The Devil in the Details

In writing the history of National Socialism, there is no better way of attracting attention than flying in the face of received opinion. Thirty-five years ago, A.J.P. Taylor demonstrated this in a book on the origins of the Second World War in which he argued that there was nothing extraordinary about Adolf Hitler as a statesman, that his diplomatic methods had differed in no significant respect from those of other European leaders, and that his programmatic statements about foreign policy, in Mein Kampf and elsewhere, were of no particular importance.

That caused a great roiling of the waters, but it was nothing compared to the pronouncements of David Irving, who has over the years been challenging historians of the Nazi period with claims that Adolf Hitler had not authorized the killing of the Jews, offering to pay a thousand pounds to anyone who can produce a signed piece of paper that would prove the opposite. He has also argued that the Holocaust never took place, being a Polish invention, and that Auschwitz was a labor camp with an unfortunately high death rate but nothing remotely resembling gas ovens. Such obtuse and quickly discredited views, which Irving repeats with relish at public meetings as well as in his publications, have proven to be offensive to large numbers of people, and expressions of indignation persuaded St. Martin’s Press in New York, which had agreed to publish Irving’s new life of Joseph Goebbels, to withdraw from its contract. To this decision, a number of people who should know better have reacted with praise and have indeed suggested that Irving deserves further treatment of this kind.

Silencing Mr. Irving would be a high price to pay for freedom from the annoyance that he causes us. The fact is that he knows more about National Socialism than most professional scholars in his field, and students of the years 1933-1945 owe more than they are always willing to admit to his energy as a researcher and to the scope and vigor of his publications. His first book, The Destruction of Dresden, was not always scrupulously balanced in its judgments, but there is no doubt that it encouraged historians to take a more critical look at Allied bombing in the last stages of World War II and supplied important data to support such investigation. Similarly, his book Hitler’s War—despite its attempts to protect Hitler from any responsibility for the Holocaust and its implied argument that the Führer might well have won the war if his generals had only been intelligent enough to appreciate and exploit his military genius—remains the best study we have of the German side of the Second World War and, as such, indispensable for all students of that conflict. Similarly, his discovery, after a long search in the National Archives in Washington, of the diaries of Professor Theo Morell, who served as Hitler’s private doctor from 1941 to 1945, provided useful information for the …

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Letters

The Historian’s Freedom December 19, 1996