I was so surprised by Mr. Irving’s conclusion, which seems to me to do less than justice to his own book, that I cast around for an explanation. In part, it seems to me to reflect his concentration on the war years and his omission of the 1930s, which must surely be counted as brilliant a decade of success as any political leader has ever enjoyed. But I believe the real explanation is to be found in Mr. Irving’s desire, as he puts it, to “de-demonize” Hitler, leading up to his coup de théâtre, Hitler and the “Final Solution.”
The connection between the two is obvious. The revisionist version of Hitler has hitherto stopped short at his foreign policy, which is represented as no different from anyone else’s, and the responsibility for the war, from which he is absolved. For what happened inside Germany, however, Hitler has hitherto remained responsible. But if he was ignorant of and did not approve the greatest of all crimes, the extermination of five to six million Jews, then a very different picture emerges; then Hitler can be seen and understood as a normal person in domestic as well as foreign affairs or, as Mr. Irving describes him, “an ordinary, walking, talking human being weighing some 155 pounds, with graying hair, largely false teeth, and chronic digestive ailments.” It is this final step in the normalization of Hitler which Mr. Irving now proposes.
He starts from the fact, long familiar to historians, that no order signed by Hitler for the extermination of the Jews has ever been found, and (a fact which always impresses Mr. Irving more) that what other researchers have failed to find he has not found either. He does not question the fact that the massacres took place and he admits that
if this book were simply a history of the rise and fall of Hitler’s Reich, it would be legitimate to conclude: “Hitler killed the Jews.” He after all created the atmosphere of hatred with his anti-Semitic speeches in the 1930s; he and Himmler created the S.S.; he built the concentration camps; his speeches, though never explicit, left the clear impression that “liquidate” was what he meant.
Nonetheless, Mr. Irving goes on to maintain that historians have refused to face up to the difference made by the absence of a written order—or of documentary evidence of what Hitler and Himmler may have said “unter vier Augen“—and have simply gone on repeating that he was personally responsible without taking the trouble to look at the evidence.
No one denies that the evidence is incomplete and equivocal. This is hardly surprising considering the monstrosity of the crimes being committed, the massacre of several million people. Elaborate precautions were taken to confine knowledge of the facts to as small a circle as possible, denials were issued which Mr. Irving himself characterizes as “the purest humbug,” and the ghastly reality was camouflaged by a series of euphemisms (such as the “Final Solution”) which were employed even between those who knew what was taking place. Thus as late as July 1944—and even Mr. Irving admits that by October 1943 Hitler knew what had taken place—he notes (p. 631) that Himmler still continued to speak to Hitler only of the “expulsion” (Aussiedlung) of the Jews.
The process was spread over two years or more and was halted from time to time for reasons of expediency. (This could very well be the explanation of Himmler’s telephone message of November 30, 1941 that Jews were not to be liquidated, of which Mr. Irving makes so much.) Mr. Irving agrees that Hitler was “unquestionably” the authority behind the “expulsion” of the Jews, their uprooting and “re-settlement” in the occupied areas of the East. But he asks us to believe that the man who claimed as his greatest discovery the identification of the Jew as the bacillus causing all decay in society, the man who from beginning to end of his career made the cleansing of Germany of its Jewish population a main plank of his program and spoke openly of his intentions, had no knowledge of or interest in what happened to the Jews when they got to the East. There are many people in Germany and Austria, Mr. Irving says, who have an interest in putting the blame on Hitler. He evidently believes that they knew what was happening, as did Goebbels and Hans Frank—to mention only two of the Nazi leaders about whose knowledge there is no doubt—but not Hitler. This is a lot to ask us to believe on the strength of not finding evidence which, given the nature of what was being done, it would be far more surprising to learn ever existed.
After getting Hitler to agree on August 18, 1941 to the requirement that Jews wear the Star of David and to the deportation of the 70,000 Berlin Jews to the East, Goebbels noted that Hitler had reminded him of his January 1939 Reichstag speech. He had said he was convinced that the prophecy he uttered then—that if the Jews provoked another world war it would end with their destruction (Vernichtung)—was “coming true these weeks and months with a dread certainty that is almost uncanny. In the east the Jews will have to square accounts.” This was a few weeks before the first massacres took place. In a speech of February 24, 1943 Hitler referred to the extermination (Ausrottung) of European Jewry and on June 19 insisted to Himmler on pushing through radically (radikal) the “evacuation” of the Jews.
