Hitler's War

by Gordon A. Craig | July 9, 1977

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Hitler’s War
by David Irving
(Viking; $17.50)


The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler
by Robert G.L. Waite
(Basic Books; $13.50)


About a year ago, Jean Améry, inspired by a rash of new books and films about National Socialism, wrote an article for the Frankfurter Rundschau in which he warned that "the time of rehabilitation" was dawning. "In England one will discover that Oswald Mosley was not such a fool after all. In France a bemused public opinion will weigh Pétain and Laval on scales brought by false weights to a pseudo-historical balance. And in Germany? After all the measures of classification and qualification have been taken, Hitler wilt not be denied his place in the hall of honor. . . . We are already being told that historical objectivity lies beyond good and evil, which means that evil will be relegated without discrimination to the files, and good will vanish from the day's agenda."

We have perhaps not got that far yet, but anyone who reads David Irving's mammoth book will not be inclined to reject Améry’s hypothesis out of hand. For the picture that emerges from what Irving describes as an attempt to scrub "years of grime and discoloration from the facade of a silent and forbidding monument" in order to reveal the true Hitler underneath is certainly not that of the Hitler we knew. Irving's Fuehrer is less brutal and ruthless, less culpable, more human, and more deserving of our sympathy, since be is always being let down or victimized by others. "We shall see," Irving says of the 1942 campaign in Russia, "how through the stubbornness of his army generals like Bock and Hoth and the persistent inadequacy of the army's supply arrangements. Hitler was cheated of the ultimate autumn victory." The choice of verb here is significant, and this is not the only time in this long book in which we are invited to range ourselves on the side of an aggrieved dictator.

This lack of critical distance is partly the result of the way in which the author has chosen to tell his story, "This book," he says in his introduction, "views the situation as far as possible through Hitler's eyes, from behind his desk"; and this is indeed what it does, following for the most part a strict chronological order, with few pauses for retrospective comment or even for periodic assessments of the state of affairs on the different fighting fronts and occupied areas. This method has the advantage of bringing the scene in Hitler's headquarters to the reader with an immediacy that more analytical accounts cannot provide, and, thanks to the success with which Irving has sought out new material and testimony from people who were close to Hitler in the war years, of supplying him with vivid impressions of the way in which the Fuehrer reacted to momentary situations.

On the other hand, while this focus on the Fuehrerhauptquartier brings Hitler closer to the reader, it removes the real war to a distance so remote that it is often difficult to know exactly what is going on. Because of the author's preference for taking things a day at a time and his reluctance to differentiate between significant and trivial detail, events and problems surface and disappear again before we have time to grasp their importance. One looks in vain for a critique of Goering's conduct of the air offensive against the British Isles, an explanation of the significance of the Vienna Award in Hitler's preparations for war against Russia, a systematic analysis of the deficiencies of the war production program, or a description of what exactly went wrong in the battle of the Kursk salient.

Moreover, and this is more important, when judgments are made, they are Hitler's judgments, and they are uncontested. Thus, the Fuehrer's often reiterated contention that British persistence in pursuing the war after the fall of France was irrational and self-destructive and that peace was theirs for the asking is unaccompanied by an explanation of the British reasons for rejecting any kind of truce with Germany. Similarly, Hitler's attribution of all military setbacks to the incompetence or disloyalty of the General Staff and the commanding generals is not balanced by any appraisal of his own deficiencies as a commander, which included, among other things, an irresponsible profligacy in respect to material and human resources. In a reconstruction of Hitler's thinking in October 1941, Irving describes him as agonizing over German losses in the field ("What would be left of Germany and the flower of her manhood?"). Before one takes this too seriously, he should remember that this was the same Hitler who, when told somewhat later on of the high casualties among junior officers on the Russian front, said, "But that's what the young people are there for!"

Irving's generosity toward Hitler assumes its most excessive form in his treatment of the Final Solution, "I found, " he says in a statement that is bound to raise eyebrows in the historical fraternity, "that Hitler's own role in the 'Final Solution of the Jewish Problem' has never been examined. . . . Bald statements were made, legends were created, blame was laid, without a shadow of historical evidence in support." The fact is, he goes on to argue, that there is no proof of Hitler's having ordered the liquidation of the Jews; whereas, on the contrary, there is "incontrovertible evidence" that he forbade it. Irving's belief is that Hitler wanted to get the Jews out of Germany and the lands of the west and that he decreed that they should all be swept into eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the SS authorities, Gauleiters, and regional governors and commissars in the east "proved wholly unequal to the problems caused by this mass uprooting in midwar." They simply "liquidated the deportees as their trains arrived," a procedure that Hitler knew nothing about until October 1943, if not later.

Irving tells us indignantly that his German publishers, without consulting him, suppressed or reversed these views on the grounds that they were "an affront to established historical opinion" in their country. This action was certainly high-handed, but one sees their point of view. The fact that there is no written evidence of Hitler's ordering the Final Solution is not surprising, given the enormity of the action and the potential results of its revelation. The "incontrovertible" proof of Hitler's forbidding it, however, boils down to a single notation in Heinrich Himmler's telephone log, dated 30 November 1941 and reading cryptically, "Keine Liquidierung" ["No liquidation"]. It is difficult to prove anything from this, and the German editor may have been correct in amending Irving's text to say that it meant only that Hitler wanted no public mention of liquidation.

It is difficult in any case to understand why Mr. Irving makes so much of Himmler's note, when one considers how often Hitler spoke publicly and privately of his intention to exterminate (ausrotten) the Jews. Leaving aside such early statements as the speech of 1920 in which he promised to wipe them out mit Stitmpf und Stiel, the repetitions of this intention on the eve of the war and during the conflict itself are numerous. They include a statement to the Czech foreign minister in January 1930 ("We are going to destroy the Jews. . . . The day of reckoning has come!"), a speech to the Reichstag in the same month ("If international finance Jewry . . . should succeed once more in plunging the people into a world war, then the consequence will not be a Bolshevization of the world and therewith a victory of Jewry, but, on the contrary, the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe!"), speeches of 30 January 1941, 30 January 1942 (immediately after the notorious Wannsee conference), 24 February, 30 September, and 8 November 1942, and statements to his associates and his military staff.

If these matters of public record—and a statement of Himmler's of May 1944, intimating that he did have superior orders, which Irving refuses to accept as valid—are not sufficient to establish Hitler's culpability, supporting evidence of a different kind is supplied by Robert G. L. Waite's book The Psychopathic God. After reminding us of Theodor Heuss's statement that anti-Semitism was as important to Hitler as economics was to Marx and that a racially pure community was to him a goal equivalent to Marx's projected Communist society, Waite uses psychological analysis to argue that the destruction of Jewry was not peripheral to Hitler's thinking but a central and necessary objective that sustained and gave meaning to his life. It was an obsession that resulted from the trauma of his childhood, which led him to project upon the Jews all of the perversions to which he was, or feared he was, personally prone. Genocide was the means by which he freed himself from guilt and, at the same time, a displacement of his own preoccupation with suicide. In the end, it also became a compensation for self-doubt and approaching defeat. The data that Mr. Waite adduces to support these conclusions cannot he reproduced here, but to this untutored mind they are persuasive.

The Psychopathic God—the title is from Auden's poem "September 1, 1939," in which the poet expressed the hope that accurate scholarship might

find what occurred at Linz,
            What huge imago made

            A psychopathic god—

deserves to be considered on its own merits rather than as a mere foil to Irving's book. Unlike some other "psycho-historians," its author does not make the mistake of claiming too much for his approach to his subject, while at the same time being unyielding in his view that, if traditional methods of historical analysis and common sense are indispensable to any study of Hitler's career, they are inadequate for the investigation of his personal life and its influence upon his public activity. He believes that Hitler 'must be seen at the same time as both a mentally deranged human being and a consummately skillful politician of high intelligence." To treat him solely as a rational statesman, as A. J. P. Taylor, among others, has done, is as mistaken as to become wholly absorbed in his abnormalities. The historian must try to work on both levels and to seek connections between them, in the knowledge that he will often have to resort to guesswork and that "as an act of imaginative reconstruction, his work will remain fallible, flawed and incomplete."

Waite goes about this difficult task soberly and methodically. The bulk of his book is composed of four solid and well documented sections on Hitler's personality and salient traits of character, his artistic interests and the genesis of his political ideas, his infancy, childhood and youth (a section in which the author has relied upon formal psychology to analyze Hitler's abnormal relationship with his father and his mother, the anxieties caused by his physical deficiencies, and the identity crises of his youth), and the historical background against which he began his political career. In his final chapter, he brings all of these strands together in an analysis of Hitler as a "border-line personality" in whom the tension between private neurosis and public policy finally led to a compulsive need to destroy what he had created.

Traditional historians may feel that, in his discussion of Hitler's attitude toward sex, Waite makes too much of the Fuehrer's missing testicle and his alleged tendency to coprophilia and that he draws the bow too far in arguing in his concluding pages that the halting of the armor at Dunkirk and Hitler's declaration of war on the United States were examples of his death wish. (The tank decision was as much Rundstedt's as Hitler's, and the declaration of war was induced not by a realization that the war was already lost but by the euphoria —'The turning point!" Hitler cried. "Now it is impossible for us to lose the war!"—caused by the news of Pearl Harbor.) But it would be a mistake to be captious. This is an interesting and an instructive book.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977 issue of the magazine

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