families – if they didn’t. In the First World War, German courts martial ruled for the execution of 48 soldiers. In the Second World War, there were 21,000 such rulings (the charges could be as vague as Wehrkraftzersetzung, sapping the military will) – and God knows how many connected civilian killings, and maybe even God doesn’t know the corresponding number in the Soviet Union. In both armies, the men fought under threat of death, and when there was no fighting to be done, the Germans officers and enlisted men spent their time murdering Jews, and the Russian officers and men spent their time raping girls, women, and old ladies. There is no naïve national chauvinism in pointing this out, and there is no legitimate historical purpose served in trying to ameliorate it.

Aftermath of the Nazi massacre at Kerch, 1942

Evans is too good a historian to try very hard, but he does make a couple of half-hearted gestures in the direction of perhaps pinning most of the blame on the younger German soldiers and officers, the ones more thoroughly indoctrinated into the hate-systems of Nazism. The older career officers (many of whom, he says, were “no Nazi ideologues”) were, he implies, a breed apart:

The intermingling of Nazism with a more traditional kind of nationalism was strongest among the youngest and most junior troops, and weakest in the older generations, which meant above all the top ranks of the officer corps. The majority of the generals, born in the 1880s, were nationalists of the traditional kind. They had grown up in the reign of the last Kaiser, when they had belonged unthinkingly to the ruling caste of officers, aristocrats, senior civil servants, Protestant churchmen, university professors and conservative businessmen.

But as one character sardonically points out in Jonathan Goldman’s play “The Lion in Winter,” “I never heard a corpse ask how it got so cold.” Scant comfort indeed to hundreds of torched villages, the hordes of displaced innocents, the roughly 3.5 million Red Army prisoners of war who died (mostly of exposure and starvation) in German captivity, and of course the 6 million massacred Jews of Europe to think the men who gave those orders did so with qualms. Scant defense of such men to imply that they were just trying to serve their chosen profession in difficult times. If you endure your superior’s gaudy neckties in silence, you’re serving your profession. If you order the head-shooting of 900 men, women, and children in an afternoon, you, personally, are a monster. “Traditional” nationalism should be made of sterner stuff.Even while commenting on the raw venality of Nazism in general, Evans is careful to add this emphasis on the barbarity of the younger Germans. “Nazism,” he writes, “taught that might was right, winners took all, and the racially inferior were free game. Not surprisingly, it was the younger generation of German soldiers whose behaviour was the most brutal and violent towards the Jews.”His sense of fairness prompts him to write with admirable clarity about the various barbarities perpetrated by the Allies, obviously including the incendiary bombing of civilian centers like Hamburg in 1943, in which British planes dropped over 2,000 tons of bombs:

In the first twenty-three minutes of the raid, the bombers dropped so many incendiaries, blast-bombs and high explosives on such a small area in the south-east area of the city that the fires merged into one, sucking air out of the surrounding area until the whole square mile became one huge blaze, with temperatures reaching 800 degrees Celsius at the centre. It began to draw air in at hurricane force from all around, extending another two miles to the south-east as the bombers continued to drop their payloads there. The force of the howling, spark-filled wind created by the firestorm uprooted trees and turned people in the streets into living torches.

But as atrocious as such waste and destruction was, its purpose was to bring the war to as swift an end as possible, to bring about as quickly as possible the downfall of the Third Reich, to bring its cruelties and oppressions to an end. The death of innocents is the worst part of any war, but there is no moral equivalence here whatsoever: the point of Nazis warfare was oppression, and they fought in large part specifically to kill Jews. This makes their soldiers thugs and forfeits them even the isolated glow of camaraderie.

SS staff relax at a recreation lodge near Auschwitz

Of course, these thugs were led by a madman, and Evans portrait of Hitler in The Third Reich at War is even-handed and at times fairly shrewd. His Fuhrer is more of an opportunist and politician than some simpler portraits we’ve had in the past, and in this he has taken his lead from Ian Kershaw’s gigantic, absorbing portrait of the man. Hitler was a gambler who was ultimately fooled by his own luck – his quick early successes led him to attack the Soviet Union without an clear conception of how to achieve victory, and even that act pales beside the folly of declaring war on the United States, which Hitler did in 1941 after 353 Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. The combination of Japan’s attack and Germany’s declaration managed to move America from its prewar torpor to a full war-time footing so staggering in its breadth and power that it has reshaped the entire world almost continuously ever since. In 1941, the United States ship-building stood at 1,160,00 tons; in 1943, it was at 13,500,000 tons and growing. Nothing like this had ever been seen in the history of the world – the utmost exertions of any conventional European power were flyspecks against it.These two factors – the Soviet repulse of German advances and the intervention of the United States – quickly brought about the downfall of the thousand-year Reich, and Evans narrows his focus when his story comes to those final days far beneath the Chancellery, where a desperate and despondent Fuhrer waited for the end:

Hitler knew that propaganda had finally failed in the face of the hard facts of invasion and defeat. At another level, as he moved increasingly depleted and in some cases non-existent armies around on his map in the bunker conference room, Hitler was now living a life almost entirely removed from reality.

Evans extends his history beyond this climax – in a fascinating coda, he tallies the disproportionate wave of suicides that swept through Germany after defeat was certain, in almost every case giving details that still retain their ability to chill the blood:

Theodor Danneker, the roving ambassador of death responsible for the deportation of many Jews to Auschwitz from different countries, fled to relatives in the north German town of Celle at the end of the war, but was arrested on a visit to his wife in Berlin on 9 December 1945, where he was denounced by his neighbors. The following day, he hanged himself in prison. On hearing of his death, his wife decided to kill herself along with their two young sons, but, as she was murdering the older boy, his cries awoke his younger brother, and she was unable to complete the killings.

And when these suicides are done, when the war crimes trials for the surviving Nazis are conducted and sentences are handed out, when the participants have packed up and gone home to their lives, peace descends on the world and on Evans’ book. “Bomb sites have been cleared,” he writes at the close of The Third Reich at War, “battlefields levelled out, divisions healed, peace and prosperity restored to Europe. Most of those who lived through the Third Reich and fought in its wars are no longer with us. Within a few decades there will be no one left who remembers it at first hand.”Then it will be night at last, and the first generation of dreamers will commence their interpreting. If they’re smart, they’ll use this three-volume twilight masterpiece as their starting-point.___Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.Join the Open Letters facebook page!Return to the Main Page