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Dear Matthew Alice:

Everyone knows about Hitler and the Third Reich. Was there a First Reich and a Second Reich? And what's a Reich anyway?

-- Steve, the net

Reichs, rails, gears, bases, rock from the sun -- before you have a third, you pretty much have to have a first and a second. Though you might consider the Reichs as three stabs at getting one thing right, each of them a bust. A Reich is a kingdom or empire. The First Reich in German history was the Holy Roman Empire, from about 800 (some say 962) to 1806. It covered a large, shifting glob of central European political states, mostly Germanic. The big bag-o-kingdoms fought and spit and pulled hair and called each other names and generally behaved very badly. Many German kings ruled the HRE before the last one finally pulled the plug. The Second Reich began in 1871, when Otto von Bismarck whipped all the Germanic states (except Austria) into a tight little Prussian-style unit. But after Otto, things petered out and finally died in 1919, at the end of World War I. Hitler declared his Reich of Bad Ideas would live 1000 years. He missed his guess by 988.

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