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David Irving - "The War Between the Generals"

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March 18, 1981 

Books Of The Times

Date: March 8, 1981, Sunday, Late City Final Edition
Section 7; Page 12, Column 3; Book Review Desk


War Between the GeneralsAN AMATEUR HISTORIAN

The War Between the Generals. Inside the Allied High Command. By David Irving. Illustrated. 446 pp. New York: Congdon & Lattes. $17.95.


IN June 1944 the armies of the English-speaking democracies crossed the English Channel to land in France. Though the German enemy did not surrender until 11 months later, they were already beaten and they knew it, even though they were not admitting it. The campaign had its dramatic episodes - the landing, the race across France, the German counterattack in the Ardennes - but, all in all, it was not the kind of campaign to excite the interest of future military historians.

THE superiority of the Allies was overwhelming; their generals were cautious. Sir Bernard Montgomery was cautious and conservative; Dwight D. Eisenhower was cautious and unimaginative - though George S. Patton, who also knew that the Germans in front of him were weaker than his army, would on occasion strain at the leash. This Allied campaign had many things in common with the last Allied offensive against the Germans in 1918 and even with the allied powers' offensive against Napoleon in 1814, long before motorization and air power. There was one big difference, however. In 1944 the Allied armies faced a fraction of the power of their enemies. Threefourths of the German armies were chewed up by the Russians in the East. At the end of the war the Anglo-American armies could have captured Berlin; the Germans melted away before them. For complex reasons, the roots of which lie within the character of Eisenhower, the eventual world leader of anti-Communism refused in 1945 to listen to Sir Winston Churchill and to advance to the German capital.

There was another difference between this campaign and those of the past. The Anglo-American armies (unlike the Russian ones) moved ahead amidst reams of paper. This war was democratic and bureaucratic. The signals, the logs, the diaries, the records, the memoranda of the generals would fill an entire Pentagon. In the progress of the armies this mass of paper was often a handicap. In the progress of certain historians - especially those who believe (or pretend to believe) that history consists of documents (which of course is not the case) - it is often an advantage.

David Irving is an amateur historian, and an indefatigable collector of documents. There is nothing wrong in this: Many of the best historians are not, and have not been, professionals. However, Mr. Irving is one of the worst contemporary historians.

Such a damning contention must be illustrated. Despite the long list of sources at the end of the book (including a "David Irving Author's Archives" that wags like the tail of an eager dog), the book does not include a single reference for his quotes; they are not verifiable. Furthermore, Mr. Irving often pretends to know not only what certain people may have said but what they may have imagined. "(Patton)," he writes, "actually dreams of using the surviving German divisions in his army sector for a drive against what he now considers the true enemy - the Soviet Union." "It would be a tragedy, (Eisenhower) thinks, if the shameful realities should leak out. He has pledged himself to prevent it. ... The big cover-up is beginning."

Mr. Irving's factual errors are beyond belief. He says that "forty per cent of the prisoners" in southern France "turned out to be Russians who had volunteered to fight for Germany against Stalin." Mr. Irving writes of the "famous tank country" of Lower Saxony (there is no such thing), and that in April 1945 "the German resistance was becoming increasingly determined" (at a time when the Germans had begun to surrender in droves). He writes that the Battle of Verdun "annihilated hundreds of thousands of both British, French, and German youth. An eighteen-year-old Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler was wounded there." There were no British troops at Verdun. Adolf Hitler never fought at Verdun. In 1916 he was 27, not 18. Now we come to the essence of the matter, which is that one cannot separate the history from the historian. Mr. Irving's methods are not merely bad; they are abominable. In this book, as in certain of his earlier books, one of his purposes is to rehabilitate Hitler. No writer should be condemned merely because of his opinions. I can imagine a writer (though I have not yet read one) who might say: "Look, there is something to be said for Hitler's vision of the world. He was wrong in many ways, and what he said often led to awful and evil consequences, but he also said ...and ...and ...- therefore we must admit that he was not a madman, and that he was not wrong in everything." But this is not how Mr. Irving proceeds. He not only tells his readers that Hitler was an able man (which, alas, in many ways he was), but tries to convince them that he was a man morally superior to his opponents.

He does this, in a sly way, by denigrating Hitler's opponents. Hitler was "unlike his myopic generals." The attempt of the German patriots to kill Hitler was "treachery." Charles de Gaulle was "shabby." And it seems that the French did not really wish to be liberated: "The French - at least in Normandy - were none too pleased to be invaded. Things had apparently not been so bad before the Allies came." "In a reflective act of self-preservation," many of the Frenchmen "seized arms to aid Rommel's army against the death-dealing newcomers ..." The Resistance in France was "a witchhunt ... a winter of long knives"; in Belgium it had turned into "a Frankenstein creature." The liberation of Paris consisted of the French "looting and rioting." The Americans "vandalized, robbed, raped, murdered," and "bored GIs used their firearms indiscriminately against the French."

