Book Review | Finding New Meaning in Old Narratives


The Oxford Illustrated History of The Third Reich

Robert Gellately

$39.95, hardback


Not long ago, in an antiques shop in Virginia, I found a February 1937 issue of National Geographic that featured Berlin. It portrayed a city thriving under Nazi rule, with photos of downtown streets festooned with swastika flags, a photo of Hitler’s birthday parade and an image of of tow-headed children smiling in front of swastika-draped buildings.

The article, by Douglas Chandler — who would later be imprisoned for treason after supporting the Nazi cause — spoke of a Germany in the flush of positive change. One caption read, “To develop boys and girls in body and mind and thus insure a sturdy race to defend Germany in the future, is a policy of the present government.”

It was odd to see those images in 2018 without any accompanying historical context. Now, of course, it’s impossible to see streets filled with people marching alongside swastika flags and not feel horror. But in this 1937 article, there was a relentless insistence that all was fine — and to its Nazi author, that was true.

The images in that found magazine got me thinking about the power of imagery and propoganda, and how masterfully the Third Reich wielded both to further its aims. I thought I would read more about it, but where to start? Fortunately, Oxford has just the thing.

There is plenty of information about imagery and propogranda in the capacious new volume, The Oxford Illustrated History of The Third Reich. But as with so many of the book’s considerations of already well-known history, what we think we know about propogranda under Hitler is actually a bit more complex.

As the book’s editor, Florida State University’s Robert Gellately, points out in the introduction, when it comes to the Third Reich, there is room for new interpretations.

“Since 1945,” Gellately writes, “historians keep trying to explain how it all happened.” In this comprehensive reexamination of the Nazi regime, “the authors show that our understanding of the Third Reich has evolved over the years as we unearthed new materials and documents, adopted new methods and approaches, or studied what happened from different perspectives that give new meaning to the old evidence.”

That means that a number of entrenched assumptions — whether about Hitler’s rise to power or the role of the German people in fostering the Nazi ideology —  are challenged in this book, in which specialists use historical scholarship as a basis for their own research findings.

Plentifully illustrated with propaganda images, rare photographs, paintings and drawings, The Oxford Illustrated History of The Third Reich consists of 10 chapters, each written by a different expert at the top of their field.

Israeli scholar Omer Bartov, for instance, is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University and the author of a dozen books about the Holocaust and the Third Reich. Historian Jonathan Petropoulos, who contributed the book’s section on art and architecture, was formerly director of Claremont McKenna College’s Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights and served on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets from 1998 to 2000. All of the contributors have similar bona fides.

The book spans the 12 years of the Reich, starting with the birth of the Nazi Party under the Weimar Republic to the fall of the Reich in 1945, and includes sections on elections, the economy, arts and culture, the Holocaust and the eventual collapse of the Nazi enterprise, among other topics.

Though a book with so many contributors could feel atomized by personality and approach, Gellately has ensured a degree of uniformity by asking the scholars to focus on four overarching themes: Hitler’s role; the dictatorship’s use of plebiscites and elections; Nazism’s social vision; and war and empire. This common set of concerns is layered onto entirely disparate topics, from the private photographs taken by German citizens to the growth of German armaments production. Miraculously, the book feels cohesive rather than scattered.

It is also an excellent and thoughtful resource for anyone interested in the period, whether due to a longstanding fascination or an inadvertent stumble onto an old issue of National Geographic.


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