The Real Synthesis

The Real Synthesis

Mini Teaser: A "new history" of the Third Reich fails to understand the true nature of the regime.

by Author(s): John Lukacs

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.

Even before the Second World War began, the Third Reich had become the greatest power in Europe, far surpassing the extent and the achievements of Bismarck's or William II's Second Reich. From a depressed republic without allies, with many millions of unemployed, there arose a new Reich within a few years, prosperous, arrogant and powerful, incorporating Austria and Czechoslovakia without having to fire a single shot, attracting powerful allies such as Mussolini's Italy and Imperial Japan, and surrounded by smaller states unwilling to challenge almost anything that the Third Reich desired.

By 1939 the Third Reich, in some ways, was the most modern country in Europe. Then came a war that its leader deliberately chose to bring about. Behind him his Third Reich produced armed forces and an organization that stunned the world. In 1940 the Third Reich came close to winning the Second World War. Had its leader not hesitated to invade England this may have happened. In 1941 it again came close to winning the war by knocking Russia out of it. Eventually the armies of the Reich were halted before Moscow; but, obeying their leader, in the ensuing winter they stood fast and deflected the fate that had befallen Napoleon's Grande ArmŽe 130 years before. By that time the greatest powers of the world, with a combined population of at least four hundred million, were arrayed against the eighty-odd million of the Third Reich, having formed a coalition of British, Americans, Russians, Capitalists and Communists, which held together until the end. Even then, it took nearly four years before their overwhelming power was able to force the Third Reich to capitulate. The armies of the Reich did not surrender even after most of their homeland was conquered by the Allies. Some of them fought on for another ten days after their leader's death.

How was this possible? Burleigh's massive volume does not illuminate this awful story. Yes, a catastrophe it was, including the deaths of many millions, of even more innocent civilians than soldiers. Yes, the Third Reich was a brutal machine -- but an awesomely efficient one, alas. Doomed to defeat it was not. And this had much to do with National Socialism. The Third Reich was a National Socialist Reich.

The National Socialist character of the Third Reich is something that Burleigh does not describe clearly and that he may not even understand sufficiently. The power, the attraction and the historical significance of National Socialism was a phenomenon of worldwide import. Besides a very long introduction, Burleigh devotes an unduly long chapter to the Weimar Republic, to how Hitler came to power; but the emergence of national socialism predated that. The classic categories of the political history of the nineteenth century were conservatives and liberals, their dialogue and debate (terms that are more and more outdated and yet employed even now). But, contrary to the Hegelian scheme, this Thesis-Antithesis did not lead to a Synthesis but to something else. After about 1870 two new forces appeared: nationalism and socialism. Their relationship, and their combination, rose above the conservative-liberal antithesis in almost every country of the world.

Nationalist socialism has had different variants throughout the world. Its proper recognition has been confused by two imprecise terms that Burleigh uses throughout: Fascism and totalitarianism. Fascism was an Italian phenomenon in practice (and for a while in essence), different from German National Socialism. The Leftist usage of applying the adjective "Fascist" to any kind of dictatorship (or even non-dictatorship) of the so-called "Right" has been wrong (a misuse dictated by Stalin as early as 1932, since he wanted to deter the recognition that his own regime was turning in a nationalist "socialist" direction). What Hitler was able to do was to fuse nationalism and socialism into a particularly appealing and powerful ideology for Germans.

This went farther and deeper than the imposition of party rule upon the state. Professors, lawyers, workers, generals, soldiers reacted to the ideology of National Socialism very positively indeed. Not every German was a National Socialist party member or believer; far from it. But that ideology was powerful enough to create new or reformed institutions and organizations, inspiriting the German armed forces that carried the swastika flag proudly across Europe and into the oceans of the world. It was because of National Socialism that the Third Reich fought until the very end. It had to be conquered in its entirety. To consider the National Socialist Third Reich as a crazed, reactionary episode, as so many -- including Burleigh -- do, is wrong. It was, alas, more than an episode. Even now, with Communism having lost whatever appeal it may once have had, there are National Socialist believers and sympathizers, not only in Germany and Austria but across the world -- people who are open or hidden admirers of the Third Reich and of its record, and who see it as a once healthy alternative to both International Communism and to decadent International Capitalism. We must not underestimate their potential -- especially if the West slides into the final and sorry chapter of its decline.

