Monday 16 January 2017

Book Review: The Last Days of Hitler - Hugh Trevor-Roper

This is the edition I have.

Hugh Trevor-Roper's reputation as an expert on Hitler took a knock when, as Lord Dacre (he was made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher) he appeared to endorse the forged 'Hitler Diaries', which were actually the work of a certain Konrad Kujau. This whole farrago is the subject of the very interesting and entertaining British TV series Selling Hitler.

Oops! Hugh endorses the fake Hitler diaries.

Trevor-Roper in his Army Intelligence togs.

But way back in 1945 Trevor-Roper, as a British military intelligence agent, was commissioned, largely in response to Russian (or rather Stalinist) myth-mongering, to get to the bottom of what really happened to Hitler. After stating the facts pretty much as they were, Stalinist Russia was looking to exploit Hitler's downfall, and began to take the line that the Western powers were keeping the former F├╝rher in captivity, for some darkly malevolent bourgeois purposes. [1]

Trevor-Roper's task was to marshal all available intelligence - and he had access not just to documents, but surviving captive participants - and tell the sorry tale of Hitler's ultimate demise, in the G├Âtterdammerung of the collapse and, as it transpired, the literal self-immolation of the supposed thousand year Reich. Such a 'Viking funeral', as he describes it, 'is the natural end of a chapter in history; the history, it seems, of a savage tribe and a primitive superstition.'

Hitler Youth jump over a Solstice bonfire. [2]

Torches at Nuremburg. [2]

I've read The Last Days of Hitler twice now, and thoroughly enjoyed the read on both occasions. Trevor-Roper is not just knowledgeable on his subject, but he is also a very entertaining and adroit writer. He's as witty as he is well-informed. Indeed, his wit can be quite caustic. The subject - words like enjoyable and entertaining seem almost blasphemous in the face of the horrors this coterie of sinister clowns were responsible for - is not an easy or straightforward one. But he handles it about as adroitly as one could hope for.

Having said this, I'm withholding half a balkenkreuz for his indulgence in his own shorthand characterisations, which in some instances (see below) don't just border on, but march in and annexe, caricature. Another theme that might not stand too much scrutiny - and something that he shares with Kenneth Clarke in his magnificent series Civilisation - is his characterisation the Germans themselves, and Southern Germans in particular - in a way that does smack of the same kind of oversimplification of racial/tribal (stereo-)types that the Nazis so obviously took too far.

Hitler originally decreed that this man, Herman Goering, should be his successor. [3]

Goebbels, the family man.

Despite these provisos, the portraits that emerge are very compelling: Hitler himself is deemed to powerfully support the 'great man' idea, inasmuch as it was his dark charisma (to use a more modern historian's term) that was the catalyst for the terrible events of these years. Even isolated in the Berlin bunker, his word was Holy Writ. And indeed, he could even command from beyond the grave, as witness the performances of many of his former cronies, at Nuremburg.

In the Byzantine labyrinthine internecine world of Nazi power-politics, Himmler built the SS Empire. 

Bormann, the omnipresent intriguer, always at Hitler's elbow.

Himmler and Bormann both emerge as strange nonentities, able to rise to enormous power purely as ciphers or channels for the dark lord's will. When he goes, they effectively cease to exist. Some characters are portrayed as outright buffoons, like Schwerin von Krosigk, or Schellenburg, whilst others, Goebbels and Speer in particular, have rather more to them. But all depend on and breath the bizarre 'metaphysical' air of Nazism.

Hitler outside the bunker, 1945. [4]

And in the cramped isolation of the bunker, it's a stifling gaseous aura of neurosis, as euphoric dreams persist, and alternate, like the stormy weather of Hitler's volatile emotional character, with the bleakly nihilistic gloom that is, for Trevor-Roper, the core and lasting testimony of Hitler's fundamentally negative ideology.

Oberwallstrasse, near the bunker, as it looked after the fall of Berlin, 1945.

As Trevor-Roper points out, Hitler understood the power of myth. And whilst this book is an attempt to put the lid on the dangerous genie of Nazism, 'myths are not like truths; they are the triumph of credulity over evidence.' And, lest we get too smug, he adds 'When we consider upon what ludicrous evidence the most preposterous beliefs have been easily, and by millions, entertained, we may well hesitate before pronouncing anything incredible.'

Inside the bunker, at the end.

US press examine the grave Hitler and Braun were cremated in. [5]


[1] Whilst publicly proclaiming such balderdash, Stalin's agents were in fact compiling a huge dossier on Hitler, which became a 'book' of sorts, expressly put together for Stalin to digest. It's subsequently been published in English as The Hitler Book.

[2] I include these pictures to evoke the pagan ceremony aspect of Nazism, as also suggested in Trevor-Roper's 'Viking Funeral' statement. There are some pictures on the web purporting to show the burnt corpses of Herr and Frau Goebbels, and their six children. But in the interests of keeping this a family friendly blog, I refrained from including them.

[3] But by the time of the period this book covers, Goering had long since ceased to be either a favoured or a credible successor.

[4] Pictures of Hitler in 1945 seem to be quite a rarity. This one is allegedly a photo of an event depicted in the film Downfall, in which Hitler decorated a number of Hitler Youth, in the Chancellery garden, just outside the bunker. The cover image of the Pan edition I have might also have been taken at this same event.

[4] The Russians, first on the scene as they were, told these guys that this was where they'd found the burned remains that they believed to be Hitler and his wife.

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