‘To historians is granted a talent that even the gods are denied—to alter what has already happened!’
I bore this scornful saying in mind when I embarked on this study of Adolf Hitler’s twelve years of absolute power. I saw myself as a stone cleaner—less concerned with architectural appraisal than with scrubbing years of grime and discoloration from the facade of a silent and forbidding monument. I set out to describe events from behind the Führer’s desk, seeing each episode through his eyes.
The technique necessarily narrows the field of view, but it does help to explain decisions that are otherwise inexplicable. Nobody that I knew of had attempted this before, but it seemed worth the effort: after all, Hitler’s war left forty million dead and caused all of Europe and half of Asia to be wasted by fire and explosives; it destroyed Hitler’s ‘Third Reich,’ bankrupted Britain and lost her the Empire, and it brought lasting disorder to the world’s affairs; it saw the entrenchment of communism in one continent, and its emergence in another.
In earlier books I had relied on the primary records of the period rather than published literature, which contained too many pitfalls for the historian. I naïvely supposed that the same primary sources technique could within five years be applied to a study of Hitler.
In fact it would be thirteen years before the first volume, Hitler’s War, was published in 1977 and twenty years later I was still indexing and adding to my documentary files. I remember, in 1965, driving down to Tilbury Docks to collect a crate of microfilms ordered from the U.S. government for this study; the liner that brought the crate has long been scrapped, the dockyard itself levelled to the ground. I suppose I took it all at a far too leisurely pace.
I hope however that this biography, now updated and revised, will outlive its rivals, and that more and more future writers find themselves compelled to consult it for materials that are contained in none of the others. Travelling around the world I have found that it has split the community of academic historians from top to bottom, particularly in the controversy around ‘the Holocaust.’
In Australia alone, students from the universities of New South Wales and Western Australia have told me that there they are penalised for citing Hitler’s War; at the universities of Wollongong and Canberra students are disciplined if they don’t. The biography was required reading for officers at military academies from Sandhurst to West Point, New York, and Carlisle, Pennsylvania, until special-interest groups applied pressure to the commanding officers of those seats of learning; in its time it attracted critical praise from the experts behind the Iron Curtain and from the denizens of the Far Right.
Not everybody was content. As the author of this work I have had my home smashed into by thugs, my family terrorised, my name smeared, my printers firebombed, and myself arrested and deported by tiny, democratic Austria—an illegal act, their courts decided, for which the ministerial culprits were punished; at the behest of disaffected academics and influential citizens, in subsequent years, I was deported from Canada (in 1992), and refused entry to Australia, New Zealand, Italy, South Africa, and other civilised countries around the world (in 1993).
In my absence, internationally affiliated groups circulated letters to librarians, pleading for this book to be taken off their shelves. From time to time copies of these letters were shown to me. A journalist for Time magazine dining with me in New York in 1998 remarked, ‘Before coming over I read the clippings files on you. Until Hitler’s War you couldn’t put a foot wrong, you were the darling of the media; but after it . . .’
I offer no apology for having revised the existing picture of the man. I have tried to accord to him the kind of hearing that he would have got in an English court of law—where the normal rules of evidence apply, but also where a measure of insight is appropriate.
There have been sceptics who questioned whether the heavy reliance on—inevitably angled—private sources is any better as a method of investigation than the more traditional quarries of information. My reply is that we certainly cannot deny the value of private sources altogether. As the Washington Post noted in its review of the first edition in 1977, ‘British historians have always been more objective toward Hitler than either German or American writers.’