This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Two Versions of Reality: Toland and Trevor-Roper

 (May 2007)
I've been reading , over the last several days, two different versions of the same episode - the end of the War in Europe in 1945. One is by the British historian H R Trevor-Roper. The other is by the American...uh...whatever...John Toland.

The interesting thing about this is the very, very different ways one can look at the same episode - and write about it. In one sense it's indicative of the differences between the American world-view of the period and that of the British.

HR Trevor-Roper's The Last Days of Hitler is a classic in any case, and one of my personal favourites. I was re-reading it; I'd already read it more than once.

Trevor-Roper, naturally, concentrates on the last days of Hitler's life - specifically, the last fortnight. He also does it thoroughly and in dry pedantic language, limiting himself to known facts, strictly avoiding personal speculation, and when something can only be conjectured he clearly mentions it as conjecture. He also writes with a dry humour, particular targets of his scorn being such Nazi "luminaries" as Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk (called a "ninny") and SS Brigadefuehrer Walther Schellenberg (called, in tones of devastating irony, "subtle").

Trevor-Roper isn't infallible by any means - he was among those who validated Konrad Kujau's forged Hitler Diaries in the 1980s, and for his own purposes he never could bring himself to admit the by now acknowledged fact that Hitler bit into a cyanide capsule as well as shot himself. But what he writes is always carefully sourced, never dramatised, and when he talks of dramatic scenes (which certainly weren't lacking in the Fuehrerbunker) he throws in a caustic aside or two about the likeliness or otherwise of those scenes having actually occurred in the manner described.

Trevor-Roper is unsparing in his scathing indictment of the Nazi leaders, whom he calls a "court". He spares none of them, not even Hitler's architect and Minister for Armaments Albert Speer, for whom he has an obvious soft corner. Speer is especially to be blamed, in Trevor-Roper's eyes, because he did not act till the last moment, when it was too late, despite being among the most intelligent members at court.

And - of course - Tervor-Roper writes history, not propaganda. He makes no attempt to describe the Allies or to make Cold War points. When he describes Russian shellfire, it's Russian shellfire, not a murderous Communist barrage on helpless German civilians.

All in all, a book of history, filled with dry humour and no unnecessary flourishes.

John Toland's The Last 100 Days is a very, very different kettle of fish.

