Monday, 9 November 2009

9th November - A Day that will live in History

Today - 9th November - is a very important day. As you will have seen in your morning newspaper, it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; perhaps the most important single event in our recent history. It was 20 years ago this evening, that East German border guards stood aside for the very first time, opened the gates and border crossings and allowed the East German people to simply walk through to the west. Momentous, you would think, and rightly so.
Yet, the 9th November has had a curious resonance through German history. Not only was it the day that the Wall fell, it was also a red-letter day for the Nazis, too. The 9th November was the day in 1923 that Hitler launched his attempted coup against the Weimar Republic - the so-called Beer-Hall Putsch - which ended with his imprisonment and the virtual collapse of his movement. In later years and during the Third Reich, the 9th November then became one of the most important dates in the Nazi calendar; a day of commemorations and of solemn ceremonies across the Reich, and especially in Munich (where the original Putsch had taken place), where the Nazi martyrs were honoured.
The 9th November 1938 was also the date of the famed Reich "Kristallnacht" - the state-sponsored pogrom against Jewish homes and businesses, by which Nazi anti-Semitism first showed its teeth. Around a hundred German jews were murdered and 30,000 or so were consigned to the concentration camps. In addition, hundreds of synagogues across Germany were destroyed or desecrated.
The following year, the 9th November brought yet more momentous events. On that day in 1939 - 70 years ago today - Georg Elser made his little-known attempt to rid the world of Adolf Hitler. His bomb - planted in the Burgerbraukeller in Munich - exploded barely 13 minutes after Hitler had given a speech there. In the aftermath, 8 lay dead and around 60 were injured. Had Hitler been standing at the lectern, he would most certainly have been killed, but the speech had been cut short.
Lastly, 9th November 1918 was the day on which the German Republic was proclaimed at the end of the First World War.
Of course, this is not all mere happenstance. There is a thread running through at least some of these events. Hitler chose the anniversary of the proclamation of the (to him) hated German Republic to launch his grasp for power. Then, during the Third Reich, the commemoration of that putsch then gave Georg Elser his opportunity to seek to do away with the German dictator. The other two events - Kristallnacht and the fall of the Wall in 1989 - are the only coincidences.
So, 9th November, is a day which is central to modern German history - a day which commemorates both the best and the worst in Germany and the Germans.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Of Skulls, Suicides and Conspiracists

I came to this one a bit late, I'm afraid, as I have been struggling to get my latest book finished.
Anyway... It seems Hitler is never far from the news. A couple of weeks ago the story broke that American researchers had undertaken DNA testing on the fragment of Hitler's skull - held by the Russian archives in Moscow - and had concluded that it could not belong to the German dictator as it belonged to a woman under the age of 40.
Well, blow me down.
An interesting footnote in history. In fact, this has been discussed before. When the Russian authorities put the skull on display in 2000, German historian Werner Maser said that it was not Hitler's, but was largely ignored. Indeed, when I was researching for my book "Killing Hitler", I looked into the circumstance of his death in some detail, and it struck me then that it was very strange that most informed witnesses and commentators conclude that Hitler shot himself in his right temple, yet the skull in Moscow is clearly of someone who has shot themselves through the mouth...
So, the skull fragment is not Hitler's. Big news. Or not... Given the chaos of Berlin in the spring of 1945 and the sheer number of bodies littering the streets - and even the Reich Chancellery Garden - it is hardly surprising that the skull that the NKVD men picked up was not the right one...
But this does not give the world's conspiracists free rein to spout preposterous and long-discredited theories that Hitler might have survived the battle for Berlin. He didn't. He died, by his own hand, on 30 April 1945 in his apartment in the Reich Chancellery Bunker. The precise identity of the mysterious Moscow skull doesn't change that fact...

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Playing Politics with World War Two

It seems that none of the major political players, gathered at Gdansk yesterday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two, could resist playing politics with the event.

Worst offender, predictably, was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who demonstrated his nation's idiosyncratic grasp of 20th century history to full effect. He started by paying tribute to the "bravery and heroism" of the Polish people, soldiers and officers, who had been the first to "stand up to Nazism" in 1939.

So far, so uncontroversial, you might think - but think again. Aren't those the same Polish people and soldiers whose homeland was invaded by the Soviet Army on 17th September 1939 - two weeks after the Wehrmacht? The same Polish people and soldiers whom the Soviets deported in their thousands to Siberia, many of them never to return? And the same Polish officers who were murdered in cold blood by Putin's own former employers - the NKVD/KGB - and buried in the forests of Byelorussia?

As if that were not enough double-speak for one day - Putin went on. Before the assembled audience of worthies and the world's press, he condemned any collaboration with the Nazis between 1934 and 1939 as “morally unacceptable and politically and practically senseless, harmful and dangerous”. A reference, you might think, to the Nazi-Soviet Pact - even a veiled apology? No. Nothing of the sort. It is in fact a rather barbed and cynical reference to the Polish-German non-aggression pact of 1934 - a rather cack-handed attempt to equate that defensive agreement with the cynical carve-up agreed between Hitler and Stalin five years later.

Given that the 'tone' had evidently been set, others followed suit. Polish President Kaczynski is never one to shirk an opinion, and he duly denounced the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 as "a stab in the back", and stated that the mass murder of Polish officers by the Soviets in 1940, at Katyn, must be treated as a war crime. He closed with a rousing "Glory to the heroes of Westerplatte, glory to all of the soldiers who fought in World War II against German Nazism, and against Bolshevik totalitarianism."

Polish Prime Minster Donald Tusk then joined in - referring to a Red Army cemetery close to his home. "Tens of thousands of young people lost their lives here", he said, "They gave their lives for liberation, but they didn't bring us freedom." He was right, of course, the arrival of the Soviet Army in 1945 certainly drove out the Nazis, but it also ushered in over 4 decades of communist rule. If he was listening, Putin would have been squirming.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was perhaps the least controversial of the three. She began by paying tribute to all those who died in a war "unleashed by Germany" and perhaps in a conscious echo of Willy Brandt in Warsaw in 1970, added that she "bowed before the victims".

Yet, Merkel too, had an axe to grind. Though she stated clearly that nothing could dilute Germany's "eternal historic responsibility" for the war, she nonetheless felt moved to remember the plight of the many millions of German refugees deported out of the historic eastern provinces after 1945. Given that they were deported from lands that were subsequently taken by Poland - and were displaced primarily by Poles - this reference was certainly not uncontroversial. This time, Kaczynski and Tusk would have been squirming.

Then she aimed a broadside at Putin, referring to Germany's good relations with her neighbours and Germany's ability to "confront" its history - an ability sadly lacking in Putin's Russia.

So, all in all, another reminder that recent history is never far below the surface in Europe. Little wonder perhaps that it was an American who famously proclaimed "The End of History" a few years ago - how very wrong he was.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

On Memory, History and Human Experience

The death, earlier this week, of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran on World War One, coming as it did so soon after the death of our other WW1 veteran Henry Allingham, set me thinking about the nature of memory and our links with the past.

Patch, of course, wrote (or had ghosted) a memoir - called "The Last Fighting Tommy" - which I confess I haven't read, but which I am sure details his experiences in the trenches. But I wonder how much he can really tell us about that most awful conflict, that we don't already know. Apart from being our last surviving 'Tommy', I thought, what can he really contribute? Surely his significance lies - to put it rather bluntly - purely in his longevity?

Well, whilst musing on this rather uncharitable thought, it occurred to me that it would not be long before we would be facing a similar situation with regard to veterans of the Second World War. After all, any 'fighting' veteran of that conflict would now be 80-years-old at the very least - well beyond the biblical allocation of "threescore years and ten". And, I well recall interviewing Lord Haig last year - about his experiences in the Italian campaign and then in Colditz - and he too passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 91. And, given that the Second World War it much more my patch - excuse the pun - how would I feel about seeing the last tommy of that conflict pass away?

Well, that rather alters things, for me. I have spent the last three years researching a book on the civilian experience of World War Two in the German capital, Berlin. In the process, I have interview many Berliners - civilian 'veterans' of the war - and have sought to record and contextualise their experiences. Many of them are still in rude health, a few quite astonishingly sprightly, and a few on my list sadly did not survive long enough for me to interview them.

But, the experience of interviewing them has demonstrated to me that the personal absolutely has a role to play in amongst even the most documented and investigated conflicts; personal accounts and anecdotes can always bring a fresh perspective, colour or context to even the most hackneyed and well-trodden narrative. Some purist historians are a little sniffy about this perceived 'personalisation of history' - the elevation of the personal above the political and empirical - but I think that if it is done correctly and responsibly, then it not only has a role to play in historiography, it is an absolutely essential ingredient of the narrative.

For this reason, as a historian, the death of the last British veteran of World War One, is something that we should all mourn. Our last personal, immediate contact to that, most brutal and seminally important of conflicts is now gone. I must now make a pact with myself to get hold of his memoir... Tempus fugit.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Russia - Is yesterday, tomorrow, today?

After my visit to St. Petersburg last week, two news stories caught my eye. The first was the kidnap and murder of the Russian human rights activist Natalia Estimirova. Though Mr Medvedev wrings his hands in public, and expresses his 'outrage', it is barely conceivable that this heinous act did not have some element of state collaboration.

Rather less deadly, but no less worrying, was a piece in last week's Guardian:

outlining the repressive and worryingly revisionist activities of the Russian state in attempting a rehabilitation of Stalin and Stalinism. Closing down websites and setting up FSB 'commissions' to look into historical matters are really not the way forward. Access to the archives - already severely limited for foreigners - will doubtless be cut still further. The Russian state, it seems, is intent on controlling history itself.

Human rights activists and freedom of speech are vitally necessary for the functioning of a modern democratic state. By seeking to curtail and eliminate both, Russia seems to be hell-bent on returning to the dark days of its own past. 20 years ago, the world revelled in the heady idealism of 1989 - in the liberation of Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke. Suddenly, all that seems an awfully long time ago.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Twittering on liberty in Iran

I have been fascinated this past week to see the role that the social networking site Twitter (and others) is currently playing in the crisis in Iran. It set me thinking about the wider influence of technology on our (political) lives, and how radically that influence has shifted over the last century.

Of course, it all began with the humble radio. Radio was skilfully turned into a political tool by the Nazis - it became one of the major props of the Nazi regime, under the expert and nefarious guidance of Josef Goebbels. There, a pliant media became the tame mouthpiece of the regime, but radio was by far its most influential aspect - penetrating homes through a seductive mixture of light entertainment, music and speechifying. And, of course, it should not be forgotten that it was serious crime in Nazi Germany to listen to 'foreign' broadcasters, such as the BBC.

At that time, of course, the technology was at such a stage in its development that it was readily turned to the service of the politicians and could not be turned to the purposes of subversion. That would slowly change. By the time that the communist regimes of eastern Europe fell in 1989, part of their problem was TV; technology had developed to such a level that broadcast media could no longer be 'controlled' quite so effectively, and this posed a serious challenge to the legitimacy of communism itself. The legitimacy of the communist regimes was primarily based on the sentiment that it had been the communists that had 'liberated' central and eastern Europe from fascism in 1945. This, along with the radical social and economic transformations of the early post-war years , was sufficient for most to lend the communists their (at least tacit) support.

However, by the 1970s and 1980s, the new generation was no longer so content with such arguments and began to demand more consumer goods and a better standard of living than that which they had grown up with. This in itself would probably have been manageable for the communists, were it not for the beamed images of consumer goods and wealth that could be picked up right across central Europe from the capitalist west. 'Why can't we have that too?' the East Germans, Czechs and Hungarians asked in their masses. The resulting erosion of popular legitimacy was to prove fatal for Communism as a whole. It wasn't really Ronald Reagan that killed Marx and Lenin, it was TV.

Fast forward to the early years of the 20th century and the explosion of digital media poses an almost insurmountable challenge to the remaining totalitarian and pseudo-totalitarian states of the modern world. Not for nothing is China obsessed with controlling Google and blocking out Twitter. These platforms - along with SMS messaging from mobile phones - put the advantage firmly in the hands of the people. Communication is no longer a top-down process, by which the regime preaches its 'line' and the people obey. Now it has to be a two-way process - a dialogue - and all the time, and worryingly for their rulers, the people are talking to, inspiring, and encouraging, each other. Ultimately, if the people do not like their goverments, they can easily turn these programs and technologies to the purposes of protest and revolution. State control of the media - once one of the central tenets of any self-respecting oppressive regime - is now very definitely a thing of the past, and the Ayatollahs and Party Secretaries need to wake up to the fact, fast.

It is ironic, of course, that things that are seen in the west largely as frivolous sites for bored teenagers to arrange 'social networking', could prove to be such a potent weapon in the service of democracy. Twittering, it seems, just might change the world.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Paul Ogorzow - the Nazi Serial Killer.

I have removed this article for the time being as it now appears in my latest E-book "The Wolf's Lair: Inside Hitler's Germany" - apologies for the inconvenience...

You can find "The Wolf's Lair" here:  "The Wolf's Lair: Inside Hitler's Germany"


Wednesday, 10 June 2009

1989 - It began in Poland

Last week The Times carried a supplement devoted to the Polish role in spearheading the protest against communist rule in eastern Europe.
It was, the paper reminded us, on June 4th 1989 that the ruling communist party held elections in Poland, in which they had (foolishly) agreed to allow some representation of the Solidarity-led opposition. Predictably, in every constituency in which it was permitted to field a candidate, Solidarity won, forcing the ruling communists (both in Warsaw and in Moscow) to radically rethink their concept of the one-party state. Lech Walesa (pictured above) had forced the first breach in the Iron Curtain.
Of course, for most of us, the fall of communism is synonymous with the dramatic events in Berlin five months later, when the Berlin Wall fell and thereby seemed to usher in a winter in which each and every one of the communist regimes of eastern Europe (with the exception of Albania) collapsed, to be succeeded by the often painful, but no less euphoric, transition to liberal democracy - a transition that, for some, is still going on.
This year sees the 20th anniversary of those momentous events - events that changed the face of Europe, brought the Cold War to an end, and finally drew a line under the post-war division of Europe. It is absolutely right and proper that those events should be celebrated, commemorated and generally shouted from the roof-tops. In the cynical, anodyne age in which we find ourselves, 1989 should be a lesson in the vital importance of politics, and in the power of people to change their world for the better.
Yet, in remembering the fall of the Berlin Wall, let us not forget where it was that the liberation of eastern Europe began - Poland. It was in Poland that Solidarity had provided the first home-grown political challenge to communism, and it was in Poland that the first chink in the communists' armour appeared.
Zaczelo sie w Polsce - It began in Poland

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Germans are proud again - and a good thing too.

So, the Daily Mail tells us that the Germans are no longer ashamed of themselves and are now proud of their country.

Even since I lived in Germany in the mid 1990s, I have always been stunned by the capacity of the German people - even those born long after the war and with no personal reason for guilt - to readily assume the burdens of earlier generations. Of course, it was drilled into them, at school and elsewhere - that overwhelming sense of collective guilt - they were presented with the Holocaust, with German war crimes, German blockheadedness and German cruelty at every turn. Not only domestically, also internationally, the Germans were constantly reminded of the crimes of their forefathers - with the Daily Mail, unsurprisingly, in the vanguard.

Unsurprising, therefore, that - for all its achievements - Germany never wrapped itself in the flag, or proclaimed a simple pride in itself. What nation in the world could have resisted such an onslaught?

Of course, it is right and proper that the German people should be reminded of their own history and of the bestial crimes committed by their forebears, but when it gets to the point that this sense of guilt transcends the generations and turns into an ongoing national sense of shame - then it has gone too far.

Thankfully, as this new survey seems to show - the German people have now shed their hair shirt. They have troops in Afghanistan, they are a full and vital member of the EU, and they are lobbying to join the UN Security Council.

There are many reasons for this. On the simplest level, the passage of time has healed many a national would, and for most of the younger generation the Third Reich is (as for the rest of us) nothing more than a fascinating period of history. But there are other reasons. Reunification, for one thing, removed one of the longest post-war political hangovers. As did the end of the Cold War. It was an unusual, but heartening, sight to see young Germans enthusiastically waving theit national flag at the World Cup in 2006.

In short, Germany has achieved what social scientists call "normalisation".

About time, too.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Christa Schroeder - "He Was My Chief"

I received my advance copy of Christa Schroeder's memoir: He Was My Chief, yesterday. Its a fascinating book.

Schroeder was the most senior of Hitler's four secretaries. She had been with him from before 1933 and stayed right up to the grim end in the bunker in Berlin in 1945, and was one of the very few Germans who had the opportunity to observe Hitler close up and to chart his physical decline over the war years. As a result, she is one of the best eye-witnesses of the period, and her memoir is full of fascinating anecdotes and observations.

