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.

WW2 People

|   29 January 2012

Flying into Stalingrad

The ruins of Stalingrad

Imagine the scene. It’s December 1942 and you are a German officer who has just recovered from sickness, when you are told to report to your commanding General. He tells you that you are to be flown into the besieged German held area around Stalingrad where your comrades in the Sixth Army are currently awaiting capture at the hands of the Red Army.

At one level there is no point in you flying into Stalingrad – as an individual you can’t sway the fate of the battle one way or the other. But you are ordered on this assignment because you are scheduled to serve with the Sixth Army, and not to send you would be to admit to the Germans trapped in Stalingrad that their colleagues have given up on them.

So you fly into Stalingrad in early January 1943 and less than a month later you are captured by the Red Army. You then endure twelve years of imprisonment in the Soviet Union before finally being allowed back to Germany in 1955.

How would you feel?

Well, a former Colonel in the German Army I met some years ago – called Guenther von Below – suffered exactly this fate. And he said that he had no ‘problem’ about being ordered back into Stalingrad. ‘A soldier goes to war knowing that he may fall,’ he remarked stoically.

I was re-reading the transcript of our interview with Colonel Below last week, whilst working on my new book and TV series, both of which deal with some of these issues, and it made me think once again about the nature of heroism. Why could von Below have no doubts about his actions, never – as far as I know – show weakness. Is it training? Is it genetic inheritance? Is it education or parenting? Is it the times and circumstances of history? Is it all of these things mixed together?

WW2 People

|   28 May 2011

‘I wish I had died in the war’

The Blitz – a time of death and glory for Britain

In the spring of 1986 I was driving through the Loire valley, listening to an interview on Radio 4 with Enoch Powell, one of the most famous British politicians of the time. It was all predictable stuff until Powell was asked how he would like to be remembered. After giving one fairly anodyne response,  Powell replied: ‘I should like to have been killed in the war.’

At the time I thought this was a bonkers answer. And not just bonkers, but potentially immensely hurtful to his close friends and family. But, curiously, the older I get the more sympathy I have with Enoch Powell’s response.

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WW2 People

|   21 May 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

Is it legitimate to express ’sympathy’ for Adolf Hitler?

This week the Danish film director Lars von Trier was banned from the Cannes film festival for confessing – tongue in cheek, one suspects – that he was a ‘Nazi’ and that he had ’sympathy’ for Adolf Hitler.

Von Trier craves attention and loves to shock – that much is obvious not just from his previous history at Cannes, but also from earlier remarks at the same press conference at which he announced he was a Nazi, when he said that various attractive actresses had asked him to make a ‘Hot sex’ film as his next project. He is clearly a silly man.

But it is the reaction to his remarks about Hitler that is really intriguing. Suppose he had said that he was a ‘Communist’ and had ’sympathy’ for Stalin  – would he have been chucked out of the Cannes film festival? I suspect not.

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WW2 People

|   7 March 2011

Bombing Japan

Tokyo, after the American fire-bombing in March 1945.

We’ve just added onto the site for subscribers the testimony of Paul Montgomery who was a member of a B29 bomber crew during the war against Japan.

I’ll never forget meeting Paul Montgomery nearly a dozen years ago on his farm in the flat lands of Oklahoma. He was one of  the nicest people I ever met on my travels. Kind, forthright and compassionate. Yet he had helped take part in the killing of more people than probably anyone else I ever encountered.

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WW2 People

|   19 January 2011

Hitler and aging

Our journey

It was my birthday this week – which is not a cause for wild jubilation once you are over forty five in my experience, and, unfortunately, I am most certainly over forty five.

But it got me thinking about how our understanding changes as we age. And that in turn made me think about the research I am doing on Hitler at the minute. Hitler was terrified that he might die before his ambitions could be accomplished. And that fear increased exponentially as he aged. Indeed, one of the reasons why he rushed into war was a fear that he might not be fit enough in years to come to lead Germany. He was also a terrible hypochondriac, constantly thinking that an upset stomach was the first sign of cancer. Because he thought he was sent by ‘providence’ to rule Germany, he no doubt was furious that ‘providence’ had not made him immortal.

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WW2 People

|   5 January 2011

Hitler and Munich

Munich – the ‘capital’ of the Nazi movement.

We’ve just added a long essay on Adolf Hitler to the ‘Key Leaders’ section for subscribers. And writing it reminded me of the long association that Adolf Hitler had with one city – Munich.

