WW2 Relevance

|   10 August 2011

Where riots once led

The Metropolitan riot police.

I’ve just returned from South East Asia to news of these terrible riots across England. They’re unlike anything I can remember in this country in my lifetime. So many people we know have been affected. A friend of my daughter’s, for instance, woke up to find that thugs had burned her car. And shops that we all frequent in Ealing in West London have been looted.

But looking at the press coverage and the comments of politicians also makes me think of the relevance of these English riots to one of the most crucial questions of the last century. Which is this: how was it possible that millions of law-abiding Germans turned to the Nazis – who openly preached the importance of using violence against their opponents – in 1932? At first sight it seems almost impossible to understand how ordinary citizens who wanted to lead a peaceful, quiet life could willingly vote for a political party that so valued thuggery. (more…)

WW2 Relevance

|   20 July 2011

Courageous Italians

Monument to the Italian soldiers massacred by the Germans on Kefalonia.

The Italian army is not remembered as the bravest collection of soldiers in WW2. The attitude of many people towards them is summed up by a ‘joke’ a former member of the SS Das Reich division told me.  “Heard about the new Italian tank?’ he said. ‘It has five gears – four of them reverse.’

But, I thought, as I traveled last week through Kefalonia, the largest of the Greek Ionian Islands, this sense that collectively the Italians lacked bravery is simply not fair to their memory. Not enough people know, for example, what happened on Kefalonia in September 1943. (more…)

WW2 Relevance

|   9 July 2011

Secrets of Japanese history

Why did the Japanese behave as they did in WW2?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Japan lately. In part it has been a purely selfish interest – the book I wrote some years ago on the Japanese in World War II, called ‘Horror in the East’ has at last been published in paperback. But revisiting this subject has also made me think about the origins of Japanese National Identity, and in particular the effect of geography on the Japanese.


WW2 Relevance

|   6 May 2011

Bin Laden, Hitler and Munich

The site for the new document centre, next to the building that housed Hitler’s office in Munich.

Hitler and Bin Laden, both mass murderers whilst alive, now have something in common whilst dead – nobody knows precisely where their bodies are. Bin Laden’s remains were  chucked by the Americans into the ocean and Hitler’s charred bones were taken from Berlin by the Soviets and have remained hidden from view ever since. His skull was supposed to be in a Moscow secret museum, but even that is in doubt today.

Both the Americans and the Soviets clearly thought it vital to deny each of them a grave. As far as Hitler is concerned, as long as the Nazis ruled Germany, he most certainly wanted his grave to become a sacred place. As I told a BBC journalist this week, whilst Hitler did not believe in an afterlife in the sense of a heaven or hell, he did believe that he would live on here on earth, with pilgrims visiting his sarcophagus. As a result it was claimed by many in Munich after the war that any Hitler memorial – even museum – might become a ‘shrine’ – so none was ever built. As a result no proper place existed in the city for the public to visit in order to understand why and how Hitler and the Nazis came to call Munich home.


WW2 Relevance

|   26 April 2011

Where does courage come from?

The steppes near Stalingrad where Vladimir Kantovski fought.

I recently learnt that a close friend of mine has cancer.  And instead of falling to pieces – like I fear I perhaps might at such news – he is brave and stoical. Why? Where does such courage come from?

I could never have predicted that he would be so brave – he never seemed a particularly courageous sort. But now that he is being tested he is reacting heroically. But then, thinking about it, I shouldn’t be surprised, because the bravest man I ever met was similarly mild mannered. He was called Vladimir Kantovski, and I met him a dozen years ago in his run down flat in the suburbs of Moscow. As a student he had protested at the arrest of his teacher in 1940 – an act which, unsurprisingly, meant that he was sent straight to a Gulag. When the Germans invaded the following year, fiercely patriotic as he was, Kantovski volunteered to serve in a ‘Penal Battalion’ on the front line.


WW2 Relevance

|   19 April 2011

Panic in France

View from the fields around Bulson down to the valley of the Meuse.

I’ve just returned from a recce trip to the area around Sedan and the Ardennes in eastern France and southwestern Belgium. I was retracing, as much as I could, the route that German Army Group A used in May 1940. And I was struck, once again, at just how risky the German operation was – and how Hitler staked everything on Army Group A making a successful dash towards the French coast and trapping Allied forces north of them.


WW2 Relevance

|   19 March 2011

Gaddafi and the Nazis

Hitler in the Reichstag

I’m normally extremely suspicious of any direct comparisons between events today and events in history. Rhetoric, at the time of the Iraq war, like ‘Saddam Hussein is another Hitler’ always made me irritated. No one is ‘another’ Hitler. Historical events and personalities exist only in the past and cannot be replicated today.

So I’ve been surprised that so many of Colonel Gaddafi’s words and actions have reminded me of the Nazis. For example, Gaddafi’s belief that straightforward lies about his own actions can work in propaganda terms certainly matches Hitler’s own belief. The Nazis pretended that they entered Poland on 1st September 1939 in response to Polish ‘aggression’, just as Gaddafi’s representatives today said that they are attacking Benghazi only in response to ‘aggression’ from rebels.


WW2 Relevance

|   12 March 2011

Robbery and History

I was robbed in Barcelona this week. I was queuing up waiting to get into the Camp Nou to see the Barcelona/Arsenal game (which turned out to be a tremendous match, as all sports fans will know by now) when I was set upon by a gang of pickpockets. They were an extremely effective group of thieves. One knelt in front of me and started rubbing my leg below the knee. It was a weird thing to do and took all my attention. Once I was distracted then the other two put their hands in my pockets and snatched my money.


WW2 Relevance

|   26 February 2011

Why did the Germans fight to the end?

Much of Germany was in ruins by the time the Nazis gave up.

Recent events in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya have shown us how quickly dictatorships can be challenged and (in the case of the first two countries) overthrown.

Which leaves us once again with one of the enduring mysteries of WW2 – why did the Nazi regime hold out until the spring of 1945 when Red Army soldiers were just yards from Hitler’s bunker in Berlin? After all, Mussolini had been ousted in the autumn of 1943, as soon as the Italians realized which way the war was going. So why couldn’t the Germans have got rid of Hitler at the same time?

The answer to that question tells us a great deal about the way revolutions can happen – or not happen – and how dictators can fall. Ultimately there were two crucial reasons why Hitler was not brought down by the popular discontent for the war which no doubt existed in Germany after the defeat at Stalingrad in early 1943. The first reason is practical, the second is institutional.


WW2 Relevance

|   19 February 2011

The thin line between life and death.

If you know a spitfire pilot – interview them now….

I gave a lecture yesterday at the literary festival held at the London School of Economics, where I am currently a Senior Visiting Fellow. I love the London School of Economics, there is an energy and a vibrancy there which – as my American friends might say – is ‘very special’.

My experience of an LSE audience is that you will always get one or two questions that you have never been asked before. True to form that happened yesterday. I was asked why no one had attempted to make something like my series ‘Nazis: A Warning from History’ before. That series transmitted in 1997, more than fifty years after the end of the war. Why hadn’t someone tried to make it twenty or thirty years earlier?