International Campaign for Real History
Quick navigation
Alphabetical site index (text)link


John Keegan, Defence Correspondent of The Daily Telegraph [seen in our picture receiving his knighthood on May 3, 2000]

THE role of leadership in the Second World War invests biography with particular importance. There is a wealth of biographical, and autobiographical, material. Churchill and de Gaulle, indeed, both completed accounts of their war experience which succeed as both history and memoir.

Sir John KeeganThe most valuable of books in this category, however, in my view, is one that has been called "the autobiography Hitler did not write" -- David Irving's Hitler's War. Irving is a controversial figure, an Englishman who has identified with the German war experience to a remarkable degree, who has offered a cash award to anyone producing written evidence of Hitler's authorisation of the "Final Solution," and who currently champions extreme right-wing politics in Europe. Nevertheless, he is a historian of formidable powers, having worked in all the major German archives, discovered important deposits of papers himself, and interviewed many of the survivors of their families and intimates.

Hitler's War is unique in that it recounts the war exclusively from the German side, and through the day-by-day thinking and doings of Adolf Hitler. For Irving, Hitler is not a monster but the rational war leader of a great power, seeking to guide it to victory over other great powers whose policies are as self-interested as Germany's. He is nonetheless, a lonelier figure than Churchill or Roosevelt, and bears psychological burdens they did not. At least twice, during the Dunkirk campaign of 1940 and after the failure of the Stalingrad offensive in 1942-43, he experienced something akin to a nervous breakdown, short-lived in 1940 but prolonged in 1943. His loss of self-confidence after Stalingrad devolved power onto his subordinates, notably Zeitzler, his army chief of staff, and thereby drew Germany into the unwise Kursk offensive, which lost the Wehrmacht its tank reserve and so consigned it thereafter to fighting on the defensive. The picture Irving presents of Hitler is of a struggler amid great events, brilliantly successful at first, progressively borne down by circumstance as the odds lengthen against him, but resilient to the very end. If she accuses him of a single mistake, it is that of declaring war against the United States in the week of Pearl Harbor, a step nothing in the Tripartite Pact obliged him to do and against which Ribbentrop his foreign minister, argued in vain.

Yet, Irving's Hitler is throughout a man knows better what is good for Germany than do any of his helpmates or subordinates, who has recurrent flashes of military genius, who sacrifices his physical health to his cause, who eschews any personal friendship except that with an idealised German people itself. Among his co-operators, only Goebbels, his minister of propaganda, approaches him in vision and competence. The rest, even Himmler, self-proclaimed truest of the true, ultimately think of themselves. It is they who are responsible for the crassest error -- the policy of genocide foremost -- and who betray both the leader and their country.

No historian of the Second World War can afford to ignore Irving. His depiction of Hitler, by its relation of the war's development to the decisions and responses of Führer headquarters, is a key corrective to the Anglo-Saxon version, which relates the war's history solely in terms of Churchillian defiance and of the Grand Alliance. Nevertheless, it is a flawed vision, for it is untouched by moral judgement. For Irving, the Second World War was a war like other wars -- a naked struggle for national self-interest -- and Hitler, one war leader among others. Yet, the Second World War must engage our moral sense. Its destructiveness, its disruption of legal and social order, were on a scale so disordinate that it cannot be viewed as a war among other wars; its opposition of ideologies, democratic versus totalitarian, none the less stark because democracy perforce allied itself with one form of totalitarianism in the struggle against another, invariably invests the war with moral content; above all, Hitler's institution of genocide demands a moral commitment.



Extract from John Keegan, The Battle for History: Refighting World War Two (Hutchinson, London, 1996).

© Focal Point 1999 write to David Irving