THE EVOLVING HISTORIOGRAPHY OF THE THIRD REICH
Geitner Simmons is taking his leave of the blogosphere with a bang in his post on the changing view of the nature of Nazi Germany among historians who are coming to accept a view of the Germans as another class of victims of Hitler's dark tyranny
I have not yet read the Evans book
so I won't comment on the specifics of his argument directly but I do find the entire thesis morally troublesome at first glance; not least in the fact that many other scholars have found a great deal of evidence that the average German was unlikely to be menaced by the SS-Gestapo -SD security apparatus.
Ian Kershaw documented in his fine two volume biography of Hitler
that when the war turned against Germany, the Fuhrer's bedrock support remained the fanatical core of the Nazi Party - the Gauleiters
, Reichsleiters, SS fanatics and radical Party functionaries like Goebbels
and Rosenberg - but the German people followed loyally to the very end. There was low morale and grumbling, the support for the Fuhrer among war-weary Germans was passive - but it was support nonetheless, not resistance or victimization.
If a German was not Jewish or married to a Jew, not an active political or religious opponent of the regime, not mentally ill, a flagrant homosexual or a member of Himmler's numerically small classes of social undesirables, they had little to fear from the Gestapo. Even when ordinary Germans began protesting the secret T-4 euthanasia program
that was Hitler's trial run for a eugenic murder machine, the Nazi regime backed down rather than retaliate with widespread terror.
Considering the degree or nuance of Nazi tyranny over the German populace is the job of a historian and I'm confident that Richard Evans, careful scholar that he is, employed his argument with great precision. It remains however, an argument that can easily be stretched to become as insupportable as Daniel Goldhagen's claim that all Germans were made by their cultural antisemitism and Hitler's political sorcery into potential eliminationist murderers
. It also smacks strongly of the modern preference for distinguishing between a ghoulish regime and the people it rules over, including the dictatorship's own masses of supporters and bureaucrats. This is frankly an anachronism - no one thought like that at the time American and British bombs were raining on Dresden - not even to the Germans who were being firebombed.
The historiography of the Third Reich is important because Hitler and his regime are now a universal touchstone and a reference for human evil. Allusions to Nazism get injected into political debates across the world, usually inaccurately, by people in lands that never were involved in the European theater in WWII. A few years back, John Lukacs caused a stir by citing in his The Hitler of History
, a seldom used, conservative estimate of the Holocaust of 4.2 million dead instead of the usual 6 million or 6.5 million, on methodological grounds. Battles over historical interpretation tend to become heated when discernable groups identify with the narrative of events and in the case of the talismanic nature of the Hitler myth, with it's atavistic barbarism and the moral abyss of the Holocaust, everyone feels that the history touches them in some way.