“Me too” history
FRANK ELLIS finds that the best that can be said about a new biography of Hitler is that it adds nothing to our understanding
Hitler: A Short Biography
A. N. Wilson, Harper Press, London, 2012, pp.190, Notes, Bibliography
“No, no, I was saying that you, Miss Elk, were an, A.N. not A.N.N.E., expert.”
The Dinosaur Sketch, Monty Python
First published in 1952, Alan Bullock’s biography of Hitler, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny remains an effective analysis of one of the politicians that tore Europe apart in the mid-twentieth century. Other historians have followed Bullock’s trail: Ian Kershaw, David Irving and Richard Evans. In the realm of film, Bernd Eichinger’s Der Untergang (The Downfall, 2004) is also a must see for anyone interested in the rise and fall of Hitler: Bruno Ganz’s interpretation of the Führer is utterly bewitching. New and compelling source material or an examination of existing material in such a way that casts new light on the subject would certainly justify another study. So the obvious question is whether Wilson should attempt to write on a subject that has already been covered in enormous detail by serious historians, and in such a shortened format.
There are parts of the Hitler phenomenon that still require an explanation. For example, Wilson points out that Stalin and Mao killed more people than Hitler, yet
Hitler has retained his place as the Demon King of history, the ultimate horror-tyrant.
Now this is a serious question and the perfect opening and opportunity for Wilson to pursue it further. Why is the benefit of the doubt always given to Lenin, Stalin and Mao, and why when examining genocide carried out by communist regimes, as in, for example, the Holodomor and other communist crimes against humanity, does the evidentiary threshold have to be so much higher than anything suspected to have been committed by the Nazis? School curricula properly mandate that our schoolchildren learn about the Holocaust, but the 6,000,000, mainly Ukrainian, victims of the Holodomor, and the 40,000,000 + who were exterminated in Mao’s Terror Famine are passed over. Victims of communist genocide do not seem to matter. Part of the answer lies in the fact that even now, after the slaughter of tens of millions of people in the name of the equality-and-brotherhood-of-man cult, international socialism still commands loyalty.
The Wilson view of twentieth-century history, especially as it concerns the role played by the Soviet Union, is imbued with the brazen nonsense I expect to find in the work of Eric Hobsbawm. To quote Wilson:
The tragic paradox at the centre of mid- to late-twentieth-century history is that Europe, and the world, owed its deliverance from the tyranny of Hitler to the heroism of the Red Army.
Wilson clearly does not grasp what took place in Eastern Europe after 1945 or, worse still, is trying to play it down. The sort of people who are able to regard with equanimity the hideous Red Terror that was imposed on the states of Eastern Europe in the last month of the war, and long after, are fanatical Stalinists, ignoramuses or those with an agenda intended to deny the truth. The arrival of the Red Army meant class war; the mass rape of German women of all ages; mass deportations and expulsion of millions of people and the imposition of totalitarian systems which on every available index of state terror were even worse than anything created by National Socialism. Well into the 1950s, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian nationalist groups waged a no-holds-barred insurgency against the NKVD and the Red Army occupation of their countries. The Stalin state and its successors were not interested in liberation, only the imposition of totalitarian control. To describe the occupation of Eastern Europe from 1945-1989 as liberation is a gross misuse of language, no different in spirit from the Nazi ‘Arbeit macht frei’ that taunted arrivals at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Claims about Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe are obviously inconsistent with the later view – and also evidence of poor editing – that:
The war which had begun to rescue Eastern Europe from the hands of two repressive tyrannies – Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia – was about to be won by Soviet Russia.
If Wilson eventually concedes that Nazi Germany and Soviet are both ‘repressive tyrannies’ and that the Soviet Union, a ‘repressive tyranny’, liberated Eastern Europe, does this mean that Barbarossa can also be seen as a campaign of liberation, as Nazi propagandists claimed? Wilson’s claim that the war was started to rescue Eastern Europe from two repressive tyrannies is not only preposterous, but shows no grasp of the facts: Hitler started World War Two by invading Poland, and the Soviet Union, taking advantage of the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, invaded Poland from the east on 17th September 1939.
