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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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.

Bookmark and Share

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