The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
In this fascinating and original account, Gavriel Rosenfeld sets himself the difficult task of writing the history of something that never existed—the Fourth Reich that would have followed Hitler's Third Reich. Even though a Fourth Reich was never created, the idea of it emerged during the Nazi dictatorship and survived its collapse, evolving and gaining traction throughout the postwar era, both in the two Germanies and also the larger West. Rosenfeld examines the idea's origins and evolution in the discourse of intellectuals, politicians, and artists and by doing so forces us to reconsider long-accepted truths about West Germany's "success story" and the dynamics of West Germany's Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The specter of a Fourth Reich was taken seriously by postwar contemporaries, as Rosenfeld convincingly shows, and efforts to realize it might have succeeded had circumstances been slightly different, as he plausibly argues. The result of such careful historical analysis and sensible counterfactual interpretation is a persuasive illumination of the complexity of the postwar era in western Germany, highlighting the fragility and contingent nature of many of the political, social, and cultural developments that eventually resulted in a democratic West German state and society. At the same time, the discourse on the Fourth Reich was an important part of the early West German confrontations with the Nazi past and later, as the idea became aestheticized and universalized, became a significant element of global trends in remembrance.
In the first part of the book, Rosenfeld chronicles the emergence of the idea of the Fourth Reich within Nazi Germany—as a reaction to the Nazi dictatorship—and its evolution over the course of the Federal Republic of Germany's first decade. [End Page 195] It was the anti-Nazi resistance, according to Rosenfeld, that first began using the term, consciously building upon various historical precedents. For German émigrés such as Prince Hubertus zu Loewenstein or right-wing anti-Nazis like Otto Strasser, thoughts about a Fourth Reich were a useful vehicle to criticize the current state and to imagine an ideal society that, they hoped, would eventually follow Nazism's collapse. But it was not just Germans who were talking about a Fourth Reich; following the outbreak of World War II, American and British intellectuals and policy makers, for example, began to use the term as they considered a potential postwar era. As the war neared its end, however, the idea of a Fourth Reich shifted, in the mind of the Allies, from a mutable progressive vision of the post-Nazi world to, increasingly, the specter of a resurrected Nazi state. And such fears were not at all unreasonable or unfounded, Rosenfeld argues, although scholars in past decades have either ignored manifestations of resurgent Nazism in the early Federal Republic or dismissed them as insignificant given that they didn't succeed, Rosenfeld examines episodes such as the Werewolf movement and the suppression of the "Deutsche Revolution" to argue that the possibility of serious attempts to reestablish a Nazi state in the form of a Fourth Reich was significantly more realistic than we acknowledge today. That men such as Artur Axmann or Klaus Barbie failed to resurrect some kind of Nazi state was, the author argues, thanks largely to Allied interventions that suppressed the threats and enabled a postwar society and polity to take root. The founding of the Federal Republic neither extinguished efforts to restore Nazism in Germany nor lessened Allied fears of such threats, and careful Allied supervision of German developments remained crucial to ensuring that political, social, and economic developments did not lead to re-Nazification.
The second part of the book focuses on the continued specter of a Fourth Reich in West Germany from the 1960s to the twenty-first century, analyzing the ways in which the idea of a Fourth Reich disentangled itself from its historic German context and became a concept with global currency. The consequence of such a development, Rosenfeld states, was to normalize, aestheticize, and universalize the concept of a Fourth Reich. While the rise of the neo-Nazi NPD party in the 1960s once again triggered concerns at home and abroad about a possible Nazi restoration, critics of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration, for example, had begun to decry the possible creation of a Fourth Reich not on its native German soil but in the United States. Increasingly, in the eyes of critics or alarmed observers, a Fourth Reich threatened to arise in places such as Greece or South Africa. With every non-German iteration of the specter, the idea of the Fourth Reich, according to Rosenfeld, gradually become a normal trope of political discourse throughout the West and, beginning in the 1970s, was further transformed by its increasing use as a plot device in various forms of popular entertainment. In films such as The Boys from Brazil, and in novels like The Odessa File, a Nazi restoration was used to thrill and amuse the public. One [End Page 196] consequence of this was to rob the idea of its original potency—an idea that had truly alarmed policy makers and journalists in the 1940s and 1950s was now seen as so unrealistic that it could be safely relegated to the realm of fiction. Yet this multifaceted transformation of the concept was never entirely complete, as Rosenfeld convincingly shows. Although it continues to be universal and normalized even today, the fear of a Fourth Reich has also been "re-Germanized," first with the end of the Cold War and then as a result of certain developments in the twenty-first century: for example, the success of anti-immigration organizations such as Alternative für Deutschland and the anger directed at Germany in the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008.
Rosenfeld has written a rich and innovative history of an idea—that of the Fourth Reich—and its enduring appeal to Germans and non-Germans over the past eighty years. In doing so, he has also contributed to a fuller account of the Federal Republic of Germany's early years by highlighting the contingent nature of many West German developments and thereby cautioning historians away from Whiggish interpretations of West Germany's history.