The Rise and Fall of the Fourth Reich

A new book by historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld traces the persistent idea of a resurgent Nazi regime.

Noah Berlatsky
October 10, 2019
Video still from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Discussed in this essay: The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld. Cambridge University Press, 2019. 408 pages.

DISCUSSIONS OF HITLER and the Nazi regime are thick with counterfactuals. What if, Star Trek asked, the US hadn’t entered the war? What if, Philip K. Dick wondered, the Nazis had been victorious? World War II and the Holocaust were such massive, traumatic events that they push us to set fact aside, to follow the branching fissures of possible what ifs.

Historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s new book, The Fourth Reich: The Specter of Nazism from World War II to the Present, presents the actual history of one of those possible branches. It traces the development of the idea of the Fourth Reich—a resurgent, Nazi-like regime based in apocalyptic visions and quasi-religious ethnonationalism. Though the Fourth Reich never actually took power in Germany or elsewhere, Rosenfeld shows how the idea itself has been influential. His account helps us to understand why the Fourth Reich never came to fruition—and what we can do to make sure it remains a counterfactual. 

Rosenfeld describes how academics, journalists, and others began to discuss a possible Fourth Reich even before the Third Reich had been defeated. At first, these visions of a new Fourth Reich were actually utopian, representing not a continuation of the Third Reich, but instead a radical departure. Georg Bernhard, a German Jewish émigré, put together a draft constitution in 1936, which, Rosenfeld writes, “optimistically hoped that Hitler’s eventual fall from power would enable the creation of a progressive, democratic Fourth Reich.” After the end of the war, journalists and politicians in Germany and abroad began to try to imagine the new post-Hitler German future. A 1947 editorial in Commentary still saw, Rosenfeld writes, “a golden chance for the anti-Nazi civilians to fill in the vacuum left by the Junkers [Prussian landed nobility] and establish, once and for all, a non-militaristic, non-aggressive, non-imperialistic Fourth Reich.” More typical, though, was a Dallas Morning News editorial from the same year, which warned of a “Fourth Reich goose-stepping forth to war.” 

Following the war, the Fourth Reich quickly became a rallying cry for those who still supported Hitler—and a nightmare vision for everyone else. Rosenfeld examines how this Fourth Reich has shadowed post-war Germany. Following the Allied victory, doomsayers among the former Allied nations and in Germany itself warned that the guerilla resistance Werewolf movement, composed of former Nazis, might succeed in its terror campaign, overthrowing the occupation and establishing a Fourth Reich. In the late 1940s, the Western Press focused its fears of a Fourth Reich on purged and exiled Otto Strasser, who had been a leading figure in the Nazi movement in the ’20s and ’30s, and who had promised to revive a “Black Front” upon his return to Germany. In 1953, British authorities arrested former Nazi propagandist Werner Naumann for an alleged plot against the West German government, prompting a wave of Fourth Reich fears in the Western press. 

The threat and fear of a Fourth Reich persisted even long after the post-war period. In 1989, when East and West Germany reunited, Irish politician and historian Conor Cruise O’Brien published a controversial article titled “Beware, the Reich is Reviving.” At the same time, right-wing German thinkers like Hans-Dietrich Sander called for the restoration of Germany’s 1937 borders as the basis for a Fourth Reich.

Of course, that Fourth Reich never materialized, making all of the related prognostications seem overblown in hindsight. Rosenfeld chronicles how, as the Fourth Reich became less of a real worry over time, it became more a trope to be exploited. Pulp narratives like Robert Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant (1978), Ira Levin’s preposterous The Boys of Brazil (1976), which featured Hitler clones, and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) cashed in by casting Nazis as conspiratorial villains intent on conquering the world. Politicians across the political spectrum also used the Fourth Reich as a convenient ideological bludgeon, increasingly divorced from specific ideological content. Following the 2008 financial crisis, for example, Euroskeptic Simon Heffer claimed that Germany was using loans and bailouts to conquer Europe, imposing a supposed financial dictatorship. “Welcome to the Fourth Reich,” the Daily Mail headline trumpeted. 