In October of that year, Himmler told conferences of the S.S. Gruppenführers and the Gauleiters that by the end of the year the last Jews in occupied Europe would have been physically exterminated, and he accepted responsibility for what had been done. But Himmler was not the man to have acted without Hitler’s authority. In May 1944 he told an audience of generals that he had “uncompromisingly” solved “the Jewish problem.” “You can imagine how I felt executing this soldierly order issued to me, but I obediently complied and carried it out to the best of my convictions” (my italics).
Mr. Irving does his best to explain away evidence like this and such is the immediate attraction of any revisionist thesis, especially if it offers to cut the portent of Hitler down to size, that his book will attract attention for this attempt alone. But I am convinced that, once the fuss has died down, Mr. Irving’s thesis will not be accepted by the majority of historians who have worked on the period, and that the answer to the problems posed by Hitler will not prove to be that his power and his responsibility for what happened between 1933 and 1945 have been exaggerated.
It will be clear from what I have said that if I have devoted a lot of space to Mr. Irving’s book, it is not because I think it more important than the others to which I now pass.
Publishers should be warned that there are no definitive biographies of Hitler and that the present state of historical knowledge about him, and historians’ disagreement, are such that it is very unlikely there is going to be one. John Toland’s version is no more definitive than Joachim Fest’s was three years ago, although the publishers have made the same claim in both cases. Mr. Toland himself is modest in his claims. “My book,” he writes, “has no thesis, and any conclusions to be found in it were reached only during the writing, perhaps the most meaningful being that Hitler was far more complex and contradictory than I had imagined.” That will not set the Hudson or the Spree on fire. Nonetheless, if Mr. Toland does not add much to our knowledge of Hitler, he has provided a competent, well-constructed, and well-written account of the subject as it looks now, and he is able to produce a list of interviews which outruns even Mr. Irving’s.
I am doubtful whether, at this stage, after so many sensational discoveries and “revelations” in the last thirty years, we are going to find the answer to the riddle of Hitler in fresh evidence. This is a rash thing to say, since at any moment some “shattering” new revelation may be made and, after being cried up as such in the press and on television, may actually prove to tell us something we did not know before. This could happen tomorrow, but the fact that researchers as ingenious and pertinacious as Mr. Irving have failed to come up with such finds leads me to believe that new insights are more likely to come from a more successful penetration of Hitler’s personality and the Nazi world than from the discovery of new evidence.
For this reason I turned with particular interest to the opposite end of the spectrum where Professor Binion’s study offers a very different approach, that of the psychohistorian. It is a short book, no more than 135 pages of text, but within that compass the author not only presents an original interpretation but does so with a power of logical argument and a mastery of his material which fully justify the publisher’s description of the book as “bold and rigorous.”
Mr. Binion makes no apology for psychohistory: there is no other way, he says, to get at “the motives of bygone doings, whether individual or collective,” for the only efficient causes of such doings are psychological. Nor does he attempt to guard against criticism by backing a number of horses:
In psychohistory, as elsewhere, to multiply causes is no mark of sagacity…. Thus my concern with Hitler’s politics was to isolate the few decisive inner demands and constraints behind the vast recorded outcome. This rule of exclusion held equally for Hitler’s constituency, Germany at large.
Binion traces Hitler’s extraordinary appeal to the German people to the coincidence of two traumatic experiences, one personal, the other collective. The personal one was Hitler’s gas poisoning in 1918, with which he associated the painful terminal treatment of his mother’s breast cancer by a Jewish doctor eleven years earlier; the collective trauma was the unexpected and unacceptable defeat of Germany in World War I.
Binion defines a traumatic experience as one too painful to be assimilated. The neurosis to which it gives rise is an “exact, continual, unbearable remembering” which drives the person affected to seek relief by “reliving” the experience, in effect by contriving a new experience that is unconsciously taken to be the old one.
Traumatic reliving has an imperativeness about it that becomes veritably titanic in the face of outer resistance. All one’s instincts, interests, and ideas fall in with it. And all one’s inhibitions will fall before it: anyone suitably traumatized can massacre innocents, especially by remote control.