No phrase more distinctly captures the millenarian yearnings ordinary Germans pinned to Hitler’s rise than the “Third Reich”.
I used to think of the Third Reich as a successor to the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire of 1871-1918. In the post-WWI writings of “mystical German authors such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck and Dietrich Eckart,” according to Meaney, one finds a loftier historiosophical idea:
…the third instalment of a divine plan that had worked through the First Reich of God the Father and the Hebrews, and the Second Reich of Jesus and the Christians.
It turns out, according to Meany and/or Rosenfeld, that Hitler discouraged the use of the term, “the Third Reich,” prior to WWII:
Rosenfeld suggests that Hitler found its Christological associations unattractive and, moreover, misleading. The Führer did not want to make false promises about delivering any kind of regime associated with peace and world brotherhood when he was planning to realise it through war, conquest, extermination and sacrifice.
Makes sense to me – although “Seid umschlungen, millionen!” was still sung in Berlin in 1943. However, Meaney finds this explanation uninteresting. He’s more intrigued by a second argument: the Nazis…
…were already contending with a barrage of counter-propaganda about a coming “Fourth Reich” by the anti-Nazi resistance… it seems perplexing that anti-Nazis would latch on to the concept of a “Reich” at all. But this is what many German Social Democrats in exile did… Georg Bernhard and fellow SPD intellectuals went so far as to write a “Draft of a Constitution for the Fourth Reich” that would come about after the fall of Hitler. The Fourth Reich… would be dedicated to global democracy and the equality of peoples.
Perplexing? The dots are easy to connect: Reich is indispensable precisely for its Biblical resonance and millenarian ring. In the Gospels, one finds das Himmelreich, the Kingdom of Heaven, and das Reich Gottes, the Kingdom of God. Regnum coeli and regnum Dei, in Latin. Even if European socialism had no millenarian, or chiliastic, connections other than in the imagination of its adversaries, it’s understandable why “SPD intellectuals” wished to reclaim the word: Many Germans saw Hitler’s use of Reich, as well as other terms and concepts, as a usurpation and unwarranted appropriation.