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Newsday, 29 February 2004

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THE COMING OF THE THIRD REICH, by Richard J. Evans. Penguin Press, 622 pp.

In cynical moments, it sometimes appears that the first law of commercial nonfiction book-publishing runs: "If you put Nazis in it, they will come." After more than half a century, the Third Reich retains its extraordinary hold on the public imagination. Its only rival, at least in America, is the Civil War. (One historian I know jokes that if he could find a way to get both into one book, he might be able to retire.) But there is an important difference in the way each serves to captivate readers.

The Civil War has the quality of tragedy, in an almost classical sense: a conflict of brothers (sometimes literally so) torn apart by differing conceptions of right and duty. By contrast, the power of the German catastrophe to command our attention is much more troubling. The Confederacy dehumanized people. So did the Third Reich, except now, with the full force of technology behind it, rendering the whole process all the more depersonalized.

But what makes fascination with the Nazis especially problematic is the fact that they wanted to be fascinating. No mass movement has ever aestheticized itself so completely - so ruthlessly. The Nazi leadership contained a disproportionate number of erstwhile bohemians and artists manque. They designed their movement to create awe and to defy reason. When readers consume books on the Third Reich, it is often a matter of yielding to precisely the dark aura that the führer sought to embody in uniforms, symbols, rituals, architecture and mythology.

The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans, a professor of modern history at Cambridge, is only the first of what will be a three-volume history of the Nazi system. It draws on the enormous scholarly literature covering the regime, but it is not intended for specialists. It is a work of popular history - but one with a difference.

Unlike other chroniclers of the Third Reich, Evans is not awed by the Nazis themselves. He defies their efforts to defy reason. He repeatedly asks, in different ways, whether the movement's rise to power was as irresistible as the Nazis tried to make it seem.

A tendency to regard German culture as fundamentally authority-loving and anti-democratic has long had a certain currency among non-Germans. "In a curious way," Evans writes, "this echoed the Nazis' own version of German history," in which such traits were part of a "racial instinct... alienated from them by foreign influences such as the French Revolution." What gets written out of history, then, are the liberal and democratic strains of German politics -- including "the very widespread opposition to Nazism which existed in Germany even in 1933," when Hitler came to power. Erasing anti-authoritarian traditions from the historical record, Evans writes, means that "the dramatic story of Nazism's rise to dominance ceases to be a drama at all: It becomes merely the realization of the inevitable."

And so in reconstructing the history running up to the 1920s and '30s, Evans stresses the contradictions in German society. By the turn of the century, it combined dynamic economic growth -- driven by heavy industry, high technology and incessant research-and-development -- with a political system that combined the worst features of feudal authority and modern bureaucracy. (Imagine a cross between an army and an insurance company.)

Germany came relatively late to the grand scramble for colonies. While carving out its chunk of Africa, it wasted no time in absorbing ideas about racial superiority from thinkers in more successful empires, such as France and England. But while a few political sects tried to fuse old prejudices against the Jews with newfangled ideas about social Darwinism, "the vast majority of respectable opinion in Germany, left and right, middle class and working class, remained opposed" to proto- Nazi ideas. In particular, the well-organized and unrelentingly optimistic labor movement condemned anti-Semitism.

The effect on German society of World War I and of the hyperinflation of the 1920s are by now familiar enough. What sets Evans' account of the period apart is his emphasis on the Weimar government's deep continuities with the political order created by Bismarck and the Kaiser. The problem was not, he contends, the lack of roots of the republic's emergent democratic institutions, as such. Rather, the instability came from the way the economic crisis fueled the rise of paramilitary organizations, left-wing and right, that made the streets into a war zone.

The Nazis were simply the most adept at deploying bully-boy tactics while also appealing to the desire for order. As early as 1923, they were explicit about their intent to herd what the party program called "security risks and useless eaters" into concentration camps. But Hitler also made clear (to the frustration of factions within his party) that he intended to take power by legal means.

For all the charisma and sinister magic of his demagogy, he also had the skills of a modern politician capable of leading people to hear what they wanted to hear. As Evans writes, "The vagueness of the Nazi programme, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing."

While that evasiveness helped the party move from the political fringes to a growing presence in the legislature, it also meant that even Nazi cadres sometimes worked for the movement without actually reading Mein Kampf. "Among ordinary Party activists in the 1920s and early 1930s, the most important aspect of Nazi ideology was its emphasis on social solidarity - the concept of the organic racial community of all Germans -- followed at some distance by extreme nationalism and the cult of Hitler. Anti-Semitism, by contrast, was of significance only for a minority, and for a good proportion of these it was only incidental."

Soon enough, of course, it would be far more central than that. The first volume of Evans's trilogy closes with Hitler in power -- and the Nazis working swiftly to transform themselves from one party in German politics to The Party, period, full stop. Countless books have told the story. But Evans has distinguished himself by offering an account that avoids the merely sensational, while bringing the real horror of it into view. How? By taking seriously a remark of Goebbels', who gloated: "It will always remain one of democracy's best jokes that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed."