Fritzsche, Peter. Life and Death in the Third Reich. Cambridge, Massachusettes, London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008. pp. 307.
In Germany from 1933 to 1945 there existed a political and military element known as the Nazi party. This militant political organization would grow into an expansive and powerful empire self-titled the “Third Reich.” This empire growing out of central Europe and spreading to the European channel is often remembered as an empire of destruction, xenophobia, and chaos. The goals and directions of the once small political party were never made secret and were flaunted openly. This begs the question, “Why would one become a Nazi?” Often than not, the Nazis are separated as a group that was ruling Germany tyrannically. American propaganda in the 1940’s was implying the same idea of Nazi control of German peoples. It is this embellishing of German victim fantasy that Peter Fritzsche wants to address in his book Life and Death in the Third Reich.
The organization of Fritzsche’s book is divided both chronologically and ideologically into four chapters with an introduction. Each chapter advances the story in time while also representing a different approach, rationale, or justification of Nazi actions in relationship with the German people. The book opens with the explanation of German victimhood as heavily propagated by the book Death in Poland. The book continues beyond this point into the Nazi rise of power and a summary of chapter contents. This allows the reader to keep the general idea of each chapter so as to not be lost in continuous first-hand accounts. The book ends without a clear separate conclusion, but with ending remarks attached to the last chapter which covers the end of the war and a period of historical reconciliation. By arranging the book in this manner, Fritzsche is able to follow a familiar narrative of history chronologically while representing a steady stream of arguments as the Reich progresses.
This process allows Fritzsche to answer a self-imposed question of, “To what extent did Germans become Nazis in the years 1933-1945, and what efforts did they make?” That is not to say that all Germans were Nazis or that the Nazis’ tyrannical reign was one completely of control. German and Nazi relations, as it exists in these pages, was a much more complex concept in which the author contends that the former had a much more active role. This is justified by Fritzsche as the result of new studies outlining the legitimacy of the people’s community or volksgemeinschaft. The author uses primary accounts of soldier, common citizens, Jews, and others that allow Fritzsche to pursue his final aim of analyzing what ordinary Germans knew and their comprehension of Nazi atrocities. The four main parts of the book, allow the author to categorize his analyzation around the premises of: Reviving the Nation; Racial Grooming; Empire of Destruction; and Intimate Knowledge. Each part contains different approaches to Fritzsche’s argument.
“Reviving the Nation” is centered on the Volksgemeinschaft or people’s community. To do this Fritzsche has separated the chapter into five parts: Heil Hitler; How Far Did Germans Support the Nazis; Volksgemeinschaft, or the People’s Community; Consuming the Nation; and Unter Uns, or Nazism’s Audiovisual Space. Each subsection reveals new elements of how the German population gradually began to conform to Nazi ideals as a sense of community. Fritzsche points out that through the use of the “Stab in the Back Myth,” and Audio/visual outlets, the Nazi’s were able to propagate this new notion of a strong German state. The German people are said to conform to this notion. This is supremely argued in “Heil Hitler” where so much of the German population is using this greeting “Heil Hitler” on a regular basis. Of course, as Fritzsche points out, this formal German greeting loses its appeal rapidly in some areas of the Reich and begins to become unordinary.
Chapter two entitled “Racial Grooming,” explores Nazi strives to improve upon the volksgemeinschaft by making it racially pure. This chapter is divided into six parts entitled: Aryan Passports; Biology and the National Revolution; Seeing like an Aryan; The Camp; Unworthy Life; and The Assault on German Jews. Fritzsche argues that the idea of strengthening the volkgemeinschaft through racial purity would instill a sense community with a common race. Through the use of school propaganda and community camps the Nazis were able to racially purify the volksgemeinschaft, in which Fritzsche argues that many Germans bought into the anti-Semitism.
“Empire of Destruction” differs from the first two chapters in that it focuses on the Nazis attempt of expansion of the volksgemeinschaft and the third reich through war. Separated into the subheadings of: Writing Letters; The Imperial Project; The Expansion of the German Empire; Final Solutions to the “Jewish Problem;” The Deportation of German Jews; and the Holocaust, Fritzsche shows the new German occupation of conquered territories and also the development of the Holocaust. To improve upon his point the author points to letters from the soldiers deployed in foreign nations. An interesting aspect also pointed out is the way that these letters confirmed the efforts of Nazi propaganda at home. This works in favor of the authors arguments towards the volksgemeinschaft and all its atrocities included. The author does fail to mention Nazi censorship of mail which hinders his analyzation.
The final chapter entitled “Intimate Knowledge,” is centered on the idea of remembrance. After war and political struggle that lasted over a decade Germans and Jews had to consider how to comprehend, interpret, and remember these events. This chapter goes into some length also to examine how the German fear of losing the war was intertwined with their fear of cultural collapse. The chapter separates itself into six subheadings to explain this in depth: Train Station; Jewish Witnesses; German Witnesses; Perpetrators and Victims; Imagining the End of the War; and Reading Catastrophe. This chapter goes into great length as well to address the notion of reconciliation that the Germans assumed at the end of the war. Fritzsche argues that these are explanations of Nazism. Assuming the victim role, the Germans defended their Nazi crimes by stating they were also Nazi victims. This chapter includes a small conclusion to some of the other arguments of the book, although it is not presented in great detail.
The complexity of German history in the timeframe of 1933 to 1945 is translucent and often hard to comprehend. Its many layers of divisional and cultural differences even in the face of an imposed people’s community only add to delude this understanding even more. Peter Fritzsche goes in depth to explain or provide new theory in the hopes simplifying this portion of history. In this matter, Fritzsche succeeds. The author presents primary material that alters the perspective and provides new scholarship for this era. He does not state that the Germans were victims, but that they had an active, voluntary role in the misconduct of Nazi Germany. Although Fritzsche does provide ample material to make this suggestion, his efforts to solidify his arguments are often inadequate. The author often presents one or two person’s first-hand account without providing numerous other sources to reinforce this stance. In this manner he reveals the ideology of one person and not the bulk of the German populous. What could be the big weakness of the book is its lack of a conclusion to round up all points and perhaps provide reinforcement for his arguments. To his defense, Fritzsche does realize this complexity is not so easily explained even by him in his final comments, “Part of the knowledge about life and death in the Third Reich is the lasting incompleteness of explanation.” (307)