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April 16, 1981 


Books Of The Times


Date: May 28, 1989, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 21, Column 1; Book Review Desk Byline: Lead:


Göring. A Biography. By David Irving. Illustrated. 573 pp. New York: William Morrow & Company. $22.95. Text:


Peter Hoffmann's most recent book is "German Resistance to Hitler."

DAVID IRVING's detailed and richly documented biography of Hermann Göring is one in a series of deliberately controversial works by one of the most successful researchers on Nazi Germany. Göring was born in Bavaria in 1893, the son of the governor of German South-West Africa (Namibia). He grew up in a castle near Nuremberg and in a suburb of Berlin, was educated in the elite officer cadet schools at Karlsruhe and Berlin-Lichterfelde, became a highly decorated fighter pilot in World War I and at its end was for a short time commander of the Richthofen wing.

After 1918 he worked in Danish and Swedish aviation enterprises, and he had a long affair with a Swedish countess, whom he married after her divorce. In 1922 he joined Hitler's Nazi Party and became leader of the SA (storm troopers). He took part in Hitler's abortive 1923 Putsch and fled to Austria, then to Italy and Sweden. In 1928 he returned to Germany and was elected a Nazi Reichstag deputy. In 1932, as chairman of the strongest faction, he became Speaker of the Reichstag.

With Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor in 1933, Göring became Prussian Minister of the Interior, with full authority over the regular and secret state police forces; he was thus a key figure in the usurpation-and-consolidation phase of Hitler's dictatorship. By April 1933 he was also Prussian Minister-President, the founder of concentration camps and Air Transport Minister. In July he added the post of Reich Minister of Forestry; in 1934 he was named Hitler's successor as Fuhrer, Chancellor and President of Germany; in 1935 he became Commander in Chief of the air force, in 1936 Plenipotentiary General for the Four-Year Plan, in 1938 a field marshal and in 1940 Reich Marshal, the highest-ranking military officer in the world.

Göring's air force had spectacular successes in Belgium, the Netherlands and France at the beginning of World War II, but in the long term it proved to be mismanaged and outclassed by the British and American forces. Göring's Government enterprises in the economic sphere were partial successes at best, while his private fortune flourished through bribery and shameless grabbing on a huge scale. Bursts of energy alternated in Göring's life with long bouts of lethargy and dereliction of duty. He preferred generally to devote his time to the unimpeded enjoyment of luxurious living on an Oriental scale, to the quasi-legal and illegal acquisition of a gigantic collection of art objects, to the stag hunt in East Prussia, and to donning fantastic white uniforms and huge jeweled rings, all topped off with elaborate makeup. In the interest of protecting his life style, and in aid of Hitler's designs on Eastern Europe, Göring made some efforts to prevent and later to contain the war.

War, according to Mr. Irving, bored Göring, except insofar as it offered him money and treasures or new offices and titles. But he had no qualms about committing murder on any scale, as when he managed the mass executions of SA leaders and other former or present enemies in 1934; he headed the Four-Year Plan for the explicit preparation of both the military war and the war against the Jews. Göring later boasted of his murder management against the SA, but denied knowledge of the mass murder of Jews. But he had participated in a conference with Hitler on July 16, 1941, on large-scale extermination measures, and the terms of his own order to the SS General Reinhard Heydrich on July 31, 1941, were clear enough: to make preparations for the "final solution" of the Jewish question in all parts of Europe under German influence. Göring was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang in Nuremberg, but he bribed a guard and managed to beat the hangman by biting a cyanide capsule on Oct. 15, 1946.

Mr. Irving's constant references to archives, diaries and letters, and the overwhelming amount of detail in his work, suggest objectivity. In fact they put up a screen behind which a very different agenda is transacted. It begins with the suggestion that Göring's less than wholesome character traits, his conviction "that money could buy everything, and a contempt for morality" may have been imprinted on the young Göring by Dr. Hermann von Epenstein, whom Mr. Irving calls "Jewish" and whom he calls the boy's "godfather," although only Christians could act as godfathers. Since Mr. Irving does not consider the point, he appears to subscribe to the definitions of the Nazis' racial laws of 1935. The same sort of twist is employed again and again, particularly for the war period.

Mr. Irving is a great obfuscator and he ignores the true chain of decision-making. In his account of the Battle of Britain, Göring was prevented by Hitler's restrictions from "unfolding his real air power against the enemy [ Britain ] . It was a strategic error." But then he accuses Churchill of having been the first in the war to order the bombing of civilian populations. He says that only then did Hitler order retaliation, upon which the German air force did all it was capable of in attacks on London. In fact, both Britain and Germany committed themselves at the beginning of the war to avoid attacks on civilian populations. After German planes bombed open towns in Poland after Sept. 12, 1939, and, on Göring's order, carried out the "saturation bombardment" of Warsaw on Sept. 24 and 25, 1939, it was mainly French fears of bombardment of their cities that prevented a departure by Britain from her earlier commitment. Only after the German bombing of Rotterdam on May 14, 1940, did the British authorize attacks on certain targets in the Ruhr industrial district - but intentionally bombing civilian populations remained outlawed. In August 1940, Hitler still forbade attacks on population centers, but attacks on British air force ground support stations, even in London, were permitted and carried out on Aug. 24, 1940, whereupon the British responded with a raid on Berlin the next day.

Distortions affect every important aspect of this book to the point of obfuscation. Mr. Irving seeks to show that Göring frequently was not consulted before key decisions were made; on one page he says Hitler made them all, but on another he says Göring was consulted on every important decision - as Göring himself maintained during his trial.

Mr. Irving's numerous references to the persecution of the Jews acknowledge its central role in the Hitler era. But he describes Hitler and Göring as only dimly aware of rumored "atrocities." Göring, he says, "naively" signed an order drafted by Heydrich on July 31, 1941, to prepare the "final solution" of the Jewish question. In this context, although there is no apparent connection with Göring, Mr. Irving reproduces a note by the second-ranking civil servant in the German Justice Ministry, Franz Schlegelberger. The note says that the head of the Reich Chancellery had told Schlegelberger that the Fuhrer had "repeatedly" declared that he wanted "the solution of the Jewish question postponed until after the war."

Mr. Irving knows that this is part of a file regarding the legal status and definition of German Jews of mixed parentage and those married to non-Jewish partners. He also knows that the terms "solution" and "final solution" alternate in the file and distinguish between administrative measures affecting German Jews on one hand, and the comprehensive "final solution" for all Jews under German control. Apparently, 11 years after the West German historian Eberhard Jackel first showed and explained the document to him, Mr. Irving is still too pleased with its possibilities to see that it defeats his purpose. By publishing it as "proof" that Hitler did not want the Jews murdered, Mr. Irving accepts the term "solution of the Jewish question" as meaning mass murder, and he accepts Hitler's knowledge of the program. Had he taken it at its discernible face value, he would have avoided the logical trap. Further, he put himself in the position of accepting secondhand evidence on Hitler's wishes in the matter, so that he cannot convincingly contrive to exclude the mass of available secondhand evidence contradicting his interpretation.

In his earlier book, "Hitler's War," Mr. Irving usefully provoked historians by raising the question of the smoking gun: whether an order could be found from Hitler to perpetrate a holocaust against the Jews. Now, after the publication of the meticulous investigations of Gerald Fleming, Eberhard Jackel, Helmut Krausnick and Alfred Streim, it is no longer possible to regard Mr. Irving's thesis as a useful provocation.

The merit of this Göring biography lies in its mass of biographical detail and in numerous (though not complete) source references. But larger issues are not made more comprehensible. Göring's authority inexplicably waxes and wanes in Mr. Irving's staccato narrative (which is often cheapened by a demotic idiom); praiseworthy initiatives alternate with gigantic black-market and blackmail operations. Mr. Irving takes care to denounce Göring's "scandalous" and "unsavory" behavior, but at the same time he tries to make him appear as a spoiled child, a psychopath who calms his nerves by playing with a potful of diamonds, and a "Renaissance man" with an insatiable appetite for the finer things in life. It is unfortunate that Mr. Irving wastes his extraordinary talents as a researcher and writer on trivializing the greatest crimes in German history, on manipulating historical sources and on highlighting the theatrics of the Nazi era.

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