In Dr. Strangelove, on his mission to end the world as we know it, USAF Major “King” Kong has some has some final words of sympathy for his crew: “Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human beings if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelings about nuclear combat.” Indeed, yes, indeed. It seems much the same with any writing about Nazi Germany. Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans’ trilogy on the coming, consolidation and destruction of Hitler’s regime has just reached its culmination with the newly published final volume, The Third Reich At War (Penguin). What strikes me when reading them all at once is how staggeringly complete they are—there must be some aspect of German society or some twist along the road to the utter destruction of Europe that Evans missed, but whatever it is isn’t immediately evident. A close second, though, is how well that old-fashioned but apt adjective, “magisterial,” applies: the trilogy is even-handed, authoritative and convincing, a judicious mixture of detail and sweep, the antithesis of hysterical.
That also seems to have been the opinion of about half of the reader comments posted on the Web, mostly (so far) about the first two volumes. The other half, however takes Evans severely to task about his pontificating and his moralizing, some of them to such extent they seem to be commenting on books entirely different from those I read. If anything, I thought, Evans must necessarily have restrained himself during his relatively matter-of-fact descriptions of not just some of the worst atrocities in human history, but the open and applauded demands for that very barbarism.
So what’s a poor historian to do? It might be possible to write a pontificating- and moralizing-free historical account of, say, Canada’s free trade election of 1988, though given popular opinions of Brian Mulroney, I’d certainly be surprised if someone actually accomplished it. And that’s a historical episode that killed exactly no one. The rise and fall of the Third Reich is orders of magnitude away from something like that; is it conceivable, picking one from among countless subjects, to write of the … uh … the uh, “involuntary euthanasia‚” (yeah, that’s it) of the mentally ill and other “life unworthy of life” without using the word “murder,” (given that it was criminal as well as immoral) or at the least more quotation marks than anyone would want to read?
Probably more germane to Evans’ language and his “judgmentalism,” is one of his primary aims: to show there was nothing inevitable to Hitler’s triumph (however much there was to his fall after he overreached himself). To do that the historian needs to demonstrate the failures, moral as well as practical, of Hitler’s opponents. And that he does, fairly and brilliantly.