Six Minutes To Midnight


This film sounded very interesting, being based around the very strange but true story of the Augusta Victoria College, a German finishing school for young female relatives/associates of high-ranking Nazi officials, based not in Germany but, from 1932 to 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea on the Sussex coast.  Unfortunately, the storyline was just stupid.  It was supposed to be a thrilling espionage drama, but it was unconvincing and verged on the farcical.

Our hero, played by Eddie Izzard, was a British spy masquerading as a teacher, although he seemed to do little teaching other than to train the girls, who were remarkably ill-disciplined by anyone’s standards, never mind Nazi standards, to sing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  At one point, he tried to hide from the police by stealing a uniform which a brass band player had left lying on the beach whilst he went for a swim (as you do), then marching with the brass band, without an instrument, whilst the flugle player whose uniform he’d nicked marched alongside him in his underwear.  It would have been quite funny in ‘Allo ‘Allo or Dad’s Army, but this was supposed to be a serious spy film.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench did her best as the sweet little old British headmistress (the headmistress of the actual school was German, and presumably carefully chosen by the authorities) who didn’t realise that the Nazis weren’t actually very nice people, and joined in when the girls all made Nazi salutes and chanted Nazi slogans because she thought it was just a confidence boosting things; but the idea of the character made no sense.  This was the summer of 1939.  My school was offering free places to girls who’d come to the UK as refugees from Nazi persecution.  People knew jolly well what was going on.  And that would have gone for sweet little old ladies in idyllic seaside resorts as much as for anyone else.

Maybe part of the problem was that no-one seems very sure exactly what the point of the school was.  Possibly so that the girls could try to spread Nazi ideals in British society, but, seeing as they hardly ever left the school, and didn’t come into contact with anyone outside it, I don’t quite see how that was meant to work.  Were they all meant to hang around after leaving, and impress people with their ability to walk elegantly because of all the time they’d spent balancing books on their heads?

A decent scriptwriter would have come up with a plausible explanation.  Instead, all we got was that the other teacher, a young German woman, was a Nazi.  However, other than chatting to other Nazis at a music evening, there didn’t seem to be much point to her either.  Well, not until our hero went out to meet his superior officer, and she followed him and shot the said officer dead.  Presumably she was also responsible for the death of a previous teacher, whose body turned up on the beach, but that was never really explained, even though our hero was meant to be finding out about it.  A lot of things in this film were never really explained.  Anyway, the police turned up and thought our hero had shot his boss, so he went on the run … but was captured after the incident with the brass band and the underwear.

He was then visited in the local nick by two government officials, a senior one with a posh voice and a junior one with a not-posh voice.  But then, in a “thrilling” twist in the tale (it actually wasn’t that thrilling), it turned out that the posh bloke was a Nazi spy.  Our man escaped again, and was helped out by the local bus driver, who was obsessed with people not getting mud on his kitchen floor but was happy to give our man a change of clothes – thankfully, not a uniform this time.  Then our man teamed up with the junior official.

Oh, and everyone kept saying “English” where “British” would have been more appropriate, which was interesting given that the film was made by the Welsh Film Board.

Meanwhile, the Nazi teacher was arranging for the girls to be evacuated by plane, necessitating their climbing up a hill with their suitcases (in broad daylight – presumably this was OK, as no-one happening to walk past would have found this at all suspicious), hanging around until it got dark, and then waving flares to show the plane where to land. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the plane couldn’t land until it got dark, they didn’t have time to stop when one of the girls dropped her case and it fell down the hill, even though it was only a small hill and it would only have taken two minutes to retrieve the case, but never mind.

Mysterious planes often land in strange places in Enid Blyton books, and indeed in James Bond films, but I didn’t really get why, the UK not requiring exit visas, the girls – there were only about a dozen of them – and the teacher couldn’t have just hopped on a train to the nearest port (Google informs me that it’s only about 55 miles from Bexhill to Dover), got on a ferry, then got on a train to Germany.  There might even have been direct sailings from Harwich to Hamburg at that time.

However, our hero had managed to get through to Whitehall, the plane was intercepted, and he and the sweet little old headmistress turned up, deterred the Nazi teacher from shooting all the girls rather than risk their being interned (???), and a lot of hugging went on.  The girls were then taken back to the school, where they lined up and sang “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  I think we were actually supposed to feel sorry for them, which opens up all sorts of thorny questions – OK, they wouldn’t have had much choice about being sent to the school, but they were in the late teens, so old enough to understand what was going on.  But the film never got into anything as deep as that.