It was first published in Germany in the 1980s, but for some reason no English-language edition was produced until the current one. Frontline books, therefore, are to be congratulated on a real coup. I am sure that the book will be a great success.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

A 'Piece of Paper' ....

I had an interesting outing this week, to the Imperial War Museum, to take a look at the original 'piece of paper' waved by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he returned from a meeting with Hitler in the autumn of 1938.

I had been asked to answer a reader's query for the BBC History Magazine about the 'piece of paper', and although I could easily have written the answer from the comfort of my desk, I thought it would be a good opportunity to see a genuine historic artefact, so I arranged to visit the Museum's archive so that I could view the document in person.

It did not disappoint. A single sheet of paper, with a government crest embossed at its head, it contains some 120 words or so, neatly typed in three paragraphs, which outline the importance of Anglo-German relations, the common resolve of both Chamberlain and Hitler that their two nations should "never go to war with one another again", and the intention that all future disagreements were to be settled by negotiation. Beneath the text, were two signatures, both now turning rather brown.

The first is Hitler's, distinctive with its anomalous vertical lines and a surname that seems to tail off to the bottom-right hand corner of the page. Interestingly, the text is still of a good size. It would deteriorate to a tiny scrawl as Hitler's myopia progressed later in the war. The second signature, that of Chamberlain, is altogether more conventional. Beneath the two, to the left side, there is a hand-written date 'September 30, 1938'.

Curiously, the document was sent direct to the Imperial War Museum in January 1940 - thereby avoiding the usual fate of all government documents, which are filed internally and then sent to the National Archive at Kew, only to be made public after 30 years. It seems that this special treatment came about because the significance of the document was immediately apparent. By January 1940, of course, Britain was once again at war with Germany, and Chamberlain's much-vaunted accord with Hitler was very much a dead letter. The note that accompanied the 'piece of paper' to the Museum alluded to this awareness, stating that whilst the document “seemed of the highest significance then … its implications are now ironical.”

The 'piece of paper' was then put on display, and remained on view until the early 1990s, when fears about its apparent deterioration caused it to be replaced by a facsimile copy. The original was then consigned to a temperature-controlled strong room within the Museum's archive.

I can't say there was any particular 'frisson' about holding the item, but it was still very exciting to have a document in my hands that was once the focus of such tremendous hope, and then of so much disappointment and despair. It also made me rather sorry that the age of such momentous papers and letters has now passed, to be replaced by the more erasable and transient medium of the email. It is highly doubtful if our descendants - 70 years from now - will see the original documentation from the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, or of Afghanistan, or indeed of many of the seminal events of our time. And that makes me rather sad - not only because the historical record will be lacking, but also because no-one will have the opportunity to hold those documents, study the signatures and enjoy the moment.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Hooray for England and St George.

I spent a very enjoyable afternoon, yesterday, lying in the bright spring sunshine at RAF Halton, whilst the children of Buckinghamshire cubs and scouts attended a service for St George's Day.

There has been much guff about St George's Day this year - and rightly so - many seeking to reclaim the flag from the extremists of the BNP, others calling for a rather more fervent and heartfelt celebration of our national day, more in line with those marked by the Scots, the Welsh and, of course, the Irish.

I can only add my voice to that chorus. It struck me yesterday that we spend so long nowadays, teaching our kids all sorts of multi-cultural, politically-correct stuff about Diwali and Ramadan and Chinese New Year, that we neglect (I hesitate to say "deliberately" - but the suspicion is there) to teach the basics of who 'we' are. After all, isn't identity all the more important when we are living in a multi-cultural world?

For that reason, I selflessly passed up an afternoon of arduous gardening to drag the kids along to the St George's Day parade and service. Hooray for England and St George!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Interview with Adolf Burger, an Auschwitz survivor and a veteran of the largest forgery operation in history - Operation Bernhard.

I was given the opportunity to interview Adolf Burger, last week, during his visit to London. Burger survived Auschwitz before being transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin in 1944. There, he was involved in Operation Bernhard - the top secret plan to forge millions of pounds worth of sterling and US dollars.

The 91-year old was in the capital last week to publicise the English edition of his memoir: The Devil's Workshop, and to visit the Bank of England, where he was presented with one of the very notes that he forged over 60 years ago.

In my interview - which is transcribed below - I began by asking Mr Burger his reasons for writing the book:

Adolf Burger I have written quite a few books; the first one appeared in August 1945 in Prague, it was very thin, with only six photos that I had taken myself after the liberation in Ebensee. Then, later, I was working as a journalist and had collected over 200 documents and photos on this subject from across Europe, so I decided to write this book. When one reads a book, I think one must also see the images and documents from the time. Otherwise, if one reads, and one doesn’t see the pictures and documents then one does not believe that it is true.

Roger Moorhouse So was the book written, in some way, as proof of your story?

AB No. I don’t have to prove anything. I wanted to show people what the Nazis were capable of, and what the [Slovak fascist] Hlinka Guard was capable of. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I have achieved.

RM You were arrested and sent to Auschwitz in May 1942. Can you briefly describe how you came to Auschwitz, what you did there and what the conditions were like?

AB I was arrested because I was printing forged baptismal certificates for Slovak Jews. The Gestapo then arrested me, and my wife, and we were first sent to Zilina, where about 1,000 Jews were held. Then we were put into a train by the Hlinka Guard and were taken to the German border, where we were handed over to the SS. We ended our journey at Auschwitz.

RM And you had no idea, no suspicion, of what might happen to you there?

AB No, of course not. No-one knew. They didn’t even know about it in Switzerland. My brother in Israel managed to get them to send me a certificate granting me emigration to Israel, and the Swiss sent it to Birkenau! So the organisation in Switzerland didn’t even know what Auschwitz and Birkenau was. No-one did.

RM How was it then that you came to leave Birkenau?