The other term that Burleigh uses indiscriminately (he is not alone in this) is that of totalitarianism. That word, too, has a curious history. It was first used by Mussolini's Italy in the 1920s, in a stentorian-operatic, Italian version: what Mussolini meant was the total priority of the state over the individual (considering the Italian temperament, his particular problem). Hitler never cared much for the state: to him the National Socialist Reich was a Reich of the Volk. The state, as he said on occasion, was only an old-fashioned framework, cracking at its seams, a Zwangsform. (He also said that he was not a dictator: "every South American popinjay can be a dictator." He, instead, had a great people behind him -- unfortunately so.) That stuttering polysyllabic word, "totalitarianism", became especially current in the United States after 1950, when some intellectuals (belatedly) were forced to recognize that Stalin's Soviet state was as much a police state as was the Third Reich (if not more so).

But a police state and totalitarianism are not the same things. The best part of Burleigh's book is his long chapter, "The Demise of the Rule of Law", describing how easily and rapidly law and order were refashioned and corrupted in the Third Reich. Yet the awesome efficiency of the Third Reich and its awful brutalities were not always due to police rule: they were the outcomes of the popularity of its National Socialism. Besides, there was much more freedom -- or, rather, elbow room -- in the Third Reich than in Soviet Russia: as long as people (those who were not victims of the state's racial policies, that is) did not act or speak openly against its leader and its institutions they were, relatively, free. "Totalitarianism" is a very imprecise term: no state, not even Stalin's Russia, can be entirely total.

Burleigh regards the Third Reich as but one example of "totalitarianism", which is both imprecise and unhistorical. The Third Reich was sui generis. In more than one way this book is about "totalitarianism", going well beyond the history of the Third Reich. This appears at its very beginning. On the second page of its long introduction, the second footnote (among the thousands of them) refers to a book about the 1999-2000 war in Chechnya. On page four there is a long (and well-known) quote from Tocqueville that has nothing to do with totalitarianism or with police rule (it was a prophetic description of majority rule and the coming welfare state). For an Englishman, Burleigh is curiously attracted to all kinds of unreliable and verbose philosophizers of the Hannah Arendt variety. There is a very long chapter on "Occupation and Collaboration in Occupied Europe 1939-1943" (why stop in 1943?), which, in the author's own words, is "a highly selective tour of occupied countries."

Very well; but what has that to do with a history of the Third Reich? The political inclinations and the psychology of the various National Socialist collaborationists, from the Caucasus to the Atlantic, is an important but a different subject, and their activities could not even be subsumed by a work dealing with German police rule in the occupied countries, since there was more involved than that. The bibliography of Burleigh's book is also wanting.

The history of the Third Reich (and of German National Socialism) cannot be, of course, entirely separated from the history and character of Adolf Hitler. In this respect Burleigh's phraseology and his description are rhetorical at worst, and one-dimensional at best. Of Hitler he says that, in 1945, "A demented criminal converted himself into a martyred hero." This is way too simple. "Criminal" means defying the law. Hitler was worse, and more dangerous: like Genghis Khan or Ivan the Terrible, he was the law. "Demented"? He was a man who possessed many talents, well beyond his undoubted talent for demagoguery -- talents that he consciously used for brutal and often evil purposes, which is exactly why he was responsible and should be regarded as such. Burleigh does not understand Hitler, which is one of the reasons his history is faulty. In the last pages of his book he misdates the day of Hitler's marriage, his dictation of his testament, and the day of his suicide. Perhaps such small details do not matter much. What matters, unfortunately, is that what Richard Sheridan said about a speech in the House of Commons more than 200 years ago is apposite to The Third Reich: A New History: "There is much in it that is both new and true, but unfortunately what is true is not new and what is new is not true."

Essay Types: Book Review