I’m not even sure why it was such a big deal that the girls were leaving, and why they were so desperate to stop them.   It’s not like they were spies.  All they did was mess around in the dormitory, go swimming, and try to learn English.  Why not just let them go home?  If the idea was for them to try to spread Nazi ideals, then wouldn’t it actually’ve been better to have them out of the UK, goodbye and good riddance, rather than trying to keep them here?!

The whole thing was just silly, quite frankly – and it was a shame, because someone could have made a very good story about this school.  Maybe, one day, someone will, but this certainly wasn’t it!




Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel – BBC 2


After this programme, David Baddiel tweeted that someone had shared a quote with him – “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” (James Baldwin).  Confronting Holocaust denial is a horrifically difficult subject, for historians and for everyone else.  Should these people be allowed to spew their poison, especially on prime time TV, and should what they say be dignified by listening to it and responding to it?  It must have been very hard for David Baddiel, whose own grandparents had to flee Nazi Germany, to listen to a Holocaust denier, even to be in the same room as him.  But these people are out there, and what they say is out there, and ignoring them isn’t going to change that.

I was expecting this to be mostly about the “hardcore deniers” who claim that the whole thing was a hoax; but it showed that there are a lot of facets and layers to Holocaust denial, and just what a complex issue it is. It wasn’t the best-made programme I’ve ever seen, because it jumped about a lot, but it made some extremely important points. It only went so far, though. There were roads it only went a little way down, because it would just have been too dangerous to publicise some of what’s being said, on a mainstream TV channel. But it’s out there, especially on the internet where it’s very difficult to deal with; and it was brave of David Baddiel to take it on.

There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there

Even the most accepting of people must sometimes have wondered for whom Lee Harvey Oswald was really working, or whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales was really an accident. Every time a popular website or social media platform experiences technical problems, you can guarantee that someone’ll claim that it’s due to dark forces sponsored by the government of AN country they don’t like. Every time there’s an election, some sore losers who are disappointed by the result claim foul play. It ranges from the history-changing to the treatment of fiction as fact to the plain silly.  Did Roosevelt know in advance that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbour? Has there been a 2,000 year cover-up over the Holy Grail meaning a bloodline rather than a cup? Is Elvis Presley alive and well and running a chip shop?

OK, lose the chip shop idea, and accept that works of fiction are just fiction, but, quite seriously, and very frighteningly, it’s not that hard for a manipulative person or group of people to put forward a plausible-sounding argument and persuade others to their way of thinking.  In a lot of ways, that’s just what the Nazis did.  Ironically, as David pointed out, the Holocaust is one of the best-documented events (for lack of a better word) in history.  All those records at the concentration camps.  All the testimonies and memoirs of survivors, and of the Allied troops who liberated the camps.  The Nazi propaganda.

The Nazis tried to cover up what they’d done

And yet, as David said, the starting point for Holocaust denial was that the Nazis tried to cover it up.  He visited the site of the concentration camp at Chelmno,  which was purely a death camp.  There were no survivors.  The bodies were burned, then dissolved using napalm and acid, and the bones were made into fertiliser … it’s so horrific that it’s hard to take in, which is another problem.  Why did the Nazis want to cover up something which, to their mindset, was a great achievement?  And how did they think they could?  How did they think people would account for the fact that millions of human beings had disappeared?   This wasn’t when the war was clearly lost, when they were afraid of what the Allies would do to those who’d been involved in the worst atrocities in human history.  This was earlier on.  No real explanation could be given – but the point was that this was the start of Holocaust denial, by the very people who perpetrated the Holocaust.

Softcore denial – existing hatreds, and a lot to take in

So that was the cover-up approach. I don’t know how relevant that is, though. Plenty of things have been covered up, but the Holocaust is not one of them. More relevant is the “softcore denial”- and there are so many different strands to this. And this also started early on, with Allied governments not wanting to release too much information about the reports coming out of Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied states. Part of that was because they weren’t sure that people would believe it. And that is undoubtedly a huge problem. There’s always been persecution. There’ve always been massacres. But it’s very hard to take in something on the scale of the Holocaust, and also the industrial nature of it.

Another issue is that this involved demographic groups who have often been marginalised and the subject of negative stereotypes. David looked at some statistics about Holocaust denial, and I’m pleased to say that the UK had one of the lowest rates, but, even here, the wartime authorities were making some very unpleasant comments about the need to stress that Nazi atrocities were being committed against blameless people – the inference being that Jews might not be seen as blameless. And it’s not just Jews. No Roma or Sinti people appeared as witnesses in the Nuremberg trials. Gay men liberated from the concentration camps, Jewish or otherwise, were sent to civilian prisons to complete their sentences. It’s all fuel to the flames of denial.

Softcore denial and changing the focus of history

It was also suggested that the Holocaust was played down because, as relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union worsened, the focus switched to fighting the Cold War and the need to keep West Germany sweet meant that there was a sense of … well, “Don’t mention the war”. I’m not 100% convinced about that. The immediate post-war ideas of a large-scale de-Nazification programme, which would have taken decades, were abandoned, and the Nuremberg trials were wound down, but I think that that was due more to lack of resources than anything else. It’s worth noting that many countries refuse even to recognise the Armenian genocide for fear of offending Turkey, though.

What is undoubtedly a major issue at the moment, and which led to the president of Poland refusing to attend the commemoration in Jerusalem of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, is the approach to wartime history being taken in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe.  Again, there are many strands to this. It’s partly, especially in Poland, a feeling that the emphasis on the Holocaust means that insufficient attention is being paid to other aspects of suffering under the Nazis. I don’t really get that. It’s not a competition. But it’s certainly a big issue in Poland.

It’s also the fact that certain countries, especially former Soviet countries, want to attack the Soviets rather than the Nazis. David travelled to Lithuania, which is notorious for having had a high rate of collaboration with the Nazis. When I went to Lithuania, the local guide was a lady whose grandmother had sheltered Jewish friends and been recognised by Yad Vashem for doing so, so I didn’t experience any sort of “denial” in Lithuania. However, in Latvia, we visited a museum where we were shown a video about Latvia’s experiences during the war, and all it did was go on about how evil the Soviets were. The Nazis were barely mentioned, and the Holocaust was not mentioned at all. Everyone in the group said immediately afterwards how shocked and disgusted they were by it.

The issue David was exploring in Lithuania was the controversy that’s arisen since it came to light that a leading Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan, seen as a national hero, was a collaborator who was directly involved in facilitating the murders of Jews. This is another issue – and the end of the communist era, with its restrictions on what was and wasn’t being taught, means that more and more is coming to light about collaboration. Even in countries where there were pro-Nazi regimes or Nazi puppet regimes, the idea that it was only German Nazis who carried out the Holocaust has been perpetuated. Even Austria’s been recorded as a victim of the Nazis. Obviously no-one’s saying that more than a minority of people collaborated with the Nazis, but it’s proving hard to face up to even that much.

Softcore denial, the people who say that it’s time to move on, and the people who fling the terminology of the Nazi era around in modern politics

Then you’ve got the people who accept what happened, but say that it’s time to stop talking about it and to move on. Is that Holocaust denial? I’ve heard people say that they don’t see why the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War or the 75th anniversary of D-Day should have been commemorated. No-one would call that “war denial”. It’s ignorant, and it’s failing to understand the importance of the lessons of history. Is it denial? It’s a slippery slope, that’s the problem. And it’s usually followed by “Well, we don’t commemorate [any other event of your choice]” – and there we go, downplaying what happened.  And every person – and I see this happening frighteningly often, and it’s something that the BBC itself is guilty of – who compares modern-day politicians whom they dislike to Nazis is effectively a softcore Holocaust denier as well, downplaying what the Nazis did.

Denial and Middle Eastern entanglements

Then came a path that the programme didn’t go down. If I’d thought about it beforehand, I would have expected the highest rates of Holocaust denial to be in … well, it’s not very fair to generalise or to point fingers, but there are certain parts of Central and Eastern Europe which have a long history of anti-Jewish feeling, so I’d have said one of those.  No. It’s in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 82%. Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa too – the Middle East and North Africa, where the King of Morocco heroically refused to deport Moroccan Jews to Vichy France. This is something else: it’s the tangling up of the Holocaust with modern day political issues involving the state of Israel. The programme didn’t continue down this road.  But it’s not just an issue in the Middle East … and, whilst that was evidently adjudged not to be a matter for this programme, maybe it’s one for Panorama.

