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The Hitler wars

Richard J Evans vs A N Wilson.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler in 1943. Photograph: Getty Images

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."