Not long ago, in an antiques shop, I found a February 1937 issue of “National Geographic” that featured Berlin. It portrayed a city thriving under Nazi rule, with photos of streets festooned with swastika flags, Hitler’s birthday parade and children smiling in front of swastika-draped buildings.
The article, by Nazi sympathizer Douglas Chandler, 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 historical context. Fortunately, context maven Oxford University Press has just published “The Oxford Illustrated History of The Third Reich,” which puts the magazine article into broader perspective and brings plenty of new ideas to the table — despite the fact that this particular table is already quite crowded.
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 still room for new interpretations: “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 ideas — whether about Hitler’s rise to power or the role of the German people in fostering Nazi ideology — are challenged here. Illustrated by propaganda images, rare photographs, paintings and drawings, the book consists of 10 chapters, each written by a different expert.
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 contributors have similar bona fides.
The book spans the 12 years of the Reich, and includes sections on elections, the economy, arts and culture, the Holocaust and the eventual collapse of the Nazi enterprise.
Though a book with so many contributors could feel atomized by personality and approach, Gellately has ensured 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 disparate topics, from the private photographs taken by German citizens to the growth of German armaments production. 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.” JN
This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.