Hardcore denial, social media, and courtroom trials

I’d been expecting less about this and more about the “hardcore” deniers, but I think the programme got it right. “Softcore denial” is perhaps more dangerous.  So what did it say about the hardcore deniers? Not that much, and I think they must have decided that it would have been too dangerous to say much. There was more about what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to say than what they were actually saying. David met a representative from Facebook, and they discussed the issue of what forms of Holocaust denial are and aren’t banned, and should and shouldn’t be banned. These are very difficult questions. He spoke about a major trial in the 1970s – and the fact that, as much as the person concerned needed to be stopped and decided to be punished, it raised the profile of Holocaust denial. So what do you do?

The most famous Holocaust denial trial is the one in which historian Deborah Lipstadt took on Holocaust denier David Irving. David Baddiel met Deborah Lipstadt and her lawyer Anthony Julius (if you know the name, it’s because he was the divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales), and Deborah spoke very movingly about how distressed Holocaust survivors had handed her pieces of paper bearing the names of members of their families who’d been killed in the Holocaust. You could certainly see why she felt the need to take Irving on, and to defeat him in court. But, although reference was made to pseudo-science and fake reports, the programme wasn’t able to get to the root of why Irving would have said what he did, because how can you give someone like that airtime?

Meeting a Holocaust denier

David did speak to a Holocaust denier. And he got annoyed with himself, because he got bogged down into arguing with this man, into dignifying his lies with a response. We didn’t see that. We did see the programme making the man look like a complete fool. He was talking utter drivel, claiming that Auschwitz had bakeries and swimming pools. He got his own argument in a twist, saying that there’d been no gas chambers and that the idea had been made up by people who wanted to blame others for not rescuing them from gas chambers, when he’d just said that there were no gas chambers. He then sang a ridiculous song, accompanying himself on his guitar, about there being Mercedes cars parked outside synagogues. He came across as a total idiot. Maybe making fun of liars is the best way to deal with them.

But why was this man saying this? I can understand why a Lithuanian nationalist might not want to accept that a Lithuanian national hero collaborated with the Nazis. I can understand why people in Krakow might feel narky that tourists come to their beautiful city and use it as a base from which to see the most notorious place on earth, Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can understand that Austria wants to think of itself as a victim of the Nazis, even though it welcomed them with open arms in 1938. I understand that certain political groups find it beneficial to whip up hatred against certain demographic groups.

But why would a middle-aged man living in a small town in the Republic of Ireland, a country which was not directly involved in the Second World War and which is home to fewer than 2,000 Jewish people, say that the Holocaust was a hoax? Why would he devote time and energy to posting about it on the internet, to smashing up a TV in public as a protest against Holocaust memorial events, and to making up ridiculous songs about it? (I’m not for a minute having a go at the Republic of Ireland, and nor was David: it’s just where this man happened to be from.)

The explanation seemed to be that it was a form of escapism. It wasn’t political. He’d apparently made some attempt to stand as an independent politician, but we’re not talking about some of the extremist parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which are actually part of the political scene. It was some sort of fantasy world, that he devoted his time to in the way that other people might turn to books or films or TV programmes.  And also that it was anti-consensual: it was someone trying to make out that he was clever because he wasn’t believing what he was being told.  It’s really hard to make sense of that.  I can understand people manipulating history for political reasons.  But this sort of thing is just beyond bizarre.  But it’s out there.

Cranks can be very dangerous … and there are people out there who are far more dangerous

And yet even an idiot who sings about Mercedes cars can operate a website peddling lies, or post lies on social media.  And there are far more dangerous people out there – the likes of David Irving, who write scholarly books about this.  There’s so much rubbish out there.  And there’s no way of controlling it.

Meeting a Holocaust survivor

At the end of the programme, David spoke to a lady who’d survived the Holocaust, and she told him a little about her experiences.  So much detail, even in those few moments.  The evidence, the physical evidence, the evidence of survivors, the evidence of the Allied troops who liberated the camps, the evidence of people who lived near areas where massacres took place.

But you’re dealing with people who don’t want to know the truth, because it doesn’t suit their political ends, and you’re dealing with people who want to live in a crazy fantasy world and think that they can see something that others can’t.   David was able to make this particular guy look like a complete idiot.  Would that it were possible to do that with all the Holocaust deniers out there.

What’s the answer?

I want to say “education”, but that can be a softcore denial tool in itself – to witness, the Latvian museum.  Memorials?  Tighter control over websites?   Keep telling the true stories, I suppose is the best we can do.  And well done to both the BBC (and I don’t often praise the BBC these days) and Channel 4 for an excellent series of programmes to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Keep telling the truth.  It’s all we can do.


