Narrative helps us understand Germany in the 1930s (Richard J. Evans, 2004)

In his first work in a trilogy about Nazi Germany, Richard J. Evans discusses the role of narrative in the writing of the history of Germany in the 1930s.

Peter Burke, in History and Social Theory, Second Edition (2005), notes that narrative has regained prestige as a way of understanding the world.

In the preface to The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), Evans explains why he has focused on narrative for his study of Nazi Germany prior to the Second World War.

He remarks, in this regard (p. xix), that “Narrative history fell out of fashion for many years in the 1970s and 1980s, as historians everywhere focused on analytical approaches derived mainly from the social sciences.”

He adds that “a variety of recent, large-scale narrative histories have shown that [narrative history] can be done without sacrificing analytical rigour or explanatory power.”

He further adds that in the 1970s and 1980s, German historians avoided a focus on individual personalities associated with Nazi Germany; “under the influence of modern social history, they were interested above all in broader structures and processes.”

Evans concludes, in the preface to The Coming of the Third Reich (2003):

  • The work this generated immeasurably advanced our understanding of Nazi Germany. But real human beings almost disappeared from view in the quest for intellectual understanding. So one of the purposes of the present work has been to put individuals back into the picture; and all the way through I have tried to quote as much as possible from the writings and speeches of contemporaries, and to juxtapose the broader narrative and analytical sweep of the book with the stories of the real men and women, from the top of the regime down to the ordinary citizen, who were caught up in the drama of events.


Europe in the 1920s and 1930s

In The Coming of the Third Reich (2004), Evans outlines (pp. 443-444) some of the events occurring across Europe during the time span covered by the rise of Nazi Germany:

  • In many countries in the 1920s and 1930s, democracies were being replaced by dictatorships. What happened in Germany in 1933 did not seem so exceptional in the light of what had already happened in countries such as Italy, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Portugal, Yugoslavia or indeed in a rather different way in the Soviet Union. Democracy was soon to be destroyed in other countries, too, such as Austria and Spain. In such countries, political violence, rioting and assassination had been common at various periods since the end of the First World War; in Austria, for instance, serious disturbances in Vienna has culminated in the burning down of the Palace of Justice in 1927; in Yugoslavia, Macedonian assassination squads were causing havoc in the political world; in Poland, a major war with the nascent Soviet Union had crippled the political system and the economy and opened the way to the military dictatorship of General Pilsudski. Everywhere, too, the authoritarian right shared most if not all of the antisemitic beliefs and conspiracy theories that animated the Nazis.

[End of excerpt]

Events in Germany had the potential to have worldwide significance

Having established the above-noted frame of reference, Evans explains that the events that occurred on January 30, 1933 in Germany were nonetheless “more serious by far than the consequences of the collapse of democracy elsewhere in Europe.”

He outlines the situation as follows (pp. 444-445):

  • Nationalist dreams of territorial aggrandisement and conquest were present in other authoritarian regimes like Poland and Hungary as well. But these, if realized, were only likely to be of regional significance. What happened in Germany was likely to have a far wider impact than what happened in a small country like Austria, or an impoverished land like Poland. Its significance, given Germany’s size and power, had the potential to be worldwide. That is why the events of the first six and a half months of 1933 were so momentous.


The other books in the trilogy are The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939 (2005) and The Third Reich at War, 1939-1945 (2008).

Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century (1998)

Evans is also author of Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century (1998). A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

  • Through the means of four powerful and extraordinary narratives from the 19th-century German underworld, this book deftly explores an intriguing array of questions about criminality, punishment, and social exclusion in modern German history. Drawing on legal documents and police files, historian Richard Evans dramatizes the case histories of four alleged felons to shed light on German penal policy of the time.

[End of excerpt]

The concept of an underworld is of relevance with regard to film noir.


A Dec. 16, 2014 Foreign Policy article is entitled: “Europe’s New Problem With Anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism isn’t just a problem for Europe’s Jews. It’s a problem for Europe.”

Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History (1995) is a useful resource.

An April 6, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “The System: Two new histories show how the Nazi concentration camps worked.”

An April 22, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Oskar Groening, former Auschwitz guard, describes camp in chilling detail at trial.”

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

A May 7, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘Forbidden Films’ Exhumes Nazi Poison From the Movie Vaults.”

The opening paragraphs read:

“The Third Reich was not only a totalitarian state but also a total multimedia regime. Seven decades after its fiery collapse, the embers remain — including some 1,200 feature films produced under Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Are they historical evidence, incitements to murder, fascist pornography, evergreen entertainments, toxic waste or passé kitsch? All of the above?

“Those questions are raised by ‘Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film,’ a documentary essay by the German filmmaker Felix Moeller, opening May 13 at Film Forum for a weeklong, free-admission run.

“Mr. Moeller, born 20 years after Germany’s defeat, is concerned about what he sees as youthful disinterest in the Nazi period and the concurrent rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe. He arrived at “Forbidden Films,” he said by telephone from Berlin, after making ‘Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,’ a documentary about the family legacy of Nazi Germany’s most celebrated director, Veit Harlan. Harlan’s most notorious film, “Jew Süss” (1940) — a period melodrama in which a Jewish moneylender connives to take control of the duchy of Württemberg — is as incontrovertibly anti-Semitic as it was enormously popular.”

[End of excerpt]

A Feb. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘My family resisted the Nazis’: why director had to film Alone in Berlin.”

An Aug. 15, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary: ‘No one believes me now, but I knew nothing’: Brunhilde Pomsel worked at the heart of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. As a film about her life is released, she discusses her lack of remorse and the private side of her monstrous boss.”

Topics of related interest are discussed at a post entitled:

Empathy is great provided that we use it wisely

A May 31, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Top 10 books about Weimar and Nazi Berlin: From Hans Fallada to Vladimir Nabokov, a novelist recommends fiction from a city moving through its darkest years.”


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