Examples of Wilson’s succumbing to the pro-Soviet narrative of the Great Fatherland War are evident when he writes:
The immense strength and skill of the Red Army and the titanic heroism of the Russian people in resisting invasion must have taken Hitler by surprise.
Wilson evades, first, the obvious fact of Stalin’s catastrophic failure to heed all the intelligence warnings of imminent invasion – mercilessly castigated by Churchill in Volume III of his history of The Second World War – and, second, the fact that the Red Army was not as competent as the German Army and that this lack of mastery had to be compensated by blood. Moreover, as Joachim Hoffmann has pointed out, the willingness of so many Soviet citizens, including Russians, among them General Andrei Vlasov, to collaborate with the German invaders reveals the fundamental lack of legitimacy enjoyed by the Soviet state. A third point is that Wilson shows no understanding of the critical difference between ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’ (or between Ukrainian and Soviet and Belorussian and Soviet and so on). Soviet was a Marxist-Leninist construct designed to eradicate – psychologically, culturally and physically – any sense of national identity (just like its successor cult multiculturalism).
Turning to the rise of Hitler, Wilson conflates Darwin and the survival of the fittest with the Nazis. The survival of the fittest is not a doctrine that justifies genocide. It explains why some living creatures, being unable to adapt to changes, are less successful, less fit for purpose – the primary purpose being survival – than others, and so are either marginalised or perish. The survival of the fittest does not exclude the extermination of rivals in order to survive, but rivals are just one of the problems that must be overcome as the living being confronts the challenges of its environment. Success in war also reveals fitness for purpose (survival) since superior intelligence, itself an evolutionary adaptation, will mean that the more intelligent tribes, races, populations will produce better weapons and thus be able to destroy or to dominate rivals.
Wilson would also have us believe that the spectre that was stalking Europe was not communism but bankruptcy. According to this view, bankruptcy was the major factor in the rise of Hitler. The Weimar hyperinflation and the Wall Street crash played their part – of this there is no doubt – in radicalising the German middle class, but it was the provisions of the Versailles Treaty (in Germany) and fear of communism which fuelled the growth and rise of the nationalist reaction embodied in National Socialism and Italian Fascism. Bankruptcy alone cannot explain the rise of Hitler.
Wilson’s interpretation of Hitler – his origins, military service in World War One and political qualities – says more about Wilson than it does about Hitler. Is it true or even broadly consonant with what is known about Hitler to maintain that:
For twelve years, this man who had no obvious talent for anything except public speaking, the manipulation of crowds, and the manipulation of individuals through emotional bullying, dominated European history.
If this was the real Hitler that dominated Europe for twelve years, what does it tell us about the rest of Europe? It strikes me as grotesquely inadequate in historical terms to portray Hitler in this way. Only a unique individual and one with exceptional abilities could have achieved power in the circumstances that obtained in Germany between 1918 and 1933. The ends to which this power was put, having been secured, is another matter. Hitler consistently outmanoeuvred his domestic and foreign rivals. Conservative Germans – officers and politicians – who dismissed Hitler as some Bohemian, failed-artist-impostor-corporal who would be put in his place – simply failed to understand not merely the catastrophic aftermath of World War One but the nature of the forces which propelled Hitler to power and which he manipulated with consummate skill. Only a master politician could have achieved such success.
