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The Reich without end

How Hitler’s diehard adherents recast both Nazism and themselves at the end of the Second World War. 

No phrase more distinctly captures the millenarian yearnings ordinary Germans pinned to Hitler’s rise than the “Third Reich”. Out of the ashes of the First World War and the Great Depression, mystical German authors such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck and Dietrich Eckart promoted the notion of a “Third Reich” that would fulfil the long-delayed destiny of the German peoples. On the newly revised Christian schedule, Nazism would deliver the third instalment of a divine plan that had worked through the First Reich of God the Father and the Hebrews, and the Second Reich of Jesus and the Christians. Alternatively, in more immediate political terms, the First Reich of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne and the Second Kaiserreich secured by Bismarck had found a worthy successor in the Nazi war machine, led by Hitler.

But as Gavriel D Rosenfeld shows in his captivating book, the concept of the “Third Reich” is more strange than it at first appears. For one thing, the term itself was effectively banned by Hitler in the lead-up to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.

The reason is hard to pin down. Rosenfeld suggests that Hitler found its Christological associations unattractive and, moreover, misleading. The Führer did not want to make false promises about delivering any kind of regime associated with peace and world brotherhood when he was planning to realise it through war, conquest, extermination and sacrifice. Hitler instructed the German press to use other formulations such as the “Germanic Empire of the German Nation” (Germanisches Reich Deutscher Nation) and the “Greater German Empire” (Grossgermanisches Reich).

A more intriguing explanation for the Nazis’ retirement of the “Third Reich” was that they were already contending with a barrage of counter-propaganda about a coming “Fourth Reich” by the anti-Nazi resistance. This is where Rosenfeld’s book becomes truly revelatory, for it seems perplexing that anti-Nazis would latch on to the concept of a “Reich” at all. But this is what many German Social Democrats in exile did. The former member of the German parliament Georg Bernhard and fellow SPD intellectuals went so far as to write a “Draft of a Constitution for the Fourth Reich” that would come about after the fall of Hitler. The Fourth Reich, its constitution declared, would be dedicated to global democracy and the equality of peoples.

Rosenfeld is not clear on why members of the anti-Nazi resistance chose to revive the term “Reich”. It appears to have to do with their lack of enthusiasm for alternative political conceptions on offer, such as “nation”, which may have seemed darker and more exclusive to them. The word “Reich” is difficult to translate satisfactorily into English – words such as “realm” and “empire” don’t quite capture its range of associations with plenty and prosperity.

In German it is difficult to deny that there is some beauty in the sound of the word, though anti-Nazi activists also used it as a way to ridicule Nazi pomposity. While serving a short time in a Nazi prison in 1941, the German diarist Victor Klemperer smiled when he remembered “a very old Third Reich joke”: “Questionnaire of the Fourth Reich: ‘When were you imprisoned under the previous government? If not, why?’”

In the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in 1945, the notion of a coming “Fourth Reich” swung to the right. Among its adherents were small numbers of ardent Nazis who joined the Werewolf movement, led by Hans-Adolf Prützmann, which consisted of guerilla cells that targeted the Allies and their German collaborators during the last months of the war and the early years of the occupation. Another, better organised movement was “Deutsche Revolution”, led by the former Nazi Bernhard Gericke, and which included members such as the “Butcher of Lyon” Klaus Barbie. Its purpose was to subvert the occupation from within by gaining the trust of the Allies and rising in position until it could turn on them.

Rosenfeld is a fierce and engaging proponent of contrafactual history, which he sometimes employs to tantalising ends. But his hazarding that the Nazi guerillas had more of a chance than is commonly believed is a bit far-fetched with even the most generous re-tweaking of events. In a particularly elaborate alternative reality, Rosenfeld submits that if the Soviets or the West had managed to take all of Germany, the Nazi resistance might have been more successful. Far more former Nazis, he argues, would have been willing to fight on in guerilla actions against the Soviets, whom they had learnt to consider subhuman. Likewise, with a presumably less ruthless Allied occupation stretching across all of Germany, the Nazi resistance might have found a more pliable and conflicted enemy in US forces gearing up for an anti-Soviet Cold War.

The trouble with these suggestions is that they underestimate the capacity of both the Soviets and the Americans to placate former Nazis in the postwar years. The German Democratic Republic created an entire political party – the National-Democratic Party of Germany (NDPD) – for former mid-level Nazis to live out their retirement respectably. In West Germany, former Nazis were welcomed into some of the most important administrative posts of the new state.

