WW2 Relevance

|   26 May 2012

Greece and a warning from history

Greece – a country in real danger

Two years ago, in the first blog I ever wrote for WW2History.com, I talked about my visit to Athens in April 2010 and my fears for the future of Greece.

I said that we should all remember that the rise to power of Hitler was only made possible by the collapse of German banks and economic crisis in the early 1930s. The Nazi party polled a derisory 2.6% of the vote in the 1928 elections in Germany, but within 5 years Hitler was Chancellor and the Nazis the biggest political party in the country.

So it’s frightening to see the rise of the right wing extremist party, ‘Golden Dawn’ at the last Greek elections held a couple of weeks ago. This party – slogan ‘let’s rid this country of the stench’ – massively increased its share of the vote to 7% and its leader, Nikis Michaloliakos, who has previously served a jail term for carrying explosives and weapons, was catapulted into a position of real political influence in this fractured country.

Just three days ago Greek Police trying to protect a group of immigrants in the port of Patras came under attack from supporters of ‘Golden Dawn’. The ‘Golden Dawn’ supporters chucked stones at the police and tear gas was used to disperse them.

‘Golden Dawn’ deny being neo-Nazis, yet their leader, Nikis Michaloliakos, has given a Nazi salute in the past, and is protected by a group of toughs. In a recent interview on the Mega TV channel, he remarked about the Holocaust that: ‘There were no ovens, no gas chambers, it’s a lie.’

I have always feared that millions of people learn nothing from history – indeed that millions of people know hardly any history – but I hope that sufficient Greeks remember enough about the past to vote the right way in the forthcoming elections on 17 June…

WW2 Relevance

|   15 May 2012

Austria’s dilemma is the world’s

Statue of Karl Lueger in Karl Lueger Platz, Vienna

I was in Vienna a few days ago, filming for my next TV series, and witnessed Austrians wrestling with a dilemma about history that affects us all. The city authorities have just decided that a stretch of the historic inner road around the centre of Vienna which has for nearly 80 years been called the ‘Karl Lueger Ring’ will be renamed ‘University Ring’.

Why? Well, because Lueger was not only a brilliant city administrator – he was mayor of Vienna from 1897 until 1910 and introduced social benefits like an outstanding sewage system and fresh water – he was also an outspoken anti-Semite. So outspoken, indeed, that Adolf Hitler almost hero-worshiped him.

The stretch of road currently called the ‘Karl Lueger Ring’ runs past the University of Vienna, and many in the university have long been embarrassed by their address. So, now, it is to be changed. But there are many other places in Vienna that still bear Lueger’s name. Not least ‘Karl Lueger Platz’ in the city centre which also contains an epic statue of Lueger  (I was there 10 days ago and took the photo above of it). And there are no plans to remove this statue or rename this square.

This debate raises, of course, a huge question about how we see the past. To what extent can we judge the past by today’s standards? Lueger was a massive anti-Semite – absolutely – but so were millions at the time, and they wanted to commemorate not necessarily his antisemitism but his ‘good’ works for the city. If we condemn them and remove traces of this man, then what about all the statues in London to ‘heroes’ of the British Empire? Most of these 19th century worthies were racists – and a number, no doubt, anti-Semites. Equally, what about Stalin’s statue that still stands in Red Square by the Kremlin wall. Shouldn’t we be campaigning to make the Russians remove it?

I was just watching archive footage of the Nazi take over in Austria in 1938, and the swiftness with which Austrians renamed many of their squares ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’ is breathtaking. Just as swiftly, of course, they renamed their streets and squares something else when they lost the war.

To a degree, it’s about proportionality. Germans today do not want to celebrate Adolf Hitler. Nobody – well, only perhaps a small bunch of Neo-Nazis – wants to live on a road called Adolf Hitler Strasse. His reputation is pure black. But most others are shades of grey – like Lueger. About the shades of grey there will likely be debate and indecision – hence removing Luger’s name from one street, but keeping his statue in a square. (Mind you, I wouldn’t want to live somewhere called Karl Lueger Square – rather like the University authorities, I would be embarrassed to give out my address.)

But, what’s important, I think, is that you have to accept that people in the past were not like us – but there is a good chance we would have been like them had we been born into their world. It doesn’t mean we should necessarily celebrate today those who were celebrated then – thankfully most of us now condemn racism and antisemitism – but only that we need to be careful about imposing on people in history the values we now hold dear.

WW2 Relevance

|   10 March 2012

Goebbels and persuasion

I think a lot, as regular readers of this blog might know, about why we believe what we believe.

Why do we hold the opinions we do? Is it because of our education, the influence of our peers, our parents, our life experience – or some deep needs within us? I know this is also a subject that all of the great manipulators of human behaviour have also obsessed about – people like Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist.

