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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

WW2 Anniversary

|   28 November 2013

The most important Allied conference of the war.

The ‘Big Three’ at Tehran

Today is a hugely significant anniversary – but it’s also a largely unknown one amongst the general population. That’s because the only one of the Allied leadership conferences of WW2 that seems to have penetrated into popular culture is the final one (involving Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) held at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945.

But those people who know the history have long understood that in many ways all Yalta did was to rubber stamp a series of decisions that had already been taken at the first and most important of the ‘Big Three’ conferences, held in Tehran in Iran starting on the 28 November 1943 – 70 years ago today.

At Tehran Roosevelt did all he could to form a relationship with Stalin – even if it meant selling out Polish interests. (It was at Tehran that the British and the Americans agreed to give up Eastern Poland to Stalin at the end of the war, and for the whole of Poland to shift west incorporating German territory – this deal was reached in principle at Tehran without the Polish government in exile even knowing about it. They didn’t discover the true nature of the betrayal of their interests until the following year). And it was at Tehran that Roosevelt pressed the Soviets to enter the war against Japan once the Nazis were defeated.

The seeds of almost all of the decisions that were taken at Yalta – decisions which many condemn today – were planted at Tehran. We should remember that.

PS I know many people would like to comment on this and other posts – especially this one, I suspect – but, alas, we’ve had to disable the comment section on the blog because we were targeted by thousands of spam emails, despite thinking we were protected against them.

Bookmark and Share

WW2 Relevance

|   2 July 2013

The city where no one was safe

The Opera House in the city where no one was safe.

Recently, researching a new project, I re-visited a city that I think was the riskiest place in Europe to live – not just during WW2 but during the 20th century as a whole.

It’s an elegant place – beautiful in many ways. Cultured, sophisticated and full of remarkable architecture – a city renowned for chocolate, coffee and honey. Site of one of the most prestigious universities in Europe – an artistic gem. If you haven’t visited this place, then I recommend you do.

I’m talking about a city that is now called Lviv and is now in Ukraine. But it wasn’t always called Lviv and it wasn’t always in Ukraine.

As a wrote in ‘WW2 Behind Closed Doors’: ‘It started the Twentieth Century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became part of Poland after the First World War, then part of the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941, then part of the Nazi Empire until 1944, then part of the Soviet Union again, until finally in 1991 it became part of an independent Ukraine. At various times in the last hundred years the city has been called Lemberg, Lvov, Lwow and Lviv. There was not one group of citizens I met there who had not at one time or another suffered because of who they were. Catholic or Jew, Ukrainian, Russian or Pole, they had all faced persecution in the end. It was the Nazis, of course, who operated the most infamous and murderous policy of persecution against the Jews of the city, but we are apt to forget that such was the change and turmoil in this part of Eastern Europe that ultimately few non-Jews escaped suffering of one kind or another either.’

It’s important to remember, I think, that there are some cities in the world that because of geographical, cultural, religious and historical happenstance become enormously dangerous places to live. Jerusalem is one, of course, but Lviv (or Lemberg or Lvov or Lwow) is another. It was never dull living there in the Twentieth Century, it’s true. But it could also prove deadly.

Bookmark and Share

WW2 Relevance

|   27 April 2013

The rise of Poland

The market square of Rzeszow

One of the few compensations of growing older is the sense of historical perspective that age can offer. I thought of that last week when I was in eastern Poland researching my next project. I’ve been going to Poland for work for twenty years and the changes I’ve seen during that time have been astonishing. When I first went to Poland the place had only just escaped Communism. Compared to Western Europe it was poor, depressing and lackluster.

(Mind you, it was as nothing compared to the Soviet Union – I visited Moscow in the late eighties and it was a truly desperate place. It’s almost as if Poland was always a half-way house between Western Europe and the Soviet Union. There was real truth in that old joke that used to be told when both Poland and Russia were communist. Someone travels from Paris to Moscow and lands in Warsaw by mistake, thinking it’s Moscow, and says ‘My God Communism is appalling!’. Whilst a communist travels from Moscow to Paris and lands in Warsaw by mistake, thinking it’s Paris, and says ‘My God isn’t capitalism wonderful!’.)

Today, with its communist past just a terrible memory, Poland is thriving – the transformation quite incredible. Take a city like Rzeszow in eastern Poland, for example. I bet most people in the west have never heard of it – the city’s always had to live in the shadow of its neighbour, the immense cultural stronghold of Krakow. I was in Rzeszow last week and it’s a joyous place. The old town centre has been beautifully restored and the suburbs are rich and thriving. (And whilst I continue to sound like a representative of the Polish tourist board, I’d also remark that Ryanair now fly to Rzeszow direct from London).

But I also felt sad. That’s because not only of the appalling suffering endured by the inhabitants of Rzeszow during the war – the Nazis wiped out the thousands of Jews who lived here, and then those Poles who wanted to retain a truly independent Poland were persecuted by the Soviets when the Red Army ‘liberated’ the city in 1944 – but because of the wasted lives of those who lived under communism here until 1989. Wasted not least because they never even had the chance to express themselves freely. In a very real sense the Second World War did not end for the inhabitants of a city like Rzeszow until the fall of communism in 1989.

Bookmark and Share

WW2History.com News

|   9 April 2013

Pre-publication press

Pre-publication press from the USA for ‘Hitler’s Charisma’ (Pantheon Books)

“Rees moves easily from the broad themes of German politics and economics to the individual voices of those who supported and opposed Hitler. Incorporating most of the latest scholarship on Hitler, Rees provides valuable insights here into a topic that is not new.” –Library Journal

“Rees’s spotlight on charisma forces us to think hard about what it means to persuade, to argue, to reason—or simply to assert one’s will.” –The Chronicle of Higher Education

“So how did Hitler convince his generals to invade Russia and his subjects to ignore the genocide around them? This readable, fascinating book, a worthy addition to the vast literature surrounding Hitler, has plausible answers.” –Kirkus

Bookmark and Share

WW2 Anniversary

|   3 February 2013

Is it ever right to kill yourself for honour?

The ruins of Stalingrad

70 years ago, on 30 January 1943, as Soviet troops closed in on the centre of Stalingrad, Gerhard Hindenlang, a German battalion commander, received surprising news from Hitler’s HQ by radio. The overall commander of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad, General Friedrich Paulus had just been promoted to Field Marshal. Everyone present knew what this meant. German Field Marshals were not supposed to be captured by the enemy. It was a sign that Hitler wanted Paulus to commit suicide.

Hindenlang, who was interviewed for my TV series ‘War of the Century’ back in 1999, took the news to Paulus – telling him not just of his promotion, but that the situation militarily in the city was hopeless for the Germans. Paulus asked Hindenlang ‘what do you think of suicide?’ And Hindenlang replied: ‘Field Marshal, I lead troops and I will do so right until the last moment. I will go and become a prisoner of war if needs be, but you – you haven’t got any forces any more. ‘ And Paulus replied, ‘Hindenlang, I’m a Christian. I refuse to commit suicide.’

Hitler was not just outraged when he heard that Paulus had allowed himself to be captured alive – he was mystified. ‘What does that mean ‘life?’ he raged at his military HQ on 1 February 1943, ‘the individual has to die. What remains alive beyond the individual is the people. But how can one fear this moment – through which one (can free) oneself from misery?’

Instead of entering into ‘national immortality’ Paulus, Hitler said, had ‘preferred’ to go to Moscow, where ‘rats will eat’ him in the Lubyanka prison.

‘It hurts me so much’ said Hitler ‘because the heroism of so many soldiers is destroyed by a single, spineless weakling…’

A number of German officers in Stalingrad also thought Paulus should have committed suicide. Joachim Stempel, then a young officer, had witnessed a previous conversation between his own father, a senior commander at Stalingrad, and Paulus in which he believed Paulus had been calling on senior officers to kill themselves in the event that Stalingrad fell to the Red Army. And, after this conversation, Stempel’s own father had killed himself.

But after Stempel heard that Paulus had been captured alive he ‘mistrusted everything. Because I thought, well, what is the word of a superior officer worth? If my father had been uncertain in any way, he might have thought, well, OK, if Paulus, as commander-in-chief survives and is taken prisoner, why, should I, a divisional commander, not be taken captive as well?’

I’ve thought about these stories a lot since I first worked with this material fourteen years ago and visited Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) myself. Should Paulus have killed himself? Is it ever right to commit suicide for ‘honour’? I met plenty of Japanese veterans who believe it can be absolutely the right thing to do.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I still don’t know…

Bookmark and Share

WW2 Relevance

|   21 December 2012

The Danes and the Jews

Copenhagen, capital of Denmark

I was recently in Copenhagen and had cause to think once again about the extraordinary history of the Danes and the Jews in World War Two.

Denmark is about the only country in Europe that emerges with credit from the horror of the Holocaust. A brave effort by the Danes allowed around 95% of Danish Jews to be spirited out of the country in the autumn of 1943.

The Germans, who invaded and occupied Denmark in April 1940, only moved to run the country entirely themselves in the summer of 1943 – up to then the existing Danish institutions had survived intact. It was only after the Germans assumed absolute control that the 8,000 Danish Jews who had, so far, not been subject to deportation and death, became at risk.

In late September 1943, the German plenipotentiary to Denmark, Dr Werner Best, mentioned to a German diplomat, who was sympathetic to the Jews, that a round up of the Jews was to take place at the start of October. Most Danes were outraged when they heard the news, and the prevailing mood was summed in a statement from the bishop of Copenhagen that was read in Danish churches on 3 October 1943: ‘Wherever Jews are persecuted for racial or religious reasons, it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution…’ As a result of this kind of belief, thousands of Danish Jews were taken in boats across the narrow straight to neutral Sweden and safety.

Now I know that there are some historians who emphasize not the bravery of the Danes but the situational factors at work here – the geography of Denmark allowed easy access to a neutral country next door; the German occupation of Denmark had been relatively lax up to the summer of 1943, and by the time that changed it was obvious the Nazis were losing the war; there were relatively few Danish Jews and as a community they were strongly assimilated; and there was evidence that some Danish fishermen charged Jews for the journey across to Sweden (though why shouldn’t they have, given the risk they thought they were running?)

I know all that and more. But I prefer to emphasize the fundamental non-conformist virtue of the Danes at the time. I agree with the views of Knud Dyby, one of those Danes who helped his Jewish countrymen: ‘What the Danish people did, they did our of their own heart and their own friendliness. It was a simple feeling of humanity. It was simply goodness and decency. And that was what everybody, all over Europe, should have done.’

What struck me on my recent visit to Copenhagen though, was an aspect of the history that still seemed to be part of Danish culture – the sense that everyone, no matter what their background, is a Dane first and foremost. The most striking example was that of the taxi driver who took me to the airport on my last day. He was clearly of Arab origin, but talked about ‘What we Danes feel’ all the time. He possessed an absolute belief  that he was now 100% Danish – no matter where he had been born.

Yes, I thought, it was true, the Danish Jews had been saved in large part because the rest of the population thought they were Danish before anything else. They were one family, all together, regardless of religious or cultural beliefs. And there was a message for us in that, for sure.

Bookmark and Share