Monday, 9 April 2012

Downfall


I cast my eye recently over a review of A. N. Wilson’s newly published Hitler: A Short Biography. Now, A. N Wilson, if you’ve never heard of him, is an omnivorous writer, moving with apparent ease from fiction to non-fiction. His Hitler book, intended for a general audience, is the latest addition to the other critical biographies he has penned.

However, before I read a word of the review, I already concluded that this was pointless book. My first thought was who the hell needs yet another biography of Hitler? My second was it’s only just over two hundred pages long; how on earth could all of that history and drama be crushed into such limited space?

Actually, I’m being slightly disingenuous here. I did not, on first glance, read the review – by Bernard Sims in Prospect -, or, rather, I did not read beyond the words Hitler: A Short Biography. By A. N. Wilson. Harper Press, 208pp, £14.99. That was enough for me. But I came back to it; I read it in full, because the book has occasioned a bit of a spat, a hissy fit fought out on the pages of the New Statesman, a perfect cat fight by two old toms!

It began last month when Richard Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and a specialist in the Third Reich (his three volume history is commendable), wrote not so much a review as an assassination of Wilson’s book, concluding that “It’s hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography.” The answer is simple, prof; it’s by A. N. Wilson, who sells, and it’s about Hitler, who sells!

That might have been that. After all, most of the people likely to buy this book probably don’t read the New Statesman; they may not even read reviews at all. But dear old A. N would not let matters rest; he took up the gauntlet so freely thrown, thus starting a new blitzkrieg, spread over several issues of the NS, a withering barrage of words!

I rather think Evans was a bit miffed that an outsider had intruded into his own lebensraum; he certainly chews the carpet, Hitler-style, in his review. ‘Banal’, ‘stale’ ‘cliché ridden’, ‘unoriginal’, ‘lame’, ‘tired narrative’, came his verbal panzer shells. Wilson counter-attacked on the magazine’s letters page: “All is joy. The war is over. Hitler is dead. Get a life, poor Evans. There is no need to be so cross.”

Evans did not rest; his Stukas screamed down from the sky the following week – “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.”

I read in the Telegraph that this is not the first war in a tea-cup that Wilson has been involved in. In 2002 he wrote a review of Bevis Hiller’s biography of the poet John Betjeman, calling it a ‘hopeless mishmash.’ Four years later he produced his own biography of Betjeman, citing a passionate love letter written by the poet’s mistress. It was hoax. The ‘mistress’ was Hiller, a lover scorned, coldly calculating his revenge, waiting for just the right moment, penning and planting the said epistle. The first letter of each sentence spelled out “A N Wilson is a shit.”

So there!

Anyway, back to Hitler, back to Simms’ Prospect review, hopefully for a less impassioned view. It was. My initial judgement was right: this is a book not worth reading. Wilson apparently tries to draw some parallels between the 1929 crash in the world economy, which gave Hitler his big opportunity, and that of 2008. He is looking, in other words for a second coming, a new beast, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

That’s reasonable enough, I suppose; these are uncertain times; people are insecure, fodder, one might think, for demagogues. What do we get? Why, such illuminating insights as a comparison between Hitler’s demand for typewriting lessons for children and Tony Blair’s call for a laptop in every British primary school! Ah, yes, a sign of a Reich to come. I have no idea or not if A N Wilson is a shit but he’s clearly had a bit of a downfall.

Happy Easter, guys. :-)

29 comments:

  1. I wonder if I shall live to see the day when Hitler is finally demoted from Antichrist to the rather petty local tyrant he really was. For generations, now, historians have managed to avoid considering the true causes the WW2 catastrophe that lay in the ambitions and machinations of small armies of venal and corrupt individuals around the world, each making his own small contribution to the destructive pyre. Hitler was the match, but it took thousands to build the bonfire.

    And will we ever see a history that recounts the terrible, gradual slide into tyranny and mass murder that has been so often repeated in the past 200 years, instead of endless screeds of useless descriptions of battles and campaigns? We urgently need a guide to understanding how to prevent authoritarianism and dictatorship. If we do not get it soon, many of us may not survive to see the next cycle.

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    1. Calvin, I absolutely agree. The focus has been all wrong. Hitler, like Lenin, Stalin, Mao and the rest was a symptom, not the disease itself. It may take generations to understand the catastrophe that gripped humanity after 1917, by which time, as you suggest, it may be too late.

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  2. Das Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, was one of the most significant figures who ever lived and at the tragic conclusion of WWII retired in Patagonia Argentina until his death. Accepted historical "Fact" is ripe with misconceptions and blatant fabrications, Regius Professor Evans is simply full of Richard Evans.

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    1. I have no disagreement whatsoever, Anthony, with your final point. :-)

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    2. Sure Anthony, we were more than happy to have such a reputable figure live out his twilight years among us.
      I even found a video proving conclusively that he was here, have a look!

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    3. Where is the conclusive proof that Hitler committed suicide in the Bunker in Berlin? Many a secret has been taken to the grave.

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    4. That's true, Anthony, but the weight of evidence, including the depositions of his own entourage and a subsequent autopsy, falls heavily on the Berlin suicide.

