Monday, June 27, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: The Third Reich Trilogy by Richard J. Evans

A few weeks ago, I found myself fascinated with pre-war Germany under the Nazis after reading In the Garden of Beasts. As I indicated in my review, I was so fascinated that I began reading William L. Shirer's monumental work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Unfortunately, as I researched books on the subject, it became apparent that in the 50 years since Shirer wrote the book, a tremendous amount of information, documents, journals, etc. had come to light thus dating the book somewhat. After some research (mostly on Amazon) I decided to read a trilogy of books by Richard J. Evans composing what eventually became The Third Reich Trilogy.
Each book covered approximately six years' time. Evans skillfully condenses a massive amount of information in each volume into very cleverly organized chapters. What he does is move chronologically, but in places he backs up and covers the same time period from different angles. For example, in the second volume he covers the rise of Hitler by in one chapter dealing with the Nazi domination of the art world, in another the Nazi suppression of "Jewish science," in another the emergence of concentration camps. All of these events took place in roughly the same time period, but Evans carefully gives each subject the necessary amount of attention before moving onto the next.

Since I am no historian, what I want to do is focus on what struck me most profoundly about the books and what I found most helpful about them. In the first place, I found the first book helpful in grasping how it is, exactly, that an entire nation could come to despise a race of people so much as the Germans grew to hate the Jews. It is one thing to label the Nazis as monsters and racists and to leave it at that. It is another thing to see the horrible state which World War I left the Weimar Republic in following the Treaty of Versailles. This environment created a nostalgic vacuum and a peoples' desire for a once great Germany to rise again - a sentiment which Hitler seized upon. Once you come to understand (not sympathize with, but understand) how a human being can do the things which Hitler and the complicit Germans did, you can see that such evil is within all of our hearts.

Another issue which screamed at me from the pages of the first two books was one of Nationalism. Many Americans think that patriotism is a virtue, but I often thought as I read this book about what a disastrous thing it is when the church and state, especially, are brought together under the same banner. I read about church services where the German national anthem was sung and the Hitler salute was given, and your average American reader thinks, "How dare them; what a bunch of monsters." And yet, MANY churches I have been in actually sing the national anthem and even recite the pledge of allegiance while saluting the American flag during our church services. Almost every church I have ever been to has at least one American flag hanging in the sanctuary behind the pastor. I have been to church services where you could change the flags and a few lyrics and things wouldn't be that different from the nationalism of Nazi Germany. I don't intend these to be sensationalistic statements, but rather an observation that we as Americans have blind spots in this area. Even though the nations might be politically different, grassroots nationalism is still nationalism, regardless the flag or the song.

In this same vein regarding Germany's domination of the national church, one section especially distressed me. I quote Evans:
Sz’lasi lost no time in passing new laws reconstructing the state along fascist-style, corporate lines. His men began murdering surviving Jews across Budapest, assisted in some cases by Catholic priests, one of whom, Father Kun, got into the habit of shouting ‘In the name of Christ, fire!’ as the Arrow Cross paramilitaries levelled their guns at their Jewish victims.
This reminded me, more recently, of James Jordan's statement regarding how Osama Bin Laden ought to have been killed:
Now, I have to say that I’m not happy with how Osama was killed. The Bible is fairly clear about this. If we look at the examples in Judges and how Samuel dealt with Agag, it is likely that Osama should have been captured, brought to Washington, and then stood up in front of the President. The President should have then said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, it is my privilege and joy as a minister of vengeance (Romans 13) to avenge my people.” After all, serving as God’s avenger is surely a privilege and a joy, for serving in any calling is a privilege and joy. Then the President should have pulled out a .44 Magnum, which as you may know is the world’s most powerful handgun, and blown Osama’s head off.
The priest who screamed, "In the name of Christ, fire!" was executing enemies of the state, just like Jordan thinks President Obama ought to have done. In my mind, these sorts of bizarre scenarios are possible conclusions of theonomistic misapplications of the Old Testament. A healthy view of the separation of church and state means that you will never have a priest executing enemies of the state in the name of God.

So as I read this book, one thing I asked myself was, how does the Church of Jesus Christ exist in an environment like the one which Hitler created? The emergence of the Confessing Church in contrast to the compromised State Church strikes me as being a very consistent Two Kingdoms response to Nazism. Whereas the state church ceded its responsibility to be distinct from the state and came under the rule of the Fuhrer, the Confessing church stood up and said, "Christ's kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and is not to be ruled by the King or the Fuhrer or the Reichstag but only by the word of God." The Confessing Church was a small bright spot in this book, though it was only a small part of what was happening in Germany. It is mistaken to think that 2K says that the Church can say nothing to the state. The Church can at least say, "stop walking on Christ's lawn." And that is precisely what the Confessing Church did. I'm grateful that Evans spent some time discussing this (though he did no theological reflection, which is probably for the better).

In the end, these books filled a gaping blind spot for me. As a selfish American, I always thought that World War II started on D-Day. The nuanced and richly painted picture of what happened between 1927 and 1945 which these books offered me is irreplaceable. Given the wide canvas presented by these far-reaching books, I used them to help me reflect on two pet issues of church/state and 2k which are both closely related. I do highly recommend these books for those who need to better grasp what happened in Germany, overall.

The books do offer a small glimpse of what Christ's church looked like in hostile (i.e. Nazi, Babylonian, American, etc.) exile, although admittedly the Confessing Church gets only handful of pages at best. This isn't really a book about the church, although you see the ugly and the beautiful here from people who are supposed to be Christians. I think that Evans sums up the things a study of Nazism addresses most powerfully in his conclusion of The Third Reich at War.
The Third Reich raises in the most acute form the possibilities and consequences of the human hatred and destructiveness that exist, even if only in a small way, within all of us. It demonstrates with terrible clarity the ultimate potential consequences of racism, militarism and authoritarianism. It shows what can happen if some people are treated as less human than others. It poses in the most extreme possible form the moral dilemmas we all face at one time or another in our lives, of conformity or resistance, action or inaction in the particular situations with which we are confronted. That is why the Third Reich will not go away, but continues to command the attention of thinking people throughout the world long after it has passed into history.

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