WW2 People

|   1 September 2020

Hitler and Stalin


My latest book, Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War, will be published by Viking/Penguin in the UK on 29 October and in America by Public Affairs in November.

I’ve been working on it for several years, so I’m especially grateful for the endorsements below from these distinguished historians.

‘Coming from one of the world’s experts on the Second World War, this is an important and original – and devastating – account of Hitler and Stalin as dictators. A must-read’

Professor Robert Service, author of Stalin

‘Laurence Rees brilliantly combines powerful eyewitness testimony, vivid narrative and compelling analysis in this superb account of how two terrible dictators led their countries in the most destructive and inhumane war in history’

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler

‘In this fascinating study of two monsters, Rees is extraordinarily perceptive and original’

Sir Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad

‘A brave and remarkable work. Revelatory, gripping and hugely relevant, it shows Hitler and Stalin as you’ve never known them. Truly a story of our time, with so many lessons for the troubled world we inhabit today, it will revolutionize your understanding of these two foremost tyrants’

Damien Lewis, author of The Nazi Hunters

‘Presenting this complex history with his usual clarity, his latest study is an enthralling read, weaving many fresh eyewitness accounts into the narrative, offering new insights and commanding his reader’s attention despite the huge scope of his task’

Julia Boyd, author of Travellers in the Third Reich

‘A vivid and terrifying portrait of the twentieth century’s two most brutal tyrants. His mastery of the subject shines through on every page. Provocative, gripping and full of fresh insights, Hitler and Stalin is narrative history at its very best’

Henry Hemming, author of Churchill’s Iceman

WW2 Relevance

|   27 June 2018

Who are you?

This is me, just over twenty years ago.

And because I’m working with testimony from people who were also recalling events from twenty – or even more – years ago, I’ve started wondering the extent to which I am still the person in this photo.

Demonstrably, I look older. Equally obviously, I can’t do some of the things I could then. Like sprinting in the parents’ race at school…

But am I essentially the same?

In my experience, so many people who lived through the Nazi period talked about themselves as two people. The one who was the committed Nazi and the one, post-war, who wasn’t. Now, I’ve never been tested like that, for sure. But just recently, at a commemorative event, a relative of one of my dearest colleagues – now deceased – read one of my colleague’s diary entries about me. I didn’t know he had kept a diary until that moment. But in this extract my colleague reported what I’d said to him at his ‘appraisal’ meeting at the BBC. I had no recollection of saying any of things he recorded – it was, in any case, a deeply selective section of what I must have said.

And yet, I know it must be true. It sounded like me, and I trusted my friend to recall it accurately later that same day.

I think a lot about this. How we can’t control how people record and remember us. And how we forget so much over time. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder of how we are always tempted to judge ourselves by our intentions and other people by their actions.

No matter what I forget, I need to always remember that fact, especially when dealing with transcript material of interviewees from the war.

WW2 Reviews

|   28 January 2017

Reviews of ‘The Holocaust: A New History’

‘The amount of ground it covers in 500 pages is remarkable — from the antisemitism of popular German literature of the 19th century to Hitler’s suicide and the surrender of his regime. It’s excellently written and skilfully interweaves narrative history, sound interpretation and the recollections (through interviews, listed in the notes as “previously unpublished testimony”) of survivors… Rees provides an exemplary account of how the greatest crime in modern history came about.’

Oliver Kamm, the Times.

‘As a former head of BBC TV history programmes, Rees has produced some of the most thoughtful documentaries about Nazi Germany, and he tells this story through a mix of closeups and wide shots of the historical landscape. The latter provides crucial context, connecting anti-Jewish policy to the changing fortunes of the war and the dynamics of Nazi rule. Rees also explains how the perpetrators learned from earlier attacks on other “community aliens”, such as the disabled – the first victims of mass gassings in the Third Reich, who were murdered in “euthanasia” centres equipped with fake showers… Rees is a gifted educator, who can tell a complex story with compassion and clarity, without sacrificing all nuances… a fine book.’

Professor Nikolaus Wachsmann, the Guardian

‘Into a general history of the Holocaust that draws also upon recent scholarship and contemporary documentation, Rees has woven the most searing first-person accounts… Rees has included these testimonies within a flowing narrative history…  producing the disturbing phenomenon of an extremely readable book about the Holocaust.’

David Sexton, the Evening Standard

‘Like [Primo] Levi, Rees understands the Holocaust as representing ‘a singular horror in the history of the human race’, and he is particularly well placed to guide us through the multitude of difficulties it presents. One of world’s foremost historical documentary film-makers, he has spent a lifetime thinking about the Nazi era, crafting balanced, rigorous and reflective films that have won plaudits and prizes…  He is also a seriously good storyteller — and this is his masterwork….  Laurence Rees has written a remarkable book.’

