The changing significance of Auschwitz – and what we must do now

It is 70 years today since the liberation by the Soviet Red Army of Auschwitz, a word now synonymous with the Nazi atrocities and specifically with the death of six million Jews.

At the time, however, the liberation of Auschwitz made little impression on the British public. It was not until late April 1945, when British and American troops marching across Germany discovered the atrocities in Buchenwald and Belsen concentration camps, that the truth took hold. First-hand reports quickly made their way into the British press and any remaining disbelief was soon dispelled and outrage took its place.

For the next years and decades, it was Belsen, liberated by British troops, that was synonymous with Nazi atrocities for the British people – Auschwitz barely registered.

Furthermore, and hard as it is to believe, the Jewish identity of the majority of the victims – the result of the Nazi’s extermination policy – was barely mentioned.

There were several reasons for this, not least the unstable political situation in Palestine where British occupiers were in conflict with the Jewish resistance. Arousing sympathy among the British public for the Jewish people at that time would have been counter-productive.

However, the discoveries in Belsen and Buchenwald did trigger an explosion of debate and discussion in the political sphere, in the press and in the street. Voices from the right were keen to stress the responsibility, if not guilt, of the whole German nation for these crimes. They mostly ignored the national, ethnic, religious or sexual identities of the victims, some of whom were in fact German and would therefore undermine their claim that all Germans were guilty.

Figures on the left were keen to use the discoveries at Buchenwald to castigate those (mostly on the right) who had defended Nazism and sought to appease Hitler in the 1930s when Buchenwald was already a well-established camp for political prisoners. ‘Look’, they said, ‘we failed to stop them so the Nazis just carried on imprisoning and torturing those who didn’t agree with them. We carry our own share of blame now too.’ This argument failed to address the changed role of Buchenwald after 1942 and ignored its millions of Jewish prisoners.

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

David Low, 19th April 1945, Evening Standard
http://www.cartoons.ac.uk/print/record/LSE1221

The left also spent their time challenging the idea that the German nation was collectively responsible for the Nazi crimes by pointing out that some of the victims were German.

In all this political wrangling, the significance of the Jewish identity of six million of the victims was buried and the chance to challenge widespread anti-Semitism in Britain was lost.

The images emerging from Belsen enraged and shocked the British public. Numerous letters were published in the Evening Standard deploring the “terrible crimes”, “the unspeakable horrors” and “the barbarities”. The time was ripe for endemic anti-Semitism in Britain to be challenged by focusing attention on the horrors to which such groundless prejudice could lead. Yet most reports failed to mention that most victims were Jewish and the chance slipped by.

Unlike prejudice against black minorities or the gay and lesbian community, which, in the post-war decades, was confronted and stigmatised through powerful mass movements, anti-Semitism has been allowed to rumble on, unchecked. The undeniable rise of verbal and violent expressions of anti-Semitism in Europe over the last few months and years testifies to this fact, although you will of course find few Britons who deny that the Nazis’ Final Solution was horrific and wrong. This hypocrisy must be confronted.

It is expected that 15,000 Jews will leave France for Israel in the wake of the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris. The numbers of British Jews choosing to emigrate has also been rising over the last two years.

The opportunity was missed in 1945 for a concerted challenge to the prevailing anti-Semitic mood in Britain. The time is ripe for such a challenge now and must not be missed again.

Fantasy, farce and folly: Nazis on the big screen

Good news for all you “Iron Sky” fans out there. Filming for the sequel, “Iron Sky: The Coming Race” is due to start next year for release in 2016.

In case you missed the first one – you lucky, lucky people… – it went something like this. Iron SkyAn Afro-American astronaut, landing on the moon in 2018, discovers a city of Nazis hidden there since 1945 and planning a re-invasion of the earth.

Among other intriguing plot points, a mad, racist Nazi scientist turns the astronaut albino and, in search of smart phones to power their space battleship, the future Führer and his fiancé are roped in as advisors for the American President’s re-election campaign.

Baffled? Don’t worry. I am too, and I’ve watched the film myself. What I’m interested in here, however, is not the plot but the characterisation of the Nazis. These men and women, homogenously attired in their field-grey uniforms, are meant to seem absurd.

Their overly rigid rules and regulations, total lack of individuality and spontaneity, and their ludicrous understanding of the world as divided into capitalists and bolshevists render them farcical and the perfect targets for mockery. Seventy-three years after Hitler’s death, they have not quite got the hang of using the name of his successor, Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, in greeting each other. Even Kortzfleisch himself is greeted consistently with “Heil Hitler”, testament to the complete idiocy of these twenty-first century Nazis.

Although a poorly executed example, “Iron Sky” is part of a recent trend of creating and mocking exaggerated Nazi stereotypes in film. “Inglorious Basterds” was a film that did it far more successfully, but the basic premise was similar. The numerous Hitler Rants Parodies on YouTube, based on that famous scene from “Untergang” (“Downfall”), testify to the same idea – that such extremity of character, ideology and behaviour is all too easily turned into farce.

These films and parodies may seem new and radical. But there’s a whole bunch of films made in the 1950s and 1960s that were doing exactly the same thing, often better. Then, too, Nazis were frequently represented as overly obedient, mechanical, homogenous, tunnel-visioned and excessively self-confident.

In the numerous films set in German POW camps and on wartime battlefields, such characteristics leave ample room for quick-witted, spontaneous, cynical and witty British individuals to run rings around dull-witted Germans.

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in "The Square Peg"

Norman Wisdom (right) as a German general in “The Square Peg”

For brilliant and wonderfully simple comedy – without the excessive special effects that are sadly “Iron Sky”s best feature – I’d recommend those early post-war films. Norman Wisdom impersonating a German general in “The Square Peg” is utterly hilarious, as are the ludicrous Nazis scattered through the hit POW films “Very Important Person” and “The Wooden Horse”.

