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Wiley Short Histories

General Editor: Catherine Epstein

This series provides concise, lively introductions to key topics in history. Designed to encourage critical thinking and an engagement in debate, the books demonstrate the dynamic process through which history is constructed, in both popular imagination and scholarship. The volumes are written in an accessible style, offering the ideal entry point to the field.

Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths
Catherine Epstein

Postwar Europe: A Short History
Pertti Ahonen

Genocide in the Modern World: A Short History
Cathie Carmichael and Kate Ferguson

Human Rights: A Short History
Gerard Daniel Cohen

World War I: A Short History
Tammy M. Proctor

Nazi Germany

Confronting the Myths


Catherine Epstein







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To My Students
at Amherst College



Map 1.1 Germany after World War I.
Map 6.1 German Reich (1942).
Map 8.1 World War II in Europe and North Africa (1942).


Figure 2.1 Hitler practices his gestures for a speech (1925). The photo was taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s personal photographer. Source: Getty Images.
Figure 3.1 SS-Chief Heinrich Himmler (left) and SD-Chief Reinhard Heydrich view preparations for the funeral of President Paul von Hindenburg (August 1934). Source: Scherl / Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo.
Figure 4.1 This Hitler Youth poster reads “Youth serves the Führer” and “All ten-year-olds join the Hitler Youth.” Source: akg images.
Figure 4.2 Rhythmic gymnastics competition organized by Strength through Joy (June 1941). Source: Scherl / Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo.
Figure 4.3 Albert Speer’s design for “Germania.” Source: © ullstein bild / TopFoto.
Figure 5.1 Cruise organized by Strength through Joy. Source: SZ Photo / Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo.
Figure 7.1 This Nazi poster reads: “He is to blame for the war!” (1943). Source: Courtesy Library of Congress.
Figure 7.2 Child at gun point (Warsaw, 1943). This photo was included in The Stroop Report, a Nazi account of the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Source: akg images.
Figure 8.1 Ruins in Hamburg after Operation Gomorrah (July 1943). Source: Getty Images.
Figure 8.2 A British soldier uses a bulldozer to move piles of bodies (Bergen-Belsen, April 1945). Source: akg images.


Nazi Germany shocks us. Adolf Hitler was a brutal dictator. He unleashed a world war that claimed the lives of some 55 million people. His regime carried out the murder of almost six million Jews. The Nazis starved or otherwise killed three million Soviet prisoners of war. They sterilized, incarcerated, and even murdered other “undesirable” persons, including the disabled, alcoholics, homosexuals, Afro-Germans, and Roma (Gypsies).

Nazi Germany was evil, no doubt about it. But we cannot just condemn the Third Reich. We need to explain it, along with its seeming paradoxes. Despite the Nazis’ criminality, for example, most Germans viewed the Third Reich as a legitimate government. They supported Nazi policies. Millions of German soldiers even fought for the Nazis. In another seeming paradox, Hitler rarely made decisions. Yet, even though he had little interest in day-to-day governance, the Nazi regime carried out many of his wishes. Then, too, while many view Nazi Germany as a totalitarian regime, it is striking how much agency Germans had in the Third Reich. The Nazis, for example, were initially eager to have “Aryan” women stay at home to raise children. Yet, when they insisted that women work, many “Aryan” women simply evaded Nazi labor regulations. Not least, this was because Nazi Germany was under-policed, not over-policed.

This book examines the many sides of the Nazi regime. It addresses many questions that you likely have about Hitler and the Third Reich. How could Hitler come to power? How could the Nazis carry out so many crimes? Why did the Third Reich lose World War II? But the book also answers questions that you may never have thought to ask. How did Nazi ideology seep into every sphere of activity in the Third Reich? Why was the Nazi regime relatively popular? Why wasn’t the German military the war machine of Blitzkrieg lore? Why did the Nazis plan to starve much of the Eastern European population?

In my view, history is not just “one damned thing after another.” Put otherwise, it is not just a narrative of events. History makes sense only when it is framed in terms of questions and arguments. Every chapter in this book takes on myths or stereotypes about the Third Reich. By presenting material in the form of arguments against preconceived notions, I offer a set of conceptual tools through which to organize and understand the history of Nazi Germany. Busting myths, however, complicates the story of Nazi Germany. This is not a black-and-white story. Instead, the Third Reich offers many ambiguities and complexities that challenge simple, pat answers. Finally, throughout these pages, you will learn about scholars’ different and often controversial interpretations of Nazi Germany. The history of the Third Reich is not a closed book. It remains resolutely open. It demands discussion and reflection.

Why yet another book about the Third Reich? Historians and others have published reams of work on Nazi Germany. Most of us, though, don’t have the time or inclination to delve into all of them. We seek short, concise surveys of Hitler and Nazi Germany. It is true that some such works already exist. But, after many years of teaching about Nazi Germany, I am dissatisfied with current offerings. Some surveys of Nazi Germany are too expensive. Some are geared toward academics, not students. Some focus too much, others too little, on the period before 1933. Many are now somewhat dated.

In the past two decades, the study of Nazi Germany has undergone a sea change. In the past, historians wanted to know why democracy collapsed in 1933. They thus focused on how and why the Nazis came to power and consolidated their regime. Now, however, historians are more focused on race: how and why the Holocaust and other crimes unfolded in Nazi-occupied Europe. They look more to the years 1939–1945. This book reflects these changing foci. It certainly explores the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and the consolidation of the regime in the 1930s. But the longest chapters cover Nazi racial policies and the war years. They focus on the Holocaust and associated racial crimes, the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, and how and why Germany lost World War II.

I – and perhaps you – have a fascination with Hitler and the Third Reich. This history is hair-raisingly tragic. It raises profound ethical questions. Yet it also poses intriguing intellectual challenges. How can we understand this regime? What made it tick? As you read these pages, I hope that you will grapple with the arguments I present. I hope that you will confront preconceived views of the Nazi regime. Most of all, I hope that you will find the study of Nazi Germany both more disturbing and more engaging than you ever thought possible.

Citations for Quotations

xi “one damned thing…” Arnold Toynbee, arguing against historians who believe this. History News Network, (accessed January 31, 2014).