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Posted Monday, October 27, 2003
Sunday Times
London, Sunday, October 26, 2003

    History reviewed by Michael Burleigh

A resistible rise?

Allen Lane £25 pp 622.

EDUCATORS, leader writers, parents and politicians are concerned that the nation's teenagers are becoming obsessed with Hitler and then Nazis. Why? Since Britain is booming and Tony Blair bestrides the world, it can hardly be a chauvinistic desire to humble the Hun with remembrance of crimes past.

Nor can the popularity of the subject solely be ascribed to the desire of tenured radicals to display their "anti-fascist" credentials to a world still relatively ignorant to the crimes of Marxists.

Maybe it is simply that the Nazis have what some of adolescents require: dark glamour, drama, easy political allegiances, moral absolutes, deviance and vicarious violence. Any other justification for this prurient level of interest (the "never again" cliché) is surely so much self-serving guff, for no book or film inoculates people against charismatic politics (think Berlusconi and Schwarzenegger) or, regrettably, parties of the populist and extreme right.Evans

With weary curiosity one turns to the first instalment of Richard J Evans's trilogy on the Nazis. While the introduction is heavy on details of the author's career and querulous wiggings for competitors, it offers a few clues as to why a scholar of Evans's calibre should produce three tomes on this subject, though cynics might think of some answers.

Any new book on the Nazis must offer original archival research or a compelling interpretation. This book conspicuously lacks the former, while the author's aspiration to encyclopaedic coverage militates against the tight focus required for the latter. Too many passages resemble a checklist that Evans feels obliged to tick off, such as industry or the arts under Weimar, without their relationship to the advent of Nazism being made explicit. His discussion of Nazi ideology is especially underwhelming.

The first 20 pages are a competent account of the pre-1914 German empire and the Weimar republic. Its concerns mirror the evolution of historical literature since about 1970, without daring to think outside its limitations. Things have moved on since Timothy Mason (the guru of British neo-Marxist historians of Nazism) taught at Oxford. By contrast, the First World War is compressed into six pages making this seminal event incidental. What else lowered the acceptable threshold for violence?

Evans's account of Hitler's life before he became a political figure tells us nothing that wasn't in Ian Kershaw's recent biography, plus the unremarkable intelligence that his "disciples" fell under the Führer's spell. Spells belong to the realm of "hey presto" rather than to serious historical accounts. No attempt is made to probe the content and delivery of the pseudo-messiah's message, which is analogous to writing about [Winston] Churchill with no reference to speeches that still reduce Britons to tears.

More seriously, the absence of any sustained discussion of why millions of Germans voted for the Nazis, and the author's evident sympathies for the Marxist opposition, lead to a caricature of doughty leftists being beaten up or killed by sweaty, beer-swilling thugs while the rest of the population has vanished.

We are told that Protestants and women voted disproportionately for the Nazis, without learning why. Perhaps he put a spell on them, too? If the former gap is unsurprising for a secular-minded academic, the latter is less excusable in a historian of 19th-century German feminism. While there is plenty of colourful detail about deviants and mass murders, the greater challenge eludes him of explaining why plain working people, of all classes, turned to Hitler.

And onto the Nazis in power, for the teleology is so familiar as to lack all dramatic tension. There are powerful passages where the author seems engaged with his subject matter. These include classical music. Where his style finally springs to life, although not journalism, literature, film, theatre of the visual arts, subjects where discussion goes through the motions.

He is convincing, too, on the jiggery-pokery in German academia once such characters as Heidegger gained power, but then most people know what academics are like.

The book ends with a discussion of whether the Nazis carried out a revolution, a question surely only important to those prone to the false romance of the Jacobin or Bolshevik tradition. Perhaps in the next two volumes Evans (right) will display his talents to greater effect by chucking away the historiographical handbooks so as to bring some fresh air to stale subject matter.


Our dossier on Richard Evans
A reader asks Mr Irving's opinion of historians Ian Kershaw, Richard Evans, Peter Padfield
See too the review by H-German, posted Feb 6, 1998, of Richard J. Evans, "Rituals of Retribution: Capital Punishment in Germany 1600-1987" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
Sir Ian Kershaw reviews Prof Richard Evans' book Telling Lies about Hitler
Richard Evans was one of the expert witnesses chosen by Prof Deborah Lipstadt for her defence in David Irving's libel action
©Focal Point 2003 F e-mail: Irving write to David Irving