Still waiting in the wings

The Fourth Reich concerns of the first 15 years or so after the war were essentially rational, but in the 1960s the term became “universalised”, exaggerated, and distorted

Brendan Simms

Talk of a “Fourth Reich”, Gavriel Rosenfeld shows at the start of his intriguing new book on the subject, started long before the Third Reich had run its course. Ironically, in view of later usage, the term began life as part of a critique of the Hitler regime, because it implied the need for a new dispensation, or a return to an unsullied imperial past. The phrase was common among German and Austrian refugees of various stripes, from socialists to Habsburgists, and even among some Jews. Rosenfeld tells us that the Washington Heights area of New York in the late 1930s briefly acquired the nickname “the Fourth Reich”, on account of the many German Jews who fled there and waited for better times in their homeland.

It was only as Nazism entered its death throes in 1944, and after the war was over, that the term Fourth Reich took on its contemporary meaning, that is an aspiration to revive National Socialism, or at least German “greatness”. Here the author restores a much-need sense of contingency to the period of allied occupation and the early Federal Republic of Germany. He rescues the dreaded Werwolf and other Nazi “resistance” organisations from the condescension of history. Because we know the outcome, we are inclined to dismiss them today. But as Rosenfeld points out, they actually killed quite a lot of people and caused considerable anxiety.

His central point here is that the Fourth Reich concerns of the first 15 years or so after the war were essentially rational. There had been a Third Reich and there were still plenty of Nazis about, and abroad. Some of then, like Adolf Eichmann, spectacularly kidnapped and tried by the Israelis, were actively trying to re-establish Nazism. Bertolt Brecht’s famous warning that the “bitch” that bore Hitler was “still in heat” was well taken.

In the 1960s, Rosenfeld shows, the use of the term underwent a marked and unhelpful shift. It became “universalised”, exaggerated, and distorted. The new Nazis were those who had fallen foul of the counter-culture. Some of these targets, such as the American South and South Africa, certainly deserved censure, but not the moniker “Nazi”, and when applied to the United States as a whole, for example by the radical lawyer William Kunstler, it became meaningless.

This transformation was accompanied by a luxuriant blooming of Fourth Reich mania in fiction and film. Some of these, such as the film version of The Quiller Memorandum, the script for which was written by Harold Pinter, were very good. Others, such as the film adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant, were (despite an good cast) awful. Rosenfeld argues persuasively that as the real political threat of the Fourth Reich waned, its value as entertainment became greater. The persistent uneasiness caused by the theme, however, was highlighted when the Federal government in Bonn ensured that The Quiller Memorandum’s screening in West Germany saw all references to Nazis dropped, rendering the plot meaningless.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was another shift, which the author dubs the “re-Germanising” of the Fourth Reich discourse. This was driven by concerns about the growing economic might of the Federal Republic, and the concerns unleashed by German reunification. If serious commentators such as Conor Cruise O’Brien were writing in The Times that there would soon be statues of Hitler in every major German town, it is hardly surprising that the theme was picked up across the spectrum. Robert Harris, author of the riveting counterfactual Fatherland, set in a Third Reich in the 1960s, later remarked that he had written the novel under the impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The club of the Fourth Reich was wielded again after the start of the euro crisis, in which the peripheral economies were first crucified for their mismanagement and then caught in the mangle of German-led austerity policies. Greek protesters and cartoonists painted swastikas on images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Though Rosenfeld does not go into this, the spectre of the Fourth Reich also lurked in the background during the 2016 Brexit referendum debate, not just on the Leave side of the argument. The Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, a passionate Remainer, claimed that breaking with the EU would “hand” Germany, which had “lost” the war, the “opportunity to win the peace”.

Inevitably, the latest iteration of the theme came with the election of Donald Trump. Not long after his swearing in as President, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts crowned an attack on him with the warning that he “and other members of the Fourth Reich” should not take liberties with the Constitution. Whatever Trump’s sins, which are many, this inflationary use of the term had no interpretive value, and marked a return to the hysteria surrounding its employment in the 1960s and 1970s.

The book ends sombrely, if somewhat paradoxically. On the one hand, Rosenfeld cautions that its overuse will lower sensitivity to the danger. On the other, he issues a Brechtian warning that the concept of the Fourth Reich retains the ability to inspire Germans should they once again fall on economic hard times. This seems to me too pessimistic as far as Germany is concerned. But the author is right to warn of the twin dangers of alarmism and complacency, not least in the light of the normalisation of anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Donald Trump’s remark that some of the far-right demonstrators at Charlottesville were “very fine people”. These developments require not slogans but nuance and the careful use of terms, which makes Gavriel Rosenfeld’s thoughtful dissection of the origins and inflationary use of the term “Fourth Reich” timely and welcome.

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