Posts Tagged ‘Hitler’

WW2 Relevance

|   19 November 2010

Does it matter who becomes King or Queen?

We have no say over who wears the crown. Does it matter?

Looking at the interview this week with Prince William and Kate Middleton I thought two things. The first was – what a perfectly nice young couple. The other was – this perfectly nice young couple will become King and Queen one day, and not one citizen of the United Kingdom will ever have had any say about it.

But does it matter? After all, many years ago, when I was taught the history of the British Constitution, I was told that the great advantage of an unelected Head of State was not so much the power they possessed as the ‘power they denied others’ as a result of their presence. Trouble is, a study of the relationship between one British monarch and the Nazis has made me think that my teachers were somewhat naive about the nature of power. In fact, it can matter a huge amount who is King or Queen.


WW2 Relevance

|   19 October 2010

Resistance to Hitler

Hitler’s bunker at the Wolf’s Lair in wartime East Prussia.

In Berlin, in the early evening of 20 July 1944, Ludwig Beck, one of the leading conspirators in the plot against Hitler, posed a vital question to a fellow conspirator, General Friedrich Olbricht.

Would the sentries who guarded their resistance headquarters be prepared to fight against the Gestapo when they appeared? Crucially, would they be prepared to die for Olbricht?

Olbricht replied that he was unsure.

It was a dramatic moment in the conspiracy, and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. The problem Beck and his fellow conspirators faced was that they didn’t know whether Stauffenberg had managed to kill Hitler at his Headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia earlier that day. Reports differed. Some said Hitler was dead, others that the bomb Stauffenberg had planted had merely injured the German leader. And so, in the shadow of this uncertainty, Beck tried to hold the conspiracy together. It mattered not whether Hitler lived, he said, the time had come to fight back regardless. The only trouble was that many of his fellow conspirators didn’t see the situation in such black and white terms.


WW2 Anniversary

|   12 October 2010

Invading Russia – the “sensible” option.

The Untersberg – mountain of myth

70 years ago, Adolf Hitler stood on the terrace of his house, the Berghof, above Berchtesgaden in southern Germany, and contemplated this view. The massive Untersberg, directly in front of him, was the mountain in which legend said that the Emperor Charlemagne slept, ready one day to rise again.

And in 1940, Hitler believed that a decision he had just reached would make him greater than Charlemagne, the man who created the German monarchy, greater indeed than any German who had ever lived. Because Hitler – and Hitler alone – had decided that Germany should invade the Soviet Union. With hindsight it seems to have been a catastrophic decision – one that led directly to Germany’s defeat. But that was not how most people saw it at the time. In fact, most German Generals thought that the decision to invade France in May 1940 had been much more risky – and that had brought victory in six weeks.

How much resistance could the Red Army – weakened by Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and broken by failures during the Winter war against Finland a few months before – actually put up? Well, most informed opinion agreed with General Jodl of the German High Command who said the Soviet Union would be ‘proved to be a pig’s bladder; prick it and it will burst.’


WW2 Relevance

|   19 August 2010

No First World War – No Second World War

The WWI cemetery at Verdun.

Newspapers here in Britain are full of articles about 1940 and the various 70th anniversaries that fall this year. But what almost no one seems to emphasise is how the Second World War – including the key events of 1940 – existed in the shadow of the First World War. The anxieties of the German General Staff, for instance, just before the invasion of France in 1940 were largely the result of fear of a repeat of the trench warfare in Flanders.

Indeed, one of the most important insights I gained from meeting many former Nazis over the last twenty years is that it’s almost impossible to over-exaggerate the importance the First World War played in shaping the Second. Not just in the obvious way – the defeat of Germany and the perceived injustice of the Treaty of Versailles – but in an emotional, visceral way.


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. News

|   12 July 2010

The Timeline

The interactive Timeline

I just got back from a meeting with the brilliant Phil Draper of Sunday Publishing who has been working with me on making for 18 months now (though it seems like most of our lives!) We were going through all of the analytics showing how many people access what on the site – in essence learning what’s popular and what isn’t.