The Windermere Children – BBC 2


This feature-length film, shown on Holocaust Memorial Day, told the story of 300 Jewish children who survived the Holocaust and were brought to the shores of Windermere to try to begin rebuilding their lives. I thought that the cast and the production team got it absolutely spot on. It was poignant without being sentimental, and uplifting without ever shying away from the horrors that the children had been through. It didn’t show viewers the concentration camps: other programmes shown this week fulfilled that role. Instead, the programme makers chose to focus on survivors, and, at the end and in a follow-up programme, we saw several of them, now in their 80s and 90s, speak about the new lives that they’d made for themselves – the living proof that the Nazis did not, ultimately, succeed in what they set out to do.

I’ve long known about The Windermere Children, or “The Windermere Boys” as they’re usually known (even though some of them were girls). There’ve been exhibitions about their story at Windermere, my beloved Windermere. More importantly, one of “The Boys”, who was portrayed in the film and interviewed afterwards, is a family friend.  I’m not naming names, because I don’t think that’d be appropriate, but that made it particularly emotional viewing, and it was an emotional enough story as it was. Even so, there was so much I didn’t know. I hadn’t realised that some of the children were as young as three: it’s a miracle that such tiny, vulnerable children survived such horrific conditions. And I didn’t know about everything that Leonard Montefiore organised there, the team of counsellors and psychologists and a sports coach. There was a lot to learn, and a lot to reflect on, and so much to be inspired by.

It was filmed in Northern Ireland – which I hadn’t realised, so I kept looking for places I recognised and being confused when there weren’t any. It’s a shame that it wasn’t filmed at Windermere, but I suppose they needed somewhere quiet. And much of the dialogue was in Polish and German. I hadn’t been expecting that, but it was right: it wouldn’t have worked if it’d all been in English, when those portrayed arrived knowing barely a word of English. We saw the children arriving late at night, and Leonard Montefiore, whose initiative it all was, welcoming them to England. There were small touches, small but great kindnesses, like putting bars of chocolate in their bedrooms. Many of the survivors interviewed over the last few days have spoken of the kindness of the soldiers who liberated the camps, and of the people who welcomed them to their new lives.

It showed rather than told, and that worked very effectively.  We saw the older children’s anxiety as they were asked to line up for medical examinations, which must have been horribly reminiscent of the selection processes at the concentration camps. We learnt about their nightmares. We saw a group of the younger ones run, terrified, into the woods when they heard a dog barking. Perhaps the two most memorable scenes were when they all grabbed as much bread as they could from the baskets in the dining room, and ran off, stuffing it in their mouths and hiding what they couldn’t eat, and when the youngest children all huddled together under one of the beds to sleep, unused to sleeping alone.

And we saw, focusing on a group of the older children, the care that was put into helping to rehabilitate them. For all the developments in psychology in the 19th and early 20th centuries, no-one could have been prepared for how to deal with the aftermath of what the Nazis did, not just to care for the survivors physically but to try to integrate the survivors back into society and enable them to build meaningful new lives; but the staff at the Calgarth Estate centre seem to’ve done a superb job.

We saw the physical and psychological effects of the sports training. The sports coach didn’t have any sort of psychological training and it must have been difficult for him, but he clearly played a very important role – and, as we were reminded afterwards, one of the boys, Ben Helfgott, now Sir Ben Helfgott, went on to captain the British weightlifting team at two Olympic Games. There were also daily English lessons – and a bit of light-hearted banter about the boys wanting to learn enough English to chat up girls.

New clothes. At first, they were going about in vests and shorts, but there was such excitement as parcels of clothes arrived. I’ve read an interview with a British Army nurse who worked with survivors at Bergen-Belsen, and she talked about how much it meant to people to get new clothes, proper clothes.

And, most of all, freedom, to run about, to swim, to cycle.  That was why they had to be in the countryside.  And what better place than Windermere?  Windermere is very good for the soul.

We did see some hostility from the local community, even though this was a good few months after the broadcast of the Richard Dimbleby report from Bergen-Belsen.  But there was a wonderful scene in which the psychologist, who himself had fled Nazi Germany, confronted a gang of hoodlums in the street and made them understand what had happened.  At the end, some of the boys played them in a football match.

Progress was clearly being made.  But then the letters came, telling the children that none of their family members had survived. Some of them had already known. Others had still had hope. What a job for the Red Cross and other charities and agencies, in the chaos that was Europe at the end of the war, trying to piece together some sort of record of the dead and the living, in the concentration camps, in the displaced persons camps, with cities smashed to pieces, transport and communications networks damaged and people desperate for news of loved ones. The exact fate of some people still isn’t known.

