Posts Tagged ‘Nazis’

WW2 Controversies

|   29 October 2011

Germans, Greeks and Nazis

Athens today

This morning I was interviewed on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 about something I think is very important.

As has been recently reported in the British press, cartoons and street posters have appeared in Greece comparing the current German regime with the Nazis. Clearly, many in Greece are angry about the financial plight their country faces – as well as the austerity measures that have to be imposed to solve the problem. So angry, indeed, that some Greeks blame the Germans for wanting to impose financial probity upon them. And from there it’s but one small step to portraying the Germans of today as Nazis.

It’s outrageous. And the fact that there is not more immediate outrage about this – especially in Germany – shows how tolerant many Germans obviously are.

What is the thinking behind these cartoons? Well, the first point to make is that not enough people realise how much Greece suffered during WW2. Around half a million Greeks died – more than the British lost – out of a relatively small population of little more than seven million. The Nazis committed a whole series of atrocities against Greek civilians in an attempt – futile as it turned out – to destroy the Greek resistance movement.

Add to that terrible history the desire to seek scapegoats in a crisis and you have the mix out of which comes this unfair treatment of today’s Germany. The biggest – and bleakest – irony, of course, is that it was the Nazis themselves who embraced the idea of scapegoats long ago. Jews, communists, gypsies – the Nazis blamed any number of different groups for Germany’s woes. They never accepted that the Germans themselves had been largely responsible for the mess the country found itself in after the First World War.

A desire not to accept responsibility for one’s own mistakes – one of the most fundamental human desires of all. The Nazis demonstrated it in the first half of the Twentieth Century, a number of Greeks are demonstrating it in the first half of the Twenty first.

WW2 Controversies

|   22 October 2011

In honour I gained them and in honour I will die with them

Dealing with a difficult past…

I’ve just got back from filming in Germany for my next TV series, and was reminded by my cameraman of an incident a few years ago when we were filming an interview with a distinguished former German soldier. He had retired as a General in the Bundeswehr, the post-war German army. He was a pioneering tank commander and had helped develop NATO’s strategy during the 1950s and 60s in the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

However, I was interested in his career during WW2 when he had taken part in the epic battle of Kursk in 1943 in Western Russia – the largest tank battle in history. But after the interview he showed me his various post-war awards and medals. In his book of certificates were numerous citations from the West German government, the British and the Americans. But as I flipped through the pages I came across a number of other certificates clearly not from the post WW2 era. These ones were headed ‘In Namen des Fuehrers’ (‘In the name of the Fuehrer’) and bore the swastika symbol.

‘You won a great deal of gallantry medals fighting for the Nazis,’ I said.

‘Fighting for Germany,’ he corrected me.

‘And I notice you keep them in the same folder as your post-war awards,’ I said, a little incredulously. He replied with a variant of Nelson’s famous words at the Battle of Trafalgar, which he spoke when warned not to go on deck wearing all his medals since French sharpshooters could easily target him. ‘In honour I gained them,’ said Nelson, ‘and in honour I will die with them.’

Then he looked at me, clearly annoyed. ‘But you know the worst thing,’ he said. ‘Once I was in the Bundeswehr, the West German government wouldn’t let me wear the medals that I won on the Eastern Front during the Second World War! Imagine that!’

I remember I stared back at him for a moment, unable to think of anything appropriate to say.

WW2History.com News

|   9 June 2011

Auschwitz – a complicated history

There was more than one Auschwitz camp.

This month’s competition question for WW2History.com subscribers is proving very interesting. Not because lots of people have got the answer correct so far but because of the reverse – no one who has entered the competition has got the correct answer yet.

This is the question:

The camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau was not originally intended to hold large numbers of Jews. Who did the Nazis first think would be sent there once it was completed?

And I’m not giving too much away when I say that the answer is not ‘Polish political prisoners’ which many people seem to think it is. Polish political prisoners were indeed the first people incarcerated at Auschwitz – but at Auschwitz main camp in 1940 not at Auschwitz/Birkenau, which was not in existence in 1940. The main camp was on the banks of the Sola river near the town of Auschwitz (as the Germans called the Polish town of Oswiecim) but the Nazis only decided to build this new camp, about a mile and a half away from the old one, the following year in 1941. Read the rest of this entry

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.

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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.

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WW2 Relevance

|   25 January 2011

Victims and Perpetrators

Tallinn, Estonia

I just spent a few days in Tallinn, capital of Estonia and was intrigued by the somewhat dodgy way they seem to remember their WW2 history.

The central message of the Museum of Occupation in Tallinn is clear – the Estonians were victims during the war. And to a large extent, that’s correct. Estonia, along with the other Baltic states, had been granted independence as part of the peace settlement at the end of the First World War – an independence which was subsequently sabotaged by the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact.

Stalin insisted first on stationing Red Army troops in Estonia and then, in the summer of 1940, on a full scale occupation of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians suffered under Soviet rule and so, perhaps not surprisingly, many Estonians welcomed the Nazis when they arrived in Estonia as part of their invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.

Then, once the Red Army returned in 1944, the Soviet oppression restarted. Estonian culture was suppressed, thousands were deported to Siberia and imprisonment and torture were commonplace. The Soviet authorities also made a concerted effort to settle ethnic Russians in Estonia in an attempt to submerge nationalist feelings – using a similar tactic to the one currently practiced by the Chinese in Tibet.

Not until after the fall of the Berlin were Estonians finally granted their freedom. The country now is a proud member of the EU and NATO, and on 1 January this year joined the Euro. You get the feeling that the Estonians will do virtually anything to weld themselves to Western Europe – a policy that’s easy to understand given the history of the country and the looming presence of the Russian giant at their Eastern border.

Which is all fine as far as it goes. But the trouble is that there is a gigantic omission from this history – which is the story of how Jews in Estonia were treated. There were around 1,000 Jews left in Estonia when the Nazis arrived and virtually all of them were subsequently murdered – and Estonian collaborators helped the Nazis commit the crime. Estonians also helped the Nazis run concentration camps on Estonian soil.

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WW2 People

|   5 January 2011

Hitler and Munich

Munich – the ‘capital’ of the Nazi movement.

We’ve just added a long essay on Adolf Hitler to the ‘Key Leaders’ section for subscribers. And writing it reminded me of the long association that Adolf Hitler had with one city – Munich.

For Hitler, Munich was the most wonderful spot on earth. His joy at moving to Munich just before the First World War is plain to see in the pages of Mein Kampf and Munich was to be the birthplace of the Nazi party in the years immediately after the end of WWI.

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WW2 Relevance

|   26 August 2010

Reacting to History

As I suspected it would, the reaction of the popular press this summer to the anniversary of the Battle of Britain has been jingo-istic to the point, occasionally, of parody. This, as I wrote earlier on this blog (and also in the September edition of BBC History magazine), has not necessarily been helpful to an understanding of the real significance of the Battle of Britain in the history of WW2.

But it is a natural reaction. Everyone is proud of the ‘good’ bits of their own history – even sometimes to the point of omitting anything inconvenient that doesn’t fit the myth.

This is part of a broader problem that we often ignore. Indeed, I have had a great deal of personal experience over the last twenty years of how people can operate different standards of judgment depending on what they were predisposed to think about a particular historical subject. Let me give you an example. In 1991 I wrote and produced a film which looked at what I believe was a ‘British’ war crime committed in Austria during WW2. It was called ‘a British Betrayal’, and examined the handover by the British army of Cossack and Yugoslav prisoners to Stalin and Tito in 1945. Many of these prisoners then suffered appallingly – a number were tortured and killed. And the British Army give up these prisoners illegally – acting against Allied policy. I still think this was scandalous.

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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.’

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