One thing was really surprising to me. Which was that whilst a number of the videos (like D Day and the Holocaust ones) were popular, as were quite a few of the expert interviews, what hasn’t been used as much as I thought it would is the interactive Timeline which is accessible from the homepage (click on the middle box on the non-subscriber homepage, or on the toolbar above marked ‘Interactive Timeline’)

I thought this surprising since I think it is a really interesting device. (Though I know from my time commissioning TV history programmes that just because I find something interesting it doesn’t necessarily mean other people will as well….) So I put in a plea here for the Timeline, and I also want to explain why I think it reveals things about this history in a useful way.

In essence, what I like about this device is that it shows two things that I think we often forget about this history. The first is that there were brief, intense periods of the war that were much more important, historically speaking, than all the rest. And second, that during these intense moments there was a great deal of interconnectivity across the various geographical fronts in the war – much more, I believe, than many people think.

Take the example above, of December 1941. I think what the Timeline clearly shows is how enormously significant this one month was:  on the Eastern front because of the battle of Moscow, in the Far East – obviously – because of Pearl Harbour – and in the context of the development of the Holocaust because Hitler announced that month to Nazi leaders that the Jews were to be annihilated.

In a way, all of these things are interconnected. Stalin would never have launched an offensive in December 1941 if he hadn’t have known that the Japanese were not going to invade Siberia but attack the Western powers instead, and Hitler wouldn’t have made the exact speech he did about the Holocaust if he had not thought that the entry of the USA had brought about the ‘world war’ which he had ‘prophesied’ would lead to the ‘extermination of the Jews.’ Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. I think the Nazis, for instance, were on the path to the ‘Final Solution’ without Pearl Harbour. But events occurred in the exact way they did because of this interconnectedness and you see that clearly on the Timeline.

Anyway, forgive the special pleading. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong and people don’t find the timeline as interesting as I do, but maybe you haven’t tried it out yet, which is why I’m writing this….

WW2 Anniversary

|   23 June 2010

The curse of hindsight

The Kremlin – where Stalin trembled in 1940.

Seventy years ago this month, in his office in the Kremlin in Moscow, Joseph Stalin listened to a radio report of the German occupation of Paris. As he learnt of the Wehrmacht’s triumph, he turned almost in despair to his comrades and complained about the performance of the French army, saying: ‘Couldn’t they have have put up any resistance at all?’

The German success in France was a disaster for Stalin. The core foundation of his foreign policy – the belief that the Germans would become embroiled in a war of attrition in the fields of Flanders,  just as they had in the First World War – was now shattered. Stalin had thought, back in August 1939, that he was being extremely clever in negotiating the Nazi/Soviet pact which kept the Soviets out of the fighting, and yet now he had to rethink his policy completely – and from a position of weakness.

In the wake of the German conquest of France, Stalin practiced his own version of obsequious appeasement. Deliveries of raw materials to the Nazis increased, and Stalin went out of his way over the following months to try and assure Hitler that he was a loyal chum of the Fascists. It was the behaviour of a terrified man – and reached a low point on 13 April 1941 when Stalin hugged Colonel Hans Krebs of the German embassy at Moscow railway station. ‘We will be your friends!’ said Stalin emotionally. ‘Whatever will come!’ Krebs was clearly not impressed by this display of weakness from the Soviet leader. ‘It can’t be ruled out,’ Krebs subsequently wrote to a friend, his letter dripping with contempt, ‘that Stalin was under the influence of alcohol.’


WW2 Anniversary

|   16 June 2010

Germans in Paris

Seventy years ago today, German soldiers celebrated in Paris. They had achieved what many had thought impossible – they had captured the French capital. And it was only to be a matter of days before total victory in France was theirs.

But what recent research has conclusively demonstrated is just how much of a risk this campaign was for Adolf Hitler. The popular perception is that Hitler’s ‘craziest’ gamble was his decision to invade the Soviet Union. But in a number of respects he took more risks with the invasion of France. Certainly, many of his Generals thought he was almost insane for deciding to move on the West, whilst subsequently supporting his decision to attack the Soviets.

The fact that the Germans won so swiftly seventy years ago has blinded many people to the enormity of the chance they took. It’s a myth, for example, that German soldiers gained victory because they possessed a greater number of armoured vehicles than the Allies. In fact, the French and British had more tanks than they did. Nor did the Germans use revolutionary ‘Blitzkreig’ tactics – their attack on France, as military historian Professor Robert Citino reveals in his interview for this site, was much more reminiscent of the ‘armoured raids’ practiced by the Prussians in the previous century.

No, the Germans won because their troops were better led than the Allies they faced, and because Hitler had authorized one of the most immense gambles in the whole of military history. He had decided that the main German attack would not come through Belgium and the Low countries, as the Allies had anticipated, but through the forest of Ardennes to the east. The plan was that Army Group A would cross through this less than ideal terrain and then make a swift dash to the coast in order to trap the bulk of French and British forces north of them.  But this was, as Professor Adam Tooze told me, a gamble so huge that ‘the Germans fully understand that if this plan fails they’ve lost the war’.

All of which makes me think more and more about the personality of Adolf Hitler. What kind of man gambles the entire future of his nation on one single moment? On a plan that could so easily have gone wrong. Because if the Allies had detected the Germans as they crossed through the Ardennes, then they could have easily destroyed them from the air. German tanks simply had no room to maneouvre in the forest.

One explanation as to why Hitler made this decision is, of course, that he was immensely excited by risk. As he told Goering as the war started, ‘I’ve always gone for broke’. In which case, was the defeat of Germany inevitable, even as German soldiers sipped congnac in the street cafes of the Champs Elysees, seventy years ago today? Because a compulsive gambler like Hitler would never have been satsified with one big win, but would always have taken a gamble too far….

WW2 Competitions

|   4 June 2010

Man in the photo

Yes, Frederick (see his comment below) is absolutely right. The man on the right of Hitler is Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor, who accompanied Speer and the Fuehrer on their lightening, three hour early morning tour of Paris, 70 years ago this month.

Hitler wanted these ‘artists’ to accompany him so that they could see the glories of Paris, and thus be sure to construct bigger glories back in the German capital in response. And Hitler’s words to Speer that same evening (which Speer recorded in his autobiography ‘Inside the Third Reich’) give a chilling insight into the mentality of the German leader. ‘In the past I often considered whether we would not have to destroy Paris,’ said Hitler, ‘but when we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow. So why should we destroy it?’

As Speer said, the idea that Hitler had considered destroying Paris merely because he didn’t want the French capital to overshadow Berlin reveals that he was most certainly a ‘ruthless and mankind-hating nihilist’.

A realisation that didn’t stop Speer serving him subsequently as armaments minister though, did it?

WW2 Anniversary

|   25 May 2010

Churchill’s lucky break

In May 1940 Churchill’s government got lucky.

Seventy years ago today, something quite extraordinary happened. Or rather, to be more precise, something quite extraordinary didn’t happen.

German tanks, which were in position to advance on the British Expeditionary Force which had retreated to the channel port of Dunkirk, did not move forward to crush the soldiers on the beaches. They weren’t ordered to attack until three days later, on 28 May 1940. As a result, Churchill and the rest of the British leadership were able to organise the evacuation of over 300,000 allied troops. It was, said Churchill, a ‘miracle of deliverance’. But if it was a ‘miracle’ then the person who should be thanked is Adolf Hitler.

At a meeting on 24 May 1940 attended by both Hitler and General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, the decision had been taken to stop the German advance. But why? What were the reasons behind this seemingly idiotic decision? Over the years many different theories have been proposed. Was Hitler trying to send a secret message to the British by allowing them to save their troops – one which emphasised his desire to seek peace with them? Were there technical problems with the Panzers? Was Hitler simply not thinking straight, drunk on the euphoria of Germany’s swift victory in France?