Friday, 10 May 2013

Review: Goering, By David Irving.

David Irving's biography of Hitler's head honcho Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering is a book that cannot be ignored. It is vastly superior to Richard Overy's account which comes across as dull and lacking in personal information. Irving's biography delves so deep into the life of Goering that it follows the man from birth; his glittering career as a fighter pilot; his first love; his mental breakdown; his recovery; his ascension to power; his second love; his fall from power; and eventually to the mystery surrounding his death. 

Irving has a reputation for his sympathy for Hitler and the Nazis, and is known to make various excuses for them. However, in this book Irving pulls no punches in his treatment of this figure, referring to him as a "bully", and (this made me laugh) a "manicured mountain of perfumed flab." It is only during the Nuremberg trials when he has nothing left to lose that Goering proves his valor. However, it is doubtful that Irving believes this excuses him for his ruthlessness as chief of Prussian secret police, or that it excuses him for his pursuit of expensive treasures while neglectful of his military responsibilities (1). What Irving does successfully document is the very human side to Goering. At times, Goering appears maximally loyal to his Fuhrer, particularly after surviving his assassination attempt in 1944, at other times Goering is indignant at his abuse for the failures in his leadership of the Luftwaffe, and later on in Allied captivity prior to the Nuremberg Trials, Goering appears happy to drop dirt on Hitler and blame the Allied victory on Hitler's poor judgement, specifically in regards to the airforce (2). Irving also shows the correspondence between Hermann and his wife and daughter while in captivity. The letters are so touching that if they had instead been attributed to a more respected historical figure such as Winston Churchill, nobody would be at all shocked. 

Author, David Irving.

The book is not is without drawbacks however. Irving's greatest flaw in the book is also his greatest asset. In a later edition of the book, Irving writes a dedication to Tom Congdon who taught him how to write in such a readable way. Indeed, the book is very enjoyable, far harder to put down than the adjective-lacking prose of Raul Hilberg or the course academic language of Peter Longerich. However, there are times when it seems as though Irving is making guesses far beyond the source material provided. Many times throughout the book we are told what Goering must have been thinking, or the aromas and sights he would have taken in. Perhaps this information is provided by the source material, but if so, it is impossible to tell. This brings me to my second criticism. Irving has a peculiar referencing style that appears to be used in all of his books. Rather than the harvard or chicago style (which I loosely and alternatively use in this blog myself), Irving provides citations for specific page numbers, and various different claims within those pages. For instance, Irving might claim that one particular character was highly flatulent on page 134. In the notes section, the reader might find "134, flatulence" in the notes. However, in many cases, such references are not provided. For example, between pages 437 and 442, not a single note is given despite the various claims made. It is thus up to the reader to guess what material was cited to make the claim. For all of his pride in only using primary sources, Irving does use considerably less of them, and the ones he uses are often so obscure that it is hard for the layman to locate them and verify them himself. However, rather than criticising Irving for using sources that are inaccessible to the layman, perhaps mainstream academics should be criticised for not having made the effort to uncover those sources and reproduce them themselves (3). Fortunately, Irving, a self-made historian has made much of his material available in the Irving Collection at archives such as the public record office in Kew. For that he should be commended. 

To return however to the high points. Irving has uncovered so many new sources of information that it has allowed him to pepper the book with humorous anecdotes. For example, we find out that Goering named a yacht after his first wife Carin and gave it as a gift to his second wife Emmy; and that while Emmy was waiting for her husband to be released by the Allies, she was visited by a trickster sergeant, who brought her the wonderful but false news that he would soon be freed, to which she responded by rewarding him with a diamond ring! Irving also goes into intricate detail over the nature of Goering's suicide, and the questions of where he received the cyanide capsule, dispelling such myths as the claim that it was smuggled in his anus. These small touches make all the difference, because despite at first seeming unimportant to the narrative, ultimately there is no narrative to a human life. Those little things are what life is comprised entirely of.

Despite occasional relishes and liberties which are typical of Irving, this remains an important book. Indeed, despite his reputation being tarnished, notable historians such as Hans Mommsen are not afraid to cite his books (4). In short, this book is essential reading for an understanding of the exploits of one of Hitler's most notorious henchmen.

1) As a side note, in Irving's famous Hitler's War, the Fuhrer himself is not exempt from moral culpability despite his (alleged) ignorance of the extermination of the Jews. If we follow Irving's logic here, neither should similar excuses be made for Goering's carelessness in authorising Heydrich to initiate and create a "draft of the organizational, logistical, and material advance preparations for carrying out the requisite final solution of the Jewish problem." This document from December 1941 has long been misunderstood as a key moment in the initiation of the mass Jewish extermination program. However it is clear from a reading of the document itself that it does not refer to execution, and is in fact quite specific in its reference to "emigration or evacuation". 
2) One example that Goering gives is Hitler's insistence that the new Me262 should be manufactured as a speed bomber as opposed to a fighter.
3) Notable exceptions are Raul Hilberg, Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham who have published anthologies of translated primary sources for public consumption.
4) In Volume 2 of Ian Kershaw's biography of Hitler, no less than 8 of Irving's book are cited, including Goering.

No comments:

Post a Comment