When he comes to the matter of Hitler’s winning the Iron Cross, Wilson confirms his personal agenda. He plays down any suggestion that Hitler deserved the Iron Cross, claiming that it was comparatively easy for an infantryman to win the Iron Cross, First Class, if he was in constant touch with officers. First, given that all German infantrymen were in constant touch with officers, this would suggest that German infantrymen were being showered with Iron Crosses. And how did officers secure the award of medals? Did they just make sure that they were around other, senior officers? Second, Wilson insults the competence of German officers and the bravery of all those German soldiers along with Hitler who were awarded the medal. When Wilson sneeringly dismisses the award of the Iron Cross to Hitler “for being, in effect, little more than an obedient postman”, he insults the bravery and dedication of all German (and Allied) combat runners in both world wars. Was the German Army alone in using ‘obedient postmen’? Third, the fact that Hitler was a regimental runner, somewhat back from the immediate front line is irrelevant. Artillery in World War One was one of the main causes of soldiers being killed and wounded, and German regimental headquarters and soldiers were well within range of British and French guns. Delivering messages from regimental headquarters down to battalion level involved considerable risk, especially when forward positions were under fire. Furthermore, the closer a runner is to the front line, the greater the risk of his being hit by aimed or spent small arms fire. Fourth, the fact that Hitler was wounded while sitting in a tunnel close to regimental headquarters and not while delivering messages has no bearing at all on whether Hitler deserved the Iron Cross. In all armies, awards are often made for sustained good service rather than one act of outstanding bravery. Wilson’s attempts, in the manner of some tabloid hack, to destroy any notion that Hitler deserved the award of the Iron Cross, are not serious history.
There is also a stark inconsistency in the way Wilson refers to what German officers thought about Hitler. On the one hand, mere constant contact with a German officer is sufficient to secure an Iron Cross, so the judgment of the officer that wrote the citation is suspect in Wilson’s eyes, yet when it suits him Wilson takes the assessment of Hitler’s officers that “he possessed no leadership qualities” at face value. To believe that Hitler could have got as far as he did without leadership qualities of any kind strikes me as bizarre. Hitler cannot be merely dismissed as a conjurer. Conjurer he was, but he was also a master tactician. Master conjurers might instantly recognise the audacious brilliance of Erich von Manstein’s plan to defeat the Anglo-French armies in the summer of 1940, but the plan still requires tanks, superior leadership and tactical doctrine. Nor does it matter that the conjurer is not the best dressed man about town, or that he is constantly farting. I mention the latter since Wilson informs the reader that Hitler suffered from excessive farting – the technical term is meteorism – caused by his vegetarian diet. Later, the reader learns that
Hitherto, since the First World War, his [Hitler’s] career had been one of meteoric ascendance.
Perhaps this explains why politics stink and why so many vegetarians are misanthropic megalomaniacs.
Again, as with the clumsy and spiteful attempts to render unworthy the award of the Iron Cross to Hitler, Wilson makes a fool of himself when he expects us to believe that
it was the very fact of his limitations which gave him such strength. He had few abilities and it was these which carried him along.
The question here is how did this apparent non-entity who enjoyed none of the social privileges and economic advantages of, say, Churchill, manage to gain control of Germany, then consolidate his power in a series of brilliant internal and external coups, oversee, and make contributions to, the military destruction of the British and French in the summer of 1940 (the most immaculate military campaign in history?). Was this success merely down to an astonishing gift for public oratory alone?
Any attempt that Wilson makes to present this deadly serious subject is repeatedly undermined by the author’s exaggerated snobbery. Thus, he tells us that Göring cut a “preposterous figure”. So what? Göring was a highly intelligent individual and as a World War One air ace, was awarded the Pour le mérite, Germany’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Likewise, when Wilson tells us that Goebbels was “a shameless liar”, he fails to realise that being a shameless liar, and in the case of Goebbels a highly effective one, is the ideal qualification for someone who is head of propaganda. A majority of politicians in all political systems are, in any case, shameless and psychopathic liars. Unfortunately for many of them, they are not in the same class as Dr Goebbels. On the subject of lying and propaganda, Nazi exploitation of the 1936 Olympics to support Nazi views of a racial élite, which Wilson singles out for criticism, is no different in principle from the way xenophiles exploited the London Olympics in 2012 in order to disseminate and to promote the neo-Marxist worldview of multiculturalism.
Wilson’s snobbery is not only irrelevant, it contributes to a distorted picture of his primary subject. According to Wilson, Hitler was
…the cringing lower middle-class man who felt ill at ease with his social or military superiors and would do all in his oleaginous power to be ingratiating.
Like any politician seeking favours, Hitler could be ingratiating, yet all the evidence suggests that it was not Hitler who was ill at ease in the presence of people who, before his ascent to power, would have been considered his social and military superiors. It was the other way round. As Führer, Hitler enjoyed not just the formal authority emanating from his status as head of the Third Reich and NSDAP but dominated, perhaps mesmerised, his generals and civilian administrators; and when some of them eventually betrayed him very late in the war (20th July 1944) they were shown no mercy. In most contexts, Wilson’s snobbery would be a minor irritant, a symptom of his own sense of social inadequacy. However, it becomes a serious impediment to serious analysis when it prevents him from seeing through superficial trappings such as clothing and status. Thus, he describes Goebbels’s wife as “tragically majestic”.
Magda Goebbels – brilliantly interpreted by Corinna Harfouch in Der Untergang – colluded with the SS doctor in Hitler’s bunker in order to poison her children. I see no aureole of majesty here. I see a demonic figure straight out of the pages of Dostoevsky. Where others in the Third Reich and in the Soviet Union succumbed to evil, unable to resist because they knew not what they did, this woman knowingly and willingly embraced evil in the deliberate pursuit of moral depravity and perversity.
Should historical outcomes other than those that occurred be taken seriously? Wilson speculates whether Hitler might have been stopped had the British and French been firmer only to tell us over the page that:
Events unfolded as they did. To ask whether things could have happened otherwise is the task not of history but of the parlour game.
Given that history is our only guide to the future, it most certainly is the task of historians and military thinkers to consider what might have happened. Resolutely inconsistent Wilson plays the very parlour game he has earlier condemned when he asks:
What would have happened if Chamberlain and Daladier, the French premier, had moved in troops and tanks and planes to help the Czechs?
There are a number of serious errors of fact in what is a very short essay. First, Britain did not go to war in 1939 to defend Jews: we went to war because of recklessly given guarantees to Poland, one of the most virulently anti-Semitic nations in Europe. Second, it was Germany that pioneered terror bombing, not Churchill. Third, it is not the case that Rommel ‘was largely responsible for the defeat of France’.
Fourth, the invasion of Poland was launched on 1st September 1939, not 3rd September, as claimed by Wilson. A half-competent copy editor would have identified this gross error: 3rd September 1939 marks the day when Britain declared war on Germany.
These errors of fact are often accompanied by some bizarre assertions. For example, Wilson makes the claim that the Normandy landings were accomplished “with terrible loss of life on all sides”. The landings were a personal triumph for General Montgomery. Complete tactical surprise was achieved, and by the end of 6th June 1944 thousands of Allied soldiers and their equipment were ashore. Considering the scale of this operation Allied losses were low (c. 12,000 killed and wounded). Moreover, the deception plan – Operation Fortitude – convinced the Germans that Normandy was a feint and so Panzer divisions that might have tipped the balance had they been deployed were not deployed but were kept in reserve in anticipation of the major landing at Calais. By the time the Germans realised that Normandy was the main landing ground it was too late. Poor copy editing also failed to pick up Wilson’s erroneous use of “to beg the question” which he uses to mean the same thing as “to raise the question”. Wilson shares this failing in common with other tabloid journalists and the BBC.
Wilson’s real purpose in writing this short biography is not to inform, but to parade his politically correct credentials and to demonstrate that he is not a secret fan of the Führer. In other words, what we are being offered in Hitler: A Short Biography is a declaration of the author’s loyalty to the politically correct ideology of our time, a contribution to the genre of confessional tabloid journalism, certainly not to serious history. I am reminded of the concluding lines of 1984:
Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
At least poor old Winston went down fighting. For his part, Wilson has headed in the direction indicated by the weather vane on top of Broadcasting House: it is so much easier – and less troublesome professionally – to poke fun at Hitler rather than to explore the fundamentals which say something about the good, the evil and the depraved in all human beings and in all political systems.
Dr. FRANK ELLIS is a former soldier and academic, and a military historian. His latest book is The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army (University of Kansas Press, 2013). © Frank Ellis 2013