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Can You Trust Historians?
Hitler should have recorded everything
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Adolf Hitler with Finnish military leader Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (right). The two held Hitler’s only private conversation preserved in an audio recording. Credit: Lehtikuva Oy.

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I have a distinct dislike for the journalistic class as a whole. They do not so much report news as collectively make the news, according to a peculiar pack mentality, which combines commonly-agreed designated good guys and bad guys, but also sometimes brutal and erratic shifts collective opinion, not according to the whims of an official chief, but a strange and disturbing hive mind.

For this reason among others, I tend to prefer historians, who have the luxury of specialization and the leisure to actually take their time to try to determine what actually happened before setting their pen to paper. But the historians have hardly been perfect themselves.

Any historian’s work is only as good as his criteria for accepting documents and other data as valid, his criteria for highlighting or accepting this or that fact from the huge mass of historical data, and his inferences.

If you want a laugh, try reading any alleged “Jesus biography,” especially the parts on the historians’ very sophisticated criteria for deciding whether this or that saying or happening in the Gospels is historical or not. Reza Aslan has an enjoyable, plausible, and typically speculative book in this genre. The independent historian Richard Carrier has enjoyed a successful career on the Internet and the atheist speech circuit by running circles around the establishment historians’ more-or-less unjustifiable traditional suppositions.

That’s why I’ve come to prefer to read the documents directly rather than just the historians’ selective syntheses. Admittedly, the documents are edited and translated so you are scarcely free of falsehood unless you can go into the archives yourself. However, this at least gives you a good feel for what exactly the historians are actually working from.

In this respect, the Oxford World Classics series is excellent, providing readers of English with a translation of major primary documents along with ample introductions and endnotes with the latest on the interpretations of academic experts and explications of obscurities.

Similarly, I am enormously impressed with Jeremy Noakes Nazism series, which does much the same with carefully selected translations of German documents which really give you a sense of debates and decision-making within the Third Reich.

It’s a great joy, after becoming familiar with the raw material, to read a historian who has produced a plausible harmony from the often vast, patchy, disparate, and apparently-contradictory data that we possess on a given subject.

In this genre, I am quite fond of William Merit Sale’s cogent exposition of the mythical “government of Troy” as described in the Iliad. The nineteenth-century French historian Fustel de Coulanges reconstructs the origins and evolution of “Aryan civilization” – think Conan the Barbarian – based on an in-depth comparative analysis of surviving Greek, Roman, and Indian ancient texts.

Brigitte Hamman’s Hitler’s Vienna, which focuses on the future German dictator’s desultory youth, manages to wonderfully bring together fin-de-siècle Viennese culture, contemporary newspapers, the German-Austrian nationalist subculture, the few documents from Hitler’s youth, Mein Kampf, and even the wartime Table Talk. One gets a sense of Hitler the irresponsible Bohemian, an unteachable slave to his Muse, his overpoweringly vivid imagination and already-emerging inflexible will.

It’s striking that a whole generation of postwar Hitler historians got into the habit of using fraudulent or unreliable documents.

The jury is still out on Hitler’s wartime Table Talk, private conversations allegedly recorded by his aides. The current consensus is that while these documents are not a fake, there’s no telling if the stenographers made mistakes or if later editors manipulated the document, namely Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann and the man who later brought the document to light, the Swiss businessman and Nazi sympathizer François Genoud. There’s every possibility, then, that there are interpolations or softenings of Hitler’s words to suit any of these parties’ political agenda.

Still, it’s striking how frankly brutal the Table Talk is: Moscow and Leningrad are to be razed, the inhabitants of the Crimea are to be expulsed to make way for German settlers, and the Slavs – at best – are to be forcibly kept in a permanent state of backwardness and neglect in the countryside. Given that none of the parties involved appear to have had an incentive to harden Hitler’s message, this suggests authenticity. But it only suggests.

Shockingly, the English version of the Table Talk was apparently partially translated from Genoud’s French with the blessing of the British historian who edited the book for the English-speaking world: Hugh-Trevor Roper.

Some say that Hitler couldn’t possibly expound endlessly on all the subjects in the Table Talk. Surely his interlocutors would have butt in. I say: have you ever listened to Adolf Hitler? This is a man who lived and prospered by his ability to give speech after speech after speech, reaching out to millions of Germans over his career even before he became Chancellor. Mein Kampf was not written but dictated to his disciples in jail or, when he was free, during the time he had a restraining order against giving speeches.

In the one private recording of Hitler that we have, absolutely fascinating listening, he reduces the old Finnish gentleman Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim to silence for 10 minutes as he expounds, in a feverish stream, on the travails of his war with the Soviet on Union. Hitler goes into great and meandering detail on the background to his decision-making. He delayed his attack on the Soviets to avoid a two-front war, to avoid bad weather, and because of the Italian weaknesses in North Africa and Greece. He had to attack the Soviets because of threats to Finland and, especially, Romania, which Germany sorely-needed as an ally for its oil.

All this is classic Hitler, quite similar to what we find in Mein Kampf or the Table Talk: meandering, emphatic, and repetitive, as Hitler relentlessly drives his points home. We also observe Hitler’s remarkable imagination and evocative style:

[The Soviet Union had] Thirty-find thousand tanks! . . . If one of my generals had said that a country had 35,000 tanks, I’d have said: “You, my good sir, see everything twice or ten times over. You are crazy. You see ghosts.” . . .

Today [we found] a tank plant where during the first shift just over 30,000 workers and round the clock sixty-thousand workers would have labored. A single tank plant, a gigantic factory! [With] working masses who certainly lived like animals . . .

Hitler’s speeches are quite different, being generally more structured and disciplined while still remarkably creative and emotional, as grand political choreography.

Another major written document we have is Hitler’s so-called “last testament.”[1]Not to be confused with official political and personal testaments, dictated the day before his death, and considered authentic. These are notes similar to the Table Talk, purporting to date from 1945. This document is now generally considered a fake written by Genoud as a pious postwar European fascist in the 1950s or 60s.[2]The historian Mikael Nilsson presents the latest evidence on the “last testament”: In the testament, pseudo-Hitler blames the Jews for inciting the world against him, wishes for coexistence with America and alliance with Great Britain, and expresses regret that he did not create independent Arab states to defeat the allies . . . For their part, David Irving and Wikipedia seem to agree the document is fake, which is no slight thing.

However, many of the major Hitler historians, and others, used the document in their work, including Allan Bullock, Joachim Fest, and Jon Toland. John Lewis Gaddis, the dean of Cold War historians, quotes this document as well as Tocqueville in the opening of his major history: both the German dictator and the French observer of democracy predicting the great Russian-American conflict.

Of course, pseudo-Hitler’s “prediction” is less impressive if this happened to be written in the 1950s. Though actually, predictions of conflict between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union was a common argument made in Third Reich publications, notably in the final issues of Signal.

The Toland biography is a good case in point. This is a balanced and respected work comes from a historian who, remarkably, did not speak German. His account is based on various translated sources, including Spengler’s articles, the Table Talk, and the Political Testament, and, most importantly, direct knowledge and interviews with many of German officials and officers. So, while he’s using the same questionable documents as the rest of us, he has the distinct advantage of intimately knowing many of the people behind these documents.

We should not underestimate the value of a personal connection in informing one’s viewpoint. Toland’s 1990 speech to the Institute for Historical Review is a classic, including the wonderful story of how he met the legendary Waffen-SS special-ops commander, Otto Skorzeny.

The “last testament” is significant as a fake because it is one of the few documents where Hitler explicitly speaks of the extermination of the Jews.

In fact, the establishment and revisionist historians are not necessarily always in huge disagreement. David Irving claimed in 1977 “there is no archival evidence that Hitler even knew of the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem, let alone ordered the liquidation of millions of Jews.” This obviously got Irving into an inhuman amount of trouble.

Jeremy Noakes says for his part:

It is, in fact, notoriously difficult to chart the channels through which information and power flowed to and from the Führer. Hitler was averse to paperwork; most of his involvement in government to the form of face-to-face encounters between himself and his subordinates of which little or no record survives save brief comments about his wishes or simply “the Führer has been informed.” . . . As Hugh Trevor-Roper pointed out long ago, in many ways Hitler’s government had more in common with a court than with twentieth-century cabinet or even presidential government.[3]J. Noakes and G. Pridham, Nazism 1919-1945, vol. 2, “State, Economy and Society 1933-1939 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000), p. 2.

Johann Chapoutot,[4]Chapoutot also occasionally uses Hermann Rauschning’s Conversations with Hitler, generally considered a fake from an openly anti-Hitler source, in contrast with Genoud. a French historian with some interesting works on the Third Reich’s intellectuals and ideology, will say in an offhand way that Hitler’s decision to exterminate the Jews was “presumably” taken in this or that month. Mark Mazower, author of a fine book on Hitler’s imperial policies, is unsure whether millions of Soviet POWs starved and died in German custody because of homicidal intent or because of neglect and logistical failure (the Germans had hardly planned to house and feed so many POWs).

The Jewish Telegraph Agency reported a couple years ago:

“Five million non-Jews died in the Holocaust.” It’s a statement that shows up regularly in declarations about the Nazi era. . . . It is, however, a number without any scholarly basis.

Indeed, say those close to the late Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, its progenitor, it is a number that was intended to increase sympathy for Jewish suffering but which now is more often used to obscure it.

I have to say, as someone who was taught in France’s Éducation nationale to commemorate the 5 million alongside the 6 million, I find all this a little confusing. As a lawful and loyal citizen of the French Republic, I am more than willing to believe what Dieudonné calls the “official history” with all my heart and soul, right down to the last comma, but I am finding all these gyrations and fluctuations a little hard to keep up with.

Anyway, it’s a shame Hitler did not record all of his private conversations – as became the practice of certain later American presidents – that would have made for fascinating listening and would no doubt have cleared up many historical controversies . . . and perhaps generated many more.


[1] Not to be confused with official political and personal testaments, dictated the day before his death, and considered authentic.

[2] The historian Mikael Nilsson presents the latest evidence on the “last testament”:

[3] J. Noakes and G. Pridham, Nazism 1919-1945, vol. 2, “State, Economy and Society 1933-1939 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000), p. 2.

[4] Chapoutot also occasionally uses Hermann Rauschning’s Conversations with Hitler, generally considered a fake from an openly anti-Hitler source, in contrast with Genoud.

• Category: History • Tags: American Media, Hitler, Nazi Germany, World War II 
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