Just as an aside, it’d be quite interesting to see a programme about the work of volunteers, relief agencies and so on with the concentration camp survivors. I know that some British medical students went out to help. And what an effort Leonard Montefiore put in. The follow-up programme spoke more about what an administrative nightmare it was to organise bringing the children to Britain. The government wasn’t very helpful, initially only agreeing to issue two-year visas, and refusing any financial help – the money was raised by donations from generous members of the public. Leonard Montefiore had to liaise with the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Red Cross and the authorities in Czechoslovakia. Everything involves red tape.

The range of reactions to the news the letters brought was very well-portrayed – brilliant performances by such young actors and actresses, and brilliant scriptwriting. Grief, acceptance, lack of acceptance, hitting out, being able to share grief, needing to be alone.

One of the boys was convinced that his elder brother was still alive, and would come to find him. Just before the end, there was a football match between a team of the refugee children and a team of local boys … and, in the middle of it all, along roared a motorbike, and the motorbike rider was the brother. He had indeed survived, and he had indeed come to find his little brother. It sounds a bit twee, doesn’t it? Everyone sat around watching under the dappled sunshine, drinking cups of tea and eating sandwiches, and then the emotional reunion between the two siblings. But it wasn’t. For a start, it was true – I don’t suppose the older brother actually did turn up in the middle of a football match, but it was true that the two of them were reunited. Another of the boys – Olympian Ben Helfgott – was eventually reunited with his sister, who featured in BBC 2’s “Belsen: Our Story” and also spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Day service in Westminster, several years later. The other children had lost everyone, but they had each other – and that very much came across in follow-up programme, when they spoke about the lifelong friendships they’d forged there. And it was making the point, again, that the Final Solution failed, even though it did take so many innocent lives.

Then, right at the end, we saw the actors portraying the five members of the group who are still alive morph into the dignified elderly men that they are now.  We heard about the lives that they’d made for themselves here, and about the two other members of the group who are no longer living, and the staff. Then, in the follow-up programme, the five men and several other men and women who were also Windermere Children spoke – about their lives beforehand, about how they’d been separated from their families, about the family members they’d lost and about their experiences in the camps, but also about how their time at Windermere had helped them to start rebuilding their lives, about the sense of belonging that they’d found here, and about the families and careers that they’d built here. On a day of reflection about loss and brutality, this was a story of hope.

Auschwitz Untold: In Colour – More4


On the day I visited Auschwitz, the sky was bright blue.  The red brick of the gas chamber chimney stood out against it, and it was quite striking.  That felt wrong, somehow, as if the sky should have been full of black clouds.  I wasn’t sure that colourising footage of the Holocaust – and, despite the title of the programme, this wasn’t only about Auschwitz, but also about many other aspects of the Holocaust, including the Einsatzgruppen massacres, the ghettoes and the destruction of centuries of culture – would work, but it did.  It also included interviews with sixteen survivors, including a female Jewish resistance fighter who escaped from the Vilnius Ghetto, and a Romani man who spoke about the decimation of his community in France.

A considerable number of TV programmes are being shown to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  The BBC are showing “The Windermere Children” tonight, as well as coverage of the actual Holocaust Remembrance Day service in London, and there’s a programme on tomorrow about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.  Several Holocaust-related films have also been shown, and special episodes of both Holby City and Songs of Praise have been made.  The specialist history channels have also shown Holocaust-related programmes; and More 4 brought us this, the first in a two-part series.  It’s harrowing stuff, but most people seem to agree that the 75th anniversary needs to be marked on a significant scale, whilst there are still survivors with us to tell their stories first-hand.

I’m not sure what I make of the idea that a younger audience won’t be able to “get” the full horror of the Holocaust unless the footage is in colour, but there’s no denying that colour adds something to historic photographs and film, as with Edwardian Britain in Colour and some of the First World War footage which has been colourised.

I thought the inclusion of footage from several different parts of Europe worked very well, in getting across the scope of what happened. One of the first people interviewed spoke about his childhood in a shtetl in the Carpathians. The deportation of people to ghettoes can create an impression that the Holocaust was all about the destruction of urban populations: the word “shtetl” usually creates a picture of an earlier time.  There had been a lot of emigration from the shtetls to Western countries, or to Budapest, Warsaw, Moscow and other cities, but it was the Holocaust that destroyed that way of life, not urbanisation and not the pogroms.

