PERHAPS MORE has been written on Adolf Hitler than on any German except Luther or Marx, yet still the books continue to appear, and still the man continues to fascinate. Like his archenemy Stalin, Hitler has been denounced by his own people. There are no statues or other memorials to either man in his own country. It is unlikely, moreover, that a German author or publisher would put forward a volume so friendly to Hitler as Hitler's War. But Hitler always had a soft spot in his heart for the British - his fondest dream was for the British to rule the continents of Asia and Africa while he ruled in Europe - and the British historians have always been more objective towards Hitler than either German or American writers.
In Hitler's War, David Irving follows on the work of his fellow British historian A. J. P. Taylor, who argued some years ago that Hitler was no more responsible for bringing on World War II than the French, British and American leaders of the day. Irving's massive account argues that Hitler was no monster, that he conducted the war on a rational and intelligent basis, and that he was indeed a much better military commander than his generals.
Irving concentrates on Hitler the man, the human being who weighed 155 pounds, had graying hair (his famous mustache had turned snow white at the end), rotten teeth, bad breath, and terrible health. Irving's Hitler is exceedingly kind and considerate to his immediate staff, extraordinarily loyal to his old friends. Quick to anger, he is equally quick to forgive. Sentimental, but absolutely humorless. Most of all, an unmatched leader, capable of inspiring even the most downhearted.
Peter Hoffmann's History of the German Resistance, which first appeared in Germany in 1970, offers the more traditional view of Hitler as an evil genius who could hardly lead at all and was incapable of inspiring loyalty. On this point, it is astonishing to realize - as Irving and Hoffman make us realize - that Hitler was often deliberately betrayed by his generals, especially on the Eastern front. Hoffmann points to the incredible fact that 6000 or more of the highest ranking officers in the German army, including a whole row of field marshals, knew for years about the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler - and never breathed a word to their Fuehrer! Absolutely inconceivable in any other country.
Hoffmann writes that Colonel Stauffenberg, the military head of the conspiracy, could approach nearly any officer in the German Army and assume that the man was opposed to Hitler and sympathetic to the plot. Had Hitler been able to reverse that situation, to create a political strategy capable of inspiring any enthusiasm or loyalty among his officers, the chances are Germany would have won the war. Instead, the officers were so disgusted by Hitler's barbarism - and his military strategy - that they rose up against him.
There will be many surprises in these volumes for American readers; it is the great strength of both books that they are based on diligent scholarship in new source materials. Irving's book has nearly 100 pages of notes; Hoffmann's has three times as many.
Irving sticks strictly to the subject of Hitler's war - the book begins with the invasion of Poland and ends with Hitler's suicide. The entire war is seen from Hitler's point of view, almost from inside Hitler's head. Despite the author's narrow focus, however, as he himself admits, "Hitler will long remain an enigma, however hard the historians burrow and toil. Even his intimates realized they hardly knew him."
Irving reaches some startling conclusions. In general, he finds that Allied war crimes were at least as numerous and as frightful as the German crimes, with Churchill as the worst of the leaders. For example, Churchill tried to have Hitler assassinated, while Hitler drew the line at such practices.In 1944 Ribbentrop offered to "do all he could to lure Stalin once more to the conference table," where Ribbentrop would "gun him down." Hitler rejected the suicide mission: "No.I don't like anything like that. It would be asking for trouble from Providence."
In his introduction, Irving promises new material on Hitler's decision to declare war on the United States, but in fact he has none, nor does he offer any reason for this act of madness. It remains as much a mystery as always. This short-coming points up a larger problem with Irving's account of Hitler's war - the author does not back away from his material to see the war as a whole, nor to make generalizations or judgments on Hitler's overall leadership. In the case of declaring war against the United States, Hitler did it without consultation with his finance minister, or his generals, or his admirals, or his foreign office, or indeed anyone. How can a government run on such a basis survive? We tend to think of FDR as a poor administrator, but Hitler makes FDR look like a political science textbook model of efficiency.
One interpretation offered by Irving will undoubtedly cause controversy. In Irving's book, Hitler becomes the ultimate German who did not know about the mass murder of Europe's Jews. Himmler and the SS, like Goering and the Luftwaffe, like Speer and the Arms Ministry, simply lied to Hitler, all the time. Hitler, in Irving's account, had less than a firm grip on affairs at the beginning of the war, and almost none at all at the end. Himmler, meanwhile, ran the death camps, unknown to Hitler and indeed in violation of Hitler's expressed wishes.
Some of this is surely true, but simply because Irving cannot find a direct written order from Hitler to the SS to kill the Jews does not mean that such orders were not given. In my view, Hitler did not know about the Jews in about the same way that Nixon did not know about Watergate.
Like Irving, Hoffmann gets so immersed in detail that the overall picture is sometimes obscured. But when he does step back, Hoffmann can be very good. His central conclusion is that the conspiracy failed because Stauffenberg and his cohorts were not ruthless enough when they attempted their coup on July 20, 1944. Or as Hitler himself put it, "They should have gone to school with us Nazis. They they would have learned how to do it."