I made a particular study of the work of Goebbels, and still see the influence of his work all around me. I’m not saying that our politicians and their political consultants consciously ape Goebbels’ work – most probably know little about it – but the truths that Goebbels discovered are still clearly relevant.

In essence, Goebbels believed that the best way of influencing people was to entertain them – ‘above all don’t bore me’, was his instruction to those who worked for him. He also realized that it is much more effective to re-enforce people’s existing prejudices rather than to try and change their minds about anything. And when I see the work of political consultants, it’s obvious that many realize this central truth. They call it ‘speaking to the needs’ of the electorate.

The trouble is that, as Goebbels knew, it can also be effective to appeal to the worst imaginable ‘needs’ of the electorate – the ‘need’ to feel that the problems we face are someone else’s fault, the ‘need’ to get rich at the expense of others, the ‘need’ to jump queues in order to get what we want, the ‘need’ to think that we are superior to others… and so on.

That’s why a leader like Martin Luther King is so extraordinary in history. When a reporter asked him why he was against the war in Vietnam when so many powerful people were in favour of it, King replied: ‘Sir, I’m sorry, you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader… I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.’

How many leaders are like that? Not so many.

WW2 Relevance

|   23 February 2012

Things Change

Filming in Red Square, Moscow, 1989.

An old colleague of mine was clearing out some junk and found this photo. It’s me in Red Square not long before Communism fell and the Soviet Union was disbanded.

I loathed the Soviet Union.  From the trivial reasons – the food was appalling and so was the service in hotels and just about everywhere else – to the important ones – this was a state that imprisoned people just for speaking their minds and preached ‘equality’ whilst the bosses lived in luxury. I’ve never seen a more ‘unequal’ society in my life.

But this photo is interesting to me not just because of the wild glasses I’m wearing – very fashionable at the time – nor because it shows me standing next to a film camera and we’ve only shot on video for the last twenty years, but because if captures a particular moment that I remember well.

There was no sense I felt at the time I was there – at the moment this photo was taken – that the whole structure of Soviet life would shortly collapse. Everything there still seemed so certain. And in that respect it represents my own experience of something that countless eye witnesses from WW2 have told me. That life can change in a moment. Life is fleeting and uncertain and yet we try and pretend that it is lengthy and fixed.

It’s like a famous Sufism. A king asks his wise men to boil down all of the wisdom in the world into two words. They work for years and years and eventually come up with what they think is the one eternal truth by which we all have to live. And the two words that express it are: Things change.

WW2 Relevance

|   19 November 2011

What are you here for?

Churchill – he certainly knew what he was here for.

I was talking to some American university students a few weeks ago about – not surprisingly – the Second World War, when, much to my surprise, one of them asked this question: ‘is there anything useful you have learnt from all this that might help me find and keep a good job after I graduate?’

Well, I have had some pretty left field questions thrown at me before, but this one was entirely new.

The first thing that came into my head, as I considered an answer, was the courage and certainty I had encountered in many of the people I met who had fought against the Japanese Empire or the Nazis. And then I thought of the one quality that these people had seemed to lack and which many people who I have seen fail in employment have had in abundance – cynicism. Often disguised as ‘sarcastic wit.’ This kind of attitude is the reason why I saw a lot of potentially talented individuals never attain their potential. Often their bosses never wanted to mention the issue because they knew how difficult it is to discuss someone’s personality, so they would simply not renew their contract or try and sideline these difficult people. I mentioned this to the American students, and also expressed my long held view that it seems crazy that nowhere in the traditional educational system are students taught the importance of possessing enthusiasm and an attitude that demonstrates a willingness to help out.

I also told them that the vast majority of the most impressive people I’ve met personally, or have heard about through others, possessed a kind of passionate enthusiasm for what they were doing and were unencumbered by any sense of bitterness. I remember when I was making a film about the playwright and performer Noel Coward – a film looking in particular at his contribution to wartime propaganda – that the actress Joyce Carey told me that she most valued a visit from Coward when she was feeling low. ‘He gave you a sense that you could press on,’ she said. ‘Not live for ever or anything, just press on.’

Winston Churchill’s personality, of course, was crucial to motivating the British during WW2. And studying Churchill’s leadership skills made me realise that he seldom burdened himself with the question ‘What’s the point of things?’ – the toughest question of all, it seems to me, to answer – because he re-phrased it as ‘What am I here for?’ a question he most certainly could answer.

As Ghandi said: ‘Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it’.

WW2 Relevance

|   13 November 2011

Remembering the right history

Today, on Remembrance Sunday, two days after Remembrance Day, it’s important to remember the right thing – which is, of course, the bravery and sacrifice of our warriors. But let’s also remember the right way of looking at the history that is the reason we have Remembrance Day at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month.

I guess most people realize we commemorate the war dead on 11 November because 11 November 1918 was the day that the First World War ended. And many people will also know that many Germans – especially the Nazis – came to call the politicians who had agreed to end the war on this day ‘November criminals’. The fantasy that the German army could have carried on the fight but was ‘stabbed in the back’ by revolutionaries (and Jews) behind the lines back in Germany became an iconic belief of the Nazis.

The alleged ‘harshness’ of the  various settlements in the wake of the November armistice – most notoriously the Versailles treaty – has also been blamed for permitting the rise of the Nazis and, indeed, causing the Second World War. My point is that we should be very careful about this analysis. Yes, Versailles was hated by most Germans, but by 1928 – ten years after the end of WW1 – the Nazis were supported by less than 3% of the German population. It was the economic depression after the Wall Street Crash in 1929 that was central to the Nazis’ rise to power. And, yes, the Germans were hit hard by this in part because of the reparations of Versailles, but the Americans suffered a massive economic decline as well, and they, of course, won the war.

What is often forgotten is that after the end of WW2 the Germans suffered much more at the hands of the victorious Allies than they did at the end of WW1. Under Versailles, Germany lost 13.5% of her territory. After WW2 it lost more than 20%. Moreover, in the years after WW2 Germany itself was split apart into East Germany under Soviet domination and West Germany under British, French and American occupation. In addition, whilst under Versailles, the German Army was limited to 100,000 soldiers, in August 1946 the Allied Control Council abolished the German Wehrmacht altogether.

The difference was that America realized the damage that restrictive policies were doing to West Germany after WW2 earlier than the Allies realized the problems that reparations were causing to the long term future of Germany after WW1. It was the economic aid of the Marshall plan in 1947 that turned the fortunes of West Germany around. As for East Germany, it languished until 1989, enduring a degree of suffering much worse than anything the Allies ever caused in Germany after WW1.

(A talented young history student called Eira Brewer helped me with this piece)

WW2 Relevance

|   3 November 2011

Duty, honour, sacrifice.

Allied POWs celebrate their liberation after imprisonment in Japan.

One of the great challenges for any historian is to imagine what it was like to live in the past. Not so much coming to terms with the obvious changes, like living with no internet and no Greek debt crisis, but trying to understand the different way people expressed themselves and the different belief systems they held dear.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this in part because of posting the testimony of Peter Lee on the site for subscribers this week. He was one of the most impressive people I ever met. Upright, dignified, self-effacing, he described the horror of his own captivity in Borneo during the war. Japanese guards beat him, and his fellow prisoners, and fed them on near-starvation rations. Yet Peter Lee told me that he felt the important thing was not to hate his captors but instead to focus energy on helping his fellow POWs. ‘In those sort of circumstances,’ he said, ‘keep your mind and body occupied as much as you can and don’t mope about and never feel sorry for yourself.’ In other words, he said: ‘in the old British phrase, you have to grin and bear it.’

I thought as he told me this steadfast philosophy how much it was a product not just of his own individual thinking but of a whole belief system that many members of his class, at the time, subscribed to. Indeed, his view that the way to deal with terrible problems in one’s life is to ‘grin and bear it’ is something that others like him from that time had expressed to me before.

Many veterans tried, after the war, to live the rest of their lives according to this ‘never feel sorry for yourself’ mantra. I remember a few years ago a relative of mine – who like Peter Lee had been a British officer during the war and who came from a similar background – was dying of a horrible wasting disease over a period of about 18 months. I was astonished at his bravery. He never fell apart and never moaned about his fate. I told him that I was in awe of his courage. He looked at me like I had said something distasteful. ‘I don’t think it is necessary to say that kind of thing,’ he replied.

How could these people behave with such dignity and self-sacrifice? To what extent was this stoical attitude a product of their own genetic make-up and to what extent a product of their upbringing, social class and the time they happened to be born into?

And if it was a result of when and where they happened to be born, to what extent should we give them credit for their impressive way of living?

Like so many important questions – easy to ask and hard to answer.

WW2 Relevance

|   23 September 2011

What it is to be an American

The main street, Lawrence, Kansas.

I was in Lawrence, Kansas this week, giving a lecture at the University of Kansas at the invitation of one of my former tutors from Oxford who is now Professor of History there. And it got me to thinking about American National Identity, especially – and you’ll not be surprised to hear me say this – in the context of WW2.

I’ve worked a lot in America over the last thirty years, but there is something particularly insightful about a visit to a small town like Lawrence. Coming from London one is astonished at the friendliness of most people in this part of middle America.

To give just one example from last week, I was looking to buy some toothpaste and, since the main street of Lawrence is now given over to boutiques and restaurants, finding some within walking distance of my hotel was clearly going to be a challenge. But everyone I asked was anxious to help me. One waitress went in search of her manager and both had a long discussion with me on the sidewalk about whether there was a drugstore near enough for me to get to. ‘There was one on the corner until last year,’ the manager said, ‘but it’s not there now. We ought to do something about getting one back here, downtown.’ The barista in Starbucks was equally keen to chat – also filling me in at length on the demise of the local drug store – before finally saying to me: ‘You’re not from round here, are you?’

The next morning, when I left the hotel, at least three separate people who I had chatted to about my search for toothpaste the previous day waved good morning to me. Being anonymous in London is easy. Anonymous in Lawrence quite impossible.

Any discussion about National Identity leads to generalizations, every historian knows that. But widespread travel tells us that there is such a thing as National Identity – visit Japan if you don’t believe me. And the various component parts of American National Identity I detected over the years in places like Lawrence – friendliness, optimism, self-confidence – was exactly how many British people described American GIs when they came to Britain during the war. But there is something else, which you don’t discover unless you cross these people. Which is a ruthless belief that right is on their side, and that they will pursue to the last anyone who attacks them and their fundamental, unshakable values.

The Japanese found that out during WW2. Their government had believed that after the humiliation of Pearl Harbor, America would seek some kind of compromise peace. But anyone who knew the American National Identity was aware that judgment was devastatingly flawed. Convinced that righteousness was on their side, armed with a total absence of self-doubt, the Americans would fight to the bitter end.

WW2 Relevance

|   18 September 2011

Arbeit Macht Frei

Arbeit Macht Frei inscribed on the main gate of Dachau concentration camp

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘work makes you free’) must be one of the most infamous phrases in the world. But, I thought, as I filmed at the site of Dachau concentration camp this week, the origin of this phrase is often misunderstood.

The words are almost exclusively known because the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, placed them on a giant iron banner above the entrance to Auschwitz main camp. Here they were to take on the meaning of a black, cynical joke, since ‘work’ most certainly did not make the vast majority of the Auschwitz inmates ‘free’ – in fact, work or the gas chambers killed more than a million of them.

But what a visit to Dachau reminds us, is that this was not necessarily how the Nazis originally saw the meaning of this phrase at all. ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, which was emblazoned on the gates of Dachau in 1936, four years before Auschwitz main camp was constructed, was the title of a nineteenth century novel by Lorenz Diefenbach about the idea of redemption through work. And this notion of the power of work to reclaim ‘degenerates’ was what the most powerful commandant of Dachau, Theodore Eicke, saw as the purpose of concentration camps before the war.

Close up of Arbeit Macht Frei at Dachau

The concentration camp of Dachau, outside Munich in southern Germany, established shortly after the Nazis came to power in January 1933, was not designed to murder people en masse – nor were most people who were sent there in the Nazis’ early years Jewish. Most were political prisoners, and though a minority of people sent to Dachau before the war did die there – often after appalling mistreatment by the SS guards – the majority did not. They went into the camp and were, as the Nazis saw it, brutally ‘re-educated’ and then released back into society.

Eicke, one of the most gifted sadists who has ever lived, devised a routine designed to break the spirit of the prisoners. Yes, there was physical brutality, but often the worst form of torture was mental. For example, if you were sent to Dachau you were never told when – or if – you might be released. Most prisoners served a sentence of around eighteen months, but some were there for less time and some never regained their freedom. Rudolf Hoess, who trained under Eicke at Dachau, later wrote how this uncertainty played with the minds of the inmates.

As a result, Hoess, I believe, thought that the phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ was almost a ‘help’ – an ‘inspiration’ of you like – to concentration camp prisoners (and remember that Auschwitz was a concentration camp before it became a death camp). Hoess, who had been imprisoned for an act of appalling political violence himself before the Nazis came to power, always remembered how it was the chance to work as a prisoner that had helped get him through his period behind bars. And since concentration camp prisoners were forced to work, then this ‘distraction’ would, Hoess thought, make them ‘free’ inside their minds. There was also, of course, the more obvious meaning to the phrase – if you ‘worked’ as the Nazis wanted in Dachau, behaving as a good German National Socialist Worker, then you did stand a chance, before the war, of being released and ‘free’ from the camp.

Arbeit Macht Frei above the gate of Auschwitz main camp

However, I think Eicke wanted the inmates of Dachau to read something else into the iron sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ which he placed on the gates of Dachau. I think it was another attempt to cynically eat into the minds of the inmates. Each day they saw the sign and thought ‘will I be free today?’ and ‘will I ever be free?’

It’s a reminder that the Nazis were not just brutal thugs. Many of them were extremely clever thugs as well.

WW2 Relevance

|   27 August 2011

The Somme and Auschwitz

Graveyard on the Somme

This week I was flying in a helicopter over Germany and France filming material for my next TV series, which will transmit in Autumn 2012. And I was most affected by a place I have been many times before – the battlefield of the Somme. (And before you ask the relevance of the Somme to WW2, I should say that I was there because Hitler was wounded at the battle of the Somme in 1916). (more…)