Sun, Oct 26, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Book Review: Fat lady sings for the Third Reich

We all know how the story ends, but the final part of Richard J. Evans’ trilogy brings it masterfully home

By Peter Preston  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON


In one narrow sense, the final book in Professor Evans’ magnificent trilogy is an anti-climax. We know who lost the Second World War. We know about Dunkirk, D-Day and Dresden. His first two volumes, on the coming of the Third Reich and its seizure not only of power but of the German psyche, seem more immediately relevant seven decades on than another account of the subsequent battles and bestialities. Yet, in an almost Wagnerian way, you need to see the madness complete; you need to watch Berlin burning, a pyre of malevolent dreams. This is the fire Hitler built. This, crucially, is the history of his Reich set in its own obsessive context. This is the end of the party.

But that was probably always going to be the case. Evans tells the 1944 joke of a naive young German looking at a globe of the world: huge green swaths for the Soviet Union, pink for the British empire, mauve for the US. “And this blue spot?” he asks, fingering Germany. “Oh! Does the Leader know how small it is?”

We’re used to other pens portraying 1939 to 1945 as a titanic battle for survival between evenly matched forces, an equal struggle we almost lost. It’s far rarer to have the practical situation clinically analyzed, to see how the Reich — in weaponry, manpower, strength and resilience — was always overmatched. Once surprise had banished inertia and Britain had avoided defeat in 1940, the Allies were virtually inevitable victors; and Hitler as military leader was a fantasist in thrall to his own illusions. World domination? “Germany’s economic resources were never adequate to turn these fantasies into reality, not even when the resources of a large part of Europe were added to them.” The dream could never have come true.

Never underestimate Germany’s sheer paranoia, though; for attack was also the Third Reich’s deluded, defensive way of vanquishing its enemies close by and within. There were the Poles — “more animals than men, totally dull and formless,” Hitler declared, but still commanding German-speakers in former German territories. “If Poland had gone on ruling ... [here] for a few more decades,” Hitler said, “everything would have become lice-ridden and decayed.” So “the sub-human people from the East” had to be routed, obliterated or (if possessing blood good enough to make them a “leader class”) turned into Germans.

There were Gypsies, Ukrainians, Czechs, the halt, the lame: all to be shipped away or shot. The SS cleared Polish asylums, made patients stand in line, then buried them — 2,000 in a few brutal weeks of 1939. And, of course, there were Jews; the Polish Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, then of Germany itself. “The Jews have deserved the catastrophe they are experiencing today,” Hitler told Goebbels in 1942. “As our enemies are annihilated, they will

experience their own annihilation ... We must accelerate this process with cold ruthlessness, and in so doing we are rendering an incalculable service to a human race tormented by Jewry for millennia.” That service charge in cold statistics: three million murdered in the camps, 1.3 million killed by the SS, 700,000 disposed of in mobile gas chambers, a million starved to death. Incalculable, unforgettable infamy.

Evans is history’s master of the Holocaust. He knows its macabre facts and figures; his Reich books demonstrate in chilling detail how German hatred and resentment for failure turned in on itself and millions of its own inhabitants; he does not spare civil servants or doctors or scientists, or simple pillars of German society — they knew what was happening, they shared the guilt. Worse, they saw it as part of their own war effort, defending Germany against the dark forces that had brought it down. Extermination was not some irrational spasm consuming a few lunatics in temporary power. It was deliberate and condoned, in its own surreal context.

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