Wednesday, 26 September 2012

What to do with Hitler's House?

There was a furore in Austria last week, after the mayor of the small Austrian town of Braunau-am-Inn declared that he thought that an 18th century house in the town should be converted into flats.

Hitler's 'House' in Braunau
Small place Austria, but even that story would not make the news were it not for the toxic association with Austria’s most infamous son, Adolf Hitler.  The house in question – formerly the Gasthof zum Pommer – was where Hitler was born in April 1889, and where he spent the first three years of his life. 

Naturally, this connection has loomed large over the years.  In the Third Reich, the house was purchased by the Nazi Party, festooned with swastikas and became a place of pilgrimage for the Nazi faithful.  Hitler himself, visited in 1938 at the time of the Anschluss with Austria, but never returned.

After the war, the connection was largely forgotten, until the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung reached even this pretty corner of Austria in the late 1980s.  Close to the centenary of Hitler’s birth in 1989, the then mayor of the town had a large piece of Mauthausen granite erected on the pavement outside the house, bearing the legend “Nie wieder Faschismus” (Fascism, never again). 

Since that time, the building – now privately owned once again – has served in a number of capacities, not least as a workshop for disabled people.  But now, once again, stands empty – hence the intercession of the town’s mayor last week and the resulting furore.

To my mind, there are a couple of points here.  First of all - to be clear, Hitler lived in Braunau as a baby, moving to Passau when he was 3.  He did not spend his formative years there, did not go to school there, did not become a Nazi there.  He returned to the house only once - for a photo opportunity - in 1938.  It obviously did not mean much to him. 

Bearing this in mind, it strikes me that some of the various suggestions for the building's use – 'inter-cultural understanding workshop', disabled centre, and so on – risk fetishising the poor benighted building (on the flimsiest of evidence) just as much as the Nazis did.  The idea of putting something in that building that Hitler would have despised – a spurious act of posthumous revenge – seems faintly ridiculous and, I think, says much more about us than it does about him.   

Secondly, if something is to be made of the building - let it at least be relevant to that history.  Germany (and Austria) have made great strides in recent years in the thorny process of ‘coming to terms with the past’ – the famed Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  The information boards erected in the last decade at places like the Berghof on Obersalzberg and the site of the Chancellery Garden in Berlin are testament to a growing confidence in dealing openly and honestly with this most toxic legacy.  Also, the excellent “Documentation Centres” (museums) at former Nazi sites around Germany are an imaginative and educational way of handling that difficult past.  Perhaps it’s too soon for a “Documentation Centre: Hitler” at Braunau – and as I’ve said, the connection is a rather tenuous one – but, in another decade or so, maybe that idea will not seem quite so outlandish.  Time will tell.

Lastly, one has to remember that this story really is a bit of a storm in a camomile teacup.  For all the discussion, the politically-correct suggestions and the hand-wringing, the house is still in private ownership – back in the hands of the family that it was purchased from by the Nazis in the 1930s – and they are apparently not selling.  So, until something changes there, all of this is merely politically charged hot air…

© Roger Moorhouse 2012

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The curious death of Ideology...

Reviewing two books on modern German history this week, a trend emerged that had only dimly occurred to me before: the curious downgrading of ideology as a factor in explaining the actions of the Third Reich’s soldiers and civilians. 

For many a long year after World War Two, we assumed that Nazi soldiers and civilians were motivated – at least in part – by the strictures and demands of National Socialism.  From the drunk killers of the Einsatzgruppen, to the SS men of Birkenau, to the enthused cheerleaders on the Home Front, all – we thought – were moved by ideology to do what they did.  That seemed to make sense; it seemed the neatest and most straight-forward way, perhaps, to answer the nagging question of “How could it all have happened?” This was the reason that Mein Kampf was long treated as a highly-contagious political bacillus (rather than the tedious, turgid tome that it is), lest this supposedly hideously persuasive ideology might infect a second generation of Germans and others and convince them to commit bestial acts.

Yet, to a generation of modern historians, this simple answer seems increasingly unsatisfactory and consequently ideology as a motivator has begun to be systematically downgraded.  One of the first to adopt this line was Christopher Browning in his seminal 1992 book Ordinary Men, which argued, most persuasively, that it was not primarily ideology that motivated the gunmen of the Einsatzgruppen to carry out their hideous acts; rather it was more mundane factors such as peer-pressure and a sense of solidarity with their fellow soldiers.  

Others followed suit, of course.  My own most recent book Berlin at War from 2010 takes the position that Berlin’s civilians were not primarily motivated by ideology, and that, instead, they were moved by a reflexive patriotism and a loyalty based on ‘performance’.  They supported the regime because the regime had put bread on the table and because it took pains to take care of them when they were bombed out or otherwise endangered.  For those doubting this idea, you need only take a peek at the vast flak-towers and assorted wartime bunkers in Berlin - and contrast them with Britain’s pathetic civilian air-raid provision - to see the point.

The two books that I have read and reviewed this week come to similar conclusions, albeit addressing different sectors to the Nazi war effort.  Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer have analysed transcripts of eavesdropped POWs’ conversations in their excellent book Soldaten, which convincingly suggests that – although participation in and knowledge of atrocities was surprisingly widespread – few of those involved appeared to have been motivated by ideological concerns.  Indeed, the authors even suggest that one of the paradoxical achievements of Nazism had been the “de-politicisation” of the army. 

Meanwhile, Rolf-Dieter Müller’s The Unknown Eastern Front (IB Tauris, 2012) argues that even Hitler’s European allies – from French SS-men to Central Asian Hiwis – were also not motivated primarily by ideology; with strategic concerns, a desire for adventure, and the need for adequate rations amongst the myriad motivating factors that persuaded those many hundreds of thousands to don German uniform and take up arms on Hitler’s side. 

This is all rather interesting.  For one thing, it suggests that there is a limit to the power of the state, even a totalitarian one with all its persuasive talents in propaganda.  The state can ensure a good degree of compliance, anticipatory obedience even - or at the very least apathy.  However, real ideological conviction – perhaps by its very nature – is only for the few.   People, of any era any in any political climate, are not generally motivated by ideas.

But, more importantly, this is a timely corrective to what had been a rather simplistic argument – typified by Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners – that ideology was paramount.  This new approach is more realistic in suggesting a similar degree of complexity in the issue of motivation as that which can be seen in society as a whole.  After all, it seems crazy to suggest that western troops in Afghanistan today are motivated to fight by a belief in capitalism, and liberal democracy, any more than their predecessors in World War Two were.  They fight because they are ordered to, because it’s their job; they fight for the platoon, for the battalion, for the unit, for their mates – but surely not primarily for David Cameron or Winston Churchill, (though the latter would certainly have had his champions).  Similarly on the ‘home front’, we in the UK did not – and do not – support our troops primarily out of ideological concerns, we support them because they are “ours”: our sons, our brothers and our husbands.  

It seems sensible, therefore, to at least start from the assumption that German soldiers and civilians during World War Two were little different; motivated primarily by similar, everyday, human concerns rather than ideology – even though they were undoubtedly living in more overtly ‘ideological’ times.   As Sönke Neitzel puts it: “They talked about the division that they belonged to, their unit, their duty, the next battle, or their weapons.  Almost nobody asked what it meant to be fighting in the Don steppe, far away from Germany.  They didn’t ask what it meant if Germans were killing thousands and thousands of civilians.”

This is not, of course, to consign ideology entirely to the rubbish-heap of history.  In the Third Reich, there were many who were undoubtedly ideologically-driven.  The regime's leadership certainly 'believed' in its ideological mission with a fervent and often utterly irrational passion.  Ditto those many members of the SS and Party leadership, who clearly believed in what they were doing.  It should also be said that ideology - though it might not have been an overt, active motivator for the general population - was nonetheless part of the intellectual climate, and so passively at least, must have had an effect in creating the circumstances in which critical questions were not asked, and one's gaze was averted.  Even if soldiers and civilians did not mention ideology, therefore, it was certainly a player in creating their perception of the world and their frame of reference.

Nonetheless, this is a most interesting point.  And it backs up a point that I made in my recent book Berlin at War Very few of the first-hand accounts that I read, and of the interviews that I conducted, made any mention of ideology.  They were loyal, yes, but predominantly unmoved by ideology.  Self-censorship? perhaps.  But it could just be that ideology simply wasn't that important to them.  Maybe, in this regard, They were really not that different from Us – regardless of how uncomfortable that might make us feel - motivated mainly by reflexive patriotism, a natural desire to win the war, and a concern for 'their boys'.   Acceptance of that simple premise – far from exonerating ‘the Germans’ – actually makes the subject of their motivations and drivers much more complex and interesting.  It forces us all, in fact, to ask more searching, more pertinent questions.  And that, surely, has to be welcomed.  

© Roger Moorhouse 2012 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Anna Reid's "Leningrad: City under Siege" - a review

The Siege of Leningrad began 71 years ago this month - the bloodiest and most murderous siege in history.  To mark this grim anniversary, here is my review of Anna Reid's excellent book on the subject, which was published last year. (This review first appeared in the Financial Times, on 27 August, 2011)

Anna Reid “Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44”,
Bloomsbury, £25.00, 492pp, bibliography, index, plates.

Everything in the old Soviet Union had a political aspect.  Individuals could be lauded one moment, then swiftly denounced when the political tide turned.  Historical events could be subject to similar ideological vicissitudes; held up as salient examples of ‘world-historical forces’, then derided as irrelevant.

So it was with the wartime history of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  The longest siege of World War Two and the most murderous siege in history, the Nazi blockade of the city should have been a straightforward case of astonishing human suffering and heroism in the face of a barbaric invader.  Yet, post-war Soviet historiography at first proclaimed the fiction that nothing extraordinary had happened in the city that bore Lenin’s name, before switching to a mawkish and rather disingenuous commemoration of the martyrdom of a model metropolis – a latter-day communist passion-play. 

The truth, as ever, was rather more complex.  Anna Reid’s book Leningrad is one of comparatively few that have approached the subject in English since Harrison Salisbury’s seminal 900 Days of 1969.  She has a number of advantages, not least as a Russian-speaker, but also in benefiting both from post-Soviet archival revelations and from the work of Russian historians in recent decades uncovering the unglossed truth of the siege.  The narrative that she presents is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is all the more important for that.  It portrays a populace caught between the rock of a merciless Nazi enemy, and the hard place of a brutal, often incompetent, Communist regime.   

Reid uses first-hand accounts to tremendous effect, drawing on memoir and archival sources to weave a vivid, sometimes disturbing tapestry.  Many of those that she quotes will be comparatively well-known; the poet Anna Akhmatova for instance, or Trotsky’s cousin Vera Inber.  But it is the ordinary, unremarkable diarists that make the greatest impact; the 12-year-old schoolgirl starving to death or the young apprentice pressed into the city’s militia.  Through such commentators, all the horrors of the siege are represented; from the mendacity of the Soviet authorities to the fear and paranoia of a populace forced to the very limits of their endurance. 

Though the winter cold and indiscriminate German shelling took many lives, starvation was the greatest peril.  Hitler had no intention of his forces actually ‘taking’ the city, preferring them instead to inherit it after the ravages of hunger had killed off its population.  He nearly got his wish.  When the Nazi ring around the city closed, it was estimated that Leningrad had only a month’s worth of food stores.  As the rationing system then collapsed, Leningraders first ate household pets, before resorting in desperation to the consumption of anything suspected to hold a modicum of nutritional value: from leather belts to cellulose, linseed oil to wallpaper. 

In addition, in the first winter of the siege in particular, the corrosive, dehumanising effects of starvation soon made themselves felt, with theft and looting becoming commonplace, and pushing Leningrad society close to a complete breakdown.  Even cannibalism – vehemently denied by the post-war authorities – was documented, with women from the suburbs, strangely, being most prepared to break the ultimate taboo and consume the flesh of those already deceased.  

For those less squeamish, death from starvation was a real fear.  Entire families succumbed.  Corpses would be dragged through the frozen streets on children’s sledges to be stacked for burial in mass graves when the thaw allowed.  Countless others were left where they fell.  The total numbers killed in the city during the siege are still disputed, but are thought to amount to at least three-quarters of a million.

Despite such tribulations, Leningrad’s people were not spared the additional horrors inflicted by their own authorities.  The Soviet secret police – the NKVD – scarcely drew breath with the Nazi assault before continuing its campaign of persecution against its real or imagined opponents within the city: ‘kulaks’, ‘defeatists’ and ‘spies’.  Many thousands would fall victim to their state-sponsored terror and institutionalised paranoia.

Reid tells the story of Leningrad under siege with considerable flair, providing a compassionate and sympathetic account of a city enduring unimaginable suffering.  Impeccably researched, well-paced and beautifully written, Leningrad marks a new benchmark in the study of the subject, and a more nuanced, objective interpretation for a new century. 
© Roger Moorhouse 2011 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On the anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, its worth perhaps remembering one of the festering wounds that brought the world to that unhappy and horrific day - the sorry saga of Afghanistan.  This is my review of Rodric Braithwaite's excellent book "Afgantsy", which first appeared in the UK's "Independent on Sunday" in the summer of 2011. 

Rodric Braithwaite, “Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989”
Profile Books, £25.00, 417pp, notes, maps illustrations.

 At a time when British politicians and commentators are questioning the continued involvement of their forces in Afghanistan, it seems appropriate to examine the story of the last foreign power to come to grief in that unhappy country.

Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, ostensibly in support of a communist, client government, which was spiraling into mayhem and facing revolt in the provinces.  Initially fulfilling a limited role of assisting an ally and training Afghan personnel, the Soviets would be drawn inexorably into a full-scale conflict with the American and Pakistani-backed Mujahedin rebels.  They would only leave some nine years later, after 15,000 Soviet soldiers and an unknown number of Afghans had been killed and a generation on both sides had been traumatised.

Rodric Braithwaite is well-placed to tell the story of the Soviet Union’s Afghan adventure.  A former British ambassador in Moscow and a fluent Russian speaker, he brings a cool, critical eye to this complex tale, dispelling a few old Cold War myths and misconceptions along the way.

His approach is a rather novel one.  Though the book’s structure is broadly chronological, the central section dealing with the war itself is organised thematically, covering areas such as ‘soldiering’, ‘fighting’ and ‘devastation and disillusion’.  Whilst this approach rather robs the book of some of its narrative head of steam, it does nonetheless facilitate the showcasing of Braithwaite’s excellent and original use of the first-hand testimony of Soviet Afghan-war veterans – the ‘Afgantsy’ of the title.  Their accounts – of the boredom and squalour of military life; of the atrocities that they committed and suffered, and of the psychological consequences that they incurred – provide a fascinating leaven to Braithwaite’s otherwise somewhat solid narrative.

Though he eschews making the comparison explicitly, the shadow that inevitably hangs over almost every line of Braithwaite’s book is the current western involvement in Afghanistan.  The similarities – and ironies – are obvious: both the Soviets and ourselves went in to that country parroting the same watchwords about ‘stabilisation’ and ‘pacification’; both spent many of the subsequent years seeking a way out, all the while fearful of what horrors would follow their withdrawal

Afgantsy is well-written and engaging and should serve to popularise a subject that deserves much wider attention and scrutiny.  More immediately, one is struck by the thought that this book should be required reading for all of those, military and civilian alike, who are involved in the current Afghan adventure.

© Roger Moorhouse 2011