By Richard Evans
Allen Lane, £30
In most Second World War histories that appeared in Britain from the 1940s until the 1980s there was little about antisemitism or the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews. Few biographies of Hitler made this central to his world view or a determining influence on his conduct of the war. British researchers tended to focus on social history. Some of the best were constrained by a Marxist or functionalist approach that demoted the significance of ideology, including Nazi racism.
Over the past 15 to 20 years, though, ideology has come roaring back. And, thanks largely to the work of Sir Ian Kershaw, Hitler is once more installed as the driving force of Nazi policy. Now, in the preface to the third volume of his magnificent history of Nazi Germany, Richard Evans makes no apology for the fact that “the mass murder of the Jews is dealt with in almost every part of the book”. This reflects “its centrality to so many aspects of the Third Reich at war”. It is “an inescapable part of the story”. While he charts the impact of Nazi racial policies at home and in Nazi-dominated countries on Slavs, Gypsies and homosexuals, he does not shrink from asserting the singularity of Nazi “Jewish policy”.
The occupation of Poland in September 1939 provided the laboratory for Hitler’s plans to restructure Europe on racial lines. Hard-core Nazis were appointed to the colonial administration. The army, already shot through with antisemitism and racism, barely protested against the atrocious treatment of Jews and Poles.
Evans disagrees with Gotz Aly, Christian Gerlach and Adam Tooze, who try to interpret the mass murder of the Jews as economic policy with a racist inflection. Following Jeffrey Herf and Saul Friedlander, Evans characterises the genocide as a key to understanding Hitler’s conception of the wider war as a life-or-death struggle between Jews and Aryans.
Evans installs violence at the heart of National Socialism. Contrary to historians who attribute Nazi atrocities to the barbarisation of warfare, he argues that the SS and police units, soldiers and civilians, were primed for violence by Nazi ideology. Unit cohesion and successful indoctrination, rather than disintegration and demoralisation, accounted for their barbarous conduct. As younger officers and men filled the military, it became even more fanatical.
After disasters on the eastern front and relentless bombing began to sap civilian morale, antisemitism became even more significant as a mobilising ideology. Goebbels used the half-secret of the “Final Solution” to instil dread of revenge into the Germans, a tactic that could only have worked if a degree of knowledge about it previously existed. Millions of Germans benefited from the genocide against Europe’s Jews and knew enough to feel shame, guilt and fear of retribution.
Evans brings every episode to life with extracts from letters, diaries and memoirs that show cataclysmic events on a human scale. His analysis is always balanced and his commentary infused with compassion for the victims of an inhuman ideology.