A Jewish-run shop covered with Nazi antisemitic graffiti, June 1938

The tangled roots of the Third Reich

Two new books on inter-war Germany provide vital context to the rise of the Nazis


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

With the centenary of the Weimar Republic’s founding just gone, and that of Hitler’s rise to power fast approaching, interest in modern German history is as strong as ever. New books about Nazism and World War II still adorn the shelves of most bookstores, whilst documentaries and historical dramas about the period are watched by millions.

The reasons for this are many. The Third Reich has long occupied an outsized space in our historical memory, but war in Eastern Europe has raised the spectre of another, wider conflict — a Third World War — just as democratic backsliding and populism’s growing appeal have us wondering if we, too, are going the way of the Weimar Republic. The present leads us again to look at the past, in other words, to find out if we’ve learned anything at all from it.

Shouldn’t the recent spate of books about Weimar and Nazi Germany also tell us something new about the period — or does our current predicament justify merely retelling old stories? Tens of thousands of books chronicling Hitler’s rise and rule have been published since 1945. Historians of the period will be familiar with the question, often asked by colleagues: “Do we really need another book about Nazism?”

As one of those historians, I of course think we do. I also think it’s incumbent on us to at least try to expand our understanding of the period, though, if only by asking different questions about it. However much has been published already, there remains a great deal that we still don’t know.

The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall, 1918-33, Frank McDonough (Apollo, £35)

One of the latest additions to the canon is Frank McDonough’s The Weimar Years (1918–33). A prequel to his two-volume narrative history of the Third Reich, The Hitler Years, it sets out to explain the Nazis’ rise to power by examining the reasons why democracy failed in Germany. Like the earliest histories of the period, the Republic is not examined on its own terms but rather as a kind of backstory to what followed, the numerous crises that befell it being used to explain the ultimate catastrophe.

Structured chronologically, the book provides a devastating, play-by-play account of why, for McDonough, democracy stood little chance in Germany. Defeat in World War I, the Kaiser’s abdication and the humiliating terms of the Versailles treaties challenged the legitimacy of the Republic from the start, as did its failure to contain political violence. Crippling inflation and mounting government debt, exacerbated by the obligation to pay reparations to the Allies, hampered German economic recovery from the start and threatened to wipe out the middle classes.

A degree of economic stability did return in the mid-1920s, but the country experienced its second “once-in-a-lifetime” economic crisis in the early 1930s, causing further instability and ultimately paving the way for Hitler. It’s a well-known story, skilfully retold for a contemporary audience by one of the foremost authorities on modern German history.

Does McDonough tell us anything we didn’t already know? The answer, in short, is no. In comparison to other recent histories of the period, more attention is paid here to high politics than Weimar’s cultural achievements, which are mentioned, but this tends to disrupt the flow of what is otherwise a high-paced, edge-of-the-seat political history of Germany’s first democracy. Despite being nearly 600 pages in length, the book’s focus is quite narrow, with little attention paid to what was happening below the national level in the federal states.

This may seem like an inane criticism. Who, after all, would demand to read more about Buckinghamshire in a political history of interwar Britain? However, the Weimar Republic, like Germany today, was a federation. Understanding what was happening in states like Prussia, which contained three-fifths of Germany’s population, is crucial to understanding the country as a whole.

Indeed, McDonough places some of the blame for Weimar’s collapse on the Social Democrats, who he argues should have participated in more national governments. Prussia was governed by an SPD-led coalition for most of the Weimar years, though, yet the Republic still fell. McDonough sees another reason for this fall in the failure to purge the military and civil service of hostile elements.

Basket full of banknotes during hyperinflation, Weimar, 1923

Again, Prussia replaced a considerable number of these officials with others loyal to the new democratic order, yet the Republic still fell. The book’s rigid focus on high politics, in short, obscures an understanding of the more structural reasons why democracy failed.

Unlike most history books, however, The Weimar Years is a genuine page-turner, full of lessons for those who want to learn something about the present from the past. It’s also a beautiful book to hold, full of period photos that help bring the story alive. This all makes the book worth reading, even if there’s not much in it that can’t be found in other histories of the period.

Reich, Bystander Society, by contrast, does attempt something new — namely, to answer a question that has hung over the period since 1945: why did so many people stand by and do nothing when others were being persecuted and killed by the Nazi regime? Down the years, there have been numerous studies of the perpetrators and their motivations, with more than a few dedicated to the victims. Until now, there has been no comprehensive study of the “bystanders”.

This is understandable, given that the group is generally considered to have comprised everyone else who was neither a perpetrator nor a victim, and thus very difficult to categorise. Nevertheless, the inaction of what Fulbrook calls the “muddled middle” of society was a crucial enabling factor. It needs to be considered if we want to understand how the Holocaust happened.

She explains this inaction as typical behaviour in what she calls the “bystander society”, in which “conditions are such that most people would either not want, or not dare, to intervene on behalf of victims, and in which most people learned to look away”. The book, in essence, is an attempt to describe how and why those conditions took root in Nazi Germany.

Early on, people practised what Fulbrook calls “passive conformity”, a kind of wait-and-see attitude as the regime began persecuting its enemies. Some did so because they feared that they or their families might otherwise suffer a similar fate, others because they broadly agreed with the Nazi agenda. Almost everybody found it easier to disengage from, rather than speak out against, what was happening.

Bystander Society: Conformity and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, Mary Fulbrook (Oxford University Press, £26.99)

This not only sustained the regime, it also upheld the distinctions between friend and enemy — “Aryans” and “non-Aryans” — that it wished to construct. Indeed, by the time a formal legal definition of who was Jewish was applied in 1935, the social behaviours of most Germans had already helped define who belonged to the “racial community” and who didn’t, thus indicating who would be persecuted and who wouldn’t. From here, as Fulbrook shows, the path to more open conformity and active complicity in violence and persecution, especially during the war, was a short one.

Many “Aryans” were genuinely appalled at what was happening and expressed solidarity with the victims. Sometimes they even offered assistance to their persecuted friends and neighbours. This was mostly done in private, however. This is arguably the book’s most forceful argument, one that is likely to resonate with readers today: private dismay at injustice meant and changed little, when not accompanied by public action.

Other arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny, for example Fulbrook’s contention that “passivity, indifference, choosing to ignore the fates of others are not historical givens” but are instead produced under specific historical conditions. History tells us that looking the other way is perhaps the closest thing we have to a historical given. Persecution and mass violence have only rarely elicited widespread public condemnation, whilst today we continually turn a blind eye to a range of injustices from poverty to discrimination. Are not all societies “bystander societies” in some way?

Nor does Fulbrook engage much with the bystanders themselves, instead mostly using victim testimonies to probe their interactions and experiences with those who were not excluded from the Nazis’ “racial community”. This, undoubtedly, offers a valuable perspective, and it tells us much about the bystanders. Their voices are mostly relayed only indirectly, when they might have added something to the account.

That said, Bystander Society is a commendable attempt to understand why people stood by and did nothing when confronted with Nazi barbarism, written by one of the greatest historians of modern Germany. It demonstrates that we still have much to learn about the period. We do, in fact, need more books about Nazism, now more than ever. Like The Weimar Years, it is also full of lessons for the present, though again it remains to be seen if we’re ready to learn them.

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