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Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University and author of several books about Hitler’s Germany, said the book was littered with factual errors and “absolutely valueless”.
Publication of the review prompted an increasingly bitter war of words between the pair which culminated in Wilson telling Prof Evans: “The war is over. Hitler is dead. Get a life.”
The spat played out in the pages of the New Statesman, where Prof Evans’ review of Hitler: A Short Biography appeared on March 12.
His verdict on the 208-page book, published by HarperCollins, was withering.
“It’s hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty of a biography,” Prof Evans wrote, claiming that Wilson used only English-language sources because he could not read German.
While novelists and literary scholars have found new and provocative things to say about Hitler, Prof Evans, said, “there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliche-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he’s a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought.”
Wilson has written several novels but is also a prolific author of non-fiction, producing histories of the Victorian and Elizabethan eras in addition to biographies of CS Lewis, Leo Tolstoy and others.
He hit back with two letters to the New Statesman.
In the first, he accused Prof Evans of writing a “spiteful review”, claimed a knowledge of German and said the examples singled out by the critic were”not, stricly speaking, errors”.
A week later, Wilson conceded that the book contained “a few howlers” but defended his work.
He said: “I have written a short book on Hitler which is intended for the general reader, and was first published in English, though it is about to be translated widely.
“He wrote a rather silly review of my book, now he writes to claim that I can’t know German – else, why do I only cite English books? As a matter of fact I do cite German books in my end-notes.”
He continued: “A generalist writer with no pretensions to expertise, but who does happen to know German, writes a book on Hitler. A don who thinks Hitler his special subject feels unaccountable ruffled. Why?
“I made a few howlers which have already been corrected in the reprint. Thanks, Evans, for pointing these errors out, though they were all minor.
“I am writing this from Roxburghshire, where I am staying with some delightful friends and the sun is shining and pied wagtails are dancing over the lawn.
“All is joy. The war is over. Hitler is dead. Get a life, poor Evans. There is no need to be so cross.”
But Wilson did not have the last word. Prof Evans responded in this week’s edition of the magazine, saying: “I am cross with him not because I think only specialists should write about Hitler – I explicitly noted the contributions made by novelists and literary scholars – but because he has simply ignored 99.9 per cent of the work on the subject done by historians, and as a result has written a book that is absolutely valueless as well as full of errors, many of them not minor at all.”
The spat brings back memories of another run-in between Wilson and a rival. In 2002, he reviewed Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman and called it “a hopeless mishmash”.
Four years later, Wilson wrote his own Betjeman biography and included a passionate love letter supposedly written by the poet’s mistress.
It turned out to be a hoax concocted by Hillier, and the first letter of each sentence spelled out “AN Wilson is a s—”.