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  3. Hi Ana, well I quite agree that A.N. Wilson's book is almost certainly worthless, unless Wilson's bios continue to generate the "Wilson Effect". I remember reading A.N. Wilson's biographies of Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis and feeling very satisfied when I had finished; over time, however, I realised that Wilson had subtlely diminished his subjects and that I had lost much of my esteem for Tolstoy and Lewis as a result of having read Wilson's biographies of them. There is something nasty and treacherous about the manner in which Wilson writes about his subject that accumulates to character assassination. This would be an excellent outcome in the case of his latest subject, who appears to be gaining new admirers in certain quarters.

    With all respect to the worthy (if rather dull) Professor Evans (I'm tempted to call him the Brian Boyd of Hitler studies, but that would be cruel to the point of pitilessness) the two best books I've ever read about Hitler and the Germans of Hitler's era are both short books by Sebastian Haffner: THE MEANING OF HITLER and DEFYING HITLER, in the second of which Haffner characterised the Germans of the period, persuasively, as wolves.

    That's it for now, and belated Happy Easter to you, Lady Ana . . . Christ is risen!

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    1. He is risen indeed! Thanks, Chris, who is not Richard. :-) Have you come across J. P. Stern's Hitler: the Führer and the people? It was published in the 1970s, if I remember correctly. It's more wide-ranging in a philosophical sense than most of the other studies. I've not read Haffner.

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    2. Hi Ana, I don't know the Stern book, but the one review on Amazon.com which I've just read is high praise indeed--apparently it's better in its way than the Klemperer diaries and the Ott biography of Heidegger . . . I'll check it out, thank you for the recommendation.

      Judging from what you and the Amazon.com reviewer write about the Stern book, in addition to the Haffner books, you may be interested--should you ever circle back for further investigation of the dismal Black Hole subject of Hitler and the rise of National Socialism--in Fritz Stern's THE POLITICS OF CULTURAL DESPAIR . . .

      I agree with you and Calvin that studies of the preconditions for periods of blood and iron (and yes, I do blame Bismarck, as much as I admire him, for helping to craft the preconditions for the Nazis)--or as Calvin expresses it, "the terrible, gradual slide into tyranny and mass murder"--are the most urgent and apposite research projects of our time . . . I seem to hear the roar of unseen rapids ahead on our apparently tranquil stream of the early 21st century . . .

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    3. Chris, it's really quite impressive, quite different from the standard histories. Yes, I know Stern's book. Alas, I hear those same rapids.

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  4. Happy Easter to you. I haven't got around to reading Alan Bullock's biography yet, so Wilson's offering is not at the top of my list.

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    1. Hey, David, you are way behind! Actually, if you really want to take up the subject, Kershaw's double decker is a lot more up to date than Bullock.

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  5. thanks Ana - looks like one to comfortably avoid. Presumably the speculative babble at the end is to distinguish this work from all it's precedents..

    Anything about 'Son of Hitler' mentioned?

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    1. Thanks, CWB. Not in the review. I have no intention of reading the book to find out for certain! Maybe I'll glance at the index the next time I'm in a bookshop.

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  6. Ana you're the only reviewer I pay any attention to, the rest of them are far too dim. I think Joachim Fest's biography of Hitler still stands up well.

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    1. You are very kind, dear Richard. Yes Fest is good though I think Kershaw trumps him. Oh, I'm really enjoying Mr Glamour. :-)

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  7. Do you believe the warren commissions findings on the assassination of the american president JFK?

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  8. @ Wilson: The political climate in 1945 Argentina was not the same as the present, Do you remember the Dirty War? and now you have a socialist Government.

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  9. A. N. Wilson doesn't really cut my academic mustard. I've enthused over his ambitious projects such as The victorians, After the Victorians, The Elizabethans, Dante on Love in bookshops almost dribbling at the titles. Oh yes, and his biographies of Jesus and Paul, only to be truly and utterly dismayed at their lack of substance. Being a Betjemanian, I did buy and read his biography of Betjeman, no skin off the 3-volume Hillier authorised. Being a member of the Betjeman Society and welcomed as part of Hillier's "inner circle" I was in on the splendid hoax and surprised at Wilson's sheer stupidity to fall for it! I, for one, would at least substantiate something like that.

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    1. Oh, Rehan, tell me more, tell me more! How was the letter planted?

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    2. It was at the Betjeman Society annual, Bevis Hillier asked the late Kenneth Pinnock what he thought of the trick upon A. N. Wilson. We all laughed at how amazing it was for it to have worked, Bevis himself said he hadn't expected Wilson to fall for it. The letter in question wasn't even postmarked the South of France!

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  10. Hi Ana, did you see this? How generous is James Shapiro being to A.N. Wilson . . . ? http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/the-elizabethans-by-a-n-wilson.html?smid=pl-share

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    1. I have not, Chris. I'll have a look and let you know what I think.

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    2. Chris, it's a good review in the sense of being comprehensive and thoughtful. It certainly gives me no added confidence in the ability of Wilson, who clearly over-publishes dreadfully.

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  11. Thanks Ana--I quite enjoyed your post THE WAY WE WHERE by the way, and I fully agree with the comments of your readers Mark English, Colonial Boy, and Anthony into the bargain . . . belated good wishes for your birthday as well--Best, Chris

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