The Historian Who Was Not Baffled by the Nazis

Adolf Hitler with Eva Braun at his birthday party, April 1942
Süddeutsche Zeitung/Bridgeman ImagesAdolf Hitler with Eva Braun at his birthday party, April 1942

There was a time, hard though it is now to remember it, when Germany did not pose a great problem for other nations—or at least no more of a problem than anywhere else. Long divided among principalities and regional powers such as Prussia and Bavaria, the country was unified only in the nineteenth century. But Germany at the start of the twentieth century was in many ways an ordinary country, albeit one with a strong economy and musical tradition, and thinkers of worldwide influence; there was, outside its borders, little interest in its recent history.

It took the Nazis and World War II to change that. When British political warfare specialists were looking in 1942 for a basic handbook to help their servicemen to understand the country and the philosophy they were fighting, there was nothing up to date. A.J.P. Taylor, a young don who would later become one of the first historians to appear regularly on British television, was called in to write a general introduction to Germany. What he produced was so short on information and so full of wisecracks that it was rejected by readers in British intelligence and never distributed, though that did not stop him from publishing it as soon as the war was over. The Course of German History became Taylor’s first best seller, to the horror of many professional historians. It was not his finest work. “The history of the Germans,” wrote Taylor, “is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality.”

Normal, abnormal: the reductive treatment of German history as a study in pathology had begun, and it has been the task of Richard Evans and his generation of historians to challenge it. Born just after World War II, Evans belongs to the cohort of scholars that came of age in the late 1960s. Too young to remember the fighting itself, they grew up amid its traces—the bomb shelters at the bottom of suburban English gardens, the Achtung and Donner und Blitzen of the cartoon German villains who populated the comic books they bought at Woolworths. Yet academia reproduces itself at a glacial rate, and although two world wars had been fought to solve the German problem, most universities did not feel the need to teach German history.

In fact, at the time Evans won a place at Oxford the field of modern German history scarcely existed. Historians concentrated on such fields as British feudalism, in which the nineteenth-century work of William Stubbs was still prominent. The man who had rejected Taylor’s wartime manuscript for British intelligence, Francis Carsten—a German-Jewish émigré who was among the first professional historians of modern Germany in England—began teaching at the University of London in 1947. When he started, the head of his department told him there was no interest in German history among the students and advised him to stick to the Tudors. As the memoirs of the German-American historian Fritz Stern demonstrate, things were not very different in the US.

Major sociological and historical accounts of German political and economic development appeared in the decade or so after the war. But well into the 1960s, books on the Third Reich or the Final Solution were mostly being written by nonacademics (often sons of German-Jewish parents like Gerald Reitlinger, an art collector and writer, or émigrés like Richard Grunberger, a schoolteacher). If you wanted to do research on Saint Anselm or Cromwell, there were numerous supervisors to choose from at leading universities; if you wanted to write about Erich Ludendorff or Hitler, there was almost no one. The study of modern Europe was a backwater, dominated by historians with good wartime records and helpful Whitehall connections—old Bletchley Park hands and former intelligence officials, some of whom had broken off university careers to take part in the war and then returned.

But it was just such men, more conscious than most of the need to reeducate the victors as well as the defeated if there were to be a lasting peace in Europe, who were the ones to turn things around. A new Oxford college, St. Antony’s, where the young Evans did his doctorate, was to become one of their chief instruments. The éminence grise was Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, a former horse breeder and publicist, who seemed to have met almost everyone in England who counted before the war. He had somehow become gatekeeper of the interwar German diplomatic archives that had been brought over to England in the late 1940s for editing and publication, a position of patronage that benefited several future historians who helped him at Garsington Manor, his house outside Oxford.

William Deakin, an altogether more substantial figure, had been Churchill’s private secretary and had then come under German fire in the Yugoslav mountains where he had backed Josip Tito against Draža Mihailović before becoming St. Antony’s first warden. A colleague and former student was Alan Bullock, author of an early biography of Hitler and professor at New College. James Joll, who had served in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was the most talented historian of them all. Between them, they made Oxford and other universities aware of modern Europe and, thanks in no small measure to the new college, it became possible to take Germany’s recent past seriously and to study it in depth.

