In The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939, the British historian Richard Evans picks up where he left off in The Coming of the Third Reich, the first installment of a three-volume history that is shaping up to be a masterpiece. Fluidly narrated, tightly organized and comprehensive, The Third Reich in Power explains, in thematic chapters, how Hitler, after gaining control of the German government in 1933, immediately set about transforming the national economy, purging enemies,reversing the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace treaty and imposing a nationalist-racist ideology on a less than receptive population.
That's a tall order, and Evans, as he carefully constructs a portrait of life in Germany under the Nazis, makes it clear that the Nazi program, in virtually every arena, met with only spotty success. He challenges the notion that Germany was, by tradition and history, uniquely susceptible to Hitler's message and totalitarian rule. Under the kaiser, he argues, Germany was in many respects a modern state, with universal male suffrage, a flourishing Social Democratic Party and a dynamic economy. The Nazis, in 1933, ruled a nation in which the Communists and Social Democrats had received nearly a third of the vote in recent elections.
All the more impressive, then, that the Nazi Party, in a few short years, transformed Germany into a police state and dragged it into a European war that most Germans feared and assumed would end badly. It was able to do this, moreover, at a fraction of the cost, in human lives, incurred in Soviet Russia. It is noteworthy that more members of the Politburo of the German Communist Party serving between 1920 and 1933 were killed by Stalin than by the Gestapo.
The Nazis benefited greatly from the inability of the Communists and Social Democrats to cooperate, and from the virtual carte blanche handed to them by the German people, traumatized by the social disorder and economic dislocations of the Weimar period. Always, no matter what the excesses of the regime, the non-Nazi alternatives seemed worse. And an overwhelming majority of Germans thrilled to the promise of a resurgent economy and a rearmed Germany that could command international respect.
The Nazis were at their most efficient in establishing a climate of fear and convincing average Germans that even chance criticisms would be picked up by the Gestapo's all-hearing ear. There was no such thing as a harmless joke. Schoolteachers, before grading essays, made sure to look over the main Nazi newspaper, fearful lest they criticize material that had been plagiarized from its articles.
It is one of history's oddities that Heinrich Mueller, the head of the Gestapo, once referred to Hitler as "an immigrant unemployed house-painter" and "an Austrian draft-dodger." In one of his many small corrections of the record, Evans notes that the Gestapo, contrary to legend, was not made up of fanatical Nazis. Most of its members were career policemen who had joined the force during the Weimar period or even earlier. Of the 20,000 Gestapo officers serving in 1939, only about 3,000 belonged to the SS.
The Nazis tried to transform every aspect of German life, from music to sports to garden design. ("Formality and foreign plants were out, and a natural look based on native German species was in.") Brownshirts confronted women on the street wearing too much makeup -- the new German woman was expected to rely on exercise to create a natural glow -- and sometimes snatched cigarettes from their painted lips. (Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress, defiantly smoked when the Fuehrer was not around, and freely used Elizabeth Arden cosmetics.)