Viewers may think of Huberman as, at best, delusional. After all, postwar Germany was in no position to pick a fight. Six years of conflict claimed, by some estimates, some seven million German lives and obliterated the country’s economy. In addition, the chief Allies — the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union — quartered Germany into occupation zones and began the four-pronged process of denazification, demilitarization, democratization, and decentralization. Making good on a puffed-up threat of next time was hardly possible.
But hindsight can obfuscate as much as it can illuminate. Though the notion of a resurgent Reich is mostly laughable today, to what extent did the deep fear of Nazism’s revival influence Western society just after the war and beyond? That’s the question at the heart of Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s latest book, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present.
To call the book a straightforward alternate history — à la the novel-turned-hit-TV-series The Man in the High Castle, or even Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds — isn’t quite right. Rather, Rosenfeld, a professor of history at Fairfield University, marshals a variety of sources — political speeches, newspaper clippings, slices of cinema — to offer a sharp counterfactual investigation that reveals how discourse on the Fourth Reich has meaningfully shaped postwar culture.
Understanding the Fourth Reich requires having a bit of context about its predecessors. In simplest terms, the first Reich — or “realm” or “empire” — was the multiethnic Holy Roman Empire, formed in 800 with the crowning on Christmas Day of Charlemagne. The second was the German Empire, which lasted from German unification in 1871 until Wilhelm II’s abdication in 1918. As the Nazis rose to prominence throughout the 1920s and into the early ’30s — culminating in their seizure of power in 1933 — they increasingly viewed their party as the shepherd of a revolutionary, final Reich, commonly referred to as the Third Reich.
Rosenfeld traces the Fourth Reich, as a concept with some dimension, to German émigrés in the early and mid-’30s. Importantly, this early imagining didn’t envision the successor state as a perpetrator of cultural and political evils. Consider the journalist Georg Bernhard, who fled Germany for Paris in 1933 and later wrote what he called a “Draft of a Constitution for the Fourth Reich,” a.k.a. a new Germany. In it, he underscores a devotion to “freedom of conscience […] and the equality of all classes and races” and “purging all signs of barbarism”; notably, “no one will be able to hold office in the Fourth Reich who was a leader of the Nazi party.” In other words, this new Germany would be “a Reich of Peace” — the embodiment of nonviolence.
As Rosenfeld points out, this imagined post-Nazi state wasn’t purely political; in its own way, it also functioned as a cultural talisman. “The fact that both Bernhard and [Leopold] Schwarzschild — like many other exile journalists — were Jews showed how the idea also came to acquire a Jewish inflection,” he writes. More specifically, to German Jews, this new Reich had a quality that was in turns hopeful and darkly comic. For instance, German Jews in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City apparently nicknamed their area “The Fourth Reich.”
“There is little doubt that the phrase represented something of a coping mechanism,” Rosenfeld explains. “German Jews in Washington Heights strove to preserve as many of their cultural traditions as they could in their new home.”
Toward the end of World War II, the notion of the Fourth Reich took on a more sinister meaning. Though within Germany the term was almost exclusively anti–Adolf Hitler — to the point that the Nazis sought to squelch use of it — the Allies viewed it with suspicion: After the war, would the Fourth Reich, regardless of form, be nothing more than a reanimated Nazi state?
Rosenfeld is at his most entrepreneurial when he’s probing the what-if veins of counterfactual analysis. Of the vulnerability of the Allies’ postwar occupation, he wonders: “[W]hat if Germany had not been subjected to divided Allied occupation?” He reasons that because the Western Allies’ approach to occupation differed from the Soviets’ — the former the benevolent good cop, the latter the punitive bad cop — it makes sense to ask how, say, a wholly Soviet-occupied Germany might have given credit to the “anti-Bolshevik stance” of the Nazi remnant. Rosenfeld wisely acknowledges that it’s unclear whether the scenarios he offers would’ve even been possible. His broader argument, though, still stands. Far from the notion today of having been inevitable, the Allies’ postwar success was thanks largely to their targeted policy maneuvering to minimize the Nazi resistance and to the divide-and-conquer tack of the occupation generally, an approach in part shaped by concerns over still-simmering far-right threats.
Refreshingly, Rosenfeld doesn’t limit his analysis solely to replaying history. As he guides readers through the rest of the 20th century, he also incorporates Western culture’s fictionalized treatment of postwar Nazism into his study. Take the period from the ’60s into the ’80s, known as the “long 1970s.” Initially, the era’s cultural products — films, television programs, novels — reflected a lingering undertow of fear around a supposed Fourth Reich, influenced by events like the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial. In time, however, as Nazis were increasingly aestheticized and universalized — from the Marvel villain Red Skull, who declares in Issue No. 148 of Captain America that his organization is “buying time for the birth of the Fourth Reich,” to the 1981 blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark — their historical villainy seemed to atrophy. Instead of genuine military rivals, “they became stock villains drained of ethical significance,” Rosenfeld writes, “reduced to superficial symbols (black uniforms, swastika armbands, leather jackboots) and generically sociopathic behaviors (sadistic violence and deviant sex).”
In these pages, it’s Rosenfeld’s ability to come at the subject with a critic’s eye — picking up pieces of pop-cultural flotsam — that adds fullness to the book. Indeed, this pas de deux between politics and pop shines a light on how much Nazi imagery permeated societies beyond Germany, even when many of these depictions had, at least to Rosenfeld’s mind, been shorn of their historical significance.
This miniaturizing continued into the late ’80s, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German reunification the following year. These pivotal events reignited fears of a neo-Nazi resurgence. In the years since then, the perception of Nazism as a true threat has ebbed and flowed, “being invoked in times of crisis and fading in times of stability.” As in the past, recent invocations have been employed outside Germany and across the political spectrum, but they’ve also taken on more symbolic meanings: Germany as Europe’s Nazi-like economic hegemon, the United States under President Donald Trump as the Fourth Reich. (This latter example calls back to the ’60s and ’70s, when black radicals like James Baldwin framed former president Richard Nixon’s administration as another Reich.) Today, Rosenfeld argues, the Fourth Reich’s “polemical power reveals that its significance is as much rhetorical as historical.”
At first, I approached The Fourth Reich with skepticism: the premise seemed almost categorically impossible. But what makes Rosenfeld’s book so convincing, beyond the fact that it’s a tremendously engaging crossover academic-trade book, is that he maintains a keen awareness of how big his task is. “It may initially seem pointless to examine the history of the Fourth Reich,” he writes. “After all, history is commonly understood as the documentation and interpretation of events that actually happened.” But it’s exactly this understanding that arguably motivates him to do the work of unearthing the important details and trends that make it clear that the past, of course, is never past — but neither is it as settled as commonly thought.
Brandon Tensley is the associate editor at New America, a host of Slate’s Outward podcast, and a contributing writer at Pacific Standard magazine, where he covers culture.