19 AUGUST 1989, Page 22


For a flying enemy

Colin Welch


Macmillan, f16.95, pp. 573

When Goring, resplendently uni- formed and decorated, met his American captors in 1945, he growled under his breath, 'Twelve years — I've had a good run for my money.' In this self-deprecatory aside may be discerned something admir- able about him — his courage — and something at least likeable — a sort of humorous modesty occasionally peeping through the outward arrogance and bom- bast. Twelve years — not much against a Thousand Year Reich, to be sure, but not bad for a mere mortal or even for a rotund Reichsmarschall.

One picks up this racy adjective habit from Mr Irving, who writes in the style of an American popular newspaper, Amer- ican even as to spelling and grammar. Why? Are most of his readers American? He sprays these adjectives around like an Italian waiter with a pepper mill. Many begin with a `p' and denote obesity porcine, portly, ponderous, paunchy, plump and so on. They are applied to Goring's entourage — what a bevy of bellies! — but principally to Goring him- self, 'this manicured mountain of perfumed flab', turning up late for Pilsudski's state funeral 'like a German tenor playing Sieg- fried', this 'over-sized air force general beaming like a bemedalled Buddha' as he witnesses the downfall of Fritsch, 'Prussian baron and four-star general'. Goring, in- cidentally, was not over-sized in all re- spects: he was dwarfed by his first wife Carin and by the Crown Prince Auwi, beside whom in a snap he looks like a squat bus conductor.

The fastidious may find Mr Irving's style vulgar, may wince when they see Lind- bergh described as a 'tousle-haired tourist'. They will read on all the same, I guess, mesmerised by Mr Irving's narrative skill, by his prodigious researches, which have placed something fascinating, important, revealing or horrifying in almost every paragraph, and by his peculiar perspec- tives. Not all of these are to me wholly alien, I confess. Mr Irving's doubts about the wisdom, efficacy and morality of indis- criminate area bombing are well known and widely shared, as is his grief at the destruction of Germany's beautiful cities. Yet to my mind he spreads the blame for these atrocities a bit too indiscriminately, a la Bomber Harris. Had Hitler and Goring been as pacific and scrupulous as Cham- berlain and Halifax, would any of the atrocities have occurred?

Mr Irving quotes Rosenberg: 'The Jew- ish problem in Europe and in Germany will not be solved until there is not one Jew left on the European continent' (lively ap- plause).

Such words [Mr Irving sagely adds] were not, of course, spoken in a vacuum. The whole trend [in 1942] was toward illegal and brutal modes of war — toward innocenticide on a grand scale. Violent air raids had resumed. The partisan warfare developing in Russia was barbarous beyond belief. Millions were starving too.

Yes indeed: but the whole trend of modern war is inevitably towards 'illegal and brutal modes'. Those who risk, provoke or start wars therefore bear now an appalling

responsibility. And of course the terrible area bombing of Germany did not come out of a vacuum either. Dresden was not suddenly destroyed without warning by Chamberlain in 1939.

To be fair, according to Mr Irving Goring seems to have feebly and briefly opposed almost all the aggressions of the Fiihrer, who called him an old woman. He would have preferred greedily to exploit the fruits of the aggression before. In 1939 he screamed at Ribbentrop, 'Now you've got your — war! You are alone to blame'. A moment later Hitler was on the line and it was 'Jawohl, mein Fiihree as before. The monster he had helped to create, out of control, terrified him too and he hastened to do its bidding.

In what Goring had to tell his captors there was much that was cynically reveal- ing or mordantly witty, and a little that might in another context have been mov- ing. He was asked, for instance, about the billion-Reichsmark fine he imposed on the Jewish community after the Kristallnacht of 1938: 'Is a German field marshal never ashamed?' Goring uttered 'one of his rare expressions of personal remorse. "I regret it. You have to take the times into account".'

Indeed you do, I think, where humble folk are concerned. You can justly pity quite ordinary Germans tempted by quite ordinary faults, weaknesses, ambitions and greeds into quite extraordinary crimes by 'the times', if you please, by an aberrant and criminal polity which, transvaluing values, rewarded evil and punished good. But you can hardly extend any resulting indulgence to those, like Goring, who were shamelessly prominent in brutally substi- tuting the abominable polity for whatever legal order had preceded it, to people who, having murdered their parents, claim sym- pathy then as orphans.

Mr Irving himself is inclined to take 'the times' perhaps overmuch into account, exculpating Goring not from everything or even much, but from more than is wholly justified. Goring, we are told, 'had no time at all for pogroms' — no time to stop them either, one might add, too busy acquiring works of art. His speeches in power, according to Mr Irving, 'betrayed a dutiful anti-Semitism that met the mood of the mement in Central Europe'. His attitude to individual Jews was certainly idiosyncratic and undoctrinaire. He dealt with them, bought or stole art treasures from them, fleeced them and was fleeced, protected them if useful, whisked them out of danger if necessary, not forgetting the Jewish couple who had dressed his dreadful wound after the 1923 Munich Putsch. In this sphere, he explained later, he was grateful for the kindness of his second wife, Emmy. If only the Fiihrer, he mused, had had a sensible wife to say to him, 'Here's a case where you can do some good, and here's another...'.

