The Historian Who Was Not Baffled by the Nazis

Adolf Hitler with Eva Braun at his birthday party, April 1942
Süddeutsche Zeitung/Bridgeman Images
Adolf Hitler with Eva Braun at his birthday party, April 1942

There was a time, hard though it is now to remember it, when Germany did not pose a great problem for other nations—or at least no more of a problem than anywhere else. Long divided among principalities and regional powers such as Prussia and Bavaria, the country was unified only in the nineteenth century. But Germany at the start of the twentieth century was in many ways an ordinary country, albeit one with a strong economy and musical tradition, and thinkers of worldwide influence; there was, outside its borders, little interest in its recent history.

It took the Nazis and World War II to change that. When British political warfare specialists were looking in 1942 for a basic handbook to help their servicemen to understand the country and the philosophy they were fighting, there was nothing up to date. A.J.P. Taylor, a young don who would later become one of the first historians to appear regularly on British television, was called in to write a general introduction to Germany. What he produced was so short on information and so full of wisecracks that it was rejected by readers in British intelligence and never distributed, though that did not stop him from publishing it as soon as the war was over. The Course of German History became Taylor’s first best seller, to the horror of many professional historians. It was not his finest work. “The history of the Germans,” wrote Taylor, “is a history of extremes. It contains everything except moderation, and in the course of a thousand years the Germans have experienced everything except normality.”

Normal, abnormal: the reductive treatment of German history as a study in pathology had begun, and it has been the task of Richard Evans and his generation of historians to challenge it. Born just after World War II, Evans belongs to the cohort of scholars that came of age in the late 1960s. Too young to remember the fighting itself, they grew up amid its traces—the bomb shelters at the bottom of suburban English gardens, the Achtung and Donner und Blitzen of the cartoon German villains who populated the comic books they bought at Woolworths. Yet academia reproduces itself at a glacial rate, and although two world wars had been fought to solve the German problem, most universities did not feel the need to teach German history.

In fact, at the time Evans won a place at Oxford the field of modern German history scarcely existed. Historians concentrated on such fields as British feudalism, in which the nineteenth-century work of William Stubbs was still prominent. The man who had rejected Taylor’s wartime manuscript for British intelligence, Francis Carsten—a German-Jewish émigré who was among the first professional historians of…

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