Tuesday, 9 April 2013

David Irving, "Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich" (1996)

Irving is, and this is a generous assessment, one of the most controversial aspirants to the title of 'historian' to address the Second World War era. He has been described as a 'revisionist', and a 'denier'. His work appears, at first glance, as impressive; full of lengthy citations of archival and interview sources, criticism of scholarly work, and distinctions that to a casual reader seem to suggest an encyclopedic knowledge of relevant material. As Irving's increasingly erratic and extreme pronouncements indicate a wilder and ever-more problematic approach to history, politics, and professionalism, however, most of his writing has come under criticism. Despite the appearance of meeting scholarly standards, many of his books have been revealed as poorly-founded revisions of commonly accepted and better researched work. Having found Irving's Hitler's War an entertaining read as a teenager, and discovering that Irving had made 'author-approved' versions of many of his works available freely online, I decided that they might merit a new assessment from a more critical perspective.

Irving finished his draft of Goebbels in September of 1994, and duly submitted it to St. Martin's Press for review. While the Press made revisions, and did not offer the book for sale in North America, Irving offered the original to readers for free via his website.

There is a short assessment in the Kirkus Review that rings pretty true. If you can't be bothered to follow the link, the review can be summarized as calling the book, "ponderous, tedious, and scurrilously misleading."

The same year that Goebbels was published, Irving lodged a libel suit in the United Kingdom against Deborah Lipstadt, a United States university professor and author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993). As part of the evidence in the Irving v Lipstadt case, Richard Evans offered an assessment of Irving's manipulation of historical records.

All of this being said, a few themes emerged from my reading of Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich (that at over 900 pages - could easily be argued is too long for its own good). I list them below:

1) Irving's sometimes subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) anti-semitism.
For instance, on pg. 195, Irving offers the rather florid sentence: "The government’s Shylocks were determined to eviscerate him now… The hundred pound Dr. Goebbels was equally determined to keep his flesh intact.” Of course, this allusion to the 'vengeful Jew' in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice plays on a common anti-semitic stereotype while symbolically equating the level of risk Goebbel faced to physical death.

2) Goebbels was a virulent anti-semite who pushed Hitler further than Hitler would have gone on his own
Several times during the book, Irving notes that Goebbels was either pleading with Hitler to take a stronger anti-semitic stance, or that Goebbels was - through independent decisions - compelling stronger actions against Jews from Hitler. This is not a position that Irving attempts to hide. Describing the situation in 1934, on pg. 376, Irving bluntly states, "For the next nine years, Goebbels was the motor, goading his reluctant Fuhrer into ever more radical actions against the Jews.” Similarly, on pg. 656, Irving opines, "For Goebbels there were two problems. Neither the broad German public nor their Fuhrer shared his satanic antisemitism.” Additionally, on pg. 693, Irving suggests, "Hitler told Hans Lammers categorically that he wanted the solution of the Jewish problem postponed until after the war was over—a ruling that re-markably few historians now seem disposed to quote." Ironically, Irving includes the following in the footnote appended to the preceding sentence: "At about the same time [Goebbels] noted [in his diary] that Hitler was relentless on the Jewish question: ‘The Jews must get out of Europe, if necessary by applying the most brutal means.'"

In somewhat more subtle terms, on pg. 369, Irving writes, "[Hitler listens to]… Goebbel’s litanies against their turbulent priests and their arrogant Jews. Hitler finds it hard to get worked up about the Jews, now that he is in power.” With regard to the pogroms of Kristallnacht, Irving suggests Goebbels acted independently of Hitler's directions in bringing about violent anti-semitic actions, "It is plain that [JG] had consulted neither the party’s gauleiters nor the S.A. chief of staff before issuing these instructions.”

Irving has difficulty incorporating some historical realities into his version of history, however. He includes, but seems to miss the obvious contradiction to his claims that statements such as the following pose: "…the Reichstag that September 1936 passed a set of laws circumscribing the rights of Jews and half-Jews in Germany. Goebbels took no part in their drafting…” (pg. 376). If in fall 1936 the Reichstag was passing laws limiting the rights of Jews and those the Nazi regime identified as 'half-Jews', it would suggest that these laws were passed with Hitler's implicit support or at least lack of objection, and that Goebbels could not be identified as a solitary, driven, or exceptional anti-semitic leader within the regime.

3) Practical need dictated ant-semitic actions
While discussion of the early struggles of the Nazi Party is filled with fulminations against what Irving characterizes as the 'dirty tricks' of the Communist and Social Democratic opposition parties, he suggests that the Party's anti-semitism was grounded in the reality of a German society dominated for the worse by Jews (in terms of dominant ownership of key industries, wealth-holding, and occupation of government offices and the judiciary). Once the Party's anti-semitic policies had eliminated the possibility of Jews being able to meaningfully participate in German society, of course, a new threat could be rationalized, that of rebellion by the marginalized, disenfranchised, and victimized. As Irving indicates on pg. 706, "...Goebbels dictated that he saw a major danger in having forty thousand Jews ‘with nothing more to lose’ running loose in the Reich capital.”

