Is this the worst book about Hitler ever written?

Richard J Evans on A N Wilson's biography of the Führer.

In this week's New Statesman, Richard J Evans, one of the world's leading authorities on the history of the Third Reich, reviews A N Wilson's latest book, Hitler: a Short Biography. This morning, on his Twitter feed, Evans wondered if this was "possibly the worst biography of the Nazi leader ever written".

Evans begins his review by noting, with some foreboding, that Wilson appears not to read German:

As writers of historical fiction do, he read a handful of English-language biographies and histories for his novel (he doesn't appear to
understand German) but he has added little or no further reading for this biography. What might do as background research for a novel won't do as preparation for a serious work of history.

He then enumerates, in some detail, the numerous factual errors that, in his view, disfigure Wilson's book. For example: "The 'Aryan race' in Nazi ideology was not 'the Eurasian race'"; "Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, author of the compelling Diary of a Man in Despair, was not 'aristocratic' but the son of an innkeeper"; "In the beer hall putsch of 1923, Hitler was not met by a hail of police bullets at the Bürgerbräukeller, where he launched the putsch, but at the Feldherrnhalle in the centre of town". Und so weiter.

Evans's conclusion is brutal:

It's hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography . . . Novelists (notably Thomas Mann) and literary scholars (such as J P Stern) have sometimes managed to use a novel angle of approach to say something new and provocative about Hitler, the Nazis and the German people. However, there's no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he's a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he's put very little work into writing it and even less thought.

Ouch. Read the whole review in the 12 March issue of the New Statesman, available in newsagents now.

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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser