Herein lies the danger of book clubs. Left to my own devices I would never pick up a book by A N Wilson. I know of him as a writer for the Evening Standard and The Spectator – the twin organs of right wing England. One addressing the hoi polloi and the other the more dim-witted members of the Oxbridge set. He is also a writer of populist histories and biographies on subjects no interest to me: Hilaire Belloc, John Betjeman, the Royal Family, Sir Walter Scott etc.
So of course I approached this book with my prejudices and pre-conceptions on red alert. They were not disappointed.
The book is divided into parts, each named after a Wagner opera: Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal etc. Maybe these operas parallel the action described in the different sections but unless you’re familiar with Wagner you will never know. Wilson gives you a tedious summary of the plot of each which provided me at least with little illumination. Throughout the book you get little essays on Wagner, Bayreuth, the Weimar Republic, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche etc. These are irritatingly opinionated and seem to reflect the prejudices of a young fogey (such as Wilson) rather than those of a contemporary of Hitler. He accuses Nietzsche of anti-semitism in The Birth of Tragedy on palpably nonsensical grounds: Nietsche was an advocate of the Dionysian, Socrates on the contrary stood for the Appollonian, therefore Nietzsche didn’t like Socrates. Socrates had many of the qualities we associate with Jews; intellectual rigour, hard work etc. Therefore Nietzsche didn’t like Jews. Make sense? No, I didn’t think so. And Nietzsche was always an admirer of the Jews. Here’s a quote from Human all too Human on the Jewish nation:
"the most sorrowful history of all peoples, and to whom we owe the noblest of all human beings (Christ), the purest philosopher (Spinoza), the mightiest book, and the most effective moral code in the world. "
Wilson also seems to have some kind of cloacal obsession: referring frequently to Hitler’s farting and bringing up that old canard about his coprophilia. This is schoolboy stuff.
And then you get him playing around with historical fact. So in this account Hitler actually executes the leader of the SA Eric Rohm himself. This never happened and in fact I don’t recall Hitler ever getting close to violence and executions in the way his contemporary Stalin did.
And of course the central promise of the book has Hitler and the gruesome Winifred Wagner having a child. An event made highly unlikely by Hitler’s obsessive avoidance of procreation and famously low libido – not to mention the lack of any historical evidence. That’s fiction for you I suppose.