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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Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage: how fanfiction got me into writing

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself.

The source of the noise was clear. Some kind of monster was emerging from the wood.

"Easy, Harry," counselled Hagrid, "Easy.”

Nervously, the bespectacled wizard approached the hulking beast cautiously. What was it? It had red leather skin, like a sofa, was bigger even than Hagrid and had a pair of cruel horns.

You may not recognise the above passage from any of J K Rowling’s seven entries in the Harry Potter series. That’s because it’s not by Rowling at all, but is taken from Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage by awideeyedwanderer, the alias under which I, with the addition and subtraction of a few dashes and underscores depending on the platform, wrote fanfiction from 2000 to 2006.

To deal with the obvious questions, no, it was not about the Labour party, and no, I don’t think anyone ever had sex, except perhaps very briefly towards the end of the story. (As such, it was a fairly accurate reflection on the life of its author during that period.)

Fanfiction often gets a bad rap, in my case deservedly. One former editor of the New Statesman used to say of one of his staffers that he was “the Fred West of prose”, and my fanfiction was not much better. I hacked my way through the universes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Final Fantasy and Star Trek. I also perpetrated my own, highly derivative “original” fiction, featuring a character called Mr Jones who was basically Doctor Who with a gun.

My fanfiction was influenced by whatever novel I was reading and whatever the current state of my politics were, which meant that as the Noughties wore on it became increasingly dominated by thinly-veiled allegories for the excesses of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

What got me started? Well, it’s all J K Rowling’s fault. I was an early adopter of the Harry Potter books, and though the first three books came out every year, there was a three-year gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. So without a new book, Potter fans had to write their own, of which Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage was one.

At this point in this sort of article, it’s usually customary to defend fanfiction by pointing out that some of it is actually very good, while some of it has made a great deal of money. My fanfiction was neither good nor financially lucrative, but I always think this misses the point a bit. Very few people think they are producing high art when they write fanfic – people are doing it to have a good time, to expand a world they’ve enjoyed.

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself. (In its defence, I think my fanfiction has aged better than Evanescence, a band which provided the soundtrack and most of the chapter titles to my fic.) But I had a great time writing it, and if nothing else, it taught me never to begin a sentence with “nervously” and end it with “cautiously”.

This piece is part of our themed Internet Histories week. See the rest of the stories here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.