Simon Jenkins — The Guardian Sept 2011
What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system. Earlier this summer the curtain rose on Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the London Coliseum, and my heart sank. The stage was alive with stormtroopers and jackboots. The banality was crashing: Faust, the Devil … Hitler, get it? By act two we were deep in the Holocaust. This week the same opera house launched Weinberg’s The Passenger. It is set in Auschwitz.
At the same time, ITV is fighting the first world war from Downtown Abbey. The BBC has spent the week immersed in Stalin, Spitfires and “Entertaining the Troops”. Radio 4 has decamped to the eastern front where we must hear the Ukrainian novelist, Vasily Grossman, enduring unimaginable privations. Monday’s entire edition of Start the Week was devoted to presenting his Life and Fate as a 1940s War and Peace.
Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar Republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.
Now on my doormat crashes the latest opus from the stalwart Max Hastings, entitled All Hell Let Loose. It is, need we ask, a history of the second world war. It follows his Overlord, Armaggedon and The Finest Years on the same subject. It will sell tens of thousands. Antony Beevor recently added his magisterial D-Day to his harrowing accounts of wartime Paris, Stalingrad and Berlin. Andrew Roberts entered the lists with Hitler and Churchill, Masters and Commanders and the thunderous Storm of War. They are few among many.
The British book-writing, book-selling and book-buying public seems obsessed with recounting its forefathers’ triumphs over the Germans, even if, as with Hastings, the accounts are far from triumphalist. In 2000 there were 380 English-language titles on the Third Reich, adding to some 30,000 with the word Hitler in the title. We might have hoped that the new century would see this phase of Germany’s past set in some historical context. It was not to be. Last year the tally of Hitler books rose by 850. Some 80% of these were written by Britons and published in Britain.
Topics ranged from reputable if repetitive histories to studies of Hitler and the occult, guides to SS uniforms, Nazi flying saucers and, according to a recent BBC documentary on the phenomenon, collectable spoons of the Third Reich. The programme floundered among specialists on Himmler and the Knights Templar, how astrology guided Hitler’s armies, and the confessions of a bunker masseur.
Needless to say, Nazis are still a favourite topic of that cultural wild west, the video games industry, with little sign of their being replaced by Russians or mujahideen. When not killing mutants or aliens, players kill Germans. Perhaps understandably, Germany bans such horrors as Mortyr, Wolfenstein and KZ Manager (which puts players in charge of a concentration camp). Britain does not. The IGN video game website remarks that “the number of Nazis in video games probably exceeds the number of people that have ever lived on this planet”. It puts this down to a lack of a need for moral relativism towards Nazis and the efficient Wehrmacht as a worthy enemy for the forces of good.
The enduring Nazification of evil was best summed up by the American Mike Godwin in his “law of Nazi analogies”. This stated: “As any online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.” The topic is immaterial, but someone will sooner or later characterise someone else’s point of view with a reference to the Nazis, or “reductio ad hitlerum”.
Godwin’s sardonic comment is all too familiar to readers of newspaper letters and blogs. It applies to any commentary on wars of intervention, especially involving Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida and Gaddafi. During the Falklands, it saw “Argies” identified with the Nazis. Arab spring cartoonists distorted swastikas with abandon.
What is extraordinary is that the use of the Third Reich as an all-purpose metaphor for evil extends to every area of culture. The sculptors, the Chapman brothers, seem to derive some artistic drive from Nazism. Theatre directors feel obliged to pump up Richard III, Macbeth, even Hamlet’s Denmark, by depicting them in 1940s Germany. The parallel has gone beyond cliched to seem obsessive and shows no sign of relenting. Only football supporters seem at last to have moved on.
I am baffled as to what it must be like to be a German in modern Britain – as if I were living in Paris awash in references to Hundred Years War atrocities. German friends respond with a weary patience, like the Fawlty Towers guests suffering Basil’s antics at their expense. Nor is it just a matter of the constant identification of Germany with the Third Reich. There is little attempt to set it in proportion to other more creditable aspects of German history. This is strange given that Anglo-Saxons were nothing if not Germans. As Simon Winder notes in his entertaining book Germania, Britain and Germany are “the mad twins of Europe, Protestant, aggressive… with superiority complexes of a kind that have, for good or ill, reshaped the world”.
Last year came one instance of blessed relief. The Welsh National Opera staged a superb production of the Meistersingers of Nuremberg, set in the middle ages rather than, as so often, under the Nazis. In the competition scene, I spotted a German diplomat in the audience with tears in his eyes. The director had not depicted the final hymn to German art as a rerun of the Nuremberg rally but as Wagner wrote it, as indeed a hymn to German art, complete with portraits illustrating Germany’s contribution to the arts down the ages.
Only insecure nations should rely on creating or memorialising “necessary enemies”, as Britain appears to do with Nazism. Only frightened people seek sustenance from ancient rivalries and past victories. At present Germany has significance in European affairs unprecedented in peacetime. This is due to that country’s economic strength and requires a remarkable generosity towards the other peoples of Europe. The resentment of the embattled Greeks is already palpable, even as they demand that German banks go easy on their loans and German taxpayers go heavy on their subsidies.
I must not fall foul of Godwin’s law, but the demands now being made of Germany “to show leadership” come with ghostly overtones of reparation for past guilt. Nothing is more likely to incur German resistance than to imply that rescuing Europe is somehow an obligation on a present generation of Germans for the deeds of a past one. Misreading Germany was a lethal failing of Europe’s 20th-century leaders. It is surely time to consign the Nazis, not to oblivion but at least to history.