Heffer and Spielberg make the idea of the Fourth Reich look ridiculous—which, Rosenfeld suggests, may be one reason that historians have until now shied away from analyzing the concept at length. “The idea of the Fourth Reich has come unmoored from its original referent—the idea of a Nazi return to power in Germany—and become an all-purpose signifier of evil,” Rosenfeld explains. “Through this process, it has lost some of its admonitory credibility.”

But the fact that the idea of a Fourth Reich can seem silly now doesn’t mean it was a foolish worry in the past. In fact, concerns about a Nazi resurgence were eminently reasonable between 1945 and 1949, when Nazi insurgents and plotters were actively working to overthrow the German government. The image of the Fourth Reich encouraged the Allies to take these threats seriously, to continue to devote resources to tracking and stamping out the Werewolves following the end of the war, which is part of why the Fourth Reich never came to be. It could have gone differently: It’s not that difficult to imagine an Allied occupation, exhausted by the war, choosing to let the Werewolves rampage unchecked, as the KKK rampaged unchecked in the post-Civil War American South. “Especially after the prolonged rebel insurgency that erupted against Allied forces in Iraq after 2003,” Rosenfeld writes, “it is possible to envision counterfactual scenarios in which the Allied occupation of Germany could have turned out worse than it did in reality.”

Rosenfeld’s use of the Iraq analogy is somewhat uncharacteristic. He’s generally cautious about the trend to expand the idea of the Fourth Reich beyond the German context. He acknowledges, for example, that the Fourth Reich has great utility as a “mobilizing slogan” against Donald Trump. But he notes that “activists have made little effort to explain how the prospect of an impending ‘Reich’ relates to President Trump’s right-wing political agenda.” Talking about the Fourth Reich and Trump, he argues, “is as much rhetorical as historical.”

But rhetoric and history are more aligned than Rosenfeld acknowledges there. In fact, one of his book’s accomplishments is the way it demonstrates how the two intertwine and affect each other. It’s true that Americans invoke Nazis to make political points at home. But it’s also the case that Hitler was inspired by America’s genocide of Native peoples and by Jim Crow. He also picked up on “America’s knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death,” according to Alex Ross’s New Yorker essay about America’s influence on Hitler. The US’s actions, justifications, and rhetorical stances all influenced the Nazis. And the Nazis have directly influenced the American far right: alt-right protestors in Charlottesville chanted Nazi slogans; alt-right leader Richard Spencer led followers in a “Heil Trump” salute.

It’s true that the Fourth Reich never emerged in the form that Nazis hoped (and others feared) it might. Yet we do live in a world that was built in no small part by the Nazis. Hitler’s regime convinced large portions of the Jewish community that survival in the diaspora is unviable and that ethnonationalism is the only path to safety. The far right, as Rosenfeld points out, continues to use the rhetoric and the conspiracy theories—such as the antisemitic idea of “cultural Marxism”—handed down by Hitler. And others who Hilter hated, like immigrants, continue to be targets of hatred and marginalization. “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will,” David Frum warned in The Atlantic earlier this year, using the specter of an ascendant Fourth Reich to justify sanctions against the very people who would be targeted under such a regime. 

Rosenfeld writes about the Fourth Reich as a potential that, sitting off to one side of reality, provides leverage for useful warnings, ugly inspirations, rhetorical bludgeons, and lucrative pulp. But we could also see the Fourth Reich not as an alternate history, but as the place we live now. Viewed this way, the Fourth Reich is not the worst that could come to pass if things go wrong, but the worst that is already here, complete with camps, antisemitic massacres, and a government bent on ethnic cleansing. It names a dream we escaped. But it’s also a reality we are still trying to cast off. 

Noah Berlatsky is the author of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.