WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

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This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.