The Holocaust Historiography Project

Review article

Göring: A Biography

  • Göring: A Biography by David Irving. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1989, 573 pages, hardbound, $22.95, ISBN 0488-06606-2.

Reviewed by Henry M. Adams

David Irving is a British, non-academic historian, who has published many books in English and German on German historical developments in the 20th century. All his books have been based on exhaustive research. He is also a lecturer and conference speaker in English and German, well-known and well-liked for presenting the historical facts as well as destroying historical myths and legends in hard-hitting style. His oral and written presentations are dramatic. Like a dramatist, he submerges himself in his characters so that it is they who speak. Only the evidence of his sources, exhaustively footnoted, the threads of history, descriptions here, analyses there, woven into the narrative, reveal the author.

So it is in this biography of Hermann Göring, Irving’s latest book in English. The book opens with a thrilling prologue, “Arrest the Reichsmarschall,” and closes with his death. Throughout, those trends in German history which shaped Göring’s life are impressionistically developed from Wilhelmine Germany through the subsequent periods of German history, ending with the Nuremberg Trial. The author makes clear his thorough acquaintance with all the previous biographies of Göring, from 1934 to 1986.

After the prologue, based on documents looted by an American captain from Martin Bormann’s desk in a Berlin bunker, reveals the attempt of Bormann and Hitler to arrest and execute the Reichsmarschall, and Göring’s fortunate capture by the Americans (based on records of the American 36th Infantry Divison), the story of Göring’s life begins.

Hermann Göring was born in the Marienbad Sanatorium at Rosenheim, Bavaria, on January 12, 1893. His father was a German colonial official; his mother, a simple peasant girl. His godfather, Dr. Epstein, was a Jew, whose Castle Veldenstein was the romantic setting for Hermann’s boyhood. Educated at home, at boy’s schools, and at officer-cadet school, Göring entered the military academy at Gross Lichterfelde, outside Berlin, in 1910. After passing his leaving exam he traveled to Italy.

Dreamy, physically brave and romantic, young Hermann Göring became an officer in the infantry, joining his regiment as a lieutenant on January 20, 1914. The contents of Göring’s personal records since 1905, air reconnaissance reports, extracts from war diaries and personal-mission reports, are delineated by Irving.

When the war ended Göring was uncertain about his future. He decided to seek his fortune in Scandinavia. His dazzling good looks and courtly manner won him easy acceptance in Swedish society. There he met Carin, Countess von Fock, who was married to a Swedish officer. Göring fell deeply in love with her, she with him. The letters they exchanged, which were looted from his train at Berchtesgaden in 1945 and resurfaced in 1988, testify to the depth of their love.

In 1922, penniless, the Görings began a romantic existence outside Munich. Late that year Hermann heard Hitler speak against the Versailles Treaty and joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). In February 1923, one month after the French and Belgians occupied the Ruhr, Carin and Hermann married. Later that year the famous National Socialist Putsch took place in Munich. Double crossed by the Munich authorities, Ludendorff, Hitler, Göring and thousands of marchers were met by a hail of bullets at the Feldherrnhalle. Göring, badly wounded, was able with Carin’s help to escape to Innsbruck. Delirious with pain, Göring began taking morphine. Over the next three years, he would become an addict, then battle free of his craving.

After recovering from his wound, Göring went south to Italy: Hitler had ordered him to make contact with Mussolini. Hampered by his morphine habit and by the Duce’s unwillingness to meet him, Göring decided to return with Carin to Sweden in the spring of 1925. There Göring alternately battled and succumbed to morphine, entering an asylum for the criminally insane twice. In January 1927 Göring returned to Germany for business and political reasons (he rejoined the NSDAP), while Carin, whose health was failing, stayed behind at a sanatorium in Stockholm. From Sweden Carin threw her fragile weight into the battle for her husband’s survival, writing letters that are the most moving documents in their story. “Abstain as long as you can, Hermann,” she wrote. But once again Göring returned to a Swedish clinic. During a three-week stay in September, 1927, he was able to vanquish his addiction. After spending Christmas at Carin’s sick bed, Göring departed for Germany in January 1928.

On May 20th Göring was one of the 12 National Socialists elected to the Reichstag. His poverty was at an end, for he received 500 Reichmarks per month as a member of the Reichstag and 800 as Party orator. Carin, although still in fragile health, was able to join him.

Göring now came into contact with Erhard Milch, director of Lufthansa, and became his “consultant” at 1000 Reichmarks per month. (Irving indicates that these payments were out-and-out bribes.) The Göring-Milch relationship runs through the entire narrative. Irving’s account of it is based on Milch’s diaries, papers, and his interviews with the author. Soon afterwards lucrative consulting fees began to accrue to Göring from such pillars of German industry as BMW, Heinkel, Messerschmitt, and Thyssen.

As the National Socialist movement snowballed, Göring crisscrossed Germany, delivering many speeches during the election campaign of September 14, 1930. They paid off when a landslide gave his party 107 seats in the Reichstag. Göring became deputy speaker (Vizepräsident) of the Reichstag when it opened on October 13. The only blight on Hermann’s career was the failing health of his beloved Carin, who would love him to the end. On October 3, 1932 Carin died in Stockholm.

In 1933 began Göring's, Germany’s and Europe’s years of destiny; they were to bring undreamed of power and wealth to Göring.

Irving supplies a brief description of the Reichstag fire and Göring’s embarrassment at the subsequent trial of Dmitrov, Van der Lubbe, et al., then chronicles Göring’s rapid expansion of his authority. As commissar for aviation Göring, ably assisted by Milch, his deputy, built up the Luftwaffe, banned by the Treaty of Versailles, into a powerful air force. As Minister of the Interior of Prussia, Göring founded the Gestapo and set up concentration camps.

On April 10, 1933 Göring created the Forschungsamt, the Reich intelligence agency charged with signals intelligence, wire tapping, and cryptanalysts. Its operatives, chiefly code breakers and analysts, numbered 3500 or more, operating through Germany and later occupied Europe until the end of the war. Irving draws on his book Breach of Security, coauthored with Professor Donald Cameron Watt, to describe this little-known but very effective intelligence agency.

1933 also marked the building of Göring’s baronial hunting lodge, named Carinhall, on his estate, northeast of Berlin, of lakes and forests extending almost to the Baltic sea. There Göring developed a wild life sanctuary for elk and buffalo. Carinhall became Göring’s private home, containing crystal chandeliers, Flemish tapestries, priceless Old Masters and opulent gifts from around the world, all meticulously catalogued. Irving suggests that Göring’s problem with morphine, now reappearing, may explain the speed with which he abandoned personal honesty and began to accept political gifts and bribes. Göring’s waking thoughts, Irving tells us, were overshadowed by the morbid memory of Carin. On a visit to her grave in Sweden he discovered that it had been desecrated by Swedish Communists; he then had her remains shipped to Carinhall in a massive pewter sarcophagus, in which he too planned eventually to be laid to rest.

On June 30, 1934, in response to the problem of the Second Revolution, Göring, Hitler, and the SS replied with the “Night of the Long Knives,” the massacre of alleged enemies of the regime — Ernst Röhm, General Schleicher, Gregor Strasser and others-some of whose intrigues were revealed by the wiretaps of Göring’s Forschungsamt. 84 people are known to have been liquidated, including Gustav von Kahr, who had double-crossed Hitler and Göring at the Feldherrnhalle in 1923. After President Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler proclaimed himself Führer in December and made Göring his deputy and successor. On April 10, 1935 Göring married Emmy Sonnemann, with whom he had been acquainted since 1932.

By the mid-thirties, the authority of Hermann Göring was universally respected within the Reich. In 1936 he became economic overlord and began developing the Four Year Plan. The new economic plan’s secret memorandum by Hitler (with Göring’s help) called for a German army and a war-ready economy in four years. Göring’s economic power, and his abuse of it, was illustrated at this time by his favoring the famous tobacco firm of Reemtsma for government purchases of billions of cigarettes, in exchange for which the firm contributed 15 million Reichmarks to the cultural and forest activities of Göring’s estate.

At the end of July 1936 a letter from a Spanish officer, Francisco Franco, spurred Hitler and Göring to send Junkers-52 transport planes and their volunteer crews, disguised as tourists, to Spanish North Africa to ferry insurgent troops to Spain. In studying the Luftwaffe’s role in the Nationalist victory in the Spanish Civil War, Irving makes a special investigation of the bombing of Guernica and Picasso’s famous painting, unearthing startling new evidence.

Göring’s permanent preoccupation, by this time, was his new enlarged Carinhall, with its own private animal kingdom for bison, elk and other fauna. Irving describes Göring’s enlightened game laws, and quotes from Göring’s hunting diaries of 1936-37. As international tension rises in Europe, Irving skillfully interweaves his subject’s personal concerns with his political and military roles. Thus the International Hunting Exhibition, triumphantly presided over by Göring in November 1937 in Berlin, is described around the secret “Hossbach Conference,” which Irving, unlike some other Revisionists (see The Journal of Historical Review, Vol. 4, No. 3, Fall 1983), believes to be accurately summarized by the “Hossbach Protocol.” Irving describes hunting visits to Carinhall by such sportsmen as the new British ambassador to Berlin, Nevile Henderson, and by Britain’s foreign minister, Lord Halifax.

Irving provides an incisive account of the Bromberg-Fritsch affair, with citations from Milch’s private diaries, secret letters, and a manuscrupt. He details Göring’s role in the Austrian Anschluss, from Göring’s disapproval of Hitler’s meeting with Schuschnigg at Obersalzberg to his surprise at learning, through one of the Forschungsamrs telephone taps, of the Seyss-Inquart cabinets immediate approval of the union between Germany and Austria.

As the Sudeten crisis unfolded in 1938, Göring’s wife Emmy gave birth to a girl, Edda. While somewhat mellowed by this event, Göring did not neglect his responsibilities in building up the war economy and the Luftwaffe. Irving recounts Göring’s tough confrontation with Nevile Henderson at Carinhall, and the four-power conference at Munich which settled the Sudeten crisis peacefully.

On November 4, 1938 daughter Edda was christened by Reich Bishop Muller, with Hitler acting as godfather. A few days later, as Göring took the sleeper back to Berlin, he noted fires while passing through Halle. Göring learned the reason in Berlin, where he drove across broken glass from Jewish shops. It was the first he knew of the nationwide pogrom, which Irving attributes to Dr. Joseph Goebbels. Irving contrasts Göring with doctrinaire National Socialists, who fought the Jews at every level of their existence, whereas Göring fought only certain Jews for economic reasons. As Irving reminds us, nobody particularly wanted the European Jews. Up to October 1939, Irving points out, 300,000 left Germany, 130,000 left Austria, and 30,000 left Bohemia Moravia. 70,000 of them went to Palestine. Two thirds of the Jews under German control before the war were thus allowed to emigrate.

By January 1939, according to Göring’s diaries, he was politically at odds with Hitler. He was opposed to Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1938. The Forschungsamt taps reveal the growing animosity between Göring and Ribbentrop.

Göring doubled his efforts that summer to head off the coming war with England, which he opposed. Irving gives a solid account of his unsuccessful attempt to sway Chamberlain’s men in London. In August 1939 a Swedish manufacturer, Birger Dahlerus, began to act as a secret unofficial link between G6ring and Neville Chamberlain. According to Dahlerus, the British Foreign Office rejected a reasonable settlenient in 1939. Meanwhile, Ribbentrop went to Moscow and reached an agreement with Stalin, while London abided by its guarantee to Poland: on 2 September Chamberlain declared war on Germany. Irving provides a detailed analysis and description of the persons and events involved.