AB Birkenau was hell. I worked on the ramp there, and had seen every day how 3,000 people would arrive by train and would disappear into the gas chambers.
But one day at roll call, they called out six names – all typographers. They had a card index of the prisoners and so they knew what we had done before arriving in the camp. So, then I had to go and see the camp commandant, an SS-Sturmbannführer. He confirmed my name and that I had been a typographer, and then told me that I would travel to Berlin as a free man and work in a library. All lies. So, the next day, they called the six names again, six printers, and we were put into quarantine for four weeks as they were so afraid of typhus. After that, six SS officers came down from Berlin, from the Sicherheitsdienst, and they accompanied us to the train – but it was not a freight car, it was a passenger train – and they took us to Berlin and then to Sachsenhausen.

RM So, from your time in Auschwitz-Birkenau, you knew full-well what was going on there. And then you were sent to Sachsenhausen. Was that not some sort of miracle for you?

AB No. I didn’t see it as a miracle at all. People were moved around the camps – transferred here and there all the time. And I didn’t believe them anyway – they said I would go as a free man, and would work in Berlin in a library; it was all lies. I arrived in Sachsenhausen and was put into blocks 18 and 19 [the forgery workshops] – all separated off with barbed wire, windows whitewashed, top secret, no-one knew what went on in there. The other 100,000 prisoners in Sachsenhausen were not allowed to even set eyes on us. When we went to the shower block on Sundays, for example, the whole camp was shut down – strict curfew, everybody confined to barracks – no prisoners, no SS-men, nobody was allowed to see us. And if anyone did see us they would be shot.

RM So, your two blocks were completely isolated within the camp, but did you nonetheless hear about what was going on elsewhere – outside in the camp itself, or the general progress of the war?

AB We had a radio in our two blocks, so we listened to the radio in the evening – the news, reports from the front and so on – but we were completely cut off from the camp, we did not even see the faces of the other prisoners, so we heard nothing from them.

RM What were conditions like for you in the camp?

AB I always said I was a dead man on holiday – a dead man on holiday. We never believed that we would get out of there. But in the block we had everything – food, white sheets on the beds – each one of us had his own bed; not like in Birkenau, where six of us slept under a single lice-ridden blanket. Also, the SS guards never shouted at us, I used to play table-tennis with them.
But we knew that we were dead men on holiday. We knew that there was no way out when we knew a secret such as this – that the Nazis were printing millions in forgeries – and we were sealed away inside a concentration camp, where no-one could see us. We knew that we would not get out alive.

RM And what was your role within the forgery operation?

AB I was a printer, and I printed £132 million!

RM And what did you think about your work there?

AB I didn’t think. I was in a concentration camp and I was ordered to do it. Print the money, so I printed it. If I hadn’t done it they would have shot me. We had no “feelings”, we didn’t think about it.

RM In the film that is based on your memoir, The Counterfeiters, there are a number of scenes where there is conflict between the prisoners about the morality of forging money for the Nazis. What was the reality?

AB It’s just a film. There were no discussions of morality. We were in a concentration camp – we were scarcely in a position to sabotage anything. Sure you could sabotage, if you wanted to get killed! Jacobson [one of the prisoners] tried to delay the dollar production, but he managed for only 4 weeks, then [SS-Sturmbannführer] Kruger came and said ‘make the dollars within 3 weeks or we will have you shot’, and that was the end of it. Two weeks later, we had made the dollar. You have to understand that we were in a concentration camp – we had one foot already in the grave.

RM Can you describe some of the characters within the forger group – Smolianoff for example?

AB Smolianoff was my best friend. He was a professional forger, the only professional forger in the group, by the way. He had already been imprisoned for four years for forging. And he wanted to prove to Kruger that we could do it.

RM Can you also describe SS-Sturmbannführer Kruger, who headed the operation?

AB He was an SS officer. He wanted the job to be done, nothing else.

RM After the war, some of the forgers from your group testified for Kruger at his trial. How do you explain that?

AB Some of them. The German prisoners. The German prisoners said that he was a good man. They didn’t invite me to the court. In the two trials in which I participated, the defendants got life. If they had asked me I would have told them that he was a murderer, that he had six people shot. Of course, he let us play cards and table tennis, but that was all only in his interest, so that the printing machines would run and that the job would be done.

RM You survived both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sachsenhausen. Did you have a particular survival-strategy, or was it just pure chance?

AB No. You could not have any sort of strategy in those places. It was impossible. What saved me was that I was needed as a typographer, and then that the Nazis decided to move everything – the machinery and the personnel – to Austria at the end of the war, where I was then liberated by the Americans, who arrived so quickly that the Nazis all ran away. The thing [that saved me] was that I was a printer. If I had not been a printer then I would never have got out of Auschwitz-Birkenau and I would not have survived.

RM What would you say – as a survivor of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen – to those who still deny that the Holocaust took place?

AB They are fascists. They are Nazis. Could be an Englishman, an American, whatever, but if they say that then they are Nazis. That ideology is a Nazi ideology.

RM When you think back on that terrible time, is there one particular memory, person or image that springs to mind first of all?

AB No. Every day was the same. From the day that I was arrested, nothing was better or worse, it was always the same. Always the SS behind me, the ever-present threat of being shot, you had to work – that was my existence.

Adolf Burger's memoir The Devil's Workshop is published by Frontline Books.

... and there is a Radio 4 programme about the subject, called The Counterfeiter's Tale, to the broadcast at 11.00 a.m., on 13th March, 2009.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Of White Horses and Horsesh*t...

I know I'm a bit late coming to this one, but its been bothering me a bit recently.
It seems the authorities have seen fit to commission a 50 metre statue of a white horse (as shown here) to adorn the Kent countryside and the south-eastern approaches to London.
Now, I am a big fan of public art and statues in our public spaces. They can help to anchor our sense of identity, telling the world (and ourselves) who we think we are, where we think we have come from, what we think is important. In this capacity, public art can be hugely beneficial to society at large, but it can also betray our shortcomings, our misconceptions and our folly.
Sadly, this Kentish white horse falls into the latter category.
There are any number of reasons to criticise it. Firstly - like much modern art - it is spectacularly uninspiring; and seems to seek to make up for its lack of any interesting, or inspirational features merely by being gigantic - a preposterous 49 metres high.
Secondly, it is utterly devoid of any content or deeper significance. Various talking heads (including the sculpter no doubt) have waffled on about how central horses are to our culture and that a horse is even the symbol of Kent. Yadda, yadda, yadda. The symbol of Kent is the Invicta - a prancing horse - with all the vitality, strength and vigour that that implies. This sad supine nag, in comparison - appears to be fit for little but the glue factory.
This echoing emptyness at the heart of the project, is - I think - the main problem, and it is this that speaks volumes about modern Britain. This Kentish horse is a bizarre hybrid - the product of arrogance mated with cowardice, bombast married to fear. It is the product of a ruling liberal elite that - like an ancient potentate or megalomaniacal dictator - wants to paint its name in the sky, celebrate itself for all to see. And yet, for all its bold impulses, that same liberal elite does not know what it actually stands for, and is afraid to do anything that might be considered in any way divisive, exclusive or controversial.
So, the end result is that they choose something that is so anodyne, so utterly devoid of any meaning or significance that it cannot possibly offend anyone. Its the application of the 'lowest-common-denominator' to our public art, and its a sad indictment of where we are as a nation. it screams that we have forgotten who we are, forgotten what we stand for and forgotten what is dear to us.
Those visitors and tourists approaching London through the beautiful Kent countryside will, I reckon, not be impressed by the Horse - rather their impression of its significance will probably be similar to the vista that will greet them - a horse's arse.

Monday, 16 February 2009

"Haunted City - Nuremberg and the Nazi Past" by Neil Gregor

"Haunted City - Nuremberg and the Nazi Past" by Neil Gregor
The Third Reich hangs over Nuremberg like a bad smell. Not only did the city play host to the annual Nazi Party rallies of the 1930s, and the post-war trials of senior Nazis, it was also chosen as the venue for the publication of the ‘Nuremberg Race Laws’ of 1935; the legislation which began the persecution of German Jewry and prepared the way for the Holocaust. Even modern-day Nuremberg – a vibrant, democratic city – finds it hard to escape Hitler’s toxic embrace. Many of the old Nazi sites, for instance, remain to this day; too grandiose to be of use, too expensive to demolish.
For all its Nazi associations, however, Nuremberg’s experience of World War Two was actually rather typical for a middle-ranking German city. This combination of factors has led historian Neil Gregor to take Nuremberg as a case study to examine the complex way in which post-war German society has dealt with the fraught issues of memory, victimhood and guilt. The result, Haunted City, is a fascinating glimpse into the dark recesses of the German psyche.
Examining the period up to 1968, Gregor contends that for the first decade or so after 1945, the wounds and divisions within German society were so fresh and so raw, that only a vague, emollient culture of shared victimhood was possible. Before they could think about what they had done to others, it seems, Germans had first to tend their own wounds. As a result, German ‘memory culture’ initially had a rather self-pitying, narcissistic flavour; tending to concentrate much more on Germany’s own suffering – embracing civilian and military deaths, for instance, and bemoaning the fate of expellees, refugees and POWs, whilst marginalising all those ‘genuine’ victims of Nazism, such as Jews, communists and forced labourers.
Gregor brilliantly illustrates his point with the example of a bell-tower erected in Nuremberg in the 1950s to the memory of the city’s civilian dead of World War Two. In all the wrangling over the precise wording and design of the monument, it seems no-one saw fit to question the fact that the tower was built using stones from the city’s synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. A less sensitive approach to the public commemoration of the war would be hard to imagine.
Thankfully, matters did improve. By the early 1960s, a new memory culture was beginning to challenge the old; offering engagement and dialogue where once had been avoidance and an uneasy silence. Though by no means uncontested, this change was a result of many factors, amongst them the generational shift, the ongoing social liberalisation and the re-emergence of civil society in Germany. With the firm establishment of a mature, pluralist democracy, it seems, the opinion formers of Nuremberg were able to move on from the tactical amnesia of ‘German victimhood’ towards a more self-critical – even confrontational – attitude towards their recent past. In time, therefore, public exhibitions on the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto would take their place alongside the traditional commemorations, such as the “Day of National Mourning”.
The study is brought to a close with a rather illuminating episode. In the late 1960s, the right-wing, neo-nationalist NPD was becoming a regular feature in Nuremberg politics; making deliberate, symbolic use of the city’s Nazi sites. In 1967, however, after angry demonstrations from trade unionists, students and victims of fascism, the party was denied the right to use the city’s main congress hall for a local election rally. Nuremberg, which had once been so synonymous with the Nazis, had succeeded in driving out Nazism’s ideological descendants.
In his conclusions, Gregor is admirably fair. The early narcissistic phase, he suggests – far from being malevolent or born of mean-spiritedness – was actually an important part of the healing process; providing a soothing common identity to bridge the divisions of a deeply fractured society. Similarly, he argues that the later critical engagement with the past was symptomatic of post-war German society’s recovering health.
In describing these developments, Gregor is a thoughtful and surefooted guide, relying on solid archival research, marshalling his facts well and remaining cogent in his arguments. As a respected and award-winning academic, he makes few concessions in his writing for the lay reader, yet he manages – occasional lapses notwithstanding – to present his sometimes challenging subject matter in a style that should appeal beyond his core audience.
Haunted City is not always an easy read, therefore, but it is nonetheless an important book. It investigates the difficult process of acknowledging and remembering the suffering of the past – that endured by one’s own people and that inflicted on others – and offers vital insights into the complex function of ‘public memory’, and the ways in which new narratives and new identities are forged. It should serve as a useful guide to the still-ticklish problems faced by those modern societies that are making the difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

"Hitler's Private Library" by Timothy Ryback

"Hitler's Private Library"
by Timothy Ryback

of books and men ...

