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.

WW2 Controversies

|   29 October 2011

Germans, Greeks and Nazis

Athens today

This morning I was interviewed on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 about something I think is very important.

As has been recently reported in the British press, cartoons and street posters have appeared in Greece comparing the current German regime with the Nazis. Clearly, many in Greece are angry about the financial plight their country faces – as well as the austerity measures that have to be imposed to solve the problem. So angry, indeed, that some Greeks blame the Germans for wanting to impose financial probity upon them. And from there it’s but one small step to portraying the Germans of today as Nazis.

It’s outrageous. And the fact that there is not more immediate outrage about this – especially in Germany – shows how tolerant many Germans obviously are.

What is the thinking behind these cartoons? Well, the first point to make is that not enough people realise how much Greece suffered during WW2. Around half a million Greeks died – more than the British lost – out of a relatively small population of little more than seven million. The Nazis committed a whole series of atrocities against Greek civilians in an attempt – futile as it turned out – to destroy the Greek resistance movement.

Add to that terrible history the desire to seek scapegoats in a crisis and you have the mix out of which comes this unfair treatment of today’s Germany. The biggest – and bleakest – irony, of course, is that it was the Nazis themselves who embraced the idea of scapegoats long ago. Jews, communists, gypsies – the Nazis blamed any number of different groups for Germany’s woes. They never accepted that the Germans themselves had been largely responsible for the mess the country found itself in after the First World War.

A desire not to accept responsibility for one’s own mistakes – one of the most fundamental human desires of all. The Nazis demonstrated it in the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of Greeks are demonstrating it in the first half of the Twenty first.

WW2 Controversies

|   22 October 2011

In honour I gained them and in honour I will die with them

Dealing with a difficult past…

I’ve just got back from filming in Germany for my next TV series, and was reminded by my cameraman of an incident a few years ago when we were filming an interview with a distinguished former German soldier. He had retired as a General in the Bundeswehr, the post-war German army. He was a pioneering tank commander and had helped develop NATO’s strategy during the 1950s and 60s in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

However, I was interested in his career during WW2 when he had taken part in the epic battle of Kursk in 1943 in Western Russia – the largest tank battle in history. But after the interview he showed me his various post-war awards and medals. In his book of certificates were numerous citations from the West German government, the British and the Americans. But as I flipped through the pages I came across a number of other certificates clearly not from the post WW2 era. These ones were headed ‘In Namen des Fuehrers’ (‘In the name of the Fuehrer’) and bore the swastika symbol.

‘You won a great deal of gallantry medals fighting for the Nazis,’ I said.

‘Fighting for Germany,’ he corrected me.

‘And I notice you keep them in the same folder as your post-war awards,’ I said, a little incredulously. He replied with a variant of Nelson’s famous words at the Battle of Trafalgar, which he spoke when warned not to go on deck wearing all his medals since French sharpshooters could easily target him. ‘In honour I gained them,’ said Nelson, ‘and in honour I will die with them.’

Then he looked at me, clearly annoyed. ‘But you know the worst thing,’ he said. ‘Once I was in the Bundeswehr, the West German government wouldn’t let me wear the medals that I won on the Eastern Front during the Second World War! Imagine that!’

I remember I stared back at him for a moment, unable to think of anything appropriate to say.

WW2 Controversies

|   7 September 2011

Why fight in Italy?

Florence – liberated in the summer of 1944

We’ve just added to the site for subscribers a video about the war in Italy.

I’ve always felt strongly about this campaign because my father-in-law fought in it. And the more I learn about this history the harder I find it to justify the sacrifice made by our soldiers. The fundamental problem the Allies faced in Italy had to do with the realities of geography. As Napoleon said, ‘Italy is like a boot. You have to enter it from the top.’ (more…)

WW2 Controversies

|   5 November 2010

An epidemic of racism.

Singapore: ‘the worst disaster in British history.’

We’ve just added to the site for subscribers a video about the Japanese victories at the end of 1941 and the the start of 1942. And as victories go they didn’t come much bigger than the Japanese triumph at Singapore in February 1942, when more than 60,000 troops under the command of the British General Arthur Percival surrendered to around 35,000 soldiers of the Imperial Army. Churchill called it ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’. And still today historians argue over exactly why this could have happened.

My own view is that we massively underestimate just how racist the British were in their views about the Japanese. There’s a real danger in this history that since the British (and the Americans come to that) are perceived as the ‘good guys’ of WW2, we forget that racist views and racist values were not just the preserve of the Germans. Consider, for example, the views of the commander-in-chief of British forces in the Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, expressed after he traveled to the border of British territory with China, just before the outbreak of the war.  ‘I had a good close up, across the barbed wire [of the border],’ he wrote in 1940, to the Chief of the Imperial Defence Staff, ‘of various sub-human specimens dressed in dirty grey uniform, which I was informed were Japanese soldiers. If these represent the average of the Japanese army, the problems of their food and accommodation would be simple, but I cannot believe they would form an intelligent fighting force.’


WW2 Controversies

|   23 September 2010

What was the turning point of the war?

Was Stalin’s decision, made here in Moscow in October 1941, the turning point of the war?

What do you think was the turning point of WW2? One event, or one decision on which the whole conflict turned?

That was the question I asked the distinguished historians I interviewed for WW2History.com, and – you’ll not be surprised to hear – I got many different answers. But, significantly, the majority of them picked events from the Hitler/Stalin war. There does seem something of a consensus amongst historians now that this was the theatre of the war in which the fate of the whole conflict was decided – something we in Britain should remember as the Battle of Britain commemorations continue apace.

However, I didn’t agree with the majority decision of the historians I talked to – which was that the battle of Stalingrad marked the turning point of the war. In my view, by the time of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad in February 1943 the war was already lost for the Germans. I place the crucial moment much earlier. In fact, I believe I know the exact date on which the war – if not the whole history of the Twentieth Century – turned. It was Thursday, 16 October 1941.


WW2 Controversies

|   3 May 2010

Why do so many people want to think Hitler was mad?

In Quentin Tarantino’s recent film ‘Inglourious Basterds’ Hitler was portrayed as an absolute weirdo. This Hitler screams at his Generals, bangs his fist on the table and suggests that Brad Pitt’s team of commandos might be ghostly apparitions. If not certifiably mad, the Hitler of ‘Inglourious Basterds’ certainly has more than several screws loose.

Tarantino’s version of an unhinged Hitler is typical of the way Hitler has been shown recently in popular culture. It’s an impression that was massively reinforced by Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 epic, ‘Downfall’. Whilst this was an altogether more serious feature film attempt to show the ‘real’ Hitler – one which focused on the last days in the bunker – Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler, still shakes and screams for all he is worth. So much so that several scenes have become a kind of internet phenomenon, with different people submitting comical subtitles over Ganz’s ranting.

There’s only one problem with all this. Which is that Hitler, in the words of Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, the world expert on the German leader, simply ‘wasn’t clinically mad or clinically insane.’ Yes, Hitler’s personality was showing signs of disintegrating in the last days of his life – and in that respect Ganz’s Hitler may not have been so far from the truth – but by focusing only on the endgame we obscure the real history, which is a much more troubling one than the screaming and sweating Hitler of popular culture allows. (more…)