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.

WW2History.com News

|   30 October 2012

Transmission date for Hitler series

Lots of people have been asking me when my new TV series will transmit. And I at last I have news. ‘The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler’ will start transmitting  on BBC2 at 9.00 pm on Monday 12 November. Episode 2 transmits on 19 November and Episode 3 on 26 November. Meantime the book I wrote, on which the series is based, is already on sale. You can get it here.

I recently gave the Tans memorial lecture at Maastricht University on the subject of the charismatic leadership of Hitler, and you can watch the lecture here


WW2History.com News

|   12 September 2012

Following Hitler

My new book, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, is now available in bookshops and online – though the BBC TV series I’ve made based on the book won’t transmit until later in the autumn, with the exact date soon be confirmed.

And I mark the occasion with a couple of thoughts about this famous picture of serried ranks of Germans standing like robots at the Nuremberg rally. It’s an image that is convenient for many today – it seems to show the followers of Hitler as automatons. But the truth is that the system of government Hitler created was more chaotic than ordered. Far from showing the Germans as robots, he demonstrated the immense initiative and invention that existed in them. So much so that Hitler’s charismatic leadership released feelings of enormous excitement and opportunity in large numbers of Germans.  Unfortunately for the world, those qualities were often directed at murder and destruction rather than artistic creation or humane invention.

But the substantive point remains. Hitler offered those who followed him release from the moral restraint of conventional civilization. He freed the beast that lurks within…

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?

WW2 Reviews

|   4 June 2012

Beevor’s brilliant new book

Antony Beevor is not just one of the finest historians of the last fifty years, he is one of the finest writers. His book on Stalingrad transformed historical narrative writing when it was published in the late 1990s and this latest volume – his overview of the Second World War – is a masterly summary of the conflict.

Read the rest of this entry

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 Competitions

|   3 May 2012

Hitler’s favourite city

Hitler’s favourite city today

Congratulations to Mr Petrides of Kent who was the first person picked at random from those people who who got the answer right to the question in our spring competition: what was Hitler’s favourite city?

The answer was Munich in Bavaria. This ‘German’ city wrote Hitler in Mein Kampf, that he was ‘more attached to’ than ‘any other spot of earth in this world’.

Hitler, born an Austrian, always considered himself ‘German’ and it was only by finally being able to move to Munich in 1913 at the age of 24 that he achieved his goal of living in a truly ‘German’ city. In part, Hitler loved Munich because it was not Vienna, where he had been lodging for years – a city he considered seedy and impure.

Munich was to become known as the ‘capital’ of the ‘National Socialist Movement’ and in 1923 was the scene of the infamous Beer Hall Putsch – Hitler’s disastrous attempt at armed insurrection.

A signed, first edition of my book of essays, Their Darkest Hour’ will shortly be winging its way to Mr Petrides.

WW2History.com News

|   29 April 2012

WW2History is free!

We are all incredibly pleased to announce that WW2History.com is now free to the world!

I thank all of the thousands of subscribers who have supported the site for the last two years and look forward to welcoming many more people to WW2History.com.