Forward-looking, encouraging of the social sciences, open to international scholarship from the moment of its establishment, St. Antony’s is the college famously written off by the snobbish Roddy Martindale in John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as “redbrick.” The truth is that it was indeed the redbrick universities, the creations of the 1950s and 1960s, that gave Evans and others their chance and shaped historical consciousness as a result. The Evans generation, if we can call them that, men (and only a very few women) born between 1943 and 1950, came mostly from the English provinces and usually got their first jobs in the provinces, too.

After finishing his doctorate at Oxford, Evans began teaching at the University of Stirling and then spent many fruitful years at the University of East Anglia (home of W.G. Sebald, among others) before eventually moving to Cambridge and rising to the top of the profession—a Regius Professorship and the presidency of Wolfson College crowning forty years of scholarship.

Back in the mid-1960s, when he began, there were good reasons to focus on German history in particular. The cozy evasions of the Adenauer years were being challenged as the trials of Adolf Eichmann and then of Auschwitz camp guards put the events of the Holocaust back in the headlines. The Vietnam War and anxieties about the “military-industrial complex” encouraged the study of the history of fascism on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, in the early 1960s, Fritz Fischer, a professor at the University of Hamburg, reopened the controversy over Germany’s responsibility for World War I. By arguing that Germany was primarily responsible for the war, he shocked his conservative colleagues in the Federal Republic. Evans was an undergraduate when Fischer came to speak at Oxford. This was, as he has written, a major event that showed him how thrilling, and indeed how urgent, the study of Germany could be.

Impatient with the extent to which modern history had been left to amateurs and government men, whose power often derived from their connections and their privileged access to official records, the new generation of historians were also revolutionaries in method. Diplomatic history and biographies of great men were to give way to history from below, the more democratic spirit of new voices and new collectivities. “Social history belongs in the center of German history,” wrote Evans, “and it is when we put it there that the rethinking process really begins.” Starting with research into the German feminist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he became a leading promoter of the new social history of modern Germany in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Evans’s social history had a very specific political message: he aimed to demonstrate through the rich associational life of late-nineteenth-century Germany, involving a variety of different parties, professions, and organizations, that there was nothing predetermined about Nazism. Germany had its own strains of liberalism, and these fluctuated in intensity and political direction as they did in other Western countries. By 1978 Evans could write that the study of modern Germany had become, in little more than a decade, “one of the most exciting of all historical areas to be working in.”

In the years that followed, Evans has played a central part in the expansion of the subject. His own writings are numerous but maintain on the whole an enviable level of quality and include such major works as Death in Hamburg (1987), his epic social history of the city during the cholera epidemic of 1892.

Equally important for the development of his profession were the series of seminars Evans arranged in East Anglia. In the 1980s these produced a stream of publications on German and European history and also brought together German, British, and American historians and helped to lay some of the foundations of what remains today one of the strongest transatlantic scholarly communities. Every so often, Evans has engaged in larger questions—the controversy at the end of the 1980s about the relationship between the suffering of the Jews and of the ethnic Germans who were expelled from Eastern Europe following World War II; a deep criticism of “postmodern” thinking and its irrelevance to the study of history; and, more recently, an appeal to preserve the outward-looking approach to the world that has allowed his own profession (and mine) to thrive and help shape Britain into what he has called a country of “cosmopolitan islanders.”

In The Third Reich in History and Memory, a collection of review-essays, Evans focuses firmly on the twentieth century, and on Weimar and the Third Reich in particular. His concern, evident in his earlier work, with the nineteenth century and with the character of German bourgeois life in the decades after Bismarck’s unification seems to have subsided. But in this the volume reflects accurately enough the prevailing obsessions of our time: modern German history is now popular as never before, chiefly because of the Nazis.