Another survivor spoke about Lithuania – and a point was made about the armed resistance in the ghettoes. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is familiar, but armed resistance in Vilnius, Krakow, Minsk, Bialystok and Krakow was also mentioned. We were reminded of the Einsatzgruppen massacres – including some very harrowing footage, now colourised, of a mass grave. I know I’m always saying this, but there can be a tendency to focus on the concentration camps at the expense of the massacres carried out in so many places. The people of the Vilnius ghetto were shot outside Vilnius, not deported to Auschwitz.  It was fascinating to hear this lady, who’d been a teenage girl when she escaped from the ghetto, the day before it was liquidated, talk about her experiences as a resistance fighter.  There’s a film about Jewish resistance fighters, Defiance, but it’s not particularly good.  Maybe someone could make a better one.

We also saw pictures of Jewish life in Vilnius before the war. It was such an important cultural centre: the term “Lithuanian Jews” is still used to describe religious people who emphasise the important of studying. About 13% population of Lithuania was Jewish at one time, the highest in the world, and – depending on which books you read! – 50%, 65% or even 75% of the population of Vilnius itself was Jewish. There’s very little left of that culture now. As the programme said, the Nazis aimed to destroy so much historic culture. We were shown colourised footage of Kristallnacht and, 5 years earlier, the book-burnings- the flames colourised in bright orange. They burned books. Then they burned buildings. Then they burned people.

It’s a shame, really, that the title of the programme didn’t make it clear how much this was going to include.  We saw footage of huge German tanks rolling into Poland … and the Polish Army riding out to meet them on horseback, as if it were the Napoleonic Wars.  They didn’t stand a chance.  We also saw a lot of footage of the Lodz ghetto. Lodz, the textile city, the “Polski Manchester”. Dead bodies lying on the ground. Nooses in a row, ahead of a mass public hanging. And hundreds of small children, 4,000 in all, being marched off for deportation to Chelmno, to be gassed to death … the test runs for Auschwitz. Little kids. One survivor, who’d been living in Amsterdam before the war, spoke about how, after his political activist Jewish father was arrested, the Nazis came into his primary school to arrest him. He was 5 years old. His teacher tried to tell them that he was off sick, but they got him anyway. 5 years old.

The shtetls were an Eastern European thing: in Central and Western Europe, it was more of a destruction of an urban population. And such an essential part of every country – in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, everywhere. Think Einstein, Freud, Mahler and, hey, Franz Sacher, the man who created Sachertorte. Budapest even used to be nicknamed “Judapest”. The programme – the title really didn’t explain just how much it encompassed – went back to the time just after the First World War, and explained how Jews were made a scapegoat for defeat, as if they’d been working again their own countries, the countries to which they belonged. It talked about Germany: it could also have talked about Hungary. And then there was everything that went on in the “Ukrainian People’s Republic”.

The programme made the point about what utter rubbish this was.  Two of the survivors spoke about how their fathers had fought in the First World War, one for Germany, one for Austria-Hungary, and how they’d both been decorated. They spoke about the number of Iron Crosses awarded to German-Jewish soldiers. With the shtetls, I think identity tended to be religious. Not just with Jews – in Austrian Galicia, before the First World War, Ukranians seem generally to have identified as “Orthodox” rather than as “Ukrainian” or “Ruthenian”, at least until the late 19th century. But, elsewhere, identity was national, not religious.  And then, as one survivor, deported from Budapest said, thousands of people were marched along the main streets into the ghetto, and other people passed by and didn’t even look at them.

People would have been too scared to do anything.  And there were people who tried to help.  The BBC spoke to a German woman who, as a young girl, along with her mother, provided shelter to a Jewish woman – and they also spoke to the British descendants of the woman they saved.   And, just as an aside, Songs of Praise spoke about the vital work done by British Quakers in organising the Kindertransport. But still.

