The Third Reich Get it from
This article is based on the German edition:
Die Zeit des Nationalsozialismus.
Hardcover, S. Fischer, 2000, 1088 p.
Michael Burleigh was born in 1955. Originally a
medievalist at the University College of London and a Research Fellow at Oxford, he spent six
years as a Professor at the London School of Economics and Political
Science. In 1995, he became a Research Professor in Medieval History at
Cardiff University. Since 1999, he teaches in the United States, first as Professor
at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and since 2000 he occupies the
chair for history at Washington & Lee University in
Lexington (Virginia). Michael Burleigh has become an internationally acclaimed
expert on Nazi Germany. His former books include Germany Turns Eastwards: A
Study of "Ostforschung" in the Third Reich, Death and
Deliverance and "Euthanasia" in Germany 1900-1945.
Burleigh's interpretation of Nazi Germany in The Third Reich
is based an the notion of "political religion". Some of Hitler's
contemporaries as well as later political analysts and historians have
already used this interpretative concept. Among them are Konrad Heiden,
Eric Voegelin, Waldemar Gurian, Uriel Tal and George Mosse. Hitler becomes
the "Messiah" who guides the movement. Therefore, Burleigh
strongly opposes those analysts who interpret the Third Reich as
structural results of a social dynamic gone out of control. In a certain
contrast to Kershaw, he insists on the uniqueness of Hitler and on the
view that all important decisions were taken in Berlin. The concept of
"political religion" is his key in understanding way one of the
most advanced industrial societies in the heart of Europe morally collapsed,
why 'sections of the German elites and masses of ordinary people ''chose to abdicate their individual critical faculties in favor of
politics based on faith, hope, hatred and sentimental collective
self-regard for their own race and nation.''
Burleigh does not try to come up with a
grand new theory on Nazi Germany. He is indebted to earlier works by
Bracher, Friedlšnder and many others - and he does not hide this fact.
But he tries to deliver a more comprehensive history of the Nazi era than
anyone before him. Among the topics he treats are the utopia of "Volksgemeinschaft"
and the vision of a "new men", the politics towards the Jewish
people and the holocaust, eugenics and euthanasia, forced labor and the
industrialized mass killings in concentration camps, pogroms and police
terror, bureaucratic and scientific "rationality", collaboration
and resistance, the history of law and lawyers, generals and doctors.
However, Burleigh neglects important aspects such as the economy, domestic
and foreign policy, the conduct of war as well as the life of the
"average" man. Therefore, his account is not as comprehensive as
one might think.
The other concept used by Burleigh, besides
"political religion", is the theory of totalitarianism which
asserts a close similarity of communism and fascism, more precisely,
between the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Hannah Arendt, Raymond
Aron and Jacob Talmon are three
precursors who inspired the author. Burleigh comes to the
conclusion that, once the totalitarian regime was established, the only
possible threat to the Nazi power could have come from people close to the
center of power. This meant that the men who had helped Hitler rise to
power would have had to turn against him. Burleigh does defend the men of
July 20 (1944) who tried to assassinate Hitler and reestablish a
conservative regime. According to the author, one should not judge their
ideas with today's measures of West Germany's Fundamental Law (Grundgesetz),
the post-war constitution, because their formative years went back to the
To readers familiar with the literature on
the subject, Burleigh does not bring up much news, but he has to be
praised for his effort to write a single volume spanning from the decay of
the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany and even above (until 1948). Burleigh
is more interested in the history of ideas than in social history, and he
insists on the fact that one can not neglect the European and even global
context in which the Nazi regime was born.