WW2 Relevance

|   27 June 2018

Who are you?

This is me, just over twenty years ago.

And because I’m working with testimony from people who were also recalling events from twenty – or even more – years ago, I’ve started wondering the extent to which I am still the person in this photo.

Demonstrably, I look older. Equally obviously, I can’t do some of the things I could then. Like sprinting in the parents’ race at school…

But am I essentially the same?

In my experience, so many people who lived through the Nazi period talked about themselves as two people. The one who was the committed Nazi and the one, post-war, who wasn’t. Now, I’ve never been tested like that, for sure. But just recently, at a commemorative event, a relative of one of my dearest colleagues – now deceased – read one of my colleague’s diary entries about me. I didn’t know he had kept a diary until that moment. But in this extract my colleague reported what I’d said to him at his ‘appraisal’ meeting at the BBC. I had no recollection of saying any of things he recorded – it was, in any case, a deeply selective section of what I must have said.

And yet, I know it must be true. It sounded like me, and I trusted my friend to recall it accurately later that same day.

I think a lot about this. How we can’t control how people record and remember us. And how we forget so much over time. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder of how we are always tempted to judge ourselves by our intentions and other people by their actions.

No matter what I forget, I need to always remember that fact, especially when dealing with transcript material of interviewees from the war.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

WW2 Relevance

|   29 July 2012

My new book

It’s been a while since I last posted, and this is the reason why. I’ve been hard at it finishing the proofs of my new book – The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler: Leading Millions into the Abyss – which is published in September.

It addresses a question I have been fascinated by for as long as I can remember – how was it possible that millions of people so adored such an appalling figure as Adolf Hitler? Many Germans who lived through that time, who I met over the last 20 years, talked of being ‘attracted’ to Hitler and a number characterized the nature of this attraction as ‘charisma’. So what is ‘charisma’? For sure it’s not like Hitler ‘hypnotized’ anyone – the people who followed him did so out of their own free will – more that there was a powerful connection between leader and led. What was the nature of that connection?

I’ve been working on the book for nearly 4 years now, and try to see how far I can go towards explaining this mystery. It’s an issue that goes to the heart, I think, of some truths about the nature of our lives: the desire for meaning, the longing for salvation and redemption, and the craving many people have for some kind of ‘savior’ to rescue them in a crisis.

Hope you like it!

WW2 Relevance

|   24 June 2012

Optimism and History

Should knowledge of history make us optimistic or pessimistic?

I was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 this week, and the closing words I spoke seem to have troubled a few of my friends. I was asked by the presenter, John Humphrys, whether I felt knowing history should make us optimistic or pessimistic about events in Greece. I replied that I did not think there was a lot of optimism in history.

Some of my friends were shocked at this. They see a huge amount to be optimistic about in history. ‘History is a catalogue of progress,’ one of them said to me. ‘From cancer drugs to computers to smart phones – things get better all the time.’

Really? What about the fact that there is example after example in history that demonstrates that the human race can go backwards as easily as it can go forwards. After the fall of Rome there came the accurately named ‘Dark Ages’. What about the Black Death in the fourteenth century? It took hundreds of years for Britain to recover from that catastrophic and sudden population loss. What about the civilizations that vanished in South America – even today no one really knows why the Mayans disappeared.

I actually think we only exist at all today because of one piece of extraordinary luck. If the Nazis had waited say fifteen years or so to release their aggression on the world then they would most likely have possessed powerful nuclear weapons. And having studied the mentality of this regime I believe that given the smallest provocation the Nazis would have chosen to let loose the nukes indiscriminately and at whatever cost.

Nihilism was deep, deep within Hitler – witness his ‘nero’ destruction order at the end of the war – and his solipsism was such that as he contemplated suicide, on 30 April 1945, if he could have blown up the world along with him, I believe he would have.

Where is the optimism in that? If one Hitler can be born into the world – why not other much like him?