X-POST: Rich on Gellately, 'Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich'

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Robert Gellately
Ian Rich

Rich on Gellately, 'The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich'

Robert Gellately. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. 400 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-872828-3.

Reviewed by Ian Rich (Royal Holloway, University of London) Published on H-War (August, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52940

More than seventy years after the end of the Second World War, interest in the Third Reich remains high in both academic scholarship and popular culture alike and the secondary literature on the subject continues to expand accordingly. As Richard Overy stated in his own account of the Nazi dictatorship published nearly a decade ago: “No period of history has been so thoroughly explored as the Third Reich.”[1] So why do we need yet another narrative of this well-trodden part of history? New materials and documents discovered by researchers and reevaluations of more familiar evidence often open up new questions, and historical representations vary widely in interpretation. Questions remain to be definitively answered on salient issues, such as the origins and timing of the extermination of the European Jews and the extent of popular support and participation in Nazi projects. Given the enduring vigor of scholarship and such a wide variety of representations “put together” by historians and other scholars, it is perhaps not surprising that there is no “definitive” history of the Third Reich. If history can be considered as primarily “a dialogue between historians” because of the wealth of competing theories, perspectives, and approaches, the dialogue on the Third Reich as it has evolved over several decades can be overwhelming and perhaps even a little daunting to those relatively new to the topic and wanting to engage with this body of scholarship.[2] Despite the accumulated wealth of scholarship, myths and misconceptions about the Third Reich and its crimes still abound in “common knowledge” and secondary education, both of which draw heavily on popular culture. A recent survey of over eight thousand English secondary school students showed that despite having had multiple opportunities to encounter the Holocaust in the curriculum, although 70 percent identified Auschwitz as having a connection to the Holocaust, 55 percent thought that the genocide took place in Germany only.[3] A considered and accessible entry point or introduction to aspects of this vast historiography can therefore be invaluable. The main aims of this volume edited by Robert Gellately, a well-known historian on the Third Reich, are to do just that: to present an “up-to-date” and “accessible account of the era” (p. 2) in the form of a collection of essays by leading historians on diverse issues of the Third Reich and illustrated by an impressive range of visual material. This volume is one of the latest in the single-volume series Oxford Illustrated History published by Oxford University Press.

Gellately bookends the volume with an introduction and a final chapter on the decline and collapse of the Third Reich. In between are nine essays on various topics by leading historians in their respective areas of expertise. Each chapter is on a particular topic of the Third Reich, but the volume as a whole is organized to form a by now standard chronological narrative on the rise and fall of the Nazis. The early chapters examine the origins of Nazism in the post-1918 period and the grasp and consolidation of power into the mid-1930s. The middle chapters look at cultural aspects of life in the Third Reich including festivals, architecture, the arts, photography, and cinema. Peter Hayes, a leading specialist on the economic history of the Third Reich, examines Nazi economic prerogatives leading into the Second World War and during the war itself in chapter 5, and the final four chapters look at war, genocide, and defeat. The chapters examine key questions on the particular theme in focus and evaluate some of the recent historiographical trends and prominent arguments and interpretations as well as bringing each author’s own research to bear. The greatest strength of the volume lies in the high level of scholarship throughout. The chapters are generally concise and informative, and most manage to convey up-to-date scholarship in an accessible way while continuing the broader narrative. An outstanding chapter by Dieter Pohl on war and empire most successfully achieves the stated aims of the book. In chapter 8 Pohl manages to provide an introduction to key themes and a broad overview of the Second World War in Europe while covering a lot of ground in examining the political and military history of the war, the effects of the German systematic exploitation of industry and labor in the occupied territories, different responses to occupation by ordinary people in different areas, and the human cost of the war. Simultaneously, Pohl addresses historiographical issues such as the complex interactions between the occupiers and occupied as well as highlighting gaps in the literature such as the fragmentary knowledge of forced labor and the extent of sexual violence in occupied territories. Every second or third page in each chapter contains an image of some kind and overall the volume is packed with a rich variety of illustrations from an assortment of sources. The illustrations are intended to serve, as Gellately explains, as “documentary evidence” in themselves and generally serve very well in supporting the content of the adjoining text. Rarely are the images themselves placed at the center of analysis, but overall the illustrations are well chosen as supporting evidence and many are very powerfully used in this regard.[4] In addition to illustrating the text, many of the images convey emotions that are difficult to capture in writing and the chapters are richer for their presence. Prominent examples include the photograph of the laughing guards at the Lodz ghetto (p. 220) and Felix Nussbaum’s Self-portrait with Jewish Star (p. 139).

Rather than being organized around a central theme as other recent books on Nazi Germany have been, this volume contains essays on a range of topics and coherence is maintained by the approximately chronological arrangement of these essays.[5] Gellately’s claim of this volume being up-to-date scholarship loses its validity somewhat by sticking to a rather textbook and traditional chronological narrative of the Third Reich in Germany from 1918 to 1945. While the overall narrative retains the particular aspects of the Third Reich, with the notable exceptions of Omer Bartov’s chapter of the Holocaust and Pohl’s “War and Empire,” the volume contains little in the way of broader contextualization by, for example, locating Nazi ideas and practices within the history of European colonialism and twentieth-century fascism and “ethnopolitics.”[6] However, the high level of scholarship in the chapters and wealth of detail on diverse areas of research and rich illustrations make this volume a worthwhile read and particularly suitable for students, educators, and general readers of history. Overall, this volume achieves the aim of providing an up-to-date and accessible history of the Third Reich.


[1]. Richard Overy, The Third Reich: A Chronicle (New York: Quercus, 2010), i.

[2]. Dan Stone, “Excommunicating the Past? Narrativism and Rational Constructivism in the Historiography of the Holocaust,” Rethinking History 21, no. 4 (2017): 549-66; 553.

[3]. UCL Centre for Holocaust Education website, https://www.holocausteducation.org.

[4]. Sarah Farmer, “Going Visual: Holocaust Representations and Historical Method,” The American Historical Review 115, no. 1 (2010): 115-22; 116.

[5]. On social and cultural life in the Third Reich, see Lisa Pine, ed., Life and Times in Nazi Germany (London: Bloomsbury, 2016). For a reexamination of the meaning of “race” in the Third Reich see the recent collection of essays in Devin O. Pendas, Mark Roseman, and Richard F. Wetzell, eds., Beyond the Racial State. Rethinking Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[6]. Donald Bloxham, The Final Solution: A Genocide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Citation: Ian Rich. Review of Gellately, Robert, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52940

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