I was most interested by this publication. So much so that I actively (and vainly) tried to secure a review for it (I usually let the lit eds suggest titles to me)...

It is a curious subject, and it is one which is based on two ideas. The first is the strange fascination that anyone conscious of history would have in reading or handling one of Adolf Hitler's own books. I have had a similar experience in the National Archives in London, where I have handled original documents signed by Winston Churchill (a scrawled and interlinked WSC, if you are interested). One gets a tremendous buzz from it, I can tell you.

In Ryback's example, he is not above milking this particular thrill. He speaks repeatedly about Hitler's marginal notes, lines and exclamation marks, and most spectacularly, he claims that in one instance, he opened one of Hitler's books and a black, inch-long mustache hair fell out into his lap. This, however, though momentarily thrilling, is a bit of a one-trick-pony - it needs something more substantial to make the book work.

He finds his second raison d'écrire in the more cerebral - and indeed more tenuous - idea that one can read something into the individual by looking at his library. There are some problems with this. For one thing, marginalia can betray alot of things, but do they make the man? I think not and would indeed be horrified if someone - decades hence - tried to draw conclusions about me by looking at the volumes and marginal notes from my library. For another, Ryback only had access to a fraction of the estimated 16,000 books that Hitler was said to have owned - his conclusions surely can only be similarly fragmentary.

Yet, those caveats aside, Ryback's book is interesting. It is clearly meticulously researched and is well written. He ranges chronologically, taking a single volume of the library on which to hang each chapter, and through which to relate each episode of Hitler's life. He makes a number of enlightening diversions, and draws conclusions that are sensible and interesting, though hardly earth-shattering.

Hitler - Ryback tells us - was a voracious reader, often consuming a book a night. Moreover, he concludes that Hitler was not someone who allowed books to influence him unduly - rather, he took from his reading those facts and arguments that served to bolster and complement his existing opinions and prejudices. A good point perhaps, but hardly revolutionary, hardly rewriting history. And, if one recalls that most teachers and social workers read The Guardian and most former Brigadiers take The Daily Telegraph, one might concede that this is actually a more common failing than many of us would care to admit.

"Hitler's Private Library" is an engaging read, therefore, but it is based on some pretty thin foundations; both philosophically and materially. Ryback has done well to spin a book out of that meagre fare, but he sadly struggles to say much of any value or insight in the process.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Road to Hell

"And all the roads jam up with credit
But there's nothing you can do
It's all just bits of paper
Flying away from you
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to hell"

Chris Rea called it right - way back in 1989.

Now we are told that the recession will hit the UK harder than other developed countries. I am sure Gordon and his crowd will react with concerned faces, and repeat their mantra that - under 'prudent' Gordon's guidance - we are best placed to get out of this predicament. We just need to restore consumer confidence, get everyone spending again, and all will be well.

Now, I don't claim to understand economics - I not sure even those that claim to understand economics actually understand economics, but that's another story - but I have a problem with the logic of this 'rescue plan'. After all, wasn't it excessive credit and wanton spending that got us into this mess? So, now they are telling us that the banks should start lending again and that we should spend our way out of trouble??

If you'll forgive the rather tenuous historical link, this sounds to me a bit like Hitler's exhortations to the German to 'fight on' until the 'final victory' is secured. The thoughtful Germans amongst them might have reasoned that it was the fighting that had got them into the mess they were in - fighting on was surely NOT what was required.

Anyhow. It strikes me that it should come as no surprise that the UK will suffer more than most - after all, for the last decade or so, the two major props of the British economy have been 'financial services' and conspicuous consumer consumption. We don't really "make" anything any more, as the brutal logic of the marketplace holds that Chinese peasants and Indian child labourers can make whatever it is cheaper, so its not economically viable for us to bother. So, if those two pillars of the British economy are removed - the first hideously discredited, the second finally shown up for its utter unsustainability - then there is precious little left.

And yet - our esteemed leaders are urging us simply to carry on as if the financial world had not just imploded, and everything will be fine. "Imagine its 2007, Britons, and all will be well again."

I beg to differ. I think this should be a watershed. We need to appreciate - once and for all - that our socio-economic system cannot be predicated on some spurious notion of perpetual growth; that the 'global market' is not infallible, that the earth's resources are most-definitely finite, and that the economic model that we have lived with in Britain for the last decade at least has been thoroughly discredited. More of the same, and we really will be on the Road to Hell.

I don't know how it is to be done - but, Capitalism itself needs to be reinvented.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

"Valkyrie" - A Historian's Review

"Valkyrie", Tom Cruise, History vs Entertainment...

Well, the drama surrounding the film has finally come to an end. We can stop speculating, the media can stop their petty sniping, and the talking heads can stop their carping - the film is out and we can all go and see it and make our own minds up.

I have to say it was with some trepidation that I walked into a press screening of "Valkyrie" last week. Though I dearly wanted the film to be good, I was prepared for it to be less than that.

Yet, as I watched, I kept waiting for the moment when my historian's sensibilities would be mortally offended; when I would see history being traduced for the sake of 'entertainment', when I would involuntarily 'tut', shake my head disappointedly and make for the door. Except it didn't come...