For Hitler, Munich was the most wonderful spot on earth. His joy at moving to Munich just before the First World War is plain to see in the pages of Mein Kampf and Munich was to be the birthplace of the Nazi party in the years immediately after the end of WWI.

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WW2 People

|   29 December 2010

Siberians – tough people

Snow – the great leveler

When I was out walking through the snow in the Chiltern Hills outside of London the other day, with the cold air penetrating through my thick clothes, I remembered the toughest man I have ever met.

He was a Siberian, called Vasily Borisov. And exactly sixty nine years ago today he was fighting the Germans outside Moscow. And when I met him in 2006, when he was well into his eighties, he seemed every bit as strong as he must have been during the war. His hand shake almost crushed my fingers and his big, slab-like face exuded health and energy.

He was part of a Siberian division that had been sent to defend the Soviet capital in December 1941. ‘During the counter-attacks [against the Germans],’ he said, ‘there was man to man fighting. We had to fight the Germans in the trenches. And the fitter ones survived and the weaker ones died… We had bayonets on our rifles and I was very strong – I could pierce him [the German soldier] with a bayonet and throw him out of the trench… It’s the same as piercing a loaf of bread.’

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WW2 People

|   2 September 2010

SOULS OF THE JAPANESE

The Yasukini Shrine in Tokyo

We’ve just added onto the site, for subscribers, the testimony of Kenichiro Oonuki who trained as a Kamikaze pilot during the Second World War.

He was alive in 2000, when I met him, because in April 1945 his plane developed technical faults en route to the Allied fleet off Okinawa. As a result he made an emergency landing on a nearby Japanese island, was picked up by soldiers of the Imperial Army and then taken back to Tokyo where he was punished for not successfully killing himself by smashing his plane into an enemy warship.

Oonuki’s tetsimony is hugely significant because it gives the lie to the notion that the Kamikazes were all ‘volunteers’ who killed themselves purely out of love for their country. In fact, Oonuki and his comrades were pressurized to become Kamikazes. They knew that if they didn’t come forward then their families would suffer, and they might be sent to another dangerous part of the frontline and be killed anyway.

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WW2 People

|   16 July 2010

Hitler and the unwanted gift.

The ‘Eagle’s nest’ – Hitler’s  tea-house perched on top of the Kehlstein mountain.

I was recently on a research trip to Germany and took a few hours out to visit the ‘Eagle’s nest’ – the tea house built on the top of the Kehlstein mountain overlooking Berchtesgaden in Southern Bavaria. Hitler loved this area and built his own home – the Berghof – lower down on the slopes of the Obersalzberg.

Martin Bormann, Hitler’s slavish, self-serving secretary, conceived the tea-house as a 50th birthday present for his Boss. And, without question, considerable engineering challenges had to be overcome in its construction. A road had to be cut alongside the steep slopes of the Kehlstein and, just below the tea-house, a tunnel was dug into the mountain and a lift constructed to take guests up the final few metres.

The tea-house was finished, ahead of schedule, in 1938 and then handed over to Hitler on his 50th birthday on 20 April 1939. Bormann often visited his creation atop the Kehlstein – as did Hitler’s girl friend Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister. But what was a bit of an embarassment for Bormann was that the one person he wanted to impress – Adolf Hitler – didn’t seem to want to use the place at all. In fact, he visited the tea house only about a dozen times and never stayed for long.

The ‘Kehlsteinhaus’, the tea house atop the Kehlstein (or the ‘Eagle’s nest’ as we know it in the English language) is thus a prime example of the difficulty of buying presents for a dictator. What do you give a megalomanic tyrant who already can have pretty much anything he wants?

Bormann’s mistake was in extrapolating out from a few particulars a general view about Hitler’s personality. Yes, Hitler liked the mountains, yes, he liked taking tea, but that didn’t mean he would like a tea-house on top of an Alp.

Hitler’s affection for the Obersalzberg was actually a sign of his deeply provincial and bourgeois taste. Lots of people like walking in the mountains and taking tea – but they don’t want a wacko building like the Kehlsteinhaus which you can only reach by car and lift and makes you feel a bit weird when you are in it.

Then, I got to thinking when I was in the Kehlsteinhaus myself, this place is somehow too conventionally megalomanical for Hitler. He would have seen it as too obvious a statement of power – a bit too ‘Mad King Ludwig’ of Bavaria. And – ultimately – Hitler was much, much stranger and less predictable than that.