Now, it’s true that unlike Trevor-Roper, who concentrates on the last fortnight of Hitler’s life with only reference to the past where relevant to throw light on the present, John Toland writes about the last hundred days of the war (why hundred? Don’t ask.) – from 27 January 1945 to the surrender to the USSR (Germany’s second surrender) on 8 May. Therefore, I do agree that it might be a bit unrealistic to compare the two all-in-all and one should concentrate on the segment of Toland’s book dealing with Hitler’s days in the Bunker. But even that is more than enough.
In the first place, the entire style of writing is entirely different. Unlike Trevor-Roper, who as I said was writing history and made no bones about it, Toland (like every single American historian I’ve read on the Second World War with the shining exception of the great William L. Shirer) writes not so much history as a novel. No real history has space for breathless prose describing the position of objects on tables, the gasps for breath of excited officers, the (described verbatim, as a dialogue) conversations of people, and so on. No history that pretends to be remotely objective goes out and out to bring in the most dramatic personal accounts and present them as fact. Even the dramatised accounts of such persons as Hanna Reitsch (which, as Trevor-Roper points out, have since been repudiated by Reitsch herself) get full play by Toland, reported as if someone was there with a movie camera and tape recorder (the technology of the day). But that’s typical of Toland’s style of writing, or in general of the American historiography of the period (again, of course, barring Shirer). While writing for the general reader, facts must never come in the way of a good story.
Less forgivable even is Toland’s categorisation of the entire Nazi hierarchy (except for those like Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner and so on, who are clearly beyond the pale) as decent men, earnest, cultured, learned, intent on making peace, let down by the indecision, cowardice, and theatrical evil of their superiors. The aforementioned Schwerin von Krosigk is in Toland’s world a decent, thoughtful man, a Rhodes Scholar given to intellectual thinking, not, as Trevor-Roper ruthlessly points out, a nitwit whose only achievement was political survival and whose intellectual standards are evident in his own diary, kept, as Trevor-Roper pointed out, to “show posterity what sort of German man was present in the hours of Germany’s steepest decline” (Schwerin von Krosigk’s own words). For example, when told about Roosevelt’s death, this is what Schwerin von Krosigk wrote: “This was the Angel of History! We all felt its wings rustle through the room.” Toland reports the incident but carefully avoids drawing the obvious conclusion.
Similar is the treatment of Walther Schellenberg, one of the most disgusting Nazis of all as far as I am concerned. This SS brigadier it was who said that it would be unexceptionable if all Jews could have been exterminated, but since only a third were under Nazi control, trying to kill them was a stupidity (something Trevor-Roper points out but Toland is careful to ignore). This is also the guy who kept on prodding Himmler to depose Hitler and take over the Reich, something which would have achieved absolutely nothing (something even Himmler realised) but which is presented by Toland as a great opportunity missed because of Himmler’s pusillanimity. Aforesaid pusillanimity described in detail, where Himmler puts his fist to his mouth and glances around as if haunted.
(Similar is the description of water from a spilled vase wetting Hitler’s corpse’s clothes, and Doenitz keeping a loaded gun in his drawer while telling Himmler he was dismissed, and other similar irrelevancies. Much of Toland is based on irrelevancies or on personal accounts unsupported by any evidence whatsoever.)
Good solid novel writing, but I ask you, is this history?
And while I am on this Schellenberg: while many of the Nazis openly talked about their crimes in the dock (some, like Rudolf Hoess, commander at Auschwitz – not to be confused with Rudolf Hess – with pride) it was Schellenberg who, in return for better treatment and reduced prison time (he ended up serving just two years or so) turned evidence and helped the prosecution at Nuremberg. I just wonder what little portion of his “evidence” was authentic. And this is the man who is the great peacemaker of Toland’s pages, the man who, as Trevor-Roper points out, did not have the simple intelligence to understand that Himmler was not ever, under any circumstances, going to be acceptable to the Allies as Fuehrer of a Germany sans Hitler.
Least forgivable of all, but by far the most explicable, is Toland’s treatment of the USSR. Both Toland and Trevor-Roper were writing during the Cold War, and Trevor-Roper’s revised book is roughly contemporaneous with Toland’s (1965). Trevor-Roper, again, was writing history. He has no direct ideological axe to grind except on the point of Hitler’s mode of committing suicide, which seems to be more of a personal point of pride more than anything. Toland, on the other hand, is a Cold Warrior and was writing a novel disguised as history. From his pages emerges a Soviet Union of drunken, savage barbarians whose troops rolled on Germany in an alcohol fuelled, bestial flood, intent only on murder and rapine, heroically resisted by small bands of brave German soldiers trying vainly to defend (the implication is always there – sometimes overt) Western civilisation (of course, by the sixties NATO was employing as many Nazis as it could lay its hands on, so it’s scarcely a surprise). No Soviet soldier or officer is presented as anything other than the Enemy; on the other hand, the quisling band of Vlasov and other turncoats are Toland’s heroes. Even the French and British – except for Churchill - come across as minimised, with a token mention of a British pilot or soldier here and there; the Americans are really the only Allies worth mentioning. I guess he was just prefiguring Hollywood’s rewriting of history as it goes on today.
The pity is, of course, that of those who have enough of an attention span left to go through these two books, it’s Toland who will be read and remembered, because of the novel-style of writing and because of the America-centred ambience of his book. Trevor-Roper’s effort is infinitely superior and much more famous, but it will be left unread on the shelves.
Odd thing: by the Korean War, we had the situation reversed in one respect: the American IF Stone wrote an infinitely better account – The Hidden History of the Korean War – than the Cold War rhetoric ridden account of the British writer David Rees (Korea - The Limited War). Naturally, Rees is considered to be an “authority” and IF Stone, er, “controversial”.
Fortunately, the Cold War is over, and we do have the Internet.
They can’t do a Toland unchallenged any more.

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