Hitler's War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

During 1942, Adolf Hitler praised a biography of William II written by an Englishman and expressed the opinion that foreigners sometimes made very objective historians. He went on to remark that he was having transcripts made of all his important conferences and that some day perhaps an “objective Englishman” would write his story. As David Irving relates this incident, it is clear that he wants to be the objective Englishman Hitler prophesied. The result is a controversial and sometimes vexing book.

In Irving’s approach to his subject, pride of place goes to the eleven years he spent going through the primary sources. Great emphasis is placed on sources he located which no one else has utilized; in fact, this sometimes seems to be his main criterion in judging the importance of a source. He writes history as scoop. Irving wants to escape from the incestuous relation between historians who trade the same stories back and forth, and so he has spurned published works on Hitler. Irving’s object is to reconstruct the war as Hitler viewed it. He does this with a careful, almost day by day, analysis of Hitler’s orders, the intelligence reports he was receiving, the transcripts of his war conferences, and diaries of people closely associated with him, some of them used here for the first time. Irving empathetically rethinks the war from Hitler’s perspective, a bold approach from which most historians have been deterred by the repugnance of the subject. Irving is able to accomplish this because his Hitler is completely sane and turns out to be not so bad as we had imagined.

Irving’s method imposes a very narrow focus on his book. It begins abruptly with the invasion of Poland and the reader flounders for many pages before he gains his bearings. The book ends without conclusion 823 pages later with the suicide of Hitler. Irving is totally preoccupied with Hitler’s day by day military and political decisions, so there is no room in his long book for such crucial factors as the role of ideology or a systematic analysis of Hitler’s personality. Naturally, an account based entirely on the “nuts and bolts” decisions Hitler had to make once he had started his war places him in his most pragmatic light, yet this narrow focus also distorts the image of Hitler and is the most serious weakness of Irving’s book.

The author’s most controversial conclusion is that Hitler did not order the extermination of the Jews and indeed did not even know about it until at least October, 1943, and may not have learned about it until SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner told him one year later, in October, 1944. Irving’s argument is partly one of silence. No document has ever been discovered in which Hitler ordered the massacre of the Jews and Irving has been unable to find any mention in any of the diaries he has read that anyone ever discussed the matter with Hitler. Irving buttresses his argument of silence with circumstantial evidence. On several occasions Heinrich Himmler stated that he had taken on himself the responsibility for the final solution, statements which Irving interprets to mean that Himmler made the decision himself. Hitler himself said late in the war that the whole matter was Himmler’s business. Moreover, all of Hitler’s explicit references to the Jewish problem referred only to the deportation of the Jews to the east. On November 30, 1941, Himmler telephoned SS General Reinhard Heydrich from Hitler’s headquarters and ordered him to stop liquidating the Jews. Irving believes this proves that Hitler was actually insisting the Jews not be exterminated, and he attaches such importance to the episode that he includes a facsimile of Himmler’s telephone note recording this call. That the extermination of Jews was suspended after Kaltenbrunner conferred with Hitler in October, 1944, confirms to Irving that Hitler never wanted the final solution during the war.

For Irving, then, the final solution was partly the initiative of a crackpot, Heinrich Himmler, and partly an ad hoc solution adopted by local authorities to the near insuperable problem of what to do with the millions of Jews dumped on them from all over Europe. Irving argues that only about seventy people knew what was happening and Hitler, who was completely absorbed in the war and had abdicated his authority in other areas, was not one of them.

Throughout the book, Irving scrupulously sticks very close to his evidence, so much so that the reader yearns for a perspective in which to place and evaluate the evidence. It is only in the matter of the final solution that Irving endeavors to extract an interpretation from the evidence that many readers will find remarkable. His reason for this is that this argument is the keystone to two of his main conclusions—that Hitler was sane and that his authority during the war was surprisingly limited.

Himmler was a crackpot; Hitler was not. Irving is convinced Hitler was a pragmatic man who would never have wasted scarce resources for such an irrational purpose as killing Jews. Hitler’s idea was to make use of the Jews as forced laborers and as hostages; killing them defeated both purposes. Irving acknowledges that Hitler was indeed ruthless and brutal. Deporting the Jews was bad enough, and his violent anti-Semitism, which Irving labels pathological, created the atmosphere in...

(The entire section is 2191 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Books and Bookmen. XXII, July, 1977, p. 6.

Commentary. LXIV, September, 1977, p. 76.

Economist. CCLXIII, June 18, 1977, p. 131.

Listener. XXVIII, July 7, 1977, p. 27.

National Review. XXIX, August 19, 1977, p. 946.

New Statesman. XCIV, July 1, 1977, p. 18.

New Yorker. LIII, August 29, 1977, p. 82.