Philippe Sands, the Spectator

‘You might have thought that we know everything there is to know about the Holocaust but this book proves there is much more… Laurence Rees, an acclaimed historian and former head of BBC history, has spent a quarter of a century meeting the survivors and the perpetrators, and in the endnotes of this ground-breaking book the words ‘previously unpublished testimony’ are cited no fewer than 169 times.’

Andrew Roberts, the Daily Mail

‘this absorbing, heart-breaking book… a powerful, inevitably harrowing revelation of the 20th century’s greatest crime.’

Nick Rennison, the Sunday Times

‘Laurence Rees’s brilliant new history… Rees has distilled 25 years of research into this compelling study, the finest single volume account of the Holocaust…’

Saul David, the Daily Telegraph

WW2History.com News

|   21 October 2016

My new book

I’m really pleased to say that my new book – a history of the Holocaust that I have been working on for years – will be published on 26 January in the UK by Viking/Penguin.

I’ve been meeting people who were involved with the Nazis – either as supporters or perpetrators – for 25 years or so now. And this book is my attempt after all this time thinking about the crime to answer the two big questions – how and why did it happen?

I’ve also been able to use testimony that hasn’t been published before, in particular some astonishing material from my last film project ‘Touched by Auschwitz’.

I hope, when people can read it in January, they think it is a worthwhile piece of work.

WW2 People

|   23 February 2016

Dr Frank Stucke

Dr Stucke, who died yesterday.

Frank Stucke, a brilliant German academic and journalist, and my colleague for many years, has just died.

Frank was truly exceptional. He was one of the key reasons that so many of the television series that I wrote and produced featured such memorable German interviewees. He was not the only researcher that worked with us – there were a number of other talented journalists – but Frank was the only one who combined a working life as an academic with his freelance work for television. That gave him, I always thought, a sense of detachment from the headstrong nature of the production process, something which in turn made his efforts special.

He was painstaking, patient and enormously honourable. I often remarked that a sense of integrity ran through him like lead in a pencil. He would not be moved under any circumstances from doing what he thought was right. His potential interviewees sensed this, and that is why he succeeded in getting many truly remarkable people to talk in front of camera.

Most notably, Frank was the person responsible for obtaining our interview with Oskar Groening, a former SS man who worked at Auschwitz (and who was recently convicted of war crimes). Oskar Groening’s revealing testimony about what life was like for the SS in Auschwitz is of enormous historical importance. Historians will still be studying it in a hundred years. And it would not exist on the record if it was not for the fact that Frank Stucke had persuaded Oskar Groening to give his first – and so far only – television interview for my Auschwitz series.

As well as being both a penetrating intellectual and a gifted journalist, Frank was fantastic company. A life threatening illness he had contracted whilst still very young had altered his view on the world. Having survived that terrible experience he realised that life could be snatched away at any moment. As a result, he believed it was important to live to the full every single second.

I used to admonish him for smoking, for instance, and he would say that if death wasn’t certain for everyone then maybe he’d stop. But since death was coming for sure, why not enjoy yourself and smoke? When I saw him for the last time in a Berlin hospital he took pleasure in telling me that I had been wrong about the dangers of smoking. Whilst he was very sick indeed, it was not the cigarettes that were killing him, but something else entirely. He laughed when he told me that he had longed for weeks to be well enough to be wheeled out by a nurse into the hospital garden to have a cigarette – something he had accomplished a few days before.

He loved everything about his life. Even his childhood illness – complications from which were now killing him – had been valuable, he said, because it had made him appreciate every moment of every day.

He was a wonderful man and I am so very fortunate to have known him. It is, I hope, of some comfort to think that not only have more than a hundred million people already witnessed his television work – but that many yet unborn will also benefit from his talents, when they in turn see the television series which feature the interviewees he persuaded to take part.

WW2 Relevance

|   2 December 2015

Faith and the Nazis

What did these German soldiers believe?

There is a lot in the news at the minute about the power of religious faith as a motivational factor. But we mustn’t forget that a study of Nazism teaches us that it is perfectly possible to have fanatical faith without believing in a traditional religion at all.

Hitler, for example, despised Christianity, yet he felt compelled for purely pragmatic reasons – especially when starting out as a political leader – to sometimes speak well of the religion in public. He could do little else, he felt, because a number of his followers were Christians. But Hitler put a very different slant on traditional Christian beliefs. In a speech in April 1922 Hitler said: ‘My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who, once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognised these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who – God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read the passage [in the Bible] which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders.

