Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 938 pp., $40.
This is a very large book, nearly one thousand pages, and not without some merits. But it is not really about the Third Reich, and it is not a New History.
There is the history of the Third Reich. There is the history of National Socialism. There is the history of Adolf Hitler. There is the history of the Second World War. They overlap, but they are not the same. Michael Burleigh's book is entitled The Third Reich, but, in an undisciplined way, its focus is directed to and its chapters deal with all four themes, moving from one to another and back again. However, this is not the main problem with the book. Its problem, besides its content, is its perspective. Burleigh is right in detailing the brutalities and many of the horrors of the Third Reich. Here and there he adds telling details generally unknown or even unmentioned by others. But he writes that, because of its stupidities, brutalities, fanaticism and prejudices, the Third Reich was destined to be destroyed. Unfortunately it was not.
By the Third Reich we should mean the great German state of 1933-45 that was a Germany different from its then recent past and of course from its future. Despite the inevitable presence and continuation of the same population and of many of its institutions, this was a new kind of state, with a drastically new flag, designed by Hitler himself, the flag of his party having become the flag of the Reich. Symbols do matter, and this was more than a symbol. There came a time when that swastika flag was hoisted and flown across Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Caucasus, and from the Aegean to the Arctic, carried by the armies of the Third Reich. For comparison, the French tricolor flew over a much smaller domain under Napoleon. The Second World War was a struggle of epic dimensions that the Third Reich almost won.