The Bunker: The History of the Reich Chancellery Group
On Trial at Nuremberg
The Secretary: Martin Bormann, The Man Who Manipulated Hitler
Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power, 1919-1933
Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult
A Backward Look: Germans Remember
“It all reads like a movie scenario,” writes James P. O’Donnell at one point, as he recounts the lurid goings-on in Hitler’s underground bunker in Berlin in 1945—the wish, no doubt, being father to the thought. The same verdict, unfortunately, applies to far too much recent writing about Nazi Germany. In part, I suppose, we must attribute this to the success of “Holocaust,” and the prospect it holds out of another golden jackpot for another lucky author. But I suspect the trouble reaches further back—to Walter Langer and his progeny of psychohistorians.1 Once historians began prying into Hitler’s sex life and alleged sexual aberrations, anything was permissible, provided it was sordid, scurrilous, and scandalous enough.
On this score no one will find James P. O’Donnell’s book disappointing. It has, I am informed, “been getting a lot of attention.” Scandal and prurience apart, I cannot think why. Someone, I suppose, may be titillated by learning (if it is true) that Albert Speer was involved with the film star Leni Riefenstahl, or that Eva Braun’s sister, Gretl, “the nymphomaniac of the Obersalzberg,” may (or may not) have had an abortion performed by the notorious Dr. Morell. Even if true, this sort of gossip is hardly going to affect our judgment of the Nazi phenomenon or help us to understand its hold over the German people.
The question whether it is true does not appear to worry Mr. O’Donnell unduly. His “composite account,” as he calls it, is distilled from interviews with fifty or more garrulous, vindictive, vain, self-serving, quarrelsome old men, who contradict each other at almost every point. Even if they were honest—and some certainly were lying or embroidering, not least of all Albert Speer, who figures high on Mr. O’Donnell’s list of “major witnesses”—it would be a miracle, after thirty years, if their memories were reliable. But Mr. O’Donnell, so he tells us, is not concerned with “historical truth.” What he is looking for is “psychological truth.”
If I confess that I find this distinction somewhat baffling, I suppose I shall be accused of being simple-minded. It is a risk I shall have to take, and since I am committed (pedantically, no doubt) to what Mr. O’Donnell calls “the kind of documentation an academic historian insists on,” I cannot pretend that his book fills me with enthusiasm. In any case, once you have subtracted long, involved, and inherently improbable stories, such as the saga of the imaginary spy “whimsically called Mata O’Hara,” it tells you nothing of substance about the last days of Hitler that you cannot find, more persuasively, in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic account, published as long ago as 1947. 2 Mr. O’Donnell, to his credit, describes Trevor-Roper’s book as “basically accurate.” I wish I could say as much of his.
The difference between Trevor-Roper’s book and Mr. O’Donnell’s is that the former had a serious practical purpose—namely, to scotch possible rumors that Hitler might still be alive—whereas the object of the latter, not to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.