GOring's general views on the Jews, however, betrayed an anti-Semitism not so much 'dutiful' as ogreish, rancorous, bru- tally cruel, envious, slanderous and obses- sive, at best grimly jocular, as when he suggested for Jews banned from parks 'a forest of their own', stocked with Jewish- looking animals like the hook-nosed Moose. Agreed, he denounced the Kri,stall- nacht as 'a bloody outrage', but only because it damaged property, thus damag- ing not the Jews but German insurance companies and the German economy, for which he was then responsible. Better do in 200 Jews, he roared, than destroy such Physical assets. He sought a legal and orderly solution to 'the Jewish problem'; but what did legality mean to him save illegality sanctified by decrees he had signed?

His role in the eventual 'final solution' is conventionally established by a document vaguely empowering Heydrich to make all necessary preparations for it. According to Mr Irving, he signed it almost absent- mindedly as 'a routine administrative directive'. So perhaps it was. Even so, was not the man who signed it supernaturally callous or negligent or unimaginative or culpably ignorant? As Goring said in cap- tivity, 'The higher up you were, the less you saw of what was going on'. True, I think, in any society: the higher up you are, the more imagination you need. To require imagination in all our rulers would nonetheless be unreasonable. Tolerable societies make good in part its lack by an elaborate framework of law and custom, of accountability, checks and balances. All this Goring had done much to destroy in Germany, creating a state of affairs in which 'a routine administrative directive' could issue in the murder of millions.

During his trial Goring 'pointed out' (Mr irving's phrase — wouldn't 'asserted' have been better?) that 'most likely the Fiihrer had known as little of the atrocities as he himself had'. At one point Mr Irving himself asserts that the initiative for va- rious specific atrocities came not from on high but from Nazi officials in the field. Hitler's own role has apparently been 'thrown into question'. Maybe: what of it? The Nazi leaders had certainly created an atmosphere in which vile crimes were thought to lead to fame and fortune. The British army in the last war was not ordered to murder civilians, Jews or pris- oners of war. Just as important, we had no reason to be confident that any such crimes would please our superiors or escape punishment. Without this protective res- traint, it is perhaps remarkable that some German soldiers did behave decently. In captivity, and thinking himself un- heard, Goring ruefully mused on the evils of dictatorship — 'never again': in the beginning 'wonderful', then 'all out of hand'. Tragic that so many should die to teach belatedly such a banal lesson to one no longer capable of profiting by it! Had he succeeded Hitler, as was his obsessional desire to the very end, he would apparently have placed above himself 'a supreme court' to keep him in order. It would have had its work cut out. What spoilt child respects the nanny it has itself appointed? His court certainly would not have re- sembled the Nuremberg tribunal, which he characterised as 'pure theatre . . . all rot- ten comedy', 'a purely political act'. Mr Irving cites with relish an 'outburst' from the American Justice Jackson, which 'un- masked' the 'true political face of the trial', its purpose and 'objective'. This he seems to think, as Goring thought, in some way invalidated the proceedings. Yet some will discern in all courts and trials a 'political' purpose among others. Goring's own court would have had a political purpose. 'Don't think', said the captive Goring, in 'a moment close to contrition', 'that I don't reproach myself in the loneliness of this cell for not having lived my life differently, instead of coming to this end'. Yet he predicted that in 50 years' time Germany would regard him and his co-defendants as 'martyrs and heroes', that he himself would end up in a marble mausoleum like Napo- leon's. All this is closer to self-glorification than contrition. It suggests that he re- proached not himself but those who had subjected him to a trial which would be seen as 'a disgrace in 15 years' time'. What appeared to worry him most at the very end was the manner of his death — by hanging, like a common criminal, a destiny he cheated by suicide. He had hoped at least for a firing squad, 'a soldier's death'. Looking back, did he really think his had been a soldier's life? Did some undeniable acts of courage and chivalry outweigh unsoldierly years of crime and cruelty, of sloth and greed, of Neronian luxury and licence, of which Mr Irving gives a fascinat- ing and unsparing picture? Was it a soldier who, while German troops suffered and froze and died in Stalingrad, set off in his luxurious personal train to Paris, there to sluice and browse, there to acquire 77 crates full of paintings, tapestries, statues and silverware, confiscated, bartered or 'privately purchased' (with what, we ask: with money how got?)?

Belly-laughs in this grim tale are approp- riately few and far between, though sol- diers everywhere will relish the farcical scene which followed Goring's order for a mock air-raid alert on his famous train. The engine driver sent the train plunging into the nearby sheltering tunnel, ripping out all the communicating cables from their railside sockets. Trailing innumerable wires, the train hurtled through the tunnel and emerged still accelerating from the far end. GOring's handsome and perfumed adjutants pulled every emergency handle in sight while the portly potentate screamed, red-faced, 'Has the fellow gone stark-raving mad?'

Goring's grim pleasantries often evoke a guilty smile, as also did Mr Irving's grisly description of Goring, Himmler, Reich- enau and other ruffians light-heartedly drawing up lists of who was for the chop on the Night of the Long Knives. Someone suggested — in jest? — that they should nominate the Baroness Viktoria von Dirk- sen while they could. At the mention of her, 'one of the more tedious females round the Fiihrer, everybody heaved with nervous laughter.' So, I confess, did I. One knows, doesn't one, these gushing ardent groupies, attracted to power like blue- bottles to a cowpat? Or does one? The Baroness was found 'tedious' by men from whom dispraise was no faint praise, perhaps by Mr Irving too. Doubts arise. Perhaps she was a decent old girl after all. I wiped the smile off my face.. .