The Hitler wars

Richard J Evans vs A N Wilson.

In the 12 March edition of the New Statesman, the leading historian of the Third Reich (and regular NS contributor) Richard J Evans reviewed A N Wilson's "short biography" of Hitler. Things didn't start auspiciously for Wilson.  "What might do as background research for a novel," Evans wrote, "won't do as preparation for a serious work of history. [Wilson does not] seem to have thought very hard or taken much care over what little reading he has done."

Evans went on to enumerate several "simple factual errors" that Wilson appeared to have committed ("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"; "Bavaria was not 'separate from the rest of Germany until 1918'"; "Erwin Rommel was not a "man of the people" – his father was a headmaster and his mother an aristocrat"). His conclusion was 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. Perhaps the combination of a well-known author and a marketable subject was too tempting for cynical executives to resist. Novelists (notably 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 is 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.

They say you shouldn't respond to bad reviews, but, in a letter published in the following week's NS, Wilson attempted a rebuttal:

It is probably pointless to reply to spiteful reviews, but Richard J Evans's account of my short book on Hitler is misleading (The Critics, 12 March). He writes that he does not have the space to list all my mistakes and then cites statements that are not, strictly speaking, errors. He implies that I do not know German, which is untrue. He picks me up for stating that Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen was an aristocrat. Perhaps Hochgeboren would have been a more accurate description of this writer, descended from a landed family in East Prussia. His father was a politician. Evans says Reck was the "son of an innkeeper".Heinrich Brüning was the parliamentary floor leader of the Catholic Centre Party. It was perhaps careless of me to describe him simply as the leader but hardly a "mistake". The statistic about the number of Jews in pre-war Germany was, as he states, quoted from Robert Gellately (a more generous expert on the Nazi era than Evans), who read my book for errors and is quoted on the US edition as saying: "In a book written with verve, insight and imagination, [Wilson] gives us a fresh look at Hitler."

That appeal to the authority of Gellately cut no ice with Evans, who replied in the 26 March issue:

A N Wilson cannot rescue his biography of Hitler. He claims to read German; why then does he cite in his endnotes only books that are available in English? He would not have swallowed the fantasist Fritz Reck’s claim to aristocratic or "high-born" or landowning origins if he had read Alphons Kappeler’s book Ein Fall von "Pseudologia phantastica" in der deutschen Literatur: Fritz Reck-Malleczewen (2 vols. Göppingen, 1975). Confusing the Reichstag delegation leader of the Centre Party, Heinrich Brüning, with the Party’s leader, is not a trivial error because the Party leader was a Catholic priest, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, a fact which materially affected the Party’s relations with the Vatican. Robert Gellately’s words of praise for Mr Wilson’s book have no bearing at all on the demonstrable fact that Mr Wilson quoted an incorrect statistic from Professor Gellately’s book without noticing the correct statistic in the very next sentence.

In his next response, Wilson changed tack, acknowledging the "few howlers" he'd made and explaining them away as the déformations (non-)professionelles of the "generalist writer with no pretensions to expertise":

I have written a short book on Hitler which is intended for the general reader, and was first published in English, though it is  about to be translated widely. Most of the sources I have cited were English books. Richard Evans, , whose books I have read with pleasure and whom I quote, is a great Third Reich scholar. He wrote a rather silly review of my book, now he writes to claim that I can’t know German – else, why do I only cite English books? As a matter of fact I do cite German books in my end-notes – by Brigitte Hamann, by Dr Goebbels and by Hitler himself, among others. In my short bibliography there are half a dozen German titles.  A generalist writer with no pretensions to expertise, but who does happen to know German, writes a book on Hitler. A don who thinks Hitler his special subject feels unaccountably ruffled. Why? I made a few howlers which have already been corrected for the reprint. Thanks, Evans, for pointing these errors out, though they were all minor. I am writing this from Roxburghshire, where I am staying with some delightful friends and  the sun is shining and pied wagtails are dancing over the lawn. All is joy. The war is over. Hitler is dead. Get a life, poor Evans.  There is no need to be so cross.

Evans has what one imagines may turn out be the last word in this week's New Statesman:

The German books cited by Mr Wilson in his short book are both available in English translation. I am cross with him not because I think only specialists should write about Hitler - I explicitly noted the contributions made by novelists and literary scholars - but because he has simply ignored 99.9 per cent of the work on the subject done by historians, and as a result has written a book that is absolutely valueless as well as full of errors, many of them not minor at all.

UPDATE: The Daily Telegraph reports today on the imbroglio, under the headline "The Hitler biography that started a war". Anita Singh notes that Wilson is no stranger to literary spats and is reminded of "another run-in between Wilson and a rival":

In 2002, he reviewed Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman and called it “a hopeless mishmash”. Four years later, Wilson wrote his own Betjeman biography and included a passionate love letter supposedly written by the poet’s mistress. It turned out to be a hoax concocted by Hillier, and the first letter of each sentence spelled out “AN Wilson is a s---”.

Also writing in the Telegraph today, Allan Massie observes: "Writing a damning review may be bad for your soul, but it gees up the liver ... On this evidence, Professor Evans is very good at it indeed."

Adolf Hitler in 1943. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution