There’s more news about Hitler! In 2016 I published an update on the saga of Hitler’s Table Talk and its fraudulent or questionable quotations making him out to be an atheist that he wasn’t. That 2016 article contains the background explaining my involvement in this, and the status of the question to that point, which is already quite fascinating, and damning. I highly recommend reading that update. And now today I have another update to report.
Dr. Mikael Nilsson has recently published another article on his research into this inspired by my 2003 article on it in German Studies Review. His new article is in German, so I’ll summarize its salient points for you here. But those who want to tackle the original, you can find it as “Hitler redivivus: Hitlers Tischgespräche und Monologe im Führerhauptquartier—eine kritische Untersuchung,” or “Hitler Reborn: Hitler’s Table Talk and Monologues in the Fuhrer’s Command Headquarters: A Critical Examination,” in Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 67.1 (2019): 105-46.
The official translation of the abstract reads:
This pioneering study of the famous Hitler table talks – “Tischgespräche im Führerhauptquartier” (1951) and “Monologe im Führerhauptquartier” (1980)—uses a lot of previously unknown or overlooked sources to show that historians have been much too uncritical when citing these documents. The texts, the originals of which are now lost, were heavily edited and cannot be cited as being Hitler’s words ad verbatim. They are not more reliable than comparable notes. The notes were written down almost entirely from memory after the conversations they record, often finished long after the first drafts were written. Text was added during the editing process, and the notes contain statements that Hitler most likely did not make. Historians citing these texts are not quoting Hitler, but the words of the authors of the notes.
After extensive searching, Nilsson has confirmed the Bormannvermerke is lost. That was the longer, supposedly “complete” edition of the notes of Hitler’s rants taken down in his bunker in Poland from 1941 to 1944, acquired right after the War under shady circumstances by the unrepentant Swiss Nazi banker Francois Genoud, and eventually published in the 1980s under the direction of scholar Werner Jochmann. That text—the “Bormannvermerke” or “Bormann Manuscript,” so-named because it was edited and assembled by Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann—was supposedly the basis of the only English translation ever produced (and thus the only version typically ever quoted), under the title now famously referenced everywhere, Hitler’s Table Talk.
In my study of this for GSR, and in particular the quotes from it making Hitler out to be an atheist—which is reproduced in Hitler Homer Bible Christ with a new epilogue—I reported finding it said that these notes were produced by two “stenographers” listening in, each in different years, Henry Picker and Heinrich Heim. Picker published his own notes separately, in the original German just after the war (and had transcription mistakes corrected from the originals in a subsequent edition not long after). Heim’s notes were lost, as were Picker’s originals, but edited copies of both their contents ended up edited and even expanded further by Bormann, becoming the so-called Bormannvermerke.
Now Nilsson has confirmed a fourth contributor: Hans Müller produced some entries in 1943 and 1944. So the Table Talk actually comes from multiple authors—Picker, Heim, Müller, and Bormann, all as authors and editors. Moreover, the U.S. captured some pages (only a tiny fraction of the whole, and none on the subject of religion) that I was the first to publish a notice of, and Nilsson confirmed these have found their way back to a museum in Berlin. I only had access to xeroxes in the control of the U.S. Library of Congress. Nilsson got his hands on the originals. He confirmed they are on Bormann’s own paper stock, and adduces evidence they were typed and hand-corrected by Heim.
Nilsson also shows from several examples and direct evidence that the way historians have discussed and used the Table Talk has been routinely rife with errors and misstatements. Despite many declarations to the contrary, in actual fact the Table Talk is not Hitler’s verbatim words. It consists only of paraphrases and summaries composed by people who took notes, often further edited by yet others after the fact, and often unreliably.
It’s particularly important to note that Nilsson now finds the claim that stenographers took notes on the spot is definitely untrue. Rather, recollections of the secretaries present (whether Picker, Heim, Müller, or Bormann) were jotted down, as rough notes to themselves, sometimes a day later, and edited up into fuller statements without consulting Hitler in any substantial respect. Indeed, Nilsson conclusively exposes this myth, and now rightly concludes that we cannot quote the Table Talk as the words of Hitler, but as words put into his mouth by a variety of editors, loosely based on things he might have said, or that they wanted or thought him to have said.
Part of the evidence for this that Nilsson found is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview of Heim himself, and archives of his correspondence, as he recollected first hand how the process actually worked. Nilsson also found a 1951 critique of the Table Talk‘s reliability in an archived letter in Berlin that I also hadn’t known about.
From Nilsson’s article, I vetted and improved Google’s translation:
Hitler’s Air Force Adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, gave a crushing verdict on the Table Talk as early as 1951, after Picker published his edition. He said they were not credible records of what Hitler had said, and try as he might, he could not remember any monologue from Hitler of such length. Instead, he said, Hitler’s remarks happened here and there in the course of discussions, and to understand them one also has to know what the other participants had said. One cannot simply take a person’s statements out of context and then publish them in the way Picker and [Picker’s editor] Ritter do.
In the transcribed interviews, even Heim himself said much the same. I confirmed Google translate already nailed this one from Nilsson’s article:
Heim himself never claimed his notes were stenographic records. According to his own statements, he first typed a version—sometimes based on a few keywords that he had been able to write down during Hitler’s remarks, but mostly from memory—and then made any necessary changes. Subsequently, an “original” and two copies were typed. Bormann retained the “original”, and the two copies were sent to two separate sections of [the Nazi] Party headquarters in Munich.
So the legend of this being a stenograph is false. Worse, it appears to be just cobbled up notes from memory, only occasionally even based on scribbled keywords. So these are the words, the recollections, of different witnesses, and not Hitler’s own direct words—at all, much less in context. Heim even admitted (in a BBC interview taken in 1953) that this happened a day later. So it wasn’t even “right after” any remarks were made. And at most Hitler was aware of and approved this happening; but there is actually no evidence Hitler checked, vetted, or edited any of it.
Nilsson further shows, from comparing alternate eyewitness accounts of some of the same conversations that ended up edited into the Table Talk, that the Table Talk text greatly distorts the context and content of what Hitler actually said on any given occasion. He also proves a great deal of the content came from Bormann’s own hand, weeks or months later in Munich, amounting to numerous interpolations and alterations (and Nilsson still by no means has made an exhaustive examination). Some of these edits, Nilsson shows, even deliberately reverse what Hitler said, to sanitize it for posterity. And he likewise finds examples of the words of others present being confused as the words of Hitler in the text of the Table Talk.
None of Nilsson’s examples relate to Hitler’s views on religion. But his overall findings do deeply diminish the value of the Table Talk as a source for Hitler’s views on anything, religion included. The English translation I already demonstrated to be fraudulent, based on the heavily and bizarrely distorted French translation of Genoud. But even the German text (of which there are multiple disagreeing versions) intermingles the views of each entry’s authors and editors with Hitler’s, takes Hitler’s comments out of context and even creates new context for them, mistakes the comments of others present as Hitler’s, and is drawn at best from loose memory a day after the fact, by three or four different persons at different times, after countless things were discussed by numerous people. And then all was edited and added to by Bormann. (And possibly meddled with by Genoud!)
It’s not looking good for the Table Talk as a source. But it comes to mind that we can compare this even to what historicists want to be true for at least some of the sayings of Jesus.
Here we actually have a source document, a massive collection of sayings, published within mere years of the fact. Unlike the Gospels, which are written up only many decades after the fact. A document whose authors are actual eyewitnesses for whom we can identify their names, roles, biases, interests, verify their presence during what was supposedly said, and so much more. Unlike the Gospels, whose authors are unknown, definitely not eyewitnesses, and about whom we know nothing other than what we can guess at from the Gospel they supposedly wrote. Eyewitnesses, moreover, who wrote down their recollections a mere day after the fact—whereas we have no evidence anything of the kind was done for the sayings in the Gospels. And yet even this document is now to be adjudged deeply unreliable, by standard historical criteria.
Owing to a large amount of eyewitnesses documentary material we have nothing the like of for Jesus, Nilsson was able to verify that this source document confused things other people said for things Hitler said, that it often reflected more the views of each saying’s author’s assumptions and desires and dodgy recollections than what Hitler may have actually said, that it routinely took his sayings out of context, that it was heavily edited by other parties (particularly Bormann) who had their own worldviews and agendas, and was radically distorted when translated into a foreign language, to the point of often saying even the exact opposite of the original.
Imagine if all we had were that English translation, and no access to all that other evidence by which Nilsson and I have uncovered tremendous sources of error, fabrication, and distortion in the Table Talk, even in just a matter of a few years (barely a decade altogether). Would we so foolishly trust it as the reliable record of the words of Hitler? We certainly shouldn’t. And for the same reasons, we shouldn’t trust the Gospels either. For they, too, were just a distorted translation from a lost original that had already gone through multiple redactors, and originated from witnesses (even if only to revelations) whose original recollections we have no access to, and which may have already been heavily distorted by their own worldviews and agendas and flawed memories, even before the further distortions of multiple generations of retelling, inventing, and translating into a foreign language, in a foreign land.
By every measure (eyewitness sourcing, closeness in time, documentary verification, availability in the original language) the Table Talk is a far more reliable source than the Gospels. And yet it’s a shit show of distortions; demonstrably unreliable, or at best only barely reliable. That means the Gospels are necessarily far worse than the Table Talk. And thus far worse than unreliable. Blame Hitler.