And, as I wrote in the Dark Charisma of Hitler: ‘It was possible for Nazis to make personal – and blasphemous – comparisons between Jesus and Hitler. For example, that both leaders had waited until they were 30 years old before beginning their ‘mission’, and that both promised redemption from the suffering of the moment. In order to support such views the Nazis – not surprisingly – ignored the historical record and claimed that Jesus was not Jewish.

All of which makes the increasingly quasi-religious role of Hitler in the Nazi state particularly intriguing. The hordes of Germans who traveled – almost as pilgrims – to pay homage to Hitler at his home above Berchtesgaden; the thousands of personal petitions sent to Hitler at the Reich Chancellery; the pseudo-religious iconography of the Nuremberg rallies; the fact that German children were taught that Hitler was ‘sent from God’ and was their ‘faith’ and ‘light’; all this spoke to the fact that Hitler was seen less as a normal politician and more as a prophet touched by the divine. For Wilhelm Roes, growing up in the early years of Nazi rule and who would later join the SS, Hitler ‘was God himself. All the media sort of glorified him. And we young people believed all of that; you know we were stupid. If I look at my grandchildren, we were so stupid’

Hitler wanted, in the long term, to get rid of Christianity, but he still recognized the immense value of ‘faith’.  He dreamnt ‘of a state of affairs in which every man would know that he lives and dies for the preservation of the species’. He wanted his soldiers to have fanatical ‘faith’ in him and in Germany – not in some supernatural being.

WW2 Reviews

|   21 May 2015

Ardennes 1944

Antony Beevor’s new book ‘Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble’ is published today. The appearance of a new book by the master of military history is always special, and this new work does not disappoint.

The book displays all of the skills as a historian that have justifiably made Beevor famous. He combines a meticulous attention to detail with an ability to explain the immensity of the campaign and its context within this most horrific of wars. In particular, his description and assessment of the character of the British commander, Bernard Montgomery, is quite brilliant. How Montgomery managed to achieve such fame – despite his many personal inadequacies – is truly extraordinary.

‘Ardennes 1944’ is an important read. Anyone seriously interested in the history of the  Second World War should buy it now.

WW2 Controversies

|   23 April 2015

The Oskar Groening I met

Oskar Groening

I met Oskar Groening, the former SS soldier from Auschwitz whose trial started this week, more than 10 years ago. We were filming him for a BBC TV series I wrote and produced called ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution”. The interview he gave us is of real historical importance, since he offered insights into the role of the SS at Auschwitz that I’ve not heard anywhere else. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. If you want to read the views he expressed in his interview then just look in the book I wrote about Auschwitz. I discuss Groening at length there.

All I wanted to write about here was the personal impression he made on me. Oskar Groening was a bank clerk before the war and a personnel officer after the war. You could scarcely meet a more ‘ordinary’ person.

And that’s one reason why it is important that we think about Oskar Groening. Because many people want to believe that they would recognise someone who worked at Auschwitz if they met them. They think that a member of the SS at Auschwitz would almost certainly be red faced, slathering and stupid – an obvious monster of a person. Not someone who  is mild mannered and wears glasses.

I think it is right that Oskar Groening is on trial. In my view, every single one of the 6,500 members of the SS who worked at Auschwitz should have been held accountable for their actions immediately after the war. It is a scandal that less than a hundred have ever been prosecuted.

But just remember that whilst Oskar Groening must be held personally responsible for what he did at Auschwitz, he doesn’t conform to the stereotype Nazi that many might want him to be. Life would be much less troublesome and much more comfortable if people who did bad things were obviously bad when you met them, and people who did good things were obviously good – but it doesn’t work that way.

WW2History.com News

|   9 March 2015


The Holocaust Educational Trust have just put online a podcast I recorded with their head of education, Alex Maws.

It’s about my views on the nature of perpetrators and you can listen to it here: HET Podcast

WW2 Anniversary, WW2 Relevance

|   25 January 2015

Advance press for ‘Touched by Auschwitz’

‘Touched by Auschwitz’ transmits on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday 27 January

‘This immensely powerful programme’

The Times


The Daily Telegraph

‘Laurence Rees’s film tracks down six survivors of the camp in five countries to ask the complex questions of how a person endures the unendurable and then explains the inexplicable’

The Guardian

‘Hard hitting… compelling’

Daily Mail

After watching this documentary, you may well think that the human spirit is unbreakable’

Daily Mirror


Sunday Times

‘Heartrending, cautionary tales’

The Observer