Hitler Among the Germans
The Psychopathic God, Adolf Hitler
“It seems likely,” Robert Waite begins his book, “that more will be written about Adolf Hitler than about anyone else in history with the exception of Jesus Christ.” This is a depressing prospect indeed. Why Hitler should continue to arouse such interest is a subject worthy of a major essay, for which The New York Review might well offer a prize. At the bottom of his first page Professor Waite prints this quotation:
The more I learn about Adolf Hitler, the harder I find it to explain and accept what followed. Somehow the causes are inadequate to account for the size of the effects. It is offensive to our reason and to our experience to be asked to believe that the [youthful Hitler] was the stuff of which the Caesars and Bonapartes were made. Yet the record is there to prove us wrong. It is here, in the gap between the explanation and the event, that the fascination of Hitler’s career remains.
Although this comes from an introduction I wrote twenty years ago, I should not want to alter it today; but the passage of thirty years since Hitler’s death has naturally extended the spectrum of comment in a way which is well illustrated by three of the four books I have been reading.
At one end of the spectrum is David Irving, an Englishman, whose book was first published in Germany in 1975 (Hitler und seine Feldherren). Further printing, however, was stopped after two days as a result of a dispute between author and publishers, apparently over his view of Hitler’s responsibility for the “Final Solution.” The book begins rather abruptly at the outbreak of war in 1939, with no discussion of the events leading up to this, and then takes 800 pages to cover in detail the five and a half years separating this from Hitler’s defeat and suicide.
Mr. Irving’s strength is in the persistence with which he pursues new evidence. This is a virtue recognizable by any historian and since I am critical of the use Mr. Irving makes of the evidence I want to be fair and acknowledge the energy and resource he has shown as a researcher.
There is no danger that anyone will overlook these. Mr. Irving rarely misses an opportunity to reiterate his claim that this is “not another biography of Hitler drawing on the same tired, mutually-supporting material” that other historians have used, but one entirely based on firsthand research “eschewing published sources.”
It is a pity, in view of this claim, that he has not devoted more space to discussing the material he has used. At first sight the eighty pages of notes would appear to offer everything one wants, but it is often difficult without considerable research to distinguish between the claim to have unearthed new material which has never been seen before and the claim to have gone back to original sources already known and not relied on copying out quotations from other people’s books. It is no less important to distinguish new material which adds something important to what is already known from that which, while not used before, adds only a few unimportant details or merely provides confirmation, perhaps with minor variations, of something known before. This is another distinction which Mr. Irving frequently fails to make.
From a number of cases where I have made checks in following up the notes, my own conclusion is that the basis of Mr. Irving’s account remains evidence known to and used by other historians before him. He has certainly worked over this evidence again for himself and in doing so thrown up a number of omissions and suppressions; he has also, without doubt, added to it, but not all his geese have proved to be swans, and I suspect that quite a lot of the additional material which he has gathered does not add substantially to what was known before.
It would not be worth spending so much time on this question of sources if it were not for Mr. Irving’s further claim that his researches have “disclosed a picture of the man that nobody until now had suspected.” I do not believe, as I shall go on to argue, that this claim is justified. But in so far as he does strike out an original line of argument, it is important that the reader should not allow himself to be stunned by the barrage of references to hitherto unpublished or unexploited material and be led to conclude that Mr. Irving’s view follows necessarily, or even plausibly, from new evidence which he has brought to light.
The scope of Mr. Irving’s book is unusual. It is not a biography of Hitler, since it deals only with the last five and a half years of his life when he was already over fifty years old. On the other hand, it is not a history of the war, even seen from the German point of view. It deals in great detail with the war but “in each case,” Mr. Irving says, “this book views the situation as far as possible through Hitler’s eyes, from behind his desk.” Mr. Irving’s method is to scour every source in order to establish what was said by Hitler and others in his wartime conferences and conversations. This is the substance of the book and the scene throughout is the Führer’s headquarters. It is not easy reading, partly because the author introduces so little variation in the chronicle form as one conference follows another in the Führer’s headquarters. No attempt is made to analyze the content or function of these meetings or, except in a perfunctory way, to look at the organization of the German war economy and the production of armaments.