“Iron Sky” lacks the tongue-in-cheek attitude that makes those films so enjoyable. In fact, it behaves rather like a stereotypical Nazi, so convinced of its own greatness that it fails to see its own fatal flaws. In the novel “The Wooden Horse” – based on a true story – the German camp officer is so self-satisfied and convinced of his own superiority that he misreads the derisive roar from the British prisoners in response to his morning greeting as enthusiasm: ‘He was popular with these wild-looking British, was he not?’ Such idiocy is exactly the kind being mocked in the films I’ve been discussing.

Similarly, despite the derisive roar from critics and public alike, the makers of “Iron Sky” blindly proclaimed the film a success and forged ahead with a sequel. Such absurdity will surely, rightfully, spawn its own cynical parody and the cycle of mockery will continue.

Rose bushes and concentration camps

I have concocted a (by no means) exhaustive list of over sixty British novels published between 1945 and 1960 that feature German characters. I’ve read nearly thirty and they’re slowly morphing in my mind into one never-ending and entirely implausible Berlin spy thriller filled with Nazis, Communists and the occasional friendly German (often a Jew…). A spreadsheet with plot summaries is just about keeping me sane.

Emerging out of these thousands of pages of text are, thankfully, some discernible trends and recurring figures.

The “German we love to hate” is at the top of the list. He (never she) is usually an ex- or emerging Nazi (depending on when the novel is set), but sometimes a Communist. He’s brutal, emotionally cold, cowardly and driven entirely by his politically extreme ideology.

Dr Ischenasch in D.M. Dowley’s 1952 novel exemplifies this type. Brought in to manage a failing chemical plant in a small English town, he aggressively imposes his own agenda, firing long-serving employees in the name of “efficiency” and scorning the advice of others, most of whom he dismisses as “stupid”. The downfall and eventual departure of this self-aggrandising and unpopular figure are celebrated by the whole town (not to mention the reader!).

Then there are the Nazis. Hansen (in Desmond Cory’s Pilgrim at the Gate) is representative of so many – small, weak and cowardly, he bolsters his own ego with delusional speeches, preaching his own important role in the imminent rise of Germany “to adopt its rightful position as the head of nations”.

His cruel and sadistic behaviour as a high-powered Nazi scientist make it impossible for us to laugh at his absurd theorising and gutless surrender to death as we otherwise might. In his last moments, he is described as “almost comically woebegone” – the “almost” indicating that such a malevolent character can never be comic, even darkly so.

hands of the devil

There are the faceless SS men in Tony Faramus’ romping adventure tale, Hands of the Devil, appearing at regular intervals, “cruel, gruesome and sadistic”, to thwart the escape of the French and British heroes from enemy territory.

And there’s Hugo, the apparently charming chap who enjoys entertaining the young relations of his naïve English wife. Yet on hearing of an attack of green-fly on a prized rose bush in the garden (a contrived plot device if ever I’ve seen one…), he charges outside, offering to lead a gas attack to smoke them out.

As if the reference isn’t already clear enough, he amends his technique of using heavy cigar smoke that’s bad for the roses, explaining that a lighter smoke “would do the work of extermination as well, if rather more slowly”. Ah yes, the reader thinks knowingly, a simple step for those Germans from green-fly and cigar smoke to concentration camps.

It’s perhaps no surprise to discover that this repulsive figure is so pervasive in post-war British novels. It may even go some way to explain the persistence of the Nazi stereotype in British popular culture. What seems more surprising is the “good German”, who crops up almost as regularly. More on him (or her) next time.

What is it about ‘zee Germans’?

Image

While making the film Sea of Sand in 1958, the fictional story of a group of British soldiers fighting in North Africa during the Second World War, actor Michael Craig turned to director Guy Green and said: ‘I think it’s pathetic. Here we are more than ten years after the war has finished and we are still making pictures about it. Why aren’t we making pictures about what’s happening now?’

It’s easy to smile at Craig’s apparent naivety. More than six decades after the war finished, we are making pictures, novels, comics, computer games, headlines and comments about it on a scale far greater than 1958.

The last four years alone have seen a flood of successful British films about the conflict, including The Reader, Age of Heroes, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Defiance, with at least three more currently in production. American films Inglourious Basterds and Valkyrie were also box office successes in Britain.

Wikipedia lists twenty-four wars in which Britain has fought since 1945. What is it about that one that fascinates us?

Is it, as some people suggest, a case of gazing fondly through rose-tinted binoculars at a time of national unity and superior morality, a time when Britain rose with honour to fight and defeat the “beastly Hun”?

Is it a way of inflating our sense of national grandeur by offering Nazified Germany as a negative foil?

Is it a means of usefully ignoring those atrocities in our own nation’s history which would rapidly puncture that sense of grandeur if inspected too closely?

Or is it a harmless obsession with a piece of ancient history between two nations who are now close allies?

Whatever the reason (and I’d welcome your comments…), can it be right that a ten-year-old German boy is subjected to taunts of ‘Nazi, Nazi’ in his English school playground by kids who don’t understand the word’s significance? For despite knowing that the Nazis were German and beaten by the British, many young people in Britain today are ignorant of the “details” – 80% don’t know what Auschwitz was about.

SpitfireThere are some great war films and novels out there, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps, when laughing at a clever pun in an advert for Spitfire beer or killing Germans in an early Call of Duty, it’s good to think twice about why we’re enjoying ourselves.

The events of that war should never be forgotten, but let’s not confuse hackneyed references to Hitler and ‘zee Germans’ with ‘remembering’.