Books on them continue to pour off the presses, raising the question of what there is left to say. Is Hitler immune to the law of diminishing returns? Evans seems to think, on the contrary, that recent scholarship has lost sight of the essentials. Some historians, he suggests, are all too keen to move away from older explanations of political compliance, which stressed the role of terror in the Third Reich. They have, he writes, moved too far in the other direction and made it sound as though most Germans were consenting Nazis. There are some reasons why the argument has gathered ground: it is striking after all just how small the Nazi national security state was compared both with Stalin’s—and more provocatively, with the vast security apparatuses of our own day. Between 1933 and 1939 incarceration rates in the Third Reich were lower than they are in the US right now, not to mention the very high rates in the USSR during the Terror of the 1930s.

But Evans is right to remind us that the data by themselves can mislead. The Nazi regime had plenty of ways of coercing people without jailing or killing them, and the shock value of its early violence—in which, for example, labor leaders were treated brutally at Dachau—was often enough to make people submit. Compliance is not consent. Moreover, the task the Nazis set themselves of nullifying the threat from the left—a threat that was seen as more urgent in the early days of the Third Reich than reactions by Jews—was an enormous one that involved targeting very large parts of German society, including millions who had belonged to the social democratic parties. We cannot understand the enormous violence unleashed beginning in the autumn of 1939 against Poles and Jews unless we bear in mind the degree to which the leadership had already sanctioned a brutal sadism—not only against the left but, in 1934, even against its own comrades on the right in the Night of the Long Knives—that was shocking when compared with anything that had gone before.

One does not think of historians as moralists, but historians of this particular subject are drawn into public controversy more than most, and Evans has not shied away from the challenge. Many German government agencies and private firms (such as Volkswagen) have in the past few decades asked historians to scrutinize their past, and Evans is rightly wary of how this kind of work can skew results, especially when the documents involved are not available to the public. Whether the subject is Holocaust denial or the kind of easy moralizing that has taken the place of hard analysis in some recent scholarly literature, his judgments are generally careful and convincing.

More conceptual matters by contrast appear to interest him less. Thus for instance in making, more than once, the valid point that the repressive power of the Third Reich was applied not only by storm troopers and prison guards but also by judges and professionals, Evans does not allow himself to speculate about how Nazi conceptions of legality differed from previous jurisprudence. (The early work by the German political scientist Ernst Fraenkel, which he cites, remains fresh and pertinent here, showing how National Socialism, like other revolutionary regimes, prided itself on being simultaneously law-abiding and law-destroying.) Similarly, in Evans’s discussion of German diplomacy, one misses any allusion to the sometimes intense discussions inside the Third Reich about the inherently liberal character of international law, discussions that have recently attracted much attention from historians and theorists of the subject. There is an ambivalence in Evans’s work about just how seriously to take the intellectual life of Germany under National Socialism.

It is also striking—given how important it was from the outset, decades ago, to oppose the position that German history was simply a matter of pathology—that Evans still talks of Hitler’s irrationality. “The Third Reich was not a normal state. It was not even a normal dictatorship, if there is such a thing,” he writes. Hitler’s “war aims were neither rational nor limited.” One’s immediate reaction may be that this is true and obvious; the Führer’s policies, for example, took no account of the relatively limited resources or time available to Germany. Yet on further reflection the statement is not obvious at all. What exactly is a normal dictatorship? They come in all shapes and sizes. And if that is true of dictatorships, it is all the more true of states.

Evans challenges the view that the war had a plausible function for Germany, that it somehow emerged, for example, from the logic of capitalism, and there he is surely right. He underlines that Hitler was not insane and that irrationality is one thing, madness another. But was Stalin rational in 1931 to plan an industrial buildup at enormous human cost over the coming decade? Were Truman and Kennedy mindful of the discrepancies between ends and means when they espoused conceptions of American national security quite unprecedented in US history? What defines the rationality of such large projects? Feasibility? Success? A clear relationship to goals and values that are themselves arrived at by rational deliberation? And if so, over what span of time? The point is not that Hitler and the Third Reich were or were not rational but rather that it is more difficult to make judgments on this question than Evans sometimes admits.

The focus of the essays in this book is overwhelmingly on Germany. To judge from Evans’s work, the postwar hopes of his generation for a European historical consciousness and a contemporary European perspective have remained to this day largely bounded by the limits of national expertise. Evans is a Germanist; Denis Mack Smith at Oxford specialized in Italy; Colin Jones at Queen Mary University of London writes on France. The wide European perspective of Tony Judt’s book Postwar, published in 2005, is now relatively rare.

