May 7, 2015


Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein is the author of a new textbook, Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths (Wiley-Blackwell). An expert in modern German and Central European history, she earlier wrote a book on the Nazi occupation of Western Poland. As Epstein worked on the textbook, she tested a draft on Amherst students. Their suggestions informed the final version.

The problem with other textbooks

Until she became dean last year, Epstein had been teaching the history course “Nazi Germany” since her arrival at Amherst in 2000. She’d grown frustrated with existing textbooks, many of which are now outdated. “There hasn’t been a major new textbook on Nazi Germany in many years,” she says.

Confronting the Myths Myths as a structure

Students often came to her class holding incorrect ideas about Nazi Germany. “I wanted to write a textbook that confronts those stereotypes,” she says. “Students need arguments that they can then amplify or argue against. Many textbooks don’t provide an argument-driven account.” She decided to structure the book by setting up and then debunking various myths.

The myth of industrial killing

People know that Nazis put millions of Jews on trains, sent them to concentration camps and killed them in gas chambers. “But roughly 40 percent of all individuals who died in the Holocaust” did not die that way, Epstein says. “They died by being lined up against pits and shot point blank, or any number of other brutal ways. So much of the Holocaust was actually one-on-one killings.” The genocide was less sanitized, and therefore “much worse than you imagined.”

The myth of Versailles

It’s a common belief that the Treaty of Versailles is responsible for Hitler’s rise to power. “In fact, during the 1920s the Germans were pretty good at overturning the treaty,” Epstein says. “You can imagine that process continuing if the Great Depression hadn’t intervened. It was the Great Depression that allowed the Nazis to come to power, not the Treaty of Versailles.”

The myth of over-policing

Another misconception is that the Gestapo was around every corner. Epstein says, “Nazi Germany was actually under-policed” and relied heavily on regular citizens to turn in “undesirable” neighbors.

The myth of military might

In researching the book, Epstein was surprised to learn the Nazi army was under-equipped. “It’s hard to imagine how the Nazis could have defeated Russia even if everything had gone their way,” she says. “It’s remarkable how much of the German campaign revolved around horses: They sent 600,000 horses into Russia.”

More textbooks, at an affordable price

The textbook is part of the Wiley-Blackwell Short Histories series, of which Epstein is general editor. Future books in the series will cover, among other topics, World War I and the Soviet Union. While history textbooks commonly run about $80, Epstein says, “I made a big stink to make sure the cost of each textbook is limited to $30. It’s important to me.”