But there is a more serious criticism to be made of Mr. Irving’s method. He lays great stress on providing an accurate record of what was said on these occasions but inevitably the reader asks how far this can be accepted as reliable evidence of what actually happened even on the German side of the war. Thus, for example, a good deal of space is devoted to the argument between Hitler and his generals about who was to blame for the disastrous outcome of the Russian war. One can accept Mr. Irving’s argument that the generals are biased witnesses and have had it too much their own way; but is Hitler, whom he quotes at length to the effect that it was the generals’ fault and not his, any less biased or more reliable a witness? Is Mr. Irving still “viewing the situation through Hitler’s eyes” or is he playing the role of a historian offering his own independent valuation of what was said? I am not sure that Mr. Irving has ever faced this question of his own position; if he has his answer seems to me ambiguous.
His answer is not even ambiguous when he discusses Hitler’s opponents. Churchill and Roosevelt were warmongers in Hitler’s eyes and it would be hard to find a sentence in these 800 pages which suggested that Mr. Irving took a different view. In the case of Britain he quotes with approval the Duke of Windsor’s suspicion in July 1940 that the war was continued “purely so that certain British statesmen could save face,” and argues that it was the British refusal to make peace with Hitler then that condemned the Western world to so much unnecessary suffering and destruction, including the death of six million Jews. The premise for this is Mr. Irving’s “discovery”—which has been known for many years—that Hitler admired rather than hated the British and would have preferred to have them as allies rather than enemies.
Of course he would, since this would have given him a free hand in Europe. But why, Mr. Irving asks, were such “momentous alternatives” not considered by the British? To which the answer is that they were. The whole object of the policy of appeasement (to which Mr. Irving never once refers) was precisely to find such an alternative, and it broke down, not because the British thought Hitler hated or threatened them directly, but because they reluctantly concluded in the light of his record in the Thirties that it was impossible to make terms with him that he would keep, and that if he was allowed to go on and conquer the whole of Europe, Britain would lose its independence.
If the British had made a compromise peace after the fall of France, there is no reason at all to suppose that Europe would have been spared a continuation of the war—since Hitler would have gone on to attack Russia all the more readily—or that once he had come to rule all Europe Hitler would have left the Jews their lives or the British their independence. If Mr. Irving is going to discuss British policy he ought surely to take some account of what the British themselves thought and not simply see them through Hitler’s eyes.
One quotation in Mr. Irving’s book seems to me revealing. In talking with Hitler one day, a doctor asked him if he had ever read the life of the Kaiser by the Englishman J.D. Chamier. Hitler had and admitted that, though the author was English, the Kaiser had emerged well—perhaps better than he deserved. The doctor’s note of the conversation continues:
Hitler then said that a foreigner probably finds it easier to pass judgment on a statesman, provided that he is familiar with the country, its people, language and archives…. Hitler said that for some time now he has gone over to having all important discussions and military conferences recorded for posterity by shorthand writers. And perhaps one day after he’s dead and buried an objective Englishman will come and give him the same kind of objective treatment.
Was Mr. Irving thinking of himself when he copied down this quotation? At the very least, it points up the question which I believe he fails to answer, perhaps even to himself, whether he regards “viewing the situation through Hitler’s eyes” as the same thing as “objectivity.”
Mr. Irving claims that his researches have not only enabled him to place Hitler’s foreign policy in a different light but have disclosed “a picture of the man that nobody until now had suspected.” “My central conclusion,” he writes, “is that Hitler was a less than omnipotent Führer and that his grip on his immediate subordinates weakened as the war progressed.” If Mr. Irving means that Hitler was never interested in administration and after the outbreak of war left such matters to be fought over by Bormann, Himmler, and the other satraps, this has been one of the commonplaces of the history of the Third Reich for twenty-five years. If, however, Mr. Irving is talking about power rather than administration—and he goes on to say that “Hitler was probably the weakest leader Germany has known in this century”—then there is so great a volume of evidence against such a view that it is astonishing anyone can seriously suggest it.