If the survival of the Nazi spectre is one of Rosenfeld’s concerns, then he does not need to go scavenging alternative histories – as Rosenfeld acknowledges, it was alive and well in mainstream political parties such as the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Both parties were less Nazi rehabilitation centres than Nazi changing rooms, where the same old men got into slightly different attire and mildly toned-down their public utterances. In the new states, certain sectors were particularly Nazi-friendly, especially the German intelligence services, where the Nazi intelligence chief Reinhard Gehlen was not only recruited and promoted by the CIA, but asked to keep his entire intelligence network intact. In the following decades, former SS officers turned West German intelligence operatives were notorious for giving cover to right-wing sympathisers. To this day, the German equivalent of MI5 – the Verfassungsschutz – is often suspected of having become too close to the far-right elements in German society that it is meant to be monitoring. In the most egregious case – and raising the murky possibility of connivance – a cell of Neo-Nazis called the “National Socialist Underground” was able to commit a murderous rampage against non-white Germans for more than a decade.

The Fourth Reich provides some much-needed perspective for gauging the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), founded in 2013 and the most successful political party of the German far right since the end of the war. As Rosenfeld shows, there were several right-wing German parties in the postwar years, such as the Deutsche Reichspartei, founded in 1950, which explicitly retrieved the “Reich” concept that had been repudiated when Konrad Adenauer’s government chose to call West Germany a “Republic”. In 1949 former Nazi Otto Ernst Remer founded the Socialist Reich Party, 70 per cent of whose members were also former Nazis, and which openly declared itself the successor of the Nazi Party. Three years later it became the first party to be banned by the fledgling Federal Republic.

Out of the embers of failed parties, a new jolt for the German right came in the 1960s, when the 1968 student protests provided extra animus to right-wingers. The National Democratic Party, which still exists today, became the home for extremists who did not want to adjust their habitus in the FDP or CDU. Prominent members such as Manfred Roeder forged ties with the Ku Klux Klan in the US and led the Deutsche Aktionsgruppen of the 1980s, which targeted and killed immigrants.

While the NPD has lost pride of place to the AfD on the right of the spectrum, there has been some cross-pollination. At rallies for the AfD in the early years of the party, I found old NPD and Reichsbürgerbewegung (Reich Citizens’ Movement) conspiracy theories being aired, such as one that claims the Federal Republic of Germany is illegitimate – and worse, a secretly registered American corporation – because the treaty between West and East Germany never forged a successor to the “Constitution of the Deutsches Reich”. Nazi jurists had never formally discarded this document, better known as the “Weimar Constitution”.

The most common refrain about a German “Fourth Reich” today comes from European critics – on both the left and right – who view Germany’s use of the European Union as a kind of Reich in thin disguise. On the right, Berlusconi was early in the game of calling the European Union a “Fourth Reich”, while on the left, Syriza regularly made the claim in the run-up to taking power in Athens. The spectre of German hegemony has even provoked some on the left – such as the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben – to call for the counter-strike of a “Latin empire” to thwart German ambitions.

These attacks on Germany are not entirely unfounded. Berlin, after all, became the capital of unified Germany, not Bonn. It is even possible, as Mark Mazower and others have done, to write the history of the European Union as an origin story that begins with Hitler’s attempt to bring the continent under one regime, and that was only realised in opposition to his aims. It now seems hard to imagine that the “Reich” concept will ever recover its allure – it is still too associated with the Nazi period, and Europe is becoming too anglicised to have patience with a German principle. But for those who desire social democracy on one continent, there is still something worth learning about an idea that’s more fungible than “nation”, and which, over the centuries, has been the receptacle for dissatisfaction with contemporary political forms.

The Fourth Reich is the latest in a grand series of works that Rosenfeld has devoted to the afterlife of Nazism. But towards the end of the book he makes one small assumption that strikes me as opening up the possibility of a further volume, about the Nazi afterlife in Asia. “Germany’s popularity”, he writes, “did not last” after the financial crisis of 2008. This may be true for Europe, but it is hardly the case globally, where, especially in south and south-east Asia, Germany is regularly ranked as the favourite country.

What is disconcerting for any European traveller to Indonesia, for instance, is not merely that people equate Germany with perfection – automobiles, appliances and football – but that Nazi prowess is also admired as an example of German excellence. That there was a genocide is not particularly notable for people who have lived through one of their own, but German nationalism coupled with industrialism and the apparent bounty of its socialism draws admirers. The news-stands of Jakarta are full of magazines devoted to U-boats alone. At the Soldatenkaffee in Bandung, couples order “Nazi goreng”, below the German heraldic eagle and a wall decorated with a slogan that reads: “We are Socialists, we are enemies of the capitalist economic system…” In a country where to be on the left is still forbidden, it’s at least cool to quote to Hitler.

Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Max Planck Society, Göttingen

The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present
Gavriel D Rosenfeld
Cambridge University Press, 408pp, £22

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control