Mr. Irving's language gives him away. His list of American atrocities against German prisoners is long; German atrocities against American prisoners are insubstantial rumors. There are "the proud SS divisions," while "GI morale was breaking down." "Several hundred" American pilots deserted to Switzerland and Sweden. "Most of the wounds" in one American field hospital were "self-inflicted." Again and again he refers to American "cowardice," and to "the American crime wave sweeping France." "At about this time, Eisenhower had offered pardons to the American soldiers in military prisons if they would take up arms and fight. He was not encouraged to hear that only a few, those with long sentences, had accepted the offer." In Italy, the American black troops "had turned and run." The Women's Army Corps was "promiscuous," and the women of the Red Cross were "hangers-on and camp followers."

Mr. Irving is an Englishman: still he is contemptuous of his own people. His bete noire is Churchill: "lying in an enormous bed, the color of a pink wax cherub." He "was aiming to cut off his nose to spite his face." Churchill is "crabby," "ailing," "peevish," on one occasion his "tears skidding down one fat cheek." His brain was "befuddled." Before the Germans were to fire their rockets at England, "official London began to empty, as word of this ugly development was passed among the privileged few." When the rockets appeared, "once again the maddened London crowds had taken to the subway tunnels."

As may now be clear, one of Mr. Irving's most reprehensible habits is to ascribe his own opinions and preferences to others, without a single verifiable quote: Patton "was torn by the sight of what the Allies had done" to the Germans. At the end of the war "there is no question that Patton had come to admire the Germans, the very people he had been fighting. Everything he saw of Russians, Poles, and Jews aroused loathing in him ... By mid-September he was describing the Jews as 'lower than animals' - he had by then toured many of their refugee camps and been sickened by the aspect." An American general was supposed to have said that "the Allied propaganda about the Germans was evidently untrue." Here are three items that come in rapid succession: John McCloy telephones Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to tell him that in the matter of the Morgenthau Plan "the Semites ... had won"; Churchill was "animated" by the Morgenthau Plan because of "the possibility of increasing British postwar exports at Germany's expense"; the discipline of the United States Army was "already crumbling."

Meanwhile, the Allied generals lived in the midst of "ascending degrees of opulence." Montgomery could defeat the Germans only "by brute force." How "very shallow Montgomery's mind was." Patton, too, was "foul-mouthed ... a swaggering hothead who womanized ceaselessly and lived in dread of his wife's finding out." In Sicily, Patton found General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, "cowering behind a sheltering ridge." Later, Smith "had actually sold U.S. government weapons in order to pay for the fancy shotgun being made for him."

All of this sounds like a Nazi propaganda pamphlet, which it isn't. It is an attempt at a thoroughly researched, objective military history, detailing the arguments, the quarrels, the posturings and the incompatibilities of American and British generals. These things existed; yet Mr. Irving relishes strategy less than gossip, mostly sexual, about the generals' mistresses, or about the number of condoms Patton "ordered" before going on leave to London. The trouble is not that Mr. Irving is an amateur historian; it is that he is a professional writer. The trouble is not only that many of his "facts" are wrong and that his political preferences are often vile; it is that he does not have the courage to admit his beliefs. He knows that neo-Nazi books are hardly publishable, and that they will not make money. In fact, this book is written not for ex-Nazis or neo-Nazis but for the broadest possible American audience.

And so we arrive at the crowning example of Mr. Irving's dishonesty. How does he end his book? Here is the next to the last paragraph, his summing up of the "Eisenhower-Montgomery relationship": "It would be churlish to dwell on the differences between these two great commanders in chief ... The victory which the Allies won, against fearsome odds, was due not just to the wonders of Ultra, the superiority of Anglo-American air power, and the rightness of their cause. It owed much to the fine generalship displayed by their senior commanders." Who were these fine commanders? "Generals," he wrote earlier, who "paid courtesy visits to each other, compared notes and plans, sharpened knives, and slapped each other on the back - feeling for the right place to plunge the blade when the time came." So much for the courage of Mr. Irving's convictions.

John Lukacs is the author of "The Last European War, 1939-1941" and of "1945: Year Zero." "Philadelphia: Patricians and Philistines" will be published this spring.

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