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

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.

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.

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.

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…

WW2 Anniversary

|   9 April 2012

What would the British have done?

It’s not hard to understand why the British feel so proud about their role in the Second World War. The undeniable truth is that this country, led by Winston Churchill, held out against the Germans in 1940 and thus prevented the Nazi domination of Western Europe.

And, of course, by thwarting the Germans the British never had to endure Nazi occupation and so didn’t have to discover just how many people in this land would have collaborated with the enemy. It’s this, I’ve always felt, that contributes to an underlying sense in the British national consciousness – most often unspoken – that ‘we were better than they were’ (and the ‘they’ usually – again normally unsaid – means the French).

But were we? Because something that happened seventy years ago this month ought to give us pause.

In April 1942 three Jews were deported from Guernsey in the Channel Islands. The Nazi occupiers had requested that the Channel Islands authorities co-operate in the persecution of the Jews and co-operate they most certainly did. The previous year, 1941, officials in the Channel Islands had called for all Jews to come forward and be registered – something that was the beginning of their suffering. Jewish businesses were compulsorily sold and at least one Jew on Jersey, Victor Emmanuel, ended up committing suicide.

The police on Guernsey – who wore the traditional uniform of the British ‘bobby’ – ordered three Jews, Auguste Spitz, Marianne Grunfeld and Therese Steiner to report for deportation from the island on 21 April. Therese Steiner, brought before Sergeant Ernest Plevin of the Guernsey police, burst into tears and told him that she would never see him again.

She was right. Once in France all three of the women from Guernsey were caught up in further Jewish deportations and transported to Auschwitz. None of them survived the war.

Whilst the authorities on the Channel Islands didn’t know for sure what would happen to the Jews that were deported, they certainly knew how much the Nazis hated the Jews and that those Jews sent from Guernsey were almost certain to experience further suffering away from the island.

Is what happened on the Channel Islands any indicator of what might have happened here on the British mainland if the Nazis had occupied this country? Well, I’ve been on holiday to both Jersey and Guernsey with my family and can certainly say these islands appear more British than anything else…

And remember the words of a British intelligence report from August 1945: ‘When the Germans proposed to put their anti-Jewish measures into force, no protest whatever was raised by any of the Guernsey officials and they hastened to give the Germans every assistance.’

WW2 Anniversary

|   24 March 2012

Foreigners to Auschwitz


Seventy years ago this week an event of enormous significance took place. The first Jews from outside Poland were deported to Auschwitz.

It’s significant not just because these Jews were from another European country – the first of many – but because of the deal under which they were sent. It was a shocking arrangement – one which reminds us that the Holocaust was far more than a solely ‘German’ crime.

These Jews came from the neighbouring country of Slovakia, and were only deported to Auschwitz after high level meetings between the Germans and the Slovaks the previous month. In February 1942 the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Vojtech Tuka had met with Major Dieter Wisliceny of the SS. After further reflection in Berlin, a deal was finally done whereby the Slovaks agreed to pay the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for every Jew deported. But on condition that the Germans guaranteed that these Jews would ‘never come back’. That way the Slovaks knew that they could steal the property of the Jews with impunity.

Silvia Vesela, then a young Jewish women, remembers how non-Jewish Slovaks turned on her. ‘I thought about it several times,’ she says. ‘Human material is very bendable. You can do anything with it. When money and life are involved, you seldom meet a person that is willing to sacrifice for you. It hurt, it really hurt when I, for example, saw my schoolmate shouting with her fist raised, ‘It serves you right!’ Since that time I do not expect anything of people.’

Silvia Vesela was transported with thousands of other Slovak Jews to Auschwitz 70 years ago.

Today, as well as their suffering, let’s also remember the negotiations which sent them there. And a deal which meant that a European state, Slovakia, ‘paid’ to have its Jews taken away.

WW2 Anniversary

|   10 February 2012

Bombing Germany

German civilians living in cities like this were now legitimate targets for the British

Seventy years ago this month the British took a decision which, just before the war, they would have considered against International Law – they decided that German civilians were a legitimate target for RAF Bomber Command.

An Air Ministry directive of February 1942 authorised this new and terrible destruction: ‘The primary objective of your [ie British bomber] operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers.’ It was an instruction that would lead to the indiscriminate killing of women and children in attacks like the fire-bombing of Hamburg.

There isn’t space here to debate the morals or merits of this new development in British policy – one which was driven not by an ethical discussion but a practical one. The fact was that British bombers were too inaccurate to precision bomb military targets and so were now directed against cities instead.

I’m familiar with the arguments on both sides about the legitimacy of these attacks. I’ve met former bomber pilots, Germans who suffered at their hands and discussed all the relevant issues with expert academics in this field of study, like the brilliant Professor Tami Biddle. I know enough to know that the questions around the British decision are not simple ones. But, in essence, I guess what concerns me is the question of ‘proportionality’. If you feel under threat, is it OK to do anything to survive and beat the enemy? If we could only have destroyed Nazism by bombing every school and hospital and kindergarten in Germany and killing all their children would we have? But suppose we didn’t need to do that to survive, but by killing all their children we would shorten the war by six months and save thousands of our servicemen’s lives as a consequence. Should we have done that? Is there an equation here – say a thousand German children equal one British soldier?

That’s not so fanciful an argument. After all, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who took over RAF Bomber Command in spring 1942, said three years later at the height of the destruction of Germany: ‘I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.’

Really, was he right?

WW2 Anniversary

|   17 January 2012

Misunderstanding Wannsee

The Wannsee conference was held here at 56–58 Am Grossen Wannsee.

Seventy years ago this month – on 20 January 1942 to be precise – one of the most infamous meetings of WW2, indeed of the 20th century, was held on the shores of the Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin.   And, as I know from the many times that I have been asked about Wannsee, large numbers of people still think this was the moment that the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ was decided upon.

It wasn’t. And the reasons why this mistake is often made are interesting.

The fact is that the fifteen senior Nazi functionaries who attended the Wannsee conference were second tier figures in the Nazi state. Goering wasn’t there, Himmler wasn’t there, crucially Hitler wasn’t there. Mind you, it wasn’t surprising, of course, that Hitler wasn’t there. He hated committee meetings of any kind. As a result the German cabinet hadn’t met since 1938.

Wannsee was held to decide on a whole series of potentially contentious issues which had arisen because elsewhere much more important decisions about the fate of the Jews had already been taken. These decisions were important – like what was the exact definition of a ‘Jew’ – but they were not fundamental. Much more important to the history of the Nazis so-called ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish ‘problem’ were the discussions that Hitler held with Himmler in December 1941 and the conversations Hitler had with other senior Nazi figures immediately after Pearl Harbour.

So why do people need to think that Wannsee was the moment the extermination of the Jews was decided upon by the Nazis? Well, because I think there is a natural human desire to want to believe that the most appalling crime in history was decided upon at a definite moment. It lends certainty to our understanding. Trouble is, the decision making process of the ‘Final Solution’ was not like that. Yes, of course, Hitler was ultimately responsible, but the process was piecemeal and cumulative. In a word – it’s ‘complicated’.

WW2 Anniversary

|   7 January 2012

Humiliation in Singapore

The WW2 guns of Singapore point south.

I was in Singapore this week – which was an education in itself as one witnesses first hand how many of the Asian economies seem to be outstripping debt struck Europe.

But I was also seeing first hand the sight of what, seventy years ago, Winston Churchill called ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.’ On 15 February 1942, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival gave up Singapore to the Japanese. More than 60,000 British and other Commonwealth and Empire troops surrendered to an Imperial Army force of around 35,000.

The prime reason for the disaster was the incompetence of the British leadership in Singapore – particularly that of the inept Percival – but complacency born of racism also played a part. The British simply couldn’t believe that the Japanese were capable of advancing through the Malayan jungle to the north of Singapore – but they did. In addition, the Asian theater of war had been depleted of many resources because the direct threat to immediate British interests – and, indeed, to the territory of Great Britain – came from Nazi Germany. And Japan, after all, was on the other side of the world.  The British plan had always been that a strong naval force would act as the prime deterrent to Japanese aggression, rather than extensive land forces. But here too, British arrogance would prove costly. On 10 December 1941 two huge British battleships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, were sunk by Japanese planes, largely because the British government – headed by Churchill, of course – had allowed them to sail in these waters without adequate air support.

As I walked through Singapore this week and saw the immense riches and drive of this small island nation, I thought of the ignorance in Europe and America today amongst many people about the vast economic strides that have been made – and will continue to be made in the future – in Asia. Of course, the warlike intentions of nations like Japan are no more. But the complacency the British had about the military capability of the Japanese 70 years ago is still reflected, I feel, in the complacency many people in the West feel about the economic potentiality of the East.