‘Why would anyone write a historical study of it?’ asks Gavriel Rosenfeld about the Fourth Reich at the start of this rather confusing, but at times entertaining, book. His answer is that the phrase has been used as a metaphor since the earliest days of the Third Reich to mean a wide variety of things. It has permeated politics and culture, and seems to be a term susceptible to any meaning a writer or speaker wishes to impose upon it.
Some of us — and I plead guilty to this — have used the term simply to describe the present German state in its reunified, Europe-dominating form. While of course such usage is a bit of a tease, it also seems to be a matter of fact. As Professor Rosenfeld reminds us, ‘Reich’ in German means ‘realm’ or, as we would probably say today, ‘polity’. And so since the two fractured pieces of Germandom were put back together in 1990, what we have the other side of Holland is the Fourth Reich. To have a Reich you don’t have to have genocide, concentration camps or monocled, Iron Cross-wearing Obersts uttering ‘for you, Tommy, ze var iss over’. It doesn’t matter that there is a lack of continuity between Frau Merkel’s unproclaimed Reich and the Third; whenever a Reich ends, it takes a period of re-grouping before another can come along. There was a much shorter gap between 1945 and 1990 than between 1806 and 1871, the distance between the First and Second Reichs; and there were 15 years between the Second and the Third.
Rosenfeld never quite nails why the word Reich is so poisonous and causes such a frisson: but perhaps he feels the toxicity of the term is so self-evident that he hardly needs to. The problem lies not just in its association with the Nazis but with the fact that a Reich goes hand in hand with empire-building, and often beyond the German-speaking peoples; first Charlemagne taking over Mitteleuropa, then more than 1,000 years later Wilhelm I uniting Germany and, with it, a couple of portions of France; and of course Hitler and his territorial demands. Those days have gone.
Or have they? Rosenfeld quotes a book by a German émigré journalist, T.H. Tetens, written in 1953, who smelt a ‘plan to create a unified Europe, dominated by Germany’ that ‘dated back to the Nazi era’, built on the realization that if, post-1945, all European countries gave up their sovereignty, Germany would ‘automatically gain equality, and the stigma would be removed from the Fatherland’. We have a unified Europe now, dominated by Germany, based on a joint surrender of sovereignty, but we all know who calls the tune and pays the bills. Well done to Tetens for spotting it so early. There has been no need to send in cavalry or Panzers to make this latest conquest; diplomacy, and the ease with which so many European countries have accepted a loss of democratic power, have done it for them.
However, ‘Fourth Reich’ has not always been a term of abuse. Those who resisted the Nazis used it from the mid-1930s onwards to describe a Germany in which the gangsterism, brutality and loss of liberty that went with the Third Reich would be erased and replaced by broad, sunlit uplands. However, once Hitler and his Reich evaporated, the term took on a less beneficent meaning.
Rosenfeld catalogues the attempts immediately after the war, before the establishment of a social democratic West Germany, of unrepentant Nazis to undermine the victors’ occupation. These were mainly ex-Hitler Youth members — ‘Werewolves’ — who could not overcome their fanaticism. One or two older and more powerful former Nazis started to throw their weight around in the 1950s, and found their attempts to establish a new movement thwarted by the intervention of the occupying powers, especially the British.
Nonetheless, it gave newspapers around the world the chance to trumpet how a ‘Fourth Reich’ had been strangled at birth. They were not handicapped by the alarming number of people who had held senior appointments in the Third Reich managing to move seamlessly into the social structure of the new, enlightened West Germany. In the early years of the state, 80 per cent of the country’s judges were former Nazis; two thirds of the Federal Criminal Police were ex-SS, and the foreign service was packed with ex-Nazis.
The Fourth Reich metaphor proved too good to resist. In the America of the civil rights movement, protestors claimed that a Fourth Reich was being established in the United States. Many people were only too delighted to believe it, including rampant anti-Semites of the sort now familiar from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. And — as Rosenfeld details in by far the best part of his book — the ease with which ‘Fourth Reich’ summoned up the specter of unspeakable horror was a gift to thriller writers, film producers and television scriptwriters. Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth and countless others of that genre are mentioned and analyzed, as are such cultural megaliths as The Man from U.N.C.L.E and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.
None of this, though, is very profound: and if this is not a historical study then it must be a psychological one, about the relish with which readers and viewers lap up stories about the Nazi nightmare returning. What was, and for elderly survivors still remains, an appalling horror story now serves a dual purpose as a fictional one, dealing with the pornography of fear and violence. Considering how twisted and perverted so many echt Nazis were, one can only imagine they would be delighted by that. Given the present situation, Rosenfeld might have been better occupied looking in great detail at the rise of neo-Nazi and other ‘right-wing’ (a label he uses as a term of abuse) groups around Europe, and wonder where all that is leading us.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.