During the war, Göring’s popularity with the German public remained intact. Thanks to the Luftwaffe’s achievements in the first years, his relations with Hitler were at first satisfactory. Göring detested the senseless destruction of war, and he continued diplomatic overtures to Britain, which remained unsuccessful. Irving describes the British and German invasions of Norway, (from the planning for which Göring was first excluded), then describes Göring’s plans for air attacks against the Dutch, Belgian, and French fortifications.

As the German victory in the West unfolded, Göring established his luxurious special train, code-named Asia, and air force headquarters at Kurfurst outside Berlin. The initial success of Göring’s air force was outstanding, although it failed to destroy the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. On May 30, 1940 Göring left France for Potsdam, unaware of the escape of the British and French. After the defeat of France, Göring believed the war had been won. He now began one of his major wartime pursuits, collecting art from the defeated nations. Irving describes and analyzes the collection Göring accumulated at Carinhall.

Göring was promoted to Reichmarschall by Hitler on July 19, 1940, a day on which Hitler made a peace offer to Britain; Irving mixes a description of Göring hunting in Rominten, East Prussia, with ordering the air raid on Coventry, and collecting art in Paris. He points out that Göring still longed for peace with England and was bitterly opposed to Barbarossa (for economic, not moral, reasons). According to Irving, Göring leaked the actual date of the Barbarossa plan to the British. To Irving, this was an extraordinary act, bordering on treason. In May 1941, Göring’s prestige remained high. Irving describes his reaction to the flight of Hess to England and his replacement by Bormann, as well as the successful assault Göring’s paratroopers carried out that month on Crete.

On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Russia. Irving provides much data on the technical superiority of the German air force, citing Milch’s diary’s entries of hundreds of Russian planes destroyed each day during the first week of the war. Göring spent much of the summer of 1941 aboard Asia in East Prussia, mostly in poor health, Irving reveals. Nevertheless Göring found time to visit Paris to buy more paintings and to vacation in Bavaria. Göring’s lax leadership of the Luftwaffe resulted in low production of aircraft. His director of air armament, Ernst Udet, committed suicide in November of that year. Leningrad and Moscow held out against the German assault, and December brought Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war against the U.S. Göring’s diary shows him drained by the immense human drama on the Eastern front, causing him to flee south and west to Carinhall.

As the RAF began incendiary bombings of German cities, Göring revisited Veldenstein castle and made more than one trip to Paris. Showing favoritism, as he did often, Göring exempted Horcher's, a leading Berlin restaurant, staff from military service, receiving in return 70,000 bottles of port wine for the Luftwaffe. The British air attacks increased with the first thousand-plane raid, over Cologne, in May 1942. By the end of the year, Stalingrad was surrounded, the British were on the offensive at Alamein, and the Anglo-Americans had landed in North Africa.

In January 1943 RAF bombers, as well as American daylight bombers, began to attack Berlin. Göring’s drug problem had returned, which, together with his poor health, made him a poor commander-in-chief of the German air force. Göring’s popularity with the people was still undiminished, although his stock was fading with Hitler and the rest of the leadership.

Irving describes the worsening of Germany’s military situation in 1943, as the Russians repelled the German Citadel tank offensive at Kursk in July. On July 9 the Allies landed in Sicily, bringing about the fall of Mussolini and the Italian government’s surrender. Irving describes how, ironically, Göring’s greed for art treasures led him to preserve 16 crates of masterpieces from the Allied aerial devastation of Monte Cassino in February 1944.

Throughout 1944 the British and Americans continued to pound Germany’s cities and factories, badly hampering aircraft production. Göring’s anti-invasion operations in Normandy were thwarted, in good part by British code breakers. His prestige was now in steep decline. Irving describes the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July, from which Luftwaffe officers remained almost completely aloof. After an initial success in the Ardennes offensive, the Luftwaffe was driven from the skies. Göring’s impotence was demonstrated when the RAF and American bombers destroyed Dresden in February. (Irving follows his classic account, The Destruction of Dresden.) When the Soviet armies approached, Göring sent Carinhall’s treasures to southern Germany.

