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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Pirates of the Caribbean’s silly magic still works – but Johnny Depp doesn’t

This fifth sequel makes no sense, but my former teenage heart still jumped. It’s Johnny Depp who’s sunk. [Aye, spoilers ahead . . .]

“One day ashore for ten years at sea. It's a heavy price for what's been done.”

Ten years ago, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), having replaced the sprawling villain Davy Jones as captain of the Flying Dutchman, spent his only day on land before leaving his bride, the incumbent King of the Pirates, Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley), for ten years, to fulfil his cursed fate and bring the dead at sea to their eternal rest. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) was sailing away to new adventures, again running after his beloved ship, the Black Pearl. It was 2007, I was 14, and the trilogy I had put all my teenage heart into was ending with the third instalment, At World’s End, on a bitter-sweet and loyal salute to the series.

But whatever the posters said, that wasn't quite the end, and what came after was awful.

First, the third film’s traditional post-credits scene showed Elizabeth waiting for her husband’s return, a ten-year-old boy by her side. She, the King of the Pirates, who in the same movie had just led a fleet to defeat the East India Company, had been sitting on the sand for ten years, raising a kid, instead of sailing, even while pregnant, to save Will like a fictional Ann Bonny? I was furious. Then, in 2011, Disney released On Stranger Tides, a sequel so hideous that even this former fan could not bring herself to like it. Bloom and Knightley had moved on, and without the original lovers’ duo, Johnny Depp’s legendary Sparrow had no substantial character to balance his craziness. Somehow, it made money, leading Disney to plan more sequels. Hence the fifth story, Salazar’s Revenge (Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US) hitting theatres this weekend.

Admittedly, it didn’t take the fourth or fifth movie for Pirates of the Caribbean to stop making sense, or just to be a bit rubbish. After the surprise success in 2003 of The Curse of the Black Pearl (young man associates with pirate to save young woman from more pirates and break a curse, adventures ensue), Disney improvised two more stories. Filmed together, there was 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest (couple’s wedding is interrupted, curse threatens pirate, fiancé wants to save his father from said curse, adventures ensue) and 2007’s At World’s End (everyone goes to the end of the world to save dead pirate while piracy is at war with East India Company and man still wants to save his father, adventures ensue). Chaotic plots, childish humour, naively emphatic dialogue and improbable situations quickly lost much of the audience.

Yet I’ve loved the trilogy for it all: the swashbuckling, sword-fighting and majestic ships on the high seas, the nautical myths, the weird magic and star-crossed love story. Everyone knows the main theme, but there are more hidden jewels to Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack. “One Day”, the melody to the couple’s last day together, is a beautiful backwash of nostalgia, as they embrace in the froth. Detailed costumes and stylish sets (At World’s End had stunning shots, such as a Chinese junk navigating the icy waters of the world's end) worked their magic every time.

As expected, there's little subtlety in Salazar’s Revenge. It’s over-the-top comedy and loud action, unnecessarily salacious jokes and copied scenes from the original. Its villain, Capitán Salazar (Javier Bardem), is a parody of a nightmare, but then not everyone can convey terror from under layers of CGI the way Bill Nighy could. It is a story of sons and daughters – Turner’s son Henry is following in the family tradition, trying to save his father from a curse – usually the sign that a series is dangerously lurking into fan fiction (here's looking at you, Harry Potter’s Cursed Child). Praised for being a feminist character, the new female lead Carina (Kaya Scodelario) spends half the film being sexualised and the other half defending the concept of women being smart, where previous films let Elizabeth lead a fleet of men without ever doubting her sex.

But the promise has been kept. Exactly ten years after leaving in a flash of green, Will Turner returns and brings some of the original spirit with him: ship battles and clueless soldiers, maps that cannot be read and compasses that do not point north. Zimmer’s theme sounds grand and treasure islands make the screen shine. The Pearl itself floats again, after disappearing in Stranger Tides.

Yet the one bit of magic it can't revive is in the heart of its most enduring character. Johnny Depp has sunk and everyone is having fun but him. Engulfed in financial troubles and rumours of heavy drinking, the actor, who had to be fed his lines by earpiece, barely manages a bad impersonation of the character he created in 2003. Watching him is painful – though it goes deeper than his performance in this film alone. Allegations of domestic violence against his ex-wife Amber Heard have tarnished his image, and his acting has been bad for a decade.

It should work better, given this incarnation of his Jack Sparrow is similarly damaged. The pirate legend on “Wanted” posters has lost the support of his crew and disappoints the new hero (“Are you really THE Jack Sparrow?”). The film bets on flashbacks of Jack’s youth, featuring Depp’s actual face and bad special effects, to remind us who Sparrow is. He is randomly called “the pirate” by soldiers who dreamt of his capture in previous movies and his character is essentially incidental to the plot, struggling to keep up with the younger heroes. He even loses his compass.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 is the sequel no one needed, that the happy end the star-crossed lovers should never have had. It is 2017 and no one will sail to the world’s end and beyond to save Depp from purgatory. But all I wanted was for "One Day" to play, and for the beloved ghosts of my teenage years to reappear in a sequel I knew should never have been written. The beauty was in that last flash of green.

And yet the pirate's song sounds true: "Never shall we die". Pirates of the Caribbean has, at the very least, kept delivering on that.

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