Wednesday, 27 November 2013

"Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" - a historian's review

I finally got around to watching the last part of the German mini-series "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" last night.  It first aired in Germany earlier this year, and caused something of a sensation, drawing enormous audiences, provoking spirited debate and anguished reflection and generally jumping the normal bounds inhabited by a TV programme. 

Meaning literally "Our Mothers, our Fathers", it is the story of 5 friends (3 men & 2 women) who meet up just prior to the invasion of the USSR in the spring of 1941 to swear eternal friendship and promise to meet again the following Christmas.  They are perhaps a microcosm of the ordinary German population: 2 soldiers (one keen, one not), an ambitious singer, a nurse eager to do her duty for the Fatherland, and a Jewish tailor. None of them, tellingly, is a Nazi.

What follows, over 3x90 minute programmes, shows what life - and the war - throws at the five friends, and crucially shows the ways in which they, like the vast majority of ordinary people, were subtly made complicit in both the Nazi regime and the all-pervading horrors of World War Two.  The singer, Greta, for instance, has an affair with a Gestapo man, essentially to further her career; Wilhelm (the enthusiastic soldier) is disillusioned by his experience of the war, his less enthusiastic brother Friedhelm becomes totally apathetic and ruthless.  I won't spoil your enjoyment by revealing too much more.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."
In this respect, the film does a great job of bringing the nuances and complexities of life in wartime in a dictatorship to the screen.  Living in freer times, we like to imagine life back then as black and white: you were either clean or you collaborated.  However, life is rarely so neat, and certainly wasn't back then under the Third Reich or the Soviet Union.  What the film brilliantly brings to the fore is the countless shades of grey that existed for everyone.  The tiny compromises and accommodations that could often have huge consequences.  So far, then, so realistic.

Another positive was the film's production values, which were excellent.  Acting throughout was never less than convincing, and - whisper it quietly - people got dirty..., army uniforms were never neatly pressed.  I remember a veteran once saying to me that they could smell the Red Army before you could see them - this film gives a whiff of that grim olfactory realism.  In this regard, the only complaint was that the deaths were far too neat - people shot once in the body rarely die instantaneously; yet here they did, irritatingly regularly.

There are other gripes... I found it rather unrealistic that the five friends kept bumping into each other. Considering the vast extent of German-occupied Europe between 1941-45, it was utterly implausible that the nurse and her soldier beau, for instance, should have bumped into each other - not once but twice!  And that the Jew-cum-Partisan should recognise his childhood pal passing him in a Wehrmacht Kubelwagen... One is tempted to quip - "Of all the slit trenches in all the world..."

OK, I get it - the piece has to make a few concessions for the sake of a narrative structure.  But there were other failings - the film also showed a rather peculiar "world view".  It is probably to be expected that the Germans themselves would not be portrayed terribly sympathetically - they are all in some way seen as complicit (as the premise dictates), they are all 'collectively guilty' for the crimes of the Nazis.

Yet, beyond that, the film demonstrated some rather peculiar sympathies and prejudices.  The Polish Underground Army (AK), for instance - in which the Jewish tailor finds temporary refuge - is portrayed as being rabidly and almost uniformly anti-Semitic. Now, anti-Semitism was not just a German disease, and there were certainly instances of it in wartime Poland.  But, but... let us not forget that Poland has more individuals listed as "Righteous Among the Nations" - for saving Jews during the Holocaust - than ANY other country - and over 10 times the figure for Germany.  So, to portray the Polish partisans as more anti-Semitic than any of the German characters on show was not only a gross distortion - it was grossly unfair.

More surprising, perhaps, was the positive spin that was put on the Red Army and the Soviet Union in the film.  Not only did the benighted Polish partisans express the opinion that the Germans were worse than the Soviets, (they tended to view both as equally awful), but a would-be rape of the nurse character (Charlie) is interrupted by a stern (female) Red Army officer, who then finds her a position in a Red Army medical unit. If the scene were at all realistic, one fears, a captured German nurse like Charlie would have been raped - probably numerous times - before being unceremoniously shot.

One is tempted to wonder why the Soviet Union is portrayed in such a positive light - the only group incidentally that come out of the film with any apparent credit whatsoever.  Indeed, such is the gloss applied, that - were it not for the excellent production values - one might have imagined that the film had been made during the dying days of the GDR!

Despite all this historically-themed griping - this is nonetheless an excellent film, which is well worth seeing (and it is due to be shown with subtitles as "Generation War" on BBC2 this winter).  German TV's treatment of the Third Reich, the war, and the nation's complicity in both has clearly come a long way, but there is still - perhaps - a little way to go.

© Roger Moorhouse 2013

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Fortress at Brest - a story of heroism, sacrifice and unreconstructed Soviet historiography

I watched an interesting film yesterday.  "Fortress of War" is the subtitled English-language release title of a Belarusian film from 2010, 'Брестская крепость' or "The Brest Fortress".  It tells the remarkable story of the Soviet garrison manning the 19th Century Fortress at Brest, on the Soviet-German frontier, in the opening days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  Astonishingly, the fortress held out for a week against the German attack, suffering enormous privation in the process, before its last defenders were forced to surrender.  It is indeed a remarkable story.

And, it is a remarkable film.  In pure cinema terms, it is actually rather good.  If I were to describe it as a "Belarusian 'Saving Private Ryan'", then that might sound mocking, but it should be taken as a compliment.  The narrative is well-paced, the characters (though a tad two-dimensional) are just about rounded enough, and the battle scenes are gripping and reasonably realistic.  So, on that level at least, the film is certainly not a waste of 138 minutes of your life.

The film is also remarkable on another level, however: as an example of unreconstructed Soviet 'hurrah' historiography.  But for the glossy modern production values, this exact film could have been made in 1985 - or even 1965.  The message is the same: the Soviet Union was a land of milk, honey and happiness before the Nazi invasion, and the Red Army was the unblemished valiant defender of the Soviet people.  Even the film's Political Commissar - Yefim Fomin - is portrayed with unalloyed admiration.  This - in 2013 - is truly remarkable.

