Just the other day, at the bookstore, a sane-and-normal-seeming customer asked me for a “fair” biography of Hitler. When I stared at her, she elaborated: a biography that wasn’t “slanted,” that had no “axe to grind,” that reflected the fact that although Hitler might have been an evil man, he was also indisputably a great one.
I wanted to say, “He brutalized his own people, he tried to exterminate another people, and he almost wrecked the entire world. By no metric imaginable was Hitler a great man.” I wanted to say, “There has never been a morally-neutral biography of Hitler, nor should there ever be one.” All I actually did say was “We’ll just have to agree to disagree about everything you’ve just said.” This was wrong of me, of course – customer or no customer, I should have mocked and scorned her – but it was prompted at least in part because I know I’ll live to see just such a book, written by an accredited historian, published by a reputable house, and reviewed in respected journals on its merits. David Irving and A. N. Wilson have already made tentative steps in that direction, and as the World War II generation continues to die off, that process will accelerate.
Even so, I’d like to think there are historically-informed bastions that will resist the tide of idiotic moral relativism, and I’d like to think the mighty TLS will be one of those bastions. But my faith in that was shaken rather badly last week when I read a review they ran: John Cornwell writing about two new biographies of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII.
Cornwell is a natural choice to write such a piece, since his 1999 book on Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope, became a best-seller mainly on the strength of its iconoclastic argument that Pius XII did a lot more to help Hitler and Nazism than he did to hinder it. That book was fiery and fearless in denouncing a man who’s on track to sainthood, so the last thing I expected from this review was yet more moral relativism. And yet:
“Studies of Pius XII tend to focus on the war years, as if he had no life before the start of his reign.”
“Pacelli was not anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense.”
“It is clear from these new biographies that the Holy See’s concordat with Germany gave unintentional impetus to Hitler’s plans. By the same token, Pacelli gave unintentional comfort to the Nazi cause during the war, because he clothed his statements in anodyne ambiguities that could be interpreted as moral indifference.”
And by far the worst of all:
“If the papacy was found wanting, the faults were collective and historic as much as personal. Both authors believe that Pius did the best that he could after he became Pope.”
Every one of these monstrous lines had to get past at least one TLS editor. Somewhere along the life-cycle of this piece, at least one editor had to read that Pius XII wasn’t anti-Semitic in the Nazi sense and refrain from demanding a re-write.
So that morally-neutral biography of Hitler might be closer than I thought. Now I just hope the TLS doesn’t call it “balanced, but a bit troubling.”