What’s Old is New Again: The Fourth Reich in History

Unmasked: Nixon as Hitler with swastika armband. Political poster, 1970s

The putative threat of the return of full-blown mid-20th-century fascism functions like a bad penny in the intellectual economy of modern Europe and North America. Indeed, as noted in Gavriel Rosenfeld’s The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, the emergence of the eponymous post-Nazi order had become a matter of discussion even before the Third Reich had properly established itself. The narrative of the second half of the last century had an important element of whiggishness, of the idea that as bad as things were, at least the bad old days of Hitlerism were behind us. Yet, in the face of the falling away of such comforting certainties, perhaps a consideration of precisely how well-founded those certainties were may be apposite.

Rosenfeld frames his project as an exercise in counterfactual history. This is the sort of thing which gives professional historians pause, even if they themselves are not rigorous in eschewing the temptation to speculate. It is difficult enough to establish what actually happened. The terrain of guesses, even very educated ones, about how things might have turned out differently if this or that actor had made different choices, or if some elements of circumstance had not come to pass tends to be slippery in the extreme.

Still, the author is correct to note the unfortunate tendency, by no means limited to laymen and amateurs, to assume that the fact that things turned out as they did implies that they must have done so. Rosenfeld sets out his stall as an investigator of how the prospects for the emergence of a Fourth Reich, whether as a revival of Nazism, or its apotheosis, or as something else entirely was viewed at the time. This differs in important ways from how it looks in hindsight, and it this respect Rosenfeld’s book offers a healthy corrective.

Recent history has painfully illustrated that no ideology is so morally bankrupt that its espousal will not be deemed advantageous to someone. Even in Germany in the 1950s, when a large proportion of the population was old enough to have seen the Third Reich first hand, survey data suggested that the view that Nazism had been a good idea, poorly executed (so to speak). Given this, and the large number of ex-Nazis (some committed but many simply fellow travelers) in Germany in the decades after the war, the concern that some sort of revival of Nazism might be on the horizon was a frequent topic of discussion.

This was particularly true after the formation of East Germany in 1949. The division of Germany along Cold War lines was itself, hardly a foregone conclusion. The Allies had, by 1943, begun to plan for the outlines of the postwar world and were in the process of pivoting toward the Soviet Union and communism as primary threats. The German Democratic Republic, engineered by German communists rather against Stalin’s wishes (his preferred situation was Germany whole and neutral) took as its defining narrative the opposition to fascism, and its representatives were always ready to see its return as an immanent prospect in the Federal Republic.

As Rosenfeld shows, this alarm was also to be found in Germany’s neighbors, and even in the United States and Great Britain, although both were a greater remove from the problem. After the end of the war, and the brief period of guerilla resistance (the so-called “Werewolves”), West Germany mostly settled into a process of reintegrating with its European neighbors, joining NATO in 1955 and beginning the process of rearmament at that time. This, and the takeoff of the so-called “economic miracle” after 1950, provided good reasons to believe that Germany was well on its way to returning to the comity of civilized nations.

But the 1950s did see a number of disturbing signs, including the rise of parties such as the Deutsche Reichspartei, Sozialistische Reichspartei, and the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschland that attracted and gave voice to former Nazis. There were also machinations of a more sinister kind, such as the conspiracy hatched by the former Reich Propaganda Ministry official Werner Naumann.

All of this amounted to very little in the end. Naumann and his collaborators were rolled up by the British in January 1953. While the SRP and some of the other groupings to manage some electoral success, this was mostly of a transient kind, and eventually, the devotees of these parties either abandoned politics or found their way into the more mainstream grouping of the German center-right such as the FDP. By the early 1960s, liberal democracy was well enough established in the Federal Republic that the state was able to stage homegrown trials of functionaries from Auschwitz with undue concern for the stability of the system.

Rosenfeld does ask a number of intriguing questions about how things might have gone in other circumstances, for instance, if Adenauer had fallen from power or if the Korean War (and the attendant economic boom) had somehow been averted. Neither of these was as far outside the realm of possibility as they seem today. Likewise, one might ask (as the author does) how Germany might have been changed if Kurt Schumacher, the one-armed former concentration camp inmate who lead the SPD in the first years after the war, had been elected chancellor.

It seems unlikely that the far right would have been able to consolidate power, even in political circumstances changed in the ways that Rosenfeld describes. Germans were tired of war, having been prostrate before Allied airpower for the best part of two years and having been subjected to the depredations of invasion by the Red Army. Adenauer’s policy of Westbindung seemed to most to present the best means of avoiding a recurrence of the horrific years at the end of the war, and the presence of a communist state in the eastern third of the Reich’s former territory accentuated this.

By the mid-1950s many former Nazis had secure positions. Some, like Hans Globke, whose legal interpretations had been instrumental in the application the notorious 1935 Nuremberg Laws, had managed to resume careers in government bureaucracy. This did much to knock the hard edges off of many of their more radical political views.

Interestingly, although on several occasions Rosenfeld does mention the influence of the experience of rebuilding the German state on those engaged in rebuilding Iraq, he does not point to the role of firing all of the Ba’ath party officials in fomenting the subsequent insurgency. Indeed, it was precisely because the element of German history was lost on the people in charge of the US occupation of Iraq that unfortunate consequence arose the could (speaking counterfactually) probably have been avoided simply by giving the former Ba’athist secure employment.

In any case, Rosenfeld does provide a thorough and stimulating narrative of the conceptual transformation of the Fourth Reich and its changing place in the public sphere in subsequent decades. The Fourth Reich had power, it gets people’s attention. There was a power to movies like The Odessa File (1974) and The Boys from Brazil (1978) stemming from the fact that National Socialism was still felt to exist as a possibility, however remote.

The Fourth Reich is a book that is interesting at multiple levels. It provides a compelling and well-researched historical account, one that calls upon the reader to think about history from a different angle than people are generally wont to do. But it is also a timely book. Few topics more thoroughly exercise the public mind these days than the question of whether, or to what degree, we are headed for a repeat of Nazism. The author has given readers a tool to better understand and historicize their concerns. In this, as in most political questions, greater clarity is always a useful thing.

Photograph courtesy of   Penn State Special Collections Library. Published under a Creative Commons license.