So, there is a great deal that the film does not tell the viewer.  One salient point is the immediate history predating the 1941 attack, for instance that Brest had been in Poland two years before, and had itself been invaded and occupied by the Soviets and the Germans jointly in 1939.  Indeed, it was at Brest that one of the most remarkable episodes of the opening phase of the World War Two took place; the joint Soviet-German parade of September 22 1939.  As the image below shows, Brest could well have been synonymous with the brief flowering of 'friendship' between Moscow and Berlin.
German & Soviet Commanders take the salute at Brest
Yet, understandably perhaps, that was not an image that the world chose to remember after 1941.  Accordingly, no mention is made of it in the film.  Even the Nazi-Soviet Pact itself is reduced to a couple of oblique references that would pass most viewers by entirely.  The political and geographical complexity that Brest signified is reduced to a simple tale of Red Army soldiers defending the Soviet Motherland against unprovoked attack.

Of course, it is too much to expect a film with a discreet narrative to include such related, though extraneous, material as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or the Soviet deportations of Poles from Brest and elsewhere of the previous summer, but the 'tone' of the film is still rather astonishing.  One parlour game that I sometimes play in these situations is to transpose the Soviets for the Nazis and then question whether the portrayal might be deemed balanced or objective.  So, for instance, the Political Commissar character - let us imagine that he were to be changed to an SS man, galvanising his troops, leading them in battle?  (Now this is not such a crass comparison: after all, let's not forget that the NKVD (to which the Political Commissar belonged) was responsible for the Soviet Purges, the Deportations, the Gulag, the Katyn Massacres, etc etc.. and easily qualifies as a criminal organisation, like the SS.)  So, even after the most cursory thought, most readers will surely agree with me that it is unthinkable that an SS officer would be portrayed in an uncritical light, and rightly so.  Yet, incredibly, in the Soviet world-view, the Commissar can still be a positive figure. Clearly, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ex-Soviet equivalent of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung: the famed "Coming to Terms with the Past", is barely off the starting blocks...

So, "Fortress of War" is well-worth a watch, and is remarkable on a number of levels.  Its Belarussian film makers should probably be congratulated, but they should most definitely be dragged into the 21st Century.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Saga of the Dornier 17

I had a rare treat last week, being invited up to RAF Cosford to take a look at the Dornier Do 17 wreck that was raised from the seabed this last summer.  It was a fascinating visit.

It was, of course, very interesting to have a tour around the workshops and see what Cosford is doing with a number of other WW2 projects: not least one of only two surviving Handley Page Hampdens - recovered from northern Russia - and a dismantled Vickers Wellington; a Heath-Robinson-esque melange of geodesic aluminium, wooden battens and tattered Irish linen...

A Dornier 17 of WW2 - shown here in Croatian colours
But the highlight was naturally the Dornier.  Shot down on 26 August 1940 over the English Channel, the Dornier Do 17 was one of around 2,000 of the light, twin-engine bomber built - known as the "Flying Pencil" for its slim fuselage - which became one of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe's tactical bombing arm.  Separated from its accompanying squadron, it seems that 5K+AR ran foul of one of the RAF's least-loved aircraft, the Boulton-Paul Defiant.  Holed across the cockpit and engines, the Dornier ditched over the Goodwin Sands, off the Kent coast, before flipping over onto its back and sinking in around 50ft of water. Two of the plane's 4 crew survived the crash and became PoWs
The wreck remained on the Goodwin sands, apparently unknown, until the early years of the 21st Century, by which time it was thought to be the only one in existence (though the wreckage of another still litters a site near Oslo in Norway).  After a fund-raising effort, the RAF Museum finally raised the plane's remains in June 2013, and have now begun a conservation project.

As our guide explained, this is very much a 'conservation' - not a 'restoration', as it is sometimes erroneously reported.  73 years of time and tide have left little unaffected.  The Dornier's aluminium body is encrusted with barnacles and sea-life, and all of it is full of sand.  Indeed, such is the accretion of wildlife that the plane has taken on, the weight that was lifted from the seabed amounted to fully three times the weight of the original aircraft.  This material is to be removed gradually over the coming months and years.

Most pressing, however, are the accumulated chloride salts, which could cause the aluminium frame to swiftly deteriorate further.  To wash these salts away, the airframe is being constantly sprayed and washed in citric acid - at a constant pH of between 5.2 and 5.5 - so as to stabilise the remains and ensure that they can be preserved for display.  This process is, necessarily, somewhat experimental but is estimated to require around 2 years.

Some of the Dornier parts in a hydration tunnel.
As was stressed by RAF Cosford's expert, the goal at present is not 'restoration', but 'conservation', and on seeing the remains in the flesh that seems eminently sensible as any attempted rebuild - one fears - would amount to little more than a replica.  Rather, it appears that the plan is essentially to replicate the exhibit of the Handley Page Halifax W1048, which was raised from a Norwegian fjord in the 1970s, and is displayed at RAF Hendon in 'as recovered' condition.

73 years in salt water? No problem
Aside from the two hydration tunnels, much of the Dornier's ancillary parts have already been cleaned up and are meticulously boxed and labelled.  Many news outlets reported the erroneous 'fact' that the plane's tyres were still inflated when the plane was raised (they were not), but there is nonetheless much evidence among the remains of the fabled German engineering efficiency.  An 8-ft aluminium spar was handed round and was astonishingly light.. Also the bearings on this recovered gear mechanism (above right) ran as true and smooth as on the day it left the factory.  Most surprisingly perhaps, when divers decided to cut the plane's oxygen 'ring main' - the piped oxygen supply than ran throughout the aircraft - they were astonished to discover that it was still 'live'.

One hindrance that surprised me is that the plane is not complete, despite what was claimed at the time of its salvage.  A few parts - wing tips etc - had already disintegrated.  But more worryingly, it seems that in the short time between its discovery and its raising, the wreck was subjected to fairly large-scale pilfering.  As a result, most of the cockpit is missing, including the seats, controls, instrumentation and guns.  Although there is still some smaller material scattered across the sea bed, it must be assumed that most of these headline artifacts have found their way into private collections.  Consequently, an amnesty is currently in place, in the hope that RAF Cosford can secure their recovery without resorting to more forceful methods.

Having contributed - like many others - to the raising of the Dornier, it was fascinating to see it and learn about the conservation efforts.  I wish the experts of RAF Cosford every success with it, and hope that at least some of the plane's missing artifacts might one day be reunited with the plane.  If you are reading this 'private collectors' - you know who you are - do the right thing, eh?