4) Offering subtle counter-narratives to cremation as evidence of mass executions
Likely recognizing that his work would be under scrutiny, and yet widely read by less-than-critical readers with a casual interest in Nazi history, Irving inserts some subtle references that suggest attempts to destabilize, if not rewrite dominant historical interpretations based on overwhelming evidence. As indicated in a quotation above, his criticism for 'institutional/professional historians' who are too afraid to be objective about the history of the Nazi era is well-known.

For instance, on pg. 722, Irving states “...Himmler wrote to Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller that... given the high mortality rate in the camps; he ordered all the cadavers ‘of these deceased Jews’ cremated or interred.” On its face, the ambiguity of the quoted phrase ('of those deceased Jews') might be missed, but the implication that the deaths were somehow natural, caused by misfortune or disease, and certainly not part of a process of state-conducted slaughter, is an important re-interpretation of history that Irving is known for. That the Nazi state's laws created this situation in the first place is overlooked.

5) Irving offers subtle rehabilitation of Hitler's and Nazism's reputation
Near the closing of the book, on pg. 916, Irving includes one of Goebbels' last assessments of the efforts to which he had given his life's work. “‘If worse comes to worst,’ he mused, ‘and the Führer dies an honourable death in Berlin, and Europe goes bolshevik, then in five years at most the Führer will have come a legendary figure and national socialism a mythus sanctified by a last grand finale—and all of its mortal errors that are criticized today will have been expunged at one fell swoop.’“ That this statement would be offered without critical commentary or counter narrative implies a dangerously ambiguous re-statement of Goebbels ideas, and given Irving's history, suggests either a stiff middle-finger in the face of his critics and/or an affirmation that much of their criticism may be correct.

6) Irving occasionally lapses into petty, sometimes ridiculous nastiness
Describing one of Goebbel's children, Irving states, "Hellmut Goebbels grows to a solemn, slow-witted mutt of nine, 136 centimetres (four feet six inches) tall, with no greater recorded ambition than to become a Berlin subway driver.” Such an assessment of a boy who spent most of his short life (between the ages of 3 and 9 years old), living in Berlin during World War II seems rather unnecessarily harsh.

7) Irving's use of footnotes sometimes ignores the responsibilities of an historian
On pg. 299, Irving states that in 1933, "The world’s press greeted Goebbels’ crude but effective boycott with uproar (while ignoring the Jewish boycott which had triggered it.).” Such a statement, which Irving had to know would be controversial, and which given criticism that he was prone to play loose with the rules of historical evidence, would greatly benefit from citation to some kind of documentary proof, such as references to a few articles from the 'world's press' to support his claim. None are provided.

Similarly, on pg. 527, Irving states, "“In Rhodes [Goebbels] read that Mr Chamberlain had guaranteed Poland against any aggression.*” The asterisk leads the reader to the following note: "Except, it turned out, aggression by the Soviet Union; a secret addendum made this clear.—It was Ian Colvin of the News Chronicle, whom Goebbels expelled a few days later, who tilted the balance to war by telling Chamberlain, untruthfully, on March 29 that Hitler had already drawn up plans to destroy Poland. However the contingency plan (Hitler’s Case White) was now activated as a result of the British guarantee.”

This addendum is footnoted. The footnote, however, does not seem to relate to the claim regarding Chamberlain, the British guarantee, a secret addendum to said guarantee, Colvin, or Colvin’s conversation with Chamberlain. Instead, the footnotes states, “See the diaries of Bormann; Eberhard (IfZ, Irving collection); and Major Wilhelm Deyhle, Jodl’s staff officer (ND: 1796-PS); also a letter from Col Eduard Wagner to his wife, Mar 30 and Apr 1 (in which latter he wrote ‘gestern bei der Führerentscheidung...’—‘yesterday, when the Führer reached his decision...’). How Bormann, Eberhard, or Deyhle would know about secret addendums to British guarantees with Poland, or what a British journalist discussed with the British Prime Minister is incomprehensible. It is also difficult to understand why Irving would not direct his readers to particular entries in the diaries rather than to the entirety of the books is suspicious.

8) The book is desperately in need of an editor.
Like many self-published books, this text suffers from a multitude of egregious writing flaws and typographical errors that a critical, objective eye would have caught immediately. A few examples of the various types that are found in the book:

Pg. 206 - "With the political wind in Germany now beginning to blow Brown…”. Irving was referring to the colour of the Nazi uniform. Aside from the mixed metaphor, the scatological reading of this phrase gave me a surprised chuckle.

Pg. 253 - "Two years later [Goebbels] published a popular edition of his diaries for the coming months…”. Why Irving phrased his sentence this way, instead of something much simpler and clearer, such as "Two years later, Goebbels would publish a popular edition of the diaries he wrote over the next few months," is baffling.

On pg. 672, clearly there has been a layout error that a fresh eye would have caught. The book states, "“The film pirated And apartments—supposedly for bombed-out Berliners, but the cream of these vacant buildings went to their closest cronies.” The portion following 'pirated' appears again lower on the same page.

Pg. 743: "“As Hitler reminded Goebbels before this speech, it was proper even now to compare Germany’s situation now with 1933.”
Pg. 860: "“Goebbels sent Hitler a telegram reporting the three hundred thousand new troops. ‘I intend,’ he dictated on the train, ‘to plead with the Führer not to let Speer pick the currents out of my cake.’”