The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich

The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich

Robert Gellately, ed.

Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2018, 400 pages

Book Review published on: March 23, 2018

The Third Reich continues to be a source of fascination for scholars and historians; there is no shortage of excellent scholarship on this most heavily scrutinized of topics. From William Shirer’s seminal study in 1960 to Richard Evans’s more recent (2003-2008), excellent trilogy—both works cover the ascent, as well as the decline of the Reich—the subject continues to generate great interest for specialists and general readers alike. Thomas Childers’s The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany 2017 book has been released to positive acclaim in this regard as well.

In 2018, Oxford University Press will publish The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich, a concise, lavishly illustrated, and highly useful new work that puts a new perspective on an “old” topic. Not a continuous narrative, but a compendium of articles by nine different authors, it represents the most recent scholarship on Nazi Germany. Each of the chapters is of uniform length and construction. The authors, representing a mix of North American and European scholars, provide a very useful synopsis of each of their subject areas including past historical approaches as well as recent patterns in research and perspective.

Editor Robert Gellately does a masterful job with the “bookends.” He writes an effective introduction, which sets the context for the subsequent articles, and provides the final chapter as well, which describes the Third Reich’s descent into oblivion. In between are well-structured and concise chapters covering a wide range of topics, arranged chronologically and thematically. The first three deftly portray the political realm, including the shortcomings and demise of the Weimar Republic, Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power at the head of the National Socialist German Workers Party, and the Nazis’ use of political tools (such as elections and ceremonies) to consolidate their gains once in power. Chapters 4 and 5 examine the National Socialist approach to culture; the former deals with architecture and the arts while the latter examines cinema and still photography. Both articles make excellent use of illustrations (as does the entire book), which serve to enhance the reader’s understanding of the Nazi aesthetic in culture and the arts.

The Oxford History then turns to the economic issues in chapter 6, followed by a compelling survey of the Holocaust in chapter 7. The authors deftly intertwine their material so that readers can readily discern patterns of continuity. Military and societal matters are the subject of the next two chapters, which examine Hitler’s conduct of the war—both on a global as well as regional scale—and its devastating impact on the home front. Gellately’s final chapter provides an effective end, evoking themes from all previous authors. Together, the sections comprise a nuanced portrait of the Third Reich across key domains, providing the reader with a concise yet holistic view.

Readers of The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich will appreciate its clarity, conciseness, and depth of scholarship. There is also value in its review of the literature and identification of new approaches in scholarship, particularly from a young generation of historians with fresh perspectives. Obviously, the illustrations add much to the book as well, but this is not a “pictorial history” that could be taken lightly. The illustrations embellish the excellent scholarship but do not “drive” the book. A final strength is the stand-alone nature of the articles; each serves as a highly readable survey of its topic—the chapters on the Holocaust, the economy of the Third Reich, architecture, and the visual arts come to mind in this regard.

The book is not without its shortcomings, however, some of which are perhaps imposed by the format of this work. The authors use mostly secondary sources; thus, there are no startling discoveries but rather nuanced interpretations and new approaches—which are valuable in their own right. There is also a minor issue with repetition. When one reads the chapters back-to-back, there is some noticeable ground covered by multiple authors. This is perhaps most evident in descriptions of the Third Reich’s treatment of the Jews and other populations deemed undesirable by the Nazis, primarily in the final four chapters of the book.

Nonetheless, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich serves as an excellent introduction to Nazi Germany for the general reader or new scholar. The book is perhaps most suitable for survey courses dealing with European or modern German history at the upper undergraduate or graduate level. Anyone reading the book will benefit from its scholarship, quality prose, and breadth of topics. It is certainly a worthy entry in the Oxford history series and makes a key contribution to our understanding of this critical subject.

Book Review written by: Mark Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia