Friday, 4 October 2013

Christopher Hitchens caught out?

Did the Hitch really read Ian Kershaw's Hubris?

The late Christopher Hitchens, acclaimed journalist, self described contrarian, and author of Why Orwell Matters, appears to have fallen into a trap once described by his political patron saint.
In 1946 George Orwell wrote a highly entertaining piece titled Confessions of a Book Reviewer, where he mentioned that a professional book reviewer always has to read "at least fifty pages if he is to avoid making some howler which will betray him not merely to the author, but even to the general reader.".

In 1999, Hitchens wrote a piece for Vanity Fair titled: Imagining Hitler. The article was a review of Ian Kershaw's Hubris, the first in a two volume biography of Adolf Hitler. Unlike the fictional reviewer in Orwell's essay (who reviewed books for a living), this was clearly a piece that Hitchens was proud of as it was included in his 2011 book Arguably, an anthology of his essays pieced together not long after he had been diagnosed with cancer.

The review itself contains very little about Kershaw's book, and merely talks at length about Hitler, even praising the older and far shorter biography written by Sebastian Haffner. But the great blunder of the piece was Hitchens' decision to reference one of the anecdotes in Mein Kampf.

"I treasure one episode, in the clotted pages of Mein Kampf, above all others. As a young, resentful loser hanging around in the Austro-Hungarian empire, Adolf Hitler was forced to seek employment on a construction site." Hitchens then proceeds to quote Hitler's retelling of an argument he had had with his left wing co-workers, which culminated in them threatening to throw him off the scaffold. Hitchens then ponders: "Was there one, I wonder, who ever made the connection and sometimes thought of the chance he had missed, to send that little bastard over the edge and right onto the brick pile below?"

This would all be a very reasonable line of speculation if it were not for the fact that Professor Kershaw-  in the very book Hitchens was "reviewing"- states on page 53 that: "the story he (Hitler) told in Mein Kampf about learning about trade unionism and Marxism the hard way through his maltreatment while working on a building site is almost certainly fictional." This, Kershaw bases on Reinhold Hanish (the young Adolf's associate in Vienna) having no memory of the event itself or of being told about it by Hitler. Hanish also recalled Hitler being incredibly idle and having only ever engaged in manual labour once shifting snow, a job which Hanish introduced him to. Hitler had also recounted the same story in 1921 (before writing Mein Kampf) of working on a construction site before he was eighteen. This would have been before he had moved to Vienna!

Did Hitchens read Kershaw's Hubris or had he merely read bits and pieces of it? We will never know now. However, since it is in poor taste to speak ill of the dead, let us return to the essay by George Orwell in which he also wrote:

"... 1,000 words is a bare minimum - to the few (books) that seem to matter... the usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless even if the reviewer genuinely wants to write about it."

Less than 1,000 words is worthless? Uh oh, what does that say about my own reviews on this blog?

Literature mentioned:

(1999) Imagining Hitler by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair.
(1998) Hitler: 1889-1936, Hubris by Ian Kershaw.
(1946) Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell.
(2011) Arguably by Christopher Hitchens.
(1979) The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner.