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London, Saturday, February 10, 2001
Dominick Donald on the biographers' Führer
One hundred Hitlers
IN its 1997, American edition this book described David Irving as an admirer of Hitler and attacked his scholarship, accusing him of twisting documentary sources. Irving put Lukács's British literary agent on notice that he would take advantage of this country's more plaintiff-friendly libel laws if it saw publication here. Only when the allegations were upheld in an associated case in the High Court last year could publication of the book go ahead in Britain -- though what has emerged is a much less incisive attack on Irving. The publisher appears to have made the emollient changes before the High Court judgment.
In itself, this book is an example of historiography: the history of the study of history. But anyone alarmed by reminders of dreadful set texts at school or university can calm their beating hearts. Though The Hitler of History has its arid moments, it reads more like a lively biography than anything else. Much of the historiography proper -- and the academic sniping -- is reserved for the footnotes. The book addresses the key questions about the character and phenomenon of Hitler by comparing the material of more than 100 biographies of him, and the picture it draws is convincing. The key to Hitler's ideology, and his shift from colourless insignificant to dangerous charismatic, lies in the failed Bolshevik republic in Munich in 1919, rather than Vienna, pre-war Bavaria or the trenches. He was a revolutionary rather than a reactionary, closer to socialism than to conservatism, and he used his sense of the pro-gressive to retain massive German popular support until the end.
He also understood the importance of Christianity to the German people. An essentially secretive man, he always tailored his message to his audience and yet was able simultaneously to believe in two or more explicitly contradictory ideas. He was a product of German history, though not an inevitable one. Other questions, Lukacs acknowledges, remain unanswerable. How did Hitler spend the three months of Bavaria's Red Terror? Did he ever give an order for the Final Solution? Above all, whence came his apparently utterly irrational loathing of Jewish people? Lukács's intelligence and mastery of his sources provide a far more nuanced, convincing Hitler than most of the biographers he examines, but his vision fails him in his assessment of Hitler as strategist. Yet here, too, there are shafts of insight. The idea that Hitler fought on after December 1941 believing that a victory of annihilation was impossible for either side -- and so directed his strategy at causing one of the three principal Allies to make a negotiated peace -- rings true, as does the assessment that Hitler's true strategic gift was in his instinct for others' weakness. But much of the rest of this chapter strikes one as wrong.
For instance, he credits Hitler with correctly understanding the novel supremacy of land power over maritime, made possible by military motorisation. But it was exactly this understanding that doomed the Third Reich. Hitler could not win the war if he lost the battle at sea; the Allies could not win it if they failed to defeat the Axis on land. By gradually shifting resources away from the only battle that might conceivably have driven Britain and America to peace -- the Battle of the Atlantic -- Hitler ensured his eventual defeat.
Meanwhile, Lukács's explanation of one of the most baffling questions -- why did Hitler declare war against the US in December 1941? -- is frankly feeble. He says Hitler could hardly renege on his alliance with Japan by refusing to abide by its first article, a simultaneous declaration of war. But Hitler had always ignored agreements that had served their purpose, and his dealings with Tokyo had none of the strong personal and ideological ties that caused him to launch disastrous enterprises on Mussolini's behalf. If he had let the Japanese fight the USA on their own, Roosevelt would eventually have turned on Germany; but the intervening period would have provided the breathing space Hitler so desperately needed.
Yet the book's major flaw remains the fault of the publishers rather than the author. Since its original publication, David Irving's libel suit and Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners have twice brought historiography into the British headlines. Ian Kershaw's massive, widely hailed two-volume biography has also shed considerable light on Hitler. It would have been interesting to get Lukács's take on all these issues, yet none -- not even the Irving trial, probably the most exciting thing ever to happen in historiography -- gets a mention. And the book is subtitled Hitler's Biographers on Trial.
Anyone who wants an intelligent, cohesive, generally convincing analysis of Hitler's character through the medium of those who have written about him will be entirely happy with The Hitler of History as it stands. Anyone who wants context for the news events of the last four years should wait for another edition.
1. See our legal index on Hungarian-born Mr Lukács (who claimed in the Philadelphia Inquirer to have forsworn his Jewish birth). This will make plain that any publisher would have been foolish to reprint the Lukács book without requiring him to get his facts straight first, as Weidenfeld & Nicolson did.
2. Mr Lukács is deeply envious of the Hitler historians who researched the subject properly and at first hand.
3. Mr Lukács did not speak to a single member of Hitler's staff before, during, or after writing this book. His London publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson assured Mr Irving as recently as December 2000 that their lawyers had cut all the libels -- i.e. defamatory lies -- about him out of the English text. ¡Vamos a ver.!
4. The Guardian has its own private reasons for smearing David Irving further: Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Gitta Sereny are defendants in David Irving's next "exciting" libel action.