The latest on books and the arts

RSS

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.