The Third Reich: A New History by Michael Burleigh
What did it win?
Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Award 2001
What’s it all about?
The rise and fall of Nazi Germany.
Was it really any good?
Excellent. Well documented, insightful, and refreshingly original in many of its conclusions, I expect it to remain one of the standard works on the subject for some time.
Things do get off to a bad start, with an essay on National Socialism as political religion that I found largely irrelevant to what followed. This Introduction is also the most academic part of the book, given to scholarly hair-splitting over terms and an overview of sources that includes a lot of name-dropping (at one point listing 21 in a row, “to take a few distinguished names at random”!).
Once out of these woods, it gets a lot better. Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Third Reich is its comprehensiveness. All of the basics are accounted for, including overviews of the military campaigns and a brief biographical sketch of Hitler, but Burleigh also covers important domestic developments such as the degradation of the rule of law and the Nazi takeover of German social welfare organizations and programs. An extremely effective use of anecdotes drawn from the mountain of archival materials help humanize the story at every stage, and many interesting conclusions, general and specific, are drawn along the way.
Burleigh’s quirky style and impatience with re-inventing the wheel is generally well-suited to such a giant task. Only occasionally does the writing itself bog down (example: “Kahr, despite having offended Seeckt by protecting General Lossow, the Reichswehr commander in Bavaria, when Lossow refused to close down the Munich newspaper the Volkischer Beobachter after it attacked the Reichswehr leader, was unwilling to move on Berlin, without Seeckt’s own involvement, and his involvement was conditional upon Kahr distancing himself from the putschism of Ludendorff and Hitler.”). The greater danger is posed by Burleigh’s tendency to be overly cute or dismissive and his penchant for tenuous modern analogies. An account of Hitler’s beginnings is titled “The Oddity’s Odyssey”. German pastors favouring Nazism are described as “perhaps following their flocks in a pathetic bid for popularity, like trendy vicars of the ‘happy-clappy’ persuasion playing electric guitars in their churches.” Normally, we are told, crackpots like Hitler “go quietly crazy amid genteel delapidation, like hippies gone to seed in seaside towns.” Members of the SD (secret police) are said to be “vaguely reminiscent of the highly logical people who, it is said, are drawn to the ideas of Scientology.”
I found this aspect of the presentation to be weird and distracting. In the end, however, it takes nothing away from Burleigh’s impressive achievement.