As Germany collapsed, Göring, at the Obersalzberg, attempted, prematurely, to succeed Hitler. Göring was arrested by troops from Himmler’s SS. On May 7 Göring, now 52 years of age, surrendered to the Commander of the American 36th Infantry Division. Three days later he was taken to 7th Army Headquarters, where he met General Spaatz, commander of the American strategic air forces, who interviewed him over a bottle of whisky.

Parting from Emmy and Edda, whom he would not see again for 18 months, Göring was taken across Germany to Mondorf, in Luxembourg, and confined there for three months, along with fifty other prominent National Socialists. Irving describes his all-important luggage and toilet case, which contained at least three brass capsules, each fashioned from a nine millimeter cartridge case, one and one half inches long, and containing a glass vial of hydrocyanic acid. One cartridge, in a tin of American coffee, was discovered and confiscated by the Americans. Irving recounts Göring’s medical examination, which revealed his drug addiction, and the constant interrogations, especially by American military historian Dr. George N. Shuster. On August 12, 1945 Göring was transported to Nuremberg. A German doctor, Ludwig Pflucker, provided injections of Vitamin B and Seconal tablets to Göring, so he could sleep.

On November 20, 1945 the “Trial of the Major War Criminals” began. The chief American prosecuting attorney, Justice Robert H. Jackson — later Göring’s prominent adversary — opened the prosecution case by accusing the Germans of killing 5.7 million Jews. As the prosecution case wore on, Göring was able to strike up a friendship with Lt. Jack G. Wheelis, a hard-drinking six-foot-two Texan. Göring sought this friendship for two reasons: Wheelis was an impressive huntsman, and he held a key to the baggage room. The American officer carried Göring’s letters to Emmy and Edda, and retrieved other valuables from the locked baggage room. In exchange for this, Wheelis received choice gifts from the Reichsmarschall.

The prosecution presented its case over five months. Then, on March 13, 1946, Göring, in physical prime and slimmer than ever before, took the stand. His immense ability and knowledge, his mastery and understanding of the captured documents, were impressive. Five days later Jackson began his cross examination. It was an historic duel. Noble in manner, handsome in feature once again, Göring’s bearing in the witness box impressed friend and foe alike. Jackson was out of his depth, with little knowledge of history and none of German, while Göring had a good grasp of English. Göring’s conviction was nevertheless a foregone conclusion.

On August 31, 1946, in his closing trial statements, Göring accepted blanket responsibility for the charges against Hitler and the Third Reich. He was sentenced to death on October 1, but one poison capsule was still in his baggage, hidden in a pot of skin cream, according to one of Göring’s letters. The capsule was in all probability smuggled into his cell by Lt. Wheelis and Dr. Pflucker. This reviewer, who always thought that the vial of poison was concealed in the bowl of Göring’s meerschaum pipe, found Irving’s revelations on Göring’s final hours surprising.

Irving’s massive biography of Hermann Göring contains superb photographs, a select bibliography, comprehensive acknowledgements, and exhaustive notes. The author’s notes and microfilms have been deposited at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich for others to use. Such is the generosity of this British historian.

To this reviewer Göring’s life and career up to 1932, though sad, were admirable in many respects. The love story of Carin and Hermann, sensitively delineated by Irving from their letters, is a classic, like those of Romeo and Juliet or Abelard and Héloise. From 1932 onward, Göring’s life and career turns megalomaniac and bizarre, in many respects not admirable. Some positive achievements are overshadowed by his greed for material things; his self-indulgence, manifested in his obesity, his fantastic costumes, and his theatrical make-up; and his serious neglect of his military and political responsibilities. Only with Göring’s arrest and trial at Nuremberg does his earlier character resurface. One can admire Göring’s resolution and courage in his last days.

Irving is already at work of the second volume of Churchill’s War, his wartime biography of Winston Churchill, as he indicated in his address at the February 1989 conference of the Institute of Historical Review (published in the Fall 1989 issue of this journal). Volume one of the Churchill biography is now available from the Institute, as is the volume under review.

Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 505-514.