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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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WW2History.com News

|   9 March 2015

Podcast

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

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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

‘Superb’

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

‘Excellent’

Sunday Times

‘Heartrending, cautionary tales’

The Observer

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WW2 Anniversary

|   14 January 2015

Touched by Auschwitz

My new film, ‘Touched by Auschwitz’, a ninety minute feature length documentary, will transmit in the United Kingdom on BBC2 on Holocaust Memorial Day, Tuesday 27 January at 9 pm.

It’s my attempt to answer one of the most profound questions of the Holocaust. What was the human legacy of the crime?

It explores the experiences of six Auschwitz survivors – telling of their survival in the years after liberation and moving right up to the present day.  I’ve traveled extensively in order to film these remarkable people, along with their friends and families.  Together these sequences filmed in Jerusalem and Chicago, London and Bavaria, Krakow and Tel Aviv build into a portrait of the problems, challenges and triumphs that six different individuals have experienced since the war as a result of their time in Auschwitz.

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WW2History.com News

|   1 November 2014

Touched by Auschwitz

The BBC recently announced that my new film ‘Touched by Auschwitz’ will be broadcast in January 2015 as part of a season commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 70 years ago.

I’ll write more about the film – a 90 minute feature length documentary – once I know an exact transmission date. All I’ll say now is that it’s been the most astonishing privilege to travel around the world and film with so many survivors of Auschwitz and their families.

Ever since I made the six part series ‘Auschwitz: the Nazis and the ‘Final Solution” ten years ago I’ve wanted to make a film about what happened to survivors after their liberation. My previous work has been almost exclusively about the wartime years, but I was always aware that there existed the most incredible story to tell about the challenges that survivors faced on their release from the camps.

It’s a story of individuals that also encompasses world changing events – like the formation of the state of Israel. It’s also a history that’s full of surprises. The children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, for instance, have the most fascinating things to say.

But it’s the survivors themselves who take center stage. And what they say about how Auschwitz has affected them will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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WW2 Anniversary

|   22 June 2014

The forgotten D Day

In the wake of Operation Bagration, the towns and cities of Eastern Europe would be ‘liberated’

Today is the anniversary of one of the most monumental military operations in the history of the world. A gigantic series of battles that dwarfed D Day in scale. But unlike the anniversary of D Day a few weeks ago, you won’t see the world’s most powerful leaders gathering together to celebrate this particular military triumph for the Allies. And the reason why that’s the case is an important one.

The Soviet Operation Bagration, which was launched overnight on the 21/22 June, would involve ten times more troops than the Western Allies had committed to D Day. As a result of this massive commitment from the Soviets,  the once powerful German Army Group Centre in the middle of the Eastern Front would be smashed to pieces. It was – unquestionably – Hitler’s greatest defeat in terms of sheer scale of loss. Within days the Soviets had recaptured Minsk in Belarus and the whole of Eastern Europe lay open to them.

So why have so few people in the West heard of the triumph of Operation Bagration? Why are there not huge celebrations across Western Europe and America today, marking the skill and sacrifice of our wartime Allies?

Well, one reason is obvious. The British, Americans, French and Canadians weren’t involved in Bagration, and individual countries primarily – sometimes exclusively – want to commemorate their own loss of blood and treasure. But there’s more than that going on here. Because the fact is that D Day is a morally straightforward historical event. Good versus evil. The West versus Hitler. But behind Operation Bagration lies the spectre of  the subsequent Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Indeed, I’ve met a number of Poles, for example, who question the whole notion of their ‘liberation’ at the end of the war. ‘In what sense were we liberated,’ they say, ‘when the west stood by as we simply swapped the rule of one tyrant, Hitler, for that of another, Stalin’.

How much easier for the West to deal with this uncomfortable history by simply ignoring it and focusing on the ‘pure’ events of D Day.

Hitler once remarked that people only take from the past what is convenient for them. And although it pains me to say it, it seems that in just this one respect, the monster was right.

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WW2 Relevance

|   4 March 2014

Hitler and Putin

Are there any parallels between Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin?

History never repeats itself precisely. There can never be another individual exactly like Adolf Hitler. The same circumstances that caused WW2 can never occur again.

And yet….

Vladimir Putin’s ‘justifications’ for the invasion of the Crimea – and for his right to invade the rest of Ukraine any time he wants – are eerily reminiscent of the same ludicrous ‘justifications’ Adolf Hitler uttered in the run up to WW2.

In March 1938 Hitler said an invasion of Austria might be necessary because of the way Austrian Nazis were being ‘oppressed’. A few days later he said that the Nazis had been ‘invited’ into the country. In September 1938 he told the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain that he could no longer stand by whilst Germans  were similarly ‘oppressed’ in the Sudetenland. A few days later the Nazis marched in to ’save’ them. In March 1939 he orchestrated the break up of Czechoslovakia by leaning on the Slovakians to declare independence from the rest of the Czech lands. He then announced that he was invading the remaining Czech lands as a result of being ‘invited’ in by the President of Czechoslovakia, who he had ordered to Berlin and so intimidated that the poor old man collapsed. The Nazis even said that their invasion of Poland in September 1939 was necessary to protect ethnic Germans living in Poland, and that the Poles had fired the first shots in the war.

It was all lies, of course. They were all inventions or Nazi provocations.

My point is this: don’t Putin’s words about his desire to prevent the ‘oppression’ of Russian speakers in Ukraine sound much the same as Hitler’s about the ‘oppression’ of Germans in the countries he was targeting?

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Putin wants the kind of Empire that Hitler wanted to obtain by force, or even wants war of any kind. I’m certainly not saying Putin is ‘another Hitler’. All I am pointing out is the similarity of the rhetoric. But that, it seems to me, is dangerous enough, because the rhetoric in both cases was based in large part on falsehoods. What’s even more scary is that dictators (and Putin is almost as much a dictator as Hitler was) are so shielded by ‘yes’ men from reality that it’s even possible they might believe the kind of nonsense that they often speak.

However, it was another of Putin’s statements at his press conference today that made me think of the attitude of Adolf Hitler most of all. Putin was asked about a rumour that the former President of Ukraine – that crook and mass murderer Viktor Yanukovych – was dead. Dismissing the suggestion, Putin said: ‘He’s alive, and still able to catch a cold yet – at the funerals of those who spread that information.’

They were the kind of cynical words – dripping with barely hidden threat – that Hitler himself could have uttered.

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WW2 Relevance

|   26 February 2014

The ghost of WW2 in Ukraine

As Ukrainians struggle forward they remember the past

(The photo is of the entrance to a palace in Lviv).

I’ve been traveling backwards and forwards to Ukraine for various WW2 related projects for many years, and so I’ve been particularly concerned about recent developments there. The sight of young people who are prepared to die under the much derided flag of the European Union must make us all think – or in some cases rethink – about the value of European integration. Given a choice between the values of the European Convention on Human Rights – freedom, democracy and the rule of law – and the ‘values’ of many of those in power in Russia – corruption, cronyism and bullying – I know where I stand.

But I’ve been surprised that more people haven’t commented on the legacy of WW2 in Ukraine. Because it seems to me that large elements of the problems that Ukrainians face today have their roots in the conflict. In the first place, that’s because the borders of Ukraine today are not the borders that existed at the start of the war. In fact, it was Churchill who, at the Tehran conference in 1943, agreed that Stalin could snatch the eastern portion of Poland from the Poles at the end of the war and attach the land onto Ukraine. This land had previously been Polish in the inter-war years and before that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though Ukrainians laid claim to this territory further back in history. That, in part, explains why the Western part of Ukraine considers itself more ‘European’ than the rest.

Then there’s the question of Ukrainian nationalism. During WW2 many Ukrainians longed more than anything for an independent Ukraine – which is why so many initially supported the invasion of the Nazis in 1941. It shouldn’t be forgotten either that a number of Ukrainians went on to help the Nazis exterminate the Jews. Many of the guards at death camps like Treblinka and Sobibor were Ukrainian.

But when the Ukrainians discovered that the Nazis wanted to enslave them just as much – if not more – than Stalin did, then a resistance movement grew. In the later years of the war in Ukraine there was a threefold fight going on in the forests – between the Germans, the Ukrainian nationalists and Stalin’s partisans. Terrible atrocities were committed on all sides. And this bloody war – largely unknown in the West – continues to cast a long shadow in the region.

Many Russians look down on the Ukrainians in a similar way to how the British used to treat the Irish. And the sense I have often had in Ukraine is that the Russians seek to bully their neighbours – most often by threatening the supply of gas to the country. So now I expect the Russians to bully the Ukrainians some more. But Ukrainians are tough – as we’ve seen on our TV screens over the last few days.

As fellow Europeans we should welcome Ukrainians with open arms. Not just because it’s the right thing to do for ethical and humanitarian reasons – but because the West had a hand, during WW2, in creating the borders of the country in the first place.

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