Friday, April 17, 2009

hitler's co-conspirators


The Atlantic | The past two years have seen a flood of major works on Nazi Germany, books that include Life and Death in the Third Reich, Peter Fritzsche’s analysis of everyday life; Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, a collection of essays focusing on social history, by Ian Kershaw, the author of the definitive biography of Hitler; Germany and the Second World War: German Wartime Society, the multiauthored, 1,000-plus-page English translation of the ninth volume of the gargantuan, quasi-official chronicle of the war issued by Germany’s Research Institute for Military History; and, just published in March, The Third Reich at War, by Richard J. Evans, the third and concluding volume of a work that will almost certainly be for a generation the authoritative general history of Nazi Germany in English.

The Final Solution is at the heart of all these books. This focus may seem obvious now, but 30 years ago, study of the extermination of the Jews hadn’t yet entered the mainstream of scholarship on Nazi Germany. In fact, the standard single-volume history, Karl Bracher’s analytical The German Dictatorship, devoted a mere 13 of its 580 pages to the subject. Also all but ignored 30 years ago were the attitudes and opinions of Germans toward the Jews and toward the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazi regime, an issue that today’s historians consider central. Most striking is these books’ consensus: despite their authors’ different aims and methods, and despite their contending interpretations of a host of questions, they all agree that, contrary to claims made after the war, the German people had wide-ranging and often detailed knowledge of the murder of the Jews.

None of the authors uses that conclusion to render easy moral judgments, nor to argue that the population fervently embraced the regime’s lethal anti-Semitism (pace Daniel Goldhagen’s now largely discredited Hitler’s Willing Executioners). But both indirectly and explicitly, these books make clear that just as the Final Solution itself is now understood to inform so many aspects of Nazi Germany, so too the Germans’ knowledge of the murder of the Jews influenced and altered the history of the Third Reich and the war it started.