3 FEBRUARY 1956, Page 24

Without Prejudice

THE SHIRT OF NESSUS. By Constantine Fitz Gibbon. (Cassell, 21s.) THE events of July 20, 1944, in Hitler's headquarters are not only of interest to historians; they have attracted, on account of their dramatic import, the attention of dramatists, novelists, poets and journalists. The author of The Shirt of Nessus has made his repu- tation as a novelist and as a translator. He has here ventured into fields where many contemporary historians have been treading— usually not over-successfully--for prejudice and lack of sympathy have made many of the accounts inadequate.

Mr. Fitz Gibbon does not profess to write as a historian, and he avoids some of his paraphernalia, e.g., footnote references and exhaustive bibliography. But his book is a remarkable production. As a story of a single event, and of its previous history, it exceeds in one way the performances of Mr. Trevor-Roper or Mr. Wheeler-Bennett. The author is certainly not as well informed on original sources as they are, and the historical student will find it difficult to track down this evidence—for example, in his accounts of the happenings in Paris on July 20 inparticular the references to the role played by General Blumentritt in the discussions between Blumentritt himself, Speidel and Field-Marshal Kluge, on whether or not the armies in the West should fall in with the conspirators. One would also be interested in learning more about the sources used by the author for his description of the reactions at Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia.

Still, concerning the motives of individual conspirators, their characters and abilities, and their activities on the day of the (Merlin,. Fitz Gibbon's book is at least on a level with all other works on the subject. One suspects that sympathy and intuition have led him nearer the truth than technical scholarship has in the case of the more distinguished historical pontiffs : cynicism and suspicion are not reliable guides for historical interpretation. Mr. Fitz Gibbon does not allow 'romantic' admiration to inter- fere with objective interpretation of the various branches within the movement. He is fair to Gordeler, whose weaknesses and ambitions as a leader he clearly perceives. He is sensible enough to appreciate the fact that heroism can neither be expected not demanded of the majority of mankind; and therefore he is not unduly disparaging of those who did not go the whole way with von Stauffenberg, or who refused t6 participate at all. The tragedy, as well as the comedy, of July 20, is imaginatively brought home to the reader by the description of men like von Kluge and Beck. The author does not sneer—here he rises superior to nearly all the English writers on the subject—at anyone; not even at Hitler himself.

The Nazi case remains to be sympathetically examined. The treatment meted out to the men of July 20 was often ignoble. But what else could they expect, once they failed, except death? Hitler's decision to execute them, and to hold their families as hostages, was understandable. The brutality with which some of them were executed was unpardonable; but so were various episodes from postwar Allied behaviour, particularly at Nurem- berg. Comparisons of this sort do not excuse criminal misbe- haviour;. they do introduce a necessary sense of proportion. Mr. Fitz Gibbon, happily, does not belong to that category of writers who divide their subjects into dwarfs and giants, saints and sinners.

As a piece of artistic writing, The Shirt of Nessus is outstanding; and as a guide to an important aspect of recent history it is, in its manner, unusually distinguished.