The Third Reich at War is Richard J. Evans' concluding volume of his masterly trilogy that began with The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power.
In the present volume, covering the years 1939 through 1945, Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge University, carefully describes the fatal trajectory of Nazi Germany's military power from its swift, heady conquests of Poland and France, to its agonizing defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk, to its Armageddon-like end in the Battle of Berlin. Evans' work also pays close attention to German civilian society, culture and religion and how each interacted with a leader and regime hell-bent on war.
Though vast in historical sweep, Evans' meticulously researched epic is nevertheless accessible to the general reader through its liberal use of vivid, telling quotes and frequently shocking eyewitness observations from diaries, letters and speeches.
For instance, in an Aug. 22, 1939, talk with his generals about the upcoming attack on Poland, Adolf Hitler states: "Our strength lies in our speed and our brutality. . . . I have issued a command — and I will have everyone who utters even a word of criticism shot — that the aim of the war lies not in reaching particular lines but in the physical annihilation of the enemy."
Evans brings us two years later to the infamous, typhus- and lice-ridden Warsaw Ghetto, where food and fuel were lethally scarce and thousands of Jews were strictly confined to a small, barely habitable area. According to survivor Emanuel Ringelblum, "One walks past corpses with indifference. The corpses are mere skeletons, with a thin covering of skin over their bones."
The author later takes the reader to heartbreaking Babi Yar in Ukraine where, on Sept. 29-30, 1941, 33,771 Jews were slain by gunfire in a ravine.
Kurt Werner, a member of the SS task force ordered to carry out the killings, later testified: "Groups of Jews were sent down to each of these execution squads simultaneously. Each successive group . . . had to lie down on top of the bodies of those who had already been shot. . . . I still recall today the complete terror of the Jews when they first caught sight of the bodies as they reached the top edge of the ravine."
Evans covers all the great battles of Europe and Russia in World War II: the desperate fight in the skies over Britain in 1940, Germany's crushing defeat at the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941-42, the fierce cat-and-mouse desert war in North Africa between Field Marshals Bernard Law Montgomery and Erwin Rommel in 1942-43, and the final victorious Allied race to bombed-out Berlin in the spring of 1945. It's all here, and all magnificently rendered with fresh insights and in photographic detail.
Yet, where Evans is especially revealing — more so than any other historian of the Third Reich — is in his thoroughly convincing explanation of how a civilized nation such as Germany wound up embarking upon a war policy that inexorably led to the Holocaust.
It was slow, carefully incremental, Evans tells us. Hitler began by playing upon the old fears of Germans by repeatedly reminding them that it was the Jews who "stabbed them in the back" and caused Germany to lose World War I (which was false, of course).
Moreover, Evans maintains, Hitler's anti-Semitic ideas, which he had first expounded upon in Mein Kampf in 1925; his ordering of the violent Kristallnacht destruction of Jewish shops on Nov. 9-10, 1938; his fixed idea that the German people needed "living-space" (Lebensraum); his compulsory sterilization program for the "racially impure" and his euthanizing of the handicapped and mentally ill; and, Evans writes, the "general atmosphere of racial hatred and contempt encouraged by Hitler's instructions to his generals before the outbreak of the war . . ." — all this and more gradually inured the German people to a racist mind-set and war policy. This course led to the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, the mass murders at Babi Yar and, ultimately, to the vast organized network of extermination camps in a Reich-occupied Europe.
The Third Reich has been exhaustively researched and written about. But no other historian has done a better job than Evans does here of fully elucidating the sequence of events leading up to the Reich's most salient and shameful feature: its calculated murder of 6 million Jews.
It is this crucial distinction of Evans' work that makes it not only the most authoritative and accessible history of Nazi Germany, but a morally imperative one as well.
Chris Patsilelis reviews military history and other books for several publications.