Monday, 7 October 2013

A glimpse into criminal history - The Kripo report on Paul Ogorzow's first victim.

On 4 October 1940, the man who would become known as the "S-Bahn Killer", Paul Ogorzow, claimed his first victim.  After a season of assaulting women around his home patch in the eastern suburbs of Berlin, with increasing frequency and violence, Ogorzow killed for the first time.  

What's peculiar about the case is that Ogorzow was not yet utilising the modus operandae that would become his trademark - that of battering his victims and throwing them from moving trains.  In this instance, his victim was found in her home, with a single stab wound to the neck.  

The following is a transcript of the original Berlin Kriminalpolizei report, relating the circumstances in which that first victim's body was found.  As well as the inherent tragedy of a young woman's life being taken, and her two children losing their mother, the report shows that the victim was already under investigation by the Nazi authorities for leading a "parasitic life" - and that the person who found her body was a representative of the welfare office, who was coming to take her children away.  Berlin could scarcely get more noir...

Kripo report  
5 October 1940.

At round 13.45 on 4. October 1940, the Kripo was notified by the Schutzpolizei, that Frau Ditter – resident in the Gutland II Colony, Path 5a, house 33 – had not been seen since the afternoon of the day before.  The Kripo detective Hinze discovered the following at the scene.

The front door to the house was not locked …but the door to the kitchen was blocked, so it was thought that it was locked.  As the wimpering of a child could be heard from inside, it was decided to smash a window to gain access to the room where an 18 month old and a 3-month old were found.  From this room, access was gained to the kitchen, where the body of the resident – Gerda Ditter, née Bath, b. 21.7.1920 Berlin – was discovered slumped in a crouching position.  The doctor who was called – Dr Dolgner of Friedrichsfelde – certified death by a 3cm stab wound to the left carotid artery.

The representative of the NSV [Nazi welfare organisation - RM] who was present; Konrad Braun, b. 3.9.1902 Friedrichsfelde, arrived at around 12.30 as he was due to take Ditter’s children away and place them in an orphanage.  The reason being that, in spite of warnings from the NSV, Ditter was leading a parasitic life, so much so that the NSV had decided to remove the children and allow the mother to report for labour duty.  Braun found the house dark and unlocked.  He entered and when he found the body, he lit a match.  Thereafter he called the police straight away.

The woman’s husband is with the Wehrmacht in Potsdam.  The circumstances suggest that suicide is doubtful, and that a crime is likely.  Consequently the murder commission has taken over the case. 

Ogorzow would go on to murder another 7 women over the following 9 months, until his capture in July 1941.  Admitting 8 counts of murder and over 30 counts of assault, he was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine.  Ogorzow was largely unknown until I (re)discovered his story in the Berlin archives in 2008. 

The full story of Ogorzow's crimes can be found in my book Berlin at War (US edition here) and in my e-book The Wolf's Lair.  

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

"Max Manus - Man of War" - a review

I recently spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with a Norwegian World War Two film from 2008 - "Max Manus - Man of War".  It tells the true story of the eponymous hero - Max Manus - who was one of the central figures in the Norwegian Resistance to Nazi occupation.

I must admit that I had not previously heard of Max Manus until my Norwegian publisher told me his story a couple of years ago in Oslo.  I probably shared that ignorance with most - even WW2 enthusiasts - outside Norway, but Manus' story is well worth retelling, and if you're willing to endure the subtitles, you can now inform yourself via the medium of film.

After volunteer service in the Winter War, fighting the Soviets, Max Manus returned to Oslo in time to see the German occupation of his homeland and immediately set to work - with others of like mind - to organise resistance.  After arrest by the Gestapo in 1941, he escaped and went (after an extraordinary odyssey) to the UK for formal training with what was to become the Norwegian Independent Company - or Lingekompaniet - later returning to Norway as a saboteur.

As an SOE operative and an occasional member of the "Oslo Gang", Manus participated in a number of sabotage operations against the German occupation; including frustrating the planned conscription of Norwegian men for military service, 'Operation Mardonius'; the sinking of German ships in Oslo harbour, and the 1945 sinking of the German freighter SS Donau using limpet mines. Though many of his comrades were killed in the resulting repressions, Manus survived the war and lived to the age of 81, dying in 1996.

The film concentrates, naturally, on Manus' wartime career.  It tells its story briskly and engagingly, using the device of flashbacks to Manus' service in Finland to punctuate the rest of the narrative.  It has excellent production values and splendid acting, and all in all makes for a most enjoyable couple of hours.  The lead particularly - Aksel Hennie - stands out.  I enjoyed the flashbacks to the Winter War - a most fascinating and under-known conflict in the West - but couldn't quite see their narrative purpose in the film, other than to show that Manus was in some way tormented by his service there.

I can't comment much on the accuracy of the history, sadly.  I have heard from Norwegian colleagues that the central importance of Manus is perhaps a little exaggerated, but such tweaks are maybe understandable in the name of creating a more compelling tale, and rest assured we are a long way from U-571 territory here. But what is fascinating for a non-Norwegian is how the film opens up a perspective on the story of World War Two that we hear very little of.

For this alone, I heartily recommend it.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

On Hitler and Chemical Weapons

The universal Bogey-Man
On the Internet, its known as "Godwin's Law" - the assertion that, at some point in any lively political discussion, one party or individual will inevitably be compared to Hitler.  So far, so ridiculous.  Indeed, rather than being a serious observation, one might imagine that "Godwin's Law" is merely an indication of the generally poor quality of internet discussion.  

Yet, if one stops to think for a moment, one realises that "Godwin's Law" also applies to our political elites. After all, wasn't Saddam Hussein repeated described as a 'Middle-Eastern Hitler', when the West was agitating for war against Iraq? (Actually, I think Saddam was more of a 'Stalin', but the point is moot).  And, just last week US Secretary of State John Kerry made a 'triple-whammy' with the remarkable assertion that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had "joined Hitler and Saddam" with his apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Whatever the merits of the case for intervention in Syria, the perennial twinning of Hitler with the concept of 'evil incarnate' is understandable, if rather tiresome.  We are well-accustomed to accusing Hitler of all sorts of failings: all the way from psychopathic paranoia to monorchidism and a passion for coprophilia.  But the suggestion that Hitler should be tarred with the 'chemical weapons' brush cannot go unchallenged. This, then, is a brief exploration of the subject.

A British Vickers Gun team 
equipped with gas masks
Many countries have used chemical weapons over the years.  The Kaiser's Germany pioneered the tactic at the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, sending Chlorine gas over the Allied trenches, killing around 6,000.  After that debut, both sides used chemical weapons thereafter, including Mustard Gas and Phosgene, with around 90,000 more men dying agonising deaths from asphyxiation and chemical burns.

Chemical weapons were used sporadically thereafter, most notably by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and by the Italians in Ethiopia.  By World War Two, all sides had considerable stockpiles of such weapons - indeed the Germans had devoted the most time and energy to the subject, developing the nerve agents that would feature well into our own century: Tabun and Sarin, the latter of which is thought to have featured in Syria recently.  Yet, for all their ubiquity, few of the combatants dared to make the step of using their stockpiles.  Only Japan used chemical weapons in its brutal conflict with China.  Churchill, embarrassingly, was also in favour of their use, but was persuaded otherwise and railed against the 'moralistic arguments' of what he called the "parsons" surrounding him.  But what about Hitler?

Hitler, it seems, desisted from ordering his extensive chemical weapons stocks from being used in combat. (It is sometimes, rather mischievously, suggested that the gassing of the Jews constituted the use of chemical weapons - but this investigation is into the use of such agents in military combat, so cannot include the use of Zyklon-B and Carbon Monoxide in the death camps.)  The reasons for this non-use are still the subject of debate.  In the first instance, Hitler - perhaps rightly, given Churchill's inclinations - feared Allied retribution if he did.  He may also have had a disinclination towards the weapon from his own experience of being gassed in World War One (though this seems a tad implausible).  Also, it was supposedly suggested by Göring, that as the Germans did not have satisfactory gas masks for horses - and most of their army was still horse-drawn - any such strike could have been as destructive to their own side as to their opponents.  Whatever the reason, Hitler did not order the use of chemical weapons.

But, it seems, a few of Hitler's field commanders may not have been so abstemious.  Certainly on two occasions in World War Two, German troops appear to have used chemical weapons in anger.  The first of these was on the Eastern Front in 1942, when Red Army soldiers were holding out in the tunnels of a quarry in eastern Crimea and were evidently 'dealt with' using poison gas.  It is possible, however, that this is rather apocryphal and actually refers to the use of 'smoke candles', which the Germans certainly employed elsewhere to flush out or incapacitate dug-in opponents.

The second such instance is rather more convincing and is mentioned in eye-witness accounts of the Soviet siege of Breslau in 1945.  There - in the bitter urban fighting that ensued - a Soviet unit isolated in a cellar were dispatched by the use of so-called 'piss bags', containing a noxious yellow liquid, probably Tabun from the nearby Nazi chemical weapons plant at Dyhernfurth.

Though Hitler himself may have refrained from ordering the general use of chemical weapons, then, it seems that a few of his commanders in the field might not have been above using them on a very localised basis, assuming that the conditions were right and that they had access to the necessary agents.  Whether Hitler even knew about, never mind authorised, these very isolated examples is highly doubtful.

So when John Kerry, and others, lazily invoke "Godwin's Law", they should be reminded that the online convention is that he who 'plays the Hitler card' is thereby considered to have lost the argument.  More seriously, such interventions should remind the rest of us that - as always - the truth is rather more complex than our leaders - and the media - would have us believe.

Monday, 26 August 2013

"Survivor on the River Kwai" by Reg Twigg, an 'on the spot' review...

There is a moment in Reg Twigg's posthumously published memoir, where he makes a very valid point.

 "Don't read this in the cool comfort of your armchair" he wrote, "Read it in the hottest greenhouse in Kew or the Eden Project.  Feel your clothes cling to your body, see the print on the page blur and smudge with the sweat droplets from your chin and eyebrow ridges.  Don't spend minutes there, spend all day. Spend every day."

He is absolutely right.  You really can't appreciate what he went through working on the Burma Railway until you feel that tropical heat for yourself.  Now, I am very much an advocate of a "sense of place" in history; visiting locations can teach more than just reading about them from the comfort of your garret.  But, reading those words in the oppressive humidity and heat of Thailand whilst on holiday recently, was taking the "sense of place" to a whole new level.

Twigg was one of those fated to experience the British defeat at Singapore in 1942 and subsequently to endure three years incarceration and labour on the Thailand-Burma Railway, best known to the world through the 1957 David Lean film "Bridge on the River Kwai".  In fact, the film is an enormous red-herring; adapted from a novel of the same name, it tells a rather fantastical story which merely uses the fact of the bridge's building as its narrative backdrop.  If you want to know the real story of the Burma railway, don't start by watching the film.

You could do worse than to start by reading Reg Twigg's memoir.  Its certainly an engaging read, telling the story of Reg's early life in Leicester, joining the Army (Leicester Regiment) and witnessing the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese.  The majority of the book however, relates to his experiences on the Burma
The real Bridge over the "River Kwai"
"Death" Railway, the various camps, the characters that he met along the way, the Japanese guards, and - of course - the Bridge over the River Kwai and the infamous cutting at Hellfire Pass, some 40 miles away towards the Burmese border.

Twigg was very much a 'ducker and diver' and - by his own admission - a "cheeky chappy".  This naturally contributed to his survival, as he proved adept at finding a role for himself, foraging for food and getting by.  His is also a very human account, telling stories about the many fellow POWs he met and often ending with the sentiment "I hope he made it home".  For the record, some 12,000 Allied POWs did not "make it home" from the Death Railway, and around half of those were British.

As one might expect, Twigg's account has all the requisite horror stories - the endemic disease, the brutal maltreatment, the backbreaking labour and the stifling heat - but it also has a tremendous humanity about it.  For all the horror, the book has flashes of light and warmth and as such - I suspect - is a fitting tribute to its author, who died, aged 99, shortly before publication.

For the historians out there, the book is certainly enlightening as regards the treatment meted out to the prisoners, and the conditions in which they lived.  However, as one might expect, it is a somewhat myopic account, being primarily concerned with those grim conditions, and providing little sense of the grander scheme involved; the purpose of the railway or the geography of the region and the location of the various camps. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but I can't help feeling that the book could have been considerably improved by the provision of some wider explanatory context.

But that it a small quibble, "Survivor on the River Kwai" is an engaging and illuminating read and is a welcome addition to the selection of books on the subject of the Death Railway.  You don't have to visit Thailand to read it, of course, but the experience is all the more present and all the more pertinent if you do.

"Survivor on the River Kwai" is available here or you could do us all a favour and order it from your local bookshop - if you still have one... :-)

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Reichstag Fire - an end to the controversy...?

When the German parliament building in Berlin - the Reichstag - caught fire shortly after 9pm on the evening of 27th February 1933, it marked the beginning of a lengthy controversy. Already that same night, in the Reichstag building itself, Nazi authorities picked up a young Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, who had apparently been caught red-handed setting the fire.  Upon his arrest, it was said, he was asked why he had done it.  He answered: "Protest! Protest!"

Despite this apparently copper-bottomed case, many of the opponents of the Nazis - especially on the political left - were swiftly proclaiming the fire to be an archetypal 'false flag' operation; an arson attack carried out by the Nazis themselves, to be pinned onto their opponents.

This hypothesis had two primary foundations: the first was the so-called 'Oberfohren Memorandum' - a selection of circumstantial evidence collected at the time and later expanded and published as the "Brown Book", which pointed to the Nazis as the culprits.

The second was based on the principle of "Cui bono?" - 'who benefits?'.  Given that the Nazis clearly benefited enormously from the fire - in that by foreshadowing a communist rising it eased their passage of laws clamping down on the left in particular and on civil rights in general - it seemed plausible to suggest that they must have started it themselves.  This line was very popular outside Germany during the war, was presented at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 and has long held currency.  Indeed, when Georg Elser attempted to assassinate Hitler in Munich in 1939, many on the left immediately branded the near miss as "a second Reichstag Fire" - that is, a attack orchestrated by the Nazis themselves for their own political benefit.

This controversy rumbled on through the post-war years, bursting into life occasionally as new 'documents' came to light and the German press interested itself once again.  In fact it almost became another mini 'Historikerstreit', except that, in this case, most of the serious historians tended to be on one side of the argument.

A recent book by Berlin historian Sven Felix Kellerhoff has now arguably put the story to bed for the last time. "Der Reichstagsbrand" (The Reichstag Fire) is only short, at about 160 pages, but provides a punchy, readable account of the case itself as well as its curious afterlife, and benefits from official documents released following German reunification in 1989.

Kellerhof is clear in his conclusions.  Van der Lubbe was the lone culprit, setting the fire himself, intending it to provide the spark for a communist rising against the Nazis. As he concludes, there is not a shred of evidence that the Nazis committed the crime, indeed it seems that Hitler initially feared that the fire would be a hindrance to him rather than a help, and it was Alfred Hugenberg, rather than Hitler, who first advocated clamping down on the Communists in response.

The case against the Nazis, Kellerhoff argues, is a confection of circumstantial evidence, misunderstandings, forgeries and politically motivated conspiracy theories, which merits little serious consideration.  The fact that the Nazis were the main beneficiaries from the crime - and Hitler's exploitation of the Fire was certainly a virtuoso performance - should not blind us to the fact that he and they were not the authors of it. Far from providing an explanation, 'Cui Bono', in this case, merely leads us down a blind alley of conspiracist nonsense, involving secret tunnels into the Reichstag, and a mystery team of SA arsonists, who were in turn bumped off during the Roehm Purge in 1934.

Most tellingly, I think, it seems that - in continuing to pin the crime on the Nazis - we are in danger of attributing far too much Machiavellian cunning to them and by extension to Hitler - and in so doing, we are guilty of a perverse mirror image of the totalitarian cult of personality.  If we assume that Hitler had all the strings in his hands in February 1933; that he and his minions were able to burn down a major public building in the German capital, pin the crime on an innocent communist, do away with the real culprits, and cover up the entire story - then surely we are ascribing talents to Hitler and the Nazis that were way beyond their real abilities.  A generation of Germans might have wished that Hitler really was possessed of such diabolical cunning as to be capable of such things, as it would - in part - absolve them of their complicity in following him, pied-piper-like, into the abyss.  But it is simply not plausible.

Van der Lubbe, it seems, really was guilty of setting the Reichstag fire himself, unaided.  Perhaps now, with the benefit of 8 decades of hindsight, we can all accept that to be the most likely conclusion to this story.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Pertti Ahonen's "Death at the Berlin Wall" - a review

“Death at the Berlin Wall”

by Pertti Ahonen
OUP, £60.00, 309pp, index, notes, bibliography.

Nostalgia for aspects of life in the GDR, it seems, it still current.  In modern Berlin one can buy any number of products that one graced East Berlin households; the Trabant has acquired cult status; even the humble Ampelmann – who stood guard at pedestrian crossings in the East – has become an icon. 

For all that apparently innocent “Ostalgia”, Pertti Ahonen’s new book Death at the Berlin Wall, is a powerful antidote.  Ahonen examines a selection of the 136 individuals killed at the wall in its 28-year lifespan; from its earliest victim, Günter Litfin, in August 1961, to its last, Chris Gueffroy, in February 1989, who was shot and killed just nine months before the Berlin Wall fell. 

Some of the stories that he relates are well-known; such as that of Peter Fechter, whose fatal shooting in the August of 1962 unleashed a wave of outrage in the west; or that of the Wall’s youngest victim; 11-year-old Jörg Hartmann, who was killed trying to escape to his father in the spring of 1966.  Others are much less prominent, at least in the west, such as the stories of the “socialist hero-victims”; border guards Peter Göring, Reinhold Huhn or Egon Schulz, who were killed in shootouts with West Berlin policemen or desperate would-be escapers. 

Aside from engagingly relating such episodes, Ahonen seeks to analyse the popular and official reactions to the deaths; the propaganda resulting from both sides and the effect that they had on the ongoing politics of the Cold War and the division of Germany

His insights are fascinating.  One is astonished, for instance, by the breath-taking cynicism and mendacity of the GDR’s politicians in their attempts to discredit those who would flee the ‘socialist paradise’, yet the story that Ahonen tells is one which is much more nuanced than the simple one that might be told by a latter-day Cold-Warrior.

Rather Ahonen places the undoubted horrors that unfolded in the Wall’s shadow into a much wider context of developing procedures for policing such an unprecedented physical division, as well as question of the west’s recognition of the GDR itself.  He also suggests that the reactions to the deaths – on both sides of the divide – were as much an expression of the needs of domestic consensus and identity-building as they were the products of simple propaganda and ‘news-management’.  In many ways, he suggests, the Berlin Wall was not only a political icon and the most visible symbol of the division of Europe, it also became a highly sensitive barometer of Cold War tensions.

Ahonen provides an admirable combination of narrative and historical analysis, which skimps neither on the human stories at the book’s heart, nor on the forensic and painstaking research that serves to contextualise them.  It helps, of course, that Ahonen is a gifted writer, who is able to combine those elements into a highly readable, coherent and compelling account, but it is especially heartening to see an academic historian giving free rein to his writing and indulging in some good old-fashioned storytelling. 

Yet, aside from these necessary nuances and complexities, it is the sheer inhuman contempt that the GDR had for its would-be escapers that sticks most vividly in the reader’s mind.  Those wounded would be denied prompt medical attention, those killed could be anonymously cremated as “scientific material”, and those family members left behind would be intimidated, spied upon and persecuted.  The case of Michael-Horst Schmidt is one of the most shocking.  Shot and wounded in an escape attempt in 1984, the 20-year-old was dead on arrival at hospital 3 hours later, by which time the East German authorities were already beginning to weave a web of lies and obfuscations to blacken their victim’s name and shamelessly exculpate themselves.  It is stories such as these that should make Ahonen’s excellent book required reading for all those who still hanker for the ‘certainties’ of life in the GDR.

[This review first appeared in "History Today" in January 2012]

© Roger Moorhouse 2011

Monday, 6 May 2013

"Eva Braun: Life with Hitler" by Heike Görtemaker - a review

Albert Speer is said to have once opined that generations of future historians would be “disappointed” by Eva Braun.  Hitler’s wife, he implied, was a nobody: someone who – for all her proximity to great events – had exerted no influence, for good or ill, upon them.

I was reminded of this comment when I finally got around to reading Beate Görtemaker’s biography of Eva Braun last week: “Eva Braun: Life with Hitler”, which was first published a couple of years ago.  Görtemaker touted her biography as the first serious study of Braun’s short life (she died aged 33) and in this respect she is absolutely correct.  Previous studies by Angela Lambert and US journalist Nerin Gun cannot boast the integrity and the rigorous approach of Görtemaker’s.  So, in that respect, the book is most certainly to be welcomed.

The book tells the story of Braun’s life well: her rise from middle-class Munich shop girl to Hitler’s mistress, her attempted suicides, her shadowy role as the ‘lady of the house’ at the Berghof above Berchtesgaden and her sordid death at Hitler’s side in the Reich Chancellery bunker in Berlin in 1945.  Görtemaker appears as an assiduous researcher, who is evidently keen to submit existing accounts and persistent myths to vital, critical scrutiny.

However, the book makes some rather grander claims: most notably that Braun was not the passive, “see no evil – hear no evil” character that history has thus-far perceived.  This is an interesting suggestion, and Görtemaker does well to analyse the various memoir accounts of those in Hitler’s entourage – such as his secretary Christa Schroeder and his architect Albert Speer – in trying to prove this point.  Many of those accounts, like Speer’s, are patently self-serving, dissembling and self-exculpatory – not least in claiming that life in the Third Reich’s inner circle was an interminable round of boring vegetarian lunches where no political matters were ever discussed.  

Yet, though the point about self-serving memoirs is well-made, Görtemaker fails to convince with her wider point about Braun’s possible knowledge of and involvement in Nazi politics.  Essentially, though it is well-written and engaging, the book is feeding off scraps.  Due to Hitler’s order at the end of his life that all his personal correspondence was to be destroyed, the evidential base for Görtemaker’s study is extremely thin.  Consequently, she is forced to rely far too much on speculation and guesswork, and as a result the book reads – at times – like a retreaded brief history of the Third Reich with a somewhat unconvincing ‘Eva Braun twist’.

This is a shame, but is perhaps inevitable given the lack of available material.  Despite the book’s shortcomings, this is still the best and most serious biography of Eva Braun that is available.  Yet, that said, it is hard to disagree with Speer’s alleged comment – Eva Braun does appear as a disappointment to history.

© Roger Moorhouse 2013

Friday, 3 May 2013

On UKIP (and Seasick Steve)...

On BBC Breakfast News this morning, blues musician 'Seasick Steve' was interviewed.  A rough and ready elaborately-bearded, and undoubtedly talented American guitarist, Seasick Steve had slept rough and made his own guitars before getting a big break in 2006 on a British music programme.  He has since gone on to considerable commercial and critical success.  In the interview, the presenter gave the somewhat obvious analysis that Seasick Steve's success was due, in large part, to the fact that he came at a time of manufactured pop-bands and sleek, all-pervasive marketing.  He was, put simply, a whiff of authenticity in a world of clones.

Half an hour earlier, another interview on the programme was far less cozy.  Paul Nuttall (MEP), Deputy Leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was on to discuss his party's impressive showing in the English local elections, where they were set fair to upset all the major parties.  He was given a rather bumpy ride, with the sort of hostile questioning that representatives of the major parties rarely encounter.

UKIP is a peculiar phenomenon, which the political and media elite are keen to dismiss simply as a good old fashioned protest vote; the kind of mid-term slap down from the voters that is traditionally expected in the local elections, a chance for the voting public to hurl their virtual tomatoes at their politicians without any fear of serious consequences (except for local government).  Another BBC commentator even described UKIP as 'plebeian' - bringing to mind Bertolt Brecht's line that "the people had forfeited the confidence of the government" so the government should "dissolve the people and elect another".

But, such arrogant complacency is very misplaced.  I would argue that UKIP is far more than just a reflexive public protest.  Though its origins lie in a rejection of the EU, and this issue undoubtedly still forms a core of its support, it seems to have grown into a much more profound revolt against the Westminster political elite and the supposed 'liberal consensus' that they espouse.  It is as much a rejection of the 'smooth operators' of Westminster: the expensively educated Camerons and Osbornes and Milibands, as it is a rejection of the identikit policies that they appear to represent: EU orthodoxy, gay marriage, 'diversity' and all the rest.  UKIP is in many ways a revolt against political correctness itself.  And Westminster needs to take note, not just hide behind the old cliches and slogans, and hope that it will go away.

So - to return to 'Seasick Steve' - stretching the analogy somewhat, UKIP might be seen as the 'Seasick Steve' of British politics: a popular rejection of the bland, the manufactured and all that which is perceived as false and mendacious in Westminster.  But, as such, it must be prepared for a rough ride both from the media and from its political rivals.  Break the mold in music and you will be hailed as a visionary, but break the mold in politics and you risk being cast as a dangerous heretic.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

"Hitler's Hangman" by Robert Gerwarth, a review

“Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich” by Robert Gerwarth,
Yale UP, £20.00, 336pp,

It is peculiar that Reinhard Heydrich has not been the subject of a few more serious-minded biographies.  After all, as the architect of the SS-state and the master-planner of the Holocaust, he offers a unique perspective on the inner workings of the Third Reich, whilst as an individual he displays the sort of nefarious, Mephistophelean character traits that would have many historians salivating. 

Yet, despite his high profile in the historical record, Reinhard Heydrich has until now only rarely attracted the attentions of serious English-language biographers.  Robert Gerwarth’s book is something of a rarity therefore.

It is certainly worth the wait.  Gerwarth ably tracks the stages of Heydrich’s life; from his early years in Halle, through his aborted naval career, to his fateful meeting with his later wife – and convinced Nazi – Lina von Osten.  It was Lina who evidently turned the, until then, rather unpolitical Heydrich into the prize Nazi specimen that he would later become; allying his cold, calculating nature with a political and racial ideology within which he could achieve his ambitions. 

Once installed in Himmler’s security apparatus, from 1931, Heydrich would be the driving force in the emergence of the SS, constantly expanding its remit and espousing a perpetual radicalisation of Nazism.  He was ever vigilant, seeking out new enemies – real or imagined – to be confronted and destroyed.  Not so much a safe pair of hands, rather a radical and utterly uncompromising administrator, Heydrich quickly emerged as the coming man of Nazi Germany. 

His career was correspondingly stellar.  Already Himmler’s deputy, he headed the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) from 1939, thereby uniting all branches of the Nazi police and security network under his control.  Later, in 1941, he was appointed to head the politically sensitive and economically vital ‘Protectorate’ of Bohemia and Moravia.  Most infamously, perhaps, he assumed supervisory responsibility for the ongoing Holocaust at the Wannsee Conference at the start of 1942.  Only his death at a Czech assassin’s hand the following summer stopped his seemingly inexorable rise. 

Gerwarth tells this complex tale with considerable aplomb.  He writes with real verve, pacing his account well and providing the perfect mix of narrative and analysis.  Pleasingly, he is not shy of indulging in a few dramatic flourishes when the material and the circumstances allow, making this a history book that one can genuinely read almost in a single sitting.  Moreover, he is surefooted and admirably clear on the historical framework, not least in explaining the murky and complex inter-relationships within the Nazi police state, and delineating the twisted course of the genocide against the Jews. 

The Heydrich that emerges from this account is a more rounded individual from the earlier, sometimes rather breathless, biographies.  He is revealed here as a human being; a single-minded, paranoid, psychopathic human being, but a human being nonetheless.  Interestingly – in a state that prized physical and racial perfection – Heydrich was the only one of the senior personnel who came anywhere close to matching the taxing ideals, despite a persistent rumour of his part-Jewish blood.  Tall, blond, aquiline, he was an accomplished sportsman (he fenced at national level), a gifted violinist and a trained pilot.  A man of deeds rather than theories, he was an ascetic and workaholic and he played the Byzantine world of Third Reich politics like a chess grandmaster.  He was as close to a “Nazi Renaissance man” as it was possible to get.

Robert Gerwarth set out to remedy the lack of a scholarly biography of Reinhard Heydrich – one of the most pivotal and influential figures in the history of the Third Reich.  He has succeeded admirably, producing a work that is as authoritative as it is enjoyable, and in the process setting a new standard by which subsequent biographies of Hitler’s ‘Blond Beast’ will surely be measured.  

Link to Gerwarth's "Hitler's Hangman"

This review first appeared in "History Today" in July 2012

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Rosenstrasse Protest - Myth and Reality

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Rosenstrasse Protest - one of the most fascinating and poignant episodes in the grim history of the Holocaust.

On this day in 1943, the Nazis rounded up the remaining 8,000 or so Jews who were living legally in the German capital.  In the so-called "Fabrik Aktion", or 'Factory Action', the unfortunate victims were intercepted as they arrived for work in Berlin's myriad factories.  Rounded up and put into trucks, they were processed and transported to various holding centres around the city - including a former music hall - to await deportation.

In the days that followed, some 6,000 of those Berlin Jews were duly deported to Auschwitz and a most uncertain fate.  Yet, curiously, one group of prisoners was spared.  The 1,700 that were taken to the Jewish community building on Rosenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte were not deported.  They were held there, in horrific conditions, as their wives and families gathered on the pavement outside, chanting, protesting and demanding the return of their menfolk.   In due course, after around 5 days, the captives were released.  Even the 25 that had been 'mistakenly' deported to Auschwitz-Monowitz were returned.

So much is clear.  The controversy arises with the interpretation that has subsequently been applied to these events.  Some - quite understandably - have sought to make a causal connection between the facts of the families' protest and the prisoners' release: suggesting that the prisoners were released because their families had protested against their deportation.  If only it were that easy.

The truth - as ever - is rather more complex and rather less romantic.  The protests at Rosenstrasse were certainly brave; the women present there risked their own lives for those of their loved ones and took part in one of the very few examples of popular mass protest against the Third Reich.

Yet, I would argue that there is no causal link between the actions of the families and the release of their menfolk.  The prisoners were primarily those Jews in mixed marriages - the women outside, therefore, were Aryan (in Nazi eyes).  These prisoners, therefore, belonged to a liminal category and had already been selected out of the main body of prisoners - hence their incarceration together at Rosenstrasse.  There is every likelihood that these Jews would have been deported in due course, but it appears that they were not scheduled for deportation in March 1943.  Regardless of the brave actions of their womenfolk, therefore, it seems that they would have walked free in any case.

Rosenstrasse, then, was most certainly a heroic, romantic episode, but it is not quite the heroic, romantic episode that some think it was.

If you are interested in reading more on this - I can recommend my book "Berlin at War" :-)

Monday, 25 February 2013

On Socialism and National Socialism

Twitter took another scalp a couple of weeks ago, when one of the UK's newly appointed 'Deputy Police & Crime Commissioners" - one Dr Rachel Frosch - was obliged to resign after passing on (retweeting) a rather clumsy comment linking Socialism and Nazism.

Of course, the political left cried foul and Dr Frosch was hung out to dry by her own side (the Conservatives).  She was certainly guilty of an error of judgement - in the sense that she should have known better when in public office than to goad the left side of the electorate so blatantly.  Yet, there was nothing wrong with the suggestion that Socialism and Nazism are intimately linked.  Her actions might not have been good politics, but they made pretty sound history.

As it happens, yesterday was the 93rd anniversary of the promulgation of the Nazi Party's "25 Point Programme" - a quasi-manifesto for the nascent party, so this gives a good opportunity to take a look at the Nazi Party's origins, and see what it stood for at the start of its odious, calamitous, political journey.

The party, which was then known as the DAP - "Deutsche Arbeiter Partei", or "German Workers' Party" - had only just fallen under Hitler's leadership at that point, having been founded by a Munich railwayworker, Anton Drexler, in 1919.

The Hofbrauhaus, Munich
Hitler's "25 Points" was an attempt to formalise the nascent party's programme and push it out to a wider electorate - and for that reason, the programme was announced at the cavernous Munich "Hofbrauhaus" beerhall, with a capacity of over 2,000.

The "25 Point Programme" includes many of the staple demands and complaints that one would expect of the Nazi Party: the creation of a "Greater Germany" encompassing all German people (Point 1); the scrapping of the Treaty of Versailles (Point 2); the demand for land for colonisation (Point 3) and the exclusion of Jews from the German body politic (Point 4).

The Nazi "25 Point Programme"
Yet, alongside the xenophobic, anti-Semitic demands, there is also a rich seam of populist 'socialism' - including the following: the abolition of unearned income (Point 11); the criminalisation of "war profiteering" (Point 12); the nationalisation of all "trust" industries (Point 13); profit sharing of all heavy industrial concerns (Point 14); an expansion of old age welfare provision (Point 15) and finally a thoroughgoing land reform (Point 17).

So, the 'socialist' aspect of the Nazi Party Programme of 1920 is indisputable.  Indeed, part of the Party's rationale was to attempt to craft a form of socialism in which loyalty to the nation was paramount, but by which the nation's working class could still be won round.  In short, an attempt to supplant the "International Socialism" of Marxism with a new form of "National Socialism".  Appropriately, this formulation was duly added to the Party's name a couple of months later - the DAP became the NSDAP - the "National Socialist German Workers' Party - known to its opponents as the Nazis.

This 'socialism' was no passing dalliance.  Much changed in the years between 1920 and the Party's 'seizure of power' of 1933, of course; accommodations were made with 'big business' and a cruder realpolitik supplanted some of the early working class populism.  Of course, Hitler's personal adherence to any ideology - beyond anti-Semitism and his own advancement - is rather dubious, yet the broadly 'socialistic' strand within Nazism was never fully extinguished.  Indeed, it was demonstrated by the "Strength through Joy" workers' leisure organisation and the central importance throughout of the 'volksgemeinschaft' or 'national community'.  Goebbels himself, alongside the Strasser brothers, was a proponent of the 'socialist' strand of National Socialism.

All of which merely goes to show that the traditional "left-right" typology of politics can be profoundly unhelpful in understanding such complexities - and that the 140 character tweet is not the place for such challenging and divisive issues to be aired.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

The "Mössingen General Strike"

 This curious story caught my eye this morning.  

Yesterday - 30th January - was the 80th anniversary of Hitler's so-called "seizure of power", and the day involved much memorializing and a good deal more soul-searching about the fragility of democracy and the need for vigilance...

Of course, the "seizure of power" was really nothing of the sort.  Hitler was merely given his opportunity on that day, because he was elevated to the German Chancellorship by the country's elites in the hope that they might be able to control him and - through him - govern Germany. He did not need asking twice.  He took them for all they were worth and swiftly showed them who controlled whom.  But, though the 30th January was feted in Nazi Germany as the "day of the seizure of power" - of the "Machtergreifung" as the German version has it - it was just the beginning of that process in which Hitler's power was secured and extended and the dictatorship was built - it was in fact to be a process that would last around 18 months until August of 1934.  

So, 30th January as a turning point is a bit of a red herring, historically speaking.  But the day's significance to contemporaries was still considerable, as this following story demonstrates.

On the afternoon of 30th January - as news of Hitler's appointment spread - a group of communists and socialists in the small town of Mössingen in south-western Germany decided to organise a protest of their own.  As preparations continued for calling a strike for the following day a demonstration began that evening in which locals cried "Hitler means War!" and "Perish Hitler!" - a corruption of the Nazi slogan "Juda verrecke" or "Perish Juda". 

The following day - the 31st - protests continued along the same lines, and a strike was called of local workers.  At around 2pm, some 600 workers were already out in protest, their numbers swelling as the workmen from other factories were called out.  

By early evening, the authorities seem to have decided that the workers of Mössingen had had their fun and a group of police armed with rubber truncheons broke up the demonstration and sent the protesters fleeing over the surrounding fields. 

In the aftermath - 98 strikers were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.  A smaller number of ringleaders were singled out for harsher treatment, with some being imprisoned and at least one being sent to the concentration camp at Dachau, (which opened in March).  

After that, the story of the "Mössingen General Strike" disappeared.  The Nazis did not want any blemish on their narrative of a grateful nation welcoming the Führer to its bosom.  Post-war history also forgot about Mössingen, a small town caught up in the maelstrom of events.  Yet, the strike at Mössingen, for all its modest origins, was the only strike organised in Germany in direct protest at Hitler's appointment - and for that fact alone, it deserves to be better known. 

This small tale tells us that Germany did not "go gently" into the Nazi night.  At least some of its citizens saw clearly the danger that Hitler portended - even on the day of his appointment - and were prepared to act .