This was not so true of many of the earlier generation of historians, partly because they were less professionalized, partly because the war and life made many of them into Europeanists through their own experience, and partly because, for many of them, Marxism, and the debate over Marxism, framed their thought and taught them to approach problems on a larger scale. And it is less true, too, of younger scholars today who are more naturally adopting international and global perspectives on national problems.

Perhaps in hindsight Evans’s generation was constrained as well as helped by their assertion of the importance of social history. The older scholars they were reacting against had, thanks to their training in the old-fashioned diplomatic history practiced by such Oxford historians as Sir John Marriott, been comfortable with moving across borders, even if only when speaking the esoteric lingua franca of nineteenth-century international diplomacy. The social historians of the 1970s became so involved in studying the valleys and villages and backstreets of their chosen Heimat that they ended up often reproducing the very regional and national outlook of their subjects.

But as some of the essays in Evans’s book indicate, this narrowing of perspective has given way to something wider in recent years. Younger historians have recast the setting of the German problem. Sebastian Conrad, in German Colonialism (2012), a book Evans considers here in a thoughtful review, has led the way in exploring Germany’s colonial past and its participation in the age of European empire, notably in Africa. New work on the German war economy gives greater importance to Hitler’s perception of the rise of the US in explaining the ambitions behind his desire for world power.

Evans is not dismissive of these new theories, but he seems understandably cautious about their significance. In what ways did empire matter to European nations? Does the fact that working-class life, not to mention the life of most peasants across Europe, unfolded over decades in almost total ignorance of what their governments were doing overseas in their name mean that empire mattered more or less? But it is revealing to me that whereas the Nazis had a sharp sense that the destiny of Germany and that of Germans living abroad were conjoined, most historians have had no such idea. We now have the first scholarly studies of the forced expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. But we still lack, at least in English, serious studies of German history that deal with the lives of those many ethnic Germans before their death or expulsion, not to mention the almost complete indifference on the part of Germanists to the story of German settlers in the Americas.

For the most part, The Third Reich in History and Memory does not pursue these larger questions. It comes alive in the details. I especially liked Evans’s discussion of the VW Beetle and its transformation from a Nazi prototype designed to accommodate a machine gun on the hood to what he calls “the levelled-out middle class’s car of choice.” Then there is his discussion of the Führer’s health, so sensible that it sometimes approaches self-parody. “Irritable bowel syndrome is normally caused by stress, and this is likely to have been the case with Hitler, especially during the war.” Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun is described in an exemplary fashion, drawing out the ways it mattered while avoiding the prurience and downright stupidity that usually accompanies speculation on the Führer’s sex life.

Best of all, I think, is the appreciation in this book of the ways in which Germans have come to terms with their past since the end of the war. When the German Foreign Office commissioned historians to review the involvement of its diplomats in the Third Reich, the resulting report attracted much criticism. Evans is a superb guide to this dispute. He is unsparing about the conservatism of the German diplomatic profession, both before and after the Nazis, but he avoids tarring them all with the same brush. Individuals differed, both because of age and background but also because of the choices they made. Above all, he makes a powerful argument for the social responsibility of the historian, who should not just grub around in the archives but put things in their proper setting and make a range of judgments, not just easy ones.

After the war, a controversy broke out in Oxford over a German philanthropist whose money not only funded cultural prizes but provided fellowships for promising researchers, including—way back in 1970—a young graduate student named Richard Evans. A few years ago, a don castigated the university for accepting a “selected version of a tainted history,” and implied this might be shaping its approach to the teaching of German history. Evans responded, and his account of this episode is a model of pugnacious historical pedagogy. He does not spare the businessman at the center of the scandal, who had hopes for a racial union of Anglo-Saxons that would safeguard Europe’s future in a post-Nazi world. But he also lays out the longer-term consequences of his largesse, a growth in understanding between two countries that extended into later generations with very different values and presuppositions.

If few countries can today match the record of Germany in acknowledging its past, it is also true that few countries have been more helped in this task by the capacity of their former enemies to produce the kind of scholarship that is exemplified here.

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