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Americans, though understandably put off by the damage they've seen ideology wreak in other countries, have overcompensated by developing a weird mind set which automatically gives greater authority to those who pretend to eschew any personal point of view. We celebrate politicians who mouth platitudes and shun the controversial, lauding them as non-partisan statesmen. We seem to want our news presented in a bland factual manner without the least hint of partisanship. And the highest aspiration of history and biography tends to be to march out a string of facts without any context given or judgment offered, unless they strictly conform to preconceived notions of events. Thus, Doris Kearns Goodwin, having published virtual hagiographies of LBJ, JFK and the Roosevelts, and David McCullough, who performed a similar service for Harry Truman, are our best selling presidential historian/biographers. But let Edmund Morris experiment with narrative technique or Pat Buchanan suggest that the isolationists were right prior to Pearl Harbor and the media react as if they'd caught the two men sodomizing goats.
Europeans on the other hand, whose culture you'll not often hear me praise over ours, well understand that the kind of evenhandedness that Americans demand is neither possible nor necessarily helpful. First of all, it requires two highly implausible things, both that authors and journalists genuinely have no personal politics or that they keep these politics from influencing their writing, and that the broad unchallenged public consensus be basically "correct," and therefore have no need to be challenged. You need only watch a nightly news broadcast to dispose of the first assumption; an American media which refers to Bill Clinton as "the President" but to the House and Senate as "the Republican Congress" is simply not succeeding in hiding its partisanship. The second proposition hardly seems to need much disproving but take just one example : Détente. In the 1970's it was the received wisdom of the West that the USSR was a permanent fixture in the firmament of nation's, that its Marxism was simply an alternative economic arrangement, one that had achieved some remarkable successes, and that, therefore, it was necessary to reach an accommodation with Soviet leaders. Against this overwhelming consensus, Ronald Reagan argued that the Soviet Union remained an "Evil Empire," wholly illegitimate and incapable of ever satisfying the human needs of its own population, that faced with Western determination and technological prowess, they would crumble and end on the ash heap of history. This viewpoint, which was not even shared by most of the people in his own administration, let alone the Party, the nation or the West, proved prescient and ultimately prevailed.
This is just one example of the creative tension that occurs when the prevailing orthodoxy is challenged. One of the important things to remember is that the challenge need not turn out to have been correct in order for the fact of its having been mounted to prove efficacious. The simple act of making people defend the orthodoxy, to think through its ramifications, can be worthwhile. To return to an earlier example, the nation would have done well to grapple with the issues that Pat Buchanan raised, rather than dismissing them. America in the year 2000 is returning rapidly to its isolationist norm, but a significant totalitarian threat to world peace remains on the scene : Communist China. The failure to seriously contemplate whether disregarding Nazi adventurism might actually have served us and the world well, better than did WWII and the resulting Cold War, makes it more difficult for us to honestly consider the ramifications of our current failure to deter China's expansionism.
When it comes to popular history on the Nazi era, a subject about which very little deviation from the norm is tolerated, the one book that you'll most often see cited is William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A perfectly acceptable relic of its time, this book treats Hitler and the Nazi Party as complete aberrations, imposed on a slumbering Germany by a freakish set of circumstances. This view, understandable in a liberal West which finds it necessary to aver "it couldn't happen here" and which found it necessary to rehabilitate Germany into a worthy Cold War ally, has prevailed for the better part of sixty years now. In recent years however at least one book has come along to directly challenge this view, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's excellent Hitler's Willing Executioners. But to my knowledge, British historian Michael Burleigh's Third Reich is the first major one volume history to rival Shirer's work and it is an invaluable corrective, precisely the kind of big idea contrarian history that we could use more of and which, even if the author's claims are ultimately rejected, can serve to clarify the thinking of us all on the issues he broaches.
Burleigh apparently draws on some academic work (for instance that by Saul Freidlander) with which I'm unfamiliar, but his central argument will ring a bell with anyone who's ever read Eric Hoffer's great book The True Believer. Burleigh considers the Third Reich to have been the product of a political religion, replete with symbols, hymns, liturgy, martyrs and a Messiah. From this perspective, the German people, defeated in WWI and impoverished by reparations and Depression, emerge, not as unwitting dupes, but as desperate believers in a new state religion propounded by Hitler, a true totalitarianism, suffused with racially motivated criminality, which sought to infiltrate every aspect of their lives. In one of the more striking quotes in the book, one that Hoffer would have noted, Burleigh cites Hitler favorably discussing Roman Catholicism :
Be assured, we too put faith in the first place and
not cognition. One has to be able to believe in a
Over the course of the book, Burleigh demonstrates the gradual process by which the German people's faith in Hitler and Nazism grew, supplanting their belief in Christianity and vitiating their sense of morality. Where Goldhagen showed the German people to have been generally amenable to Hitler's exterminationist program, Burleigh shows them to have participated in, or at least to have acquiesced in, a truly totalitarian program which replaced every aspect of traditional German culture and society with Nazi beliefs.
This idea, of Nazism as a religion, gives the book a helpful focus and a unifying theme around which to organize the enormous amount of information which Mr. Burleigh has assimilated and lays out here. In addition, where the prior treatment Hitler and Nazism as a historical exception may have acted as a balm to our liberal sensibilities, Burleigh's treatment of them helps us both to understand their similarity to the Soviet Union and Communism, and to understand how such movements could rise again. It's an excellent book, one that benefits greatly from the author's willingness to advance a novel view and to prosecute his case forcefully. If you've developed a palate for the sort of bland mush that passes for popular history these days, you might find it too bracing, but if you've enjoyed such powerful iconoclastic works as those already mentioned, or Richard Pipes's Russian Revolution, or Niall Ferguson's Pity of War , this one's sure to appeal to you also. It seems destined to become a classic if only enough people with open minds are willing to read it.
-Prof. Michael Burleigh (Cardiff University)
-EXCERPT : First Chapter: 'The Third Reich'
-BOOK SITE : The Third Reich (FSB Associates)
-ARCHIVES : "michael burleigh" (booksonline uk)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich: a New History by Michael Burleigh (V. R. Berghahn, NY Times Book Review))
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich: a New History by Michael Burleigh (Daniel Johnson, Line One)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich by Michael Burleigh (Stephen Howe, The Independent uk)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich (David Cesarani, Books Unlimited uk)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich: a New History by Michael Burleigh (Richard Overy, booksonline uk)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich: A New History , By Michael Burleigh (Roger K. Miller, Denver Post)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich (Amos Perlmutter, Jerusalem Post)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich When Nazism became the creed of Germany (Alan Cochrum, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich (MICHAEL ANDRE BERNSTEIN, LA Times)
-REVIEW : of The Third Reich : A New History by Michael Burleigh (William Rubinstein, History Today)
-REVIEW : of Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide by Michael Burleigh (Niall Ferguson, Daily Telegraph)
-REVIEW : of DEATH AND DELIVERANCE "Euthanasia" in Germany c. 1900-1945. By Michael Burleigh (Robert N. Proctor, NY Times Book Review)
-AWARD : £30,000 prize for 'work of genius' on Nazis (Anna Whitney, 13 June 2001, Independent uk)
Book-related and General Links:
Burleigh's book is quite good, although he's not the first to put forth ideas of Nazism as a quasi-religious movement, or at least one that freely adopted religous imagery in its public events. Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will displays this in spades in the filmic sphere, but works like Ian Kershaw's The Hitler Myth, J.P. Stern's The Fuehrer and the People, and others have also develpoed this argument.
- Oct-24-2005, 08:55