From a strict historian's point of view, at least, the film has little to complain about. The story has not been slaughtered on the altar of cinema, sacrificed to dumbed-down film-making... Whisper it quietly - but historically-speaking - "Valkyrie" is pretty good.

Sure, there are some mistakes - the SS HQ in the film was preposterous, what's wrong with Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, anyway!? - and it was Schlabrendorff who retrieved the brandy-bottle bomb, not Tresckow - and there was some inevitable straigtening of the complex narrative for the sake of simplicity - but overall, there was really nothing much for this historian to get upset about.

Surprisingly, though, the film's shortcomings lay rather in the story-telling, the characterisation and the suspense - indeed, in the very things that most people would have assumed would have been the strong suits from a team such as Tom Cruise and director Bryan Singer.

In my opinion, Stauffenberg's character was far too one-dimensional, without much explanation of the development of his 'treason' or his motives for it. His vacillating co-conspirators were much better portrayed - mostly by a cohort of British actors; Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy - but they sadly could not infect Cruise with any of their depth, nuance or characterisation.

Also, the film sagged a bit in the middle sections - not only in the run up to the attempt, but also in the rather overlong period thereafter, which was (understandably perhaps) squeezed for every bit of dramatic tension, but fundamentally failed to deliver. Stauffenberg's 'love interest', too - the exquisite Carice van Houten as Nina - was rather a cul-de-sac, a side-story tagged on perhaps to dilute the overwhelming whiff of cordite, treachery and testosterone.

On the whole, "Valkyrie" is a solid 3 stars; its worth a watch, and is good entertainment, but maybe not quite good enough to silence the critics. It is also surprising, perhaps, to conclude that history was not the primary casualty of this particular assassination attempt, rather it was the film-makers art that proved to be the weakest link ... the malfunctioning fuse ... the oak table leg...

By the way - if you want some further reading on this subject, I would suggest, my book, "Killing Hitler" -

And the new book by my friend and colleague, Nigel Jones, "Countdown to Valkyrie" -

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

"Defiance" - a historian's review

"Defiance" - "Our revenge is to live"

I had the honour of attending the European Premiere of "Defiance" last night in London's Leicester Square.

Daniel Craig's new film casts him as a fugitive Jew in 1941-42 in the forests of Byelorussia - the eldest of the famed Bielski brothers.

Alongside Tuvia Bielski (Craig), are the sullen and combative Jus (Liev Schreiber), the wide-eyed Asoel (Jamie Bell) and the young Aron (George MacKay). The four brothers leave their village after their family farm is ransacked and their parents are murdered by Byelorussian auxiliaries of the Nazis. Fleeing to the nearby forest, they embark on an odyssey in which many hundreds of Jews would be saved from the grim fate that Hitler had in store for them. It is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable stories of the Holocaust.
Hollywood has an uneasy relationship with history. Of course, historical dramas such as this make up much of its primary material, and the magic words "based on a true story", bestow instant kudos on many a film. Yet, the needs of the film-maker - clear moral messages, simple narratives, defined heroes and villains - are not always congruent with the complex and often messy and confusing realities of history.
One of my most common gripes with Hollywood representations of history, therefore, is that many film-makers feel that they need to dumb down to reach their audience, what you might call "lowest-common denominator film making". In the process, complex narratives are simplified beyond all recognition, characters are rendered two-dimensional, and foreign accents and (worst of all) subtitles are avoided like the plague. In such examples History - far from being the inspiration and the guiding light - becomes a whore to be used, abused and discarded when inconvenient.
I am delighted to say that "Defiance" does NOT fall into this category.
Though I have seen online that the film has come in for some occasionally vicious criticism - primarily from the afficionados of "whizz-Bang" film-making - for its supposed lack of 'action', I thought the film supremely well made. It was well-paced, well-told, and well-acted. Daniel Craig, sure, is a bit of a brooding one-trick-pony, but he played the lead tolerably well. Liev Schreiber, on the other hand, was a revelation, bringing just the right amount of menace and cussedness to his role as the bloodthirsty Jus.
Also, the predicament of the Bielskis was well drawn. Stuck between the horror of the Nazis and the equally repugnant (and anti-Semitic) forces of the Soviet partisan movement, the Bielskis were truly stuck between a murderous rock and an at best indifferent hard place.
In this regard, there is a whiff of historical controversy about the film - surrounding the alleged complicity of the Bielskis in the massacre of Polish peasants at Naliboki. This subject, naturally, is not dealt with in the film. Moreover, one criticism would be that the whole issue of the difficult relationship between the Bielskis and the local peasantry was rather skated over, being dealt with in one scene and not revisited. In fact, the Bielskis were almost entirely dependant on the local peasants for their food, and did not stop short of terrorising them - and even murdering them - into compliance.
Beyond that complaint - the film ticked all the necessary boxes. The cinematography, for example, was excellent. The opening scene where the grainy contemporary footage segued into grainy movie footage, and then into colour was inspired. And the later segment where the Jewish wedding of Asael was juxtaposed with Jus's attack on a German patrol was brilliantly handled.
Most of all however, I applaud the 'feel' of the film. I doesn't manipulate emotions with too much soaring score, and most importantly it does not baby the viewer. Germans speak German, Poles speak Polish, Russians speak Russian. That is how it was - there are subtitles - get over it. Moreover, though Craig's linguistic abilities were a little suspect, those of the remainder of the cast were excellent - especially Schreiber - and one has to consider that the two leads were required to speak Polish and Russian in many scenes. When one bears this in mind, the speech coaches employed on the movie deserve Oscars of their own.
All in all - 4 stars out of 5 - and the best WW2 film that I have seen since "The Pianist". If the forthcoming "Valkyrie" is anywhere near as good, I shall be delighted and a little surprised.