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Why Germany?

LAURENCE REES: And to what extent, then, can you usefully say this was German, that is linked in to a German historical continuum?

MARY FULBROOK: In one sense and one sense only, which I think we have to be really very careful about. I don’t think you can generalise about Germans as though there was some national identity about Germany, I think you have to remember that at every stage what is going on in the area called Germany is a matter of political contestation, and if you look at one tradition of far right radical violence coming out of the First World War that is endemically seen in the Freikorps tradition, that is just one tiny minority that is strongly contested in the 1920s and the early 1930s.

I’ve been writing about one guy who was involved in 1905 in the suppression of a Rebellion in Colonial East Africa. He was a pacifist in the First World War and he was put on trial for high treason for being a pacifist and he was murdered by Freikorps units in 1920.

Now, what we’re talking about is a balance of forces in a particular political constellation and it’s because the radical right finally win out that it’s that particular element labelled as German, because they appropriate that as German identity. But you’ve got to remember that ‘German’ before that contained all sorts of other developments, socialist, communist, liberals, conservative nationalists who didn’t buy into the right wing radical violence. So I don’t think you want to label anything as German in that sense.

LAURENCE REES: But don't we need to ask why this terrible ideologically based violence which erupted into Poland in the autumn of 1939 was possible, and a crucial part of why that was possible was why did it come from Germany?

MARY FULBROOK: Well, you can ask that question in a quite different way. You can say that there are many reasons why the invasion of Poland came about in the way that it did, which has to do with quite a few different interest groups. You can say, okay, there’s the army, those traditional conservative nationalists. They thought: revision of the Treaty of Versailles, get our territory back, that’s fine. You can then say that and, in fact, some of the eyewitness reports say that the early soldiers coming in were not that bad. The first German soldiers coming in were throwing sweets to Jewish children on the streets of Będzin, for example. But then you get these Einsatzgruppen coming in who were specifically designated as the task forces by Himmler and Heydrich for a quite different mission, the racist mission, and that’s not necessarily generally shared among army soldiers at that time. We’re talking September 1939 and I think things shift and they change as the war proceeds.

You don’t have to say one is more German than the other, you can say, okay, there are continuities with the First World War as far as the army leadership are concerned or the ordinary soldiers who’ve been conscripted are concerned, they just simply want revision of the Treaty of Versailles and to get some German territory that they’ve lost when Poland was reconstituted and so on, and that’s quite different from the racist mission which is coming from Himmler and Heydrich.