One of the survivors was a French Romani man, who made it quite clear that it was officials from the Vichy government who arrested and took away most of his relatives and other members of his community.  I’m so glad (if that’s the right word) that the programme included the Romani Holocaust, because it’s not given as much attention as it should be.  We saw pictures of some of the camps in which Romani people were imprisoned – and, of course, many Roma and Sinti people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

It also covered the horrible irony of Jews taken to forced labour camps having to build the railway lines which would later be used to help the Nazis to deport people to the death camps, and also to invade the Soviet Union.  Most of those alive now were children at the time.  One lady spoke about clinging to her mother’s hand as they were marched away in Budapest.  One man spoke about how he associated the word “camp” with tents and jolly outdoor eating – until he got to a forced labour camp, where he had to help to build railways, and many of those working alongside threw themselves in front of trains because they couldn’t take it any more.  One lady spoke about asking, shortly after arrival at Auschwitz, when she’d be able to see her mother – and being told that her mother had been gassed to death.  Another spoke about her father putting his hand on her head in blessing, the last time she ever saw him

The juxtaposition of the testimony of the survivors and the colourised footage worked very well.  It doesn’t always work when you’ve got a bit of film and then a bit of talking, and then a bit more film and then a bit more talking, but it did in this case.  It really was a very interesting hour’s TV.  My only quibble is that the title of the programme didn’t show just how much it encompassed – they made a big effort to include aspects of the Holocaust which are not always discussed.  Well done, More4.  This was excellent.


Clifford’s Blues by John A Williams


This is another novel about some of the less well-documented victims of the Holocaust.  In this case, the protagonist is a gay black man, imprisoned in Dachau from 1933.  He comes under the protection, of sorts, of a Nazi officer he’s met before, in return for sexual and musical favours.  The book’s in the form of a diary, which I wasn’t sure would work, but which does because it means that a huge amount can be included as notes on what he’s witnessed or heard about.  The horrific medical experiments carried out in the camp, the forced sterilisation of mixed-race people in the Rhineland, individual executions, mass executions, outbreaks of disease, deportations to “the East”, new groups of people arriving.  It also refers to so many different groups of people, many of them groups whose experiences at the hands of the Nazis tend to be overlooked.  That makes it sound really harrowing, but it’s actually very readable.

On a different note, it spends a lot of time comparing Nazi attitudes on race to those in the southern states of the US, which I believe caused a lot of controversy when the book was first published.  And it talks about the Evian Conference of 1938, at which 32 countries failed to agree to take in Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s got messages that’re worth reading, especially in the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Our guy is an African-American called Clifford Pepperidge, and he’s a jazz musician – so I’m wondering if the World on Fire scriptwriter had read this.  He’s been working in Berlin in the “Cabaret” world of the Weimar Republic … but then, in 1933, he’s found in bed with a male American diplomat.  The other guy claims diplomatic immunity and flees the country, leaving Clifford to his fate.  At Dachau, Dieter Lange, a man he knows from the Berlin scene, now a Nazi official, arranges for him to be classified with a green triangle, as a criminal, in there for drug-dealing, rather than with a pink triangle, as a gay man, which would have meant his being treated far worse, and also arranges for him to work in his house.  In return, he’s treated as a sexual plaything by Lange, his wife and her lover.  He’s also expected to play at a Nazi social club.  (Would a Nazi social club have had a black musician playing?  It does in this, anyway.)

There’s a lot in the book about the different concentration camp badges, and the different categories of prisoner which they denote, and the double triangle badges which were used to denote someone falling into more than one category.  It also talks about groups of people coming in and being moved out, and how they interacted with each other, which is quite unusual for a Holocaust novel, and makes you think.

There was no official classification for black prisoners, because, probably due to the very small numbers of black people in Germany at that time, they weren’t rounded up and sent to camps in the way that Jewish or Roma or Sinti people were, so it’s hard to know how many people were affected, but it’s thought that many black people, were arrested as alleged criminals or political prisoners.   Certainly there was a programme of forced sterilisation in the Rhineland, for mixed race children fathered by black French soldiers during the post First World War occupation, and the book does refer to that.   We also see something of how gay men were particularly singled out for ill-treatment, and as the subjects of medical experiments.

As to the comparisons with the US … much of the book’s set in the 1930s, before the very worst of the Nazi atrocities, and there are undeniably some parallels in terms of banning mixed marriages, and classifying people according to what percentage of particular ancestry they have.  It’s a very controversial area, though, and I’m not comfortable with people drawing parallels between the Nazis and any other regime.  But the author has got a point, in some respects.  And what’s said about the Evian Conference is most certainly valid.  I’m not entirely sure that a concentration camp prisoner would have heard quite so much war news, but, for the purpose of the book, the reader needs to accept that he hears rumours from newly-arrived prisoners and that he’s sometimes able to listen to the radio.

There are a few bits which readers might need to Google. I’d assume most people are familiar with the names of top black musicians and sportsmen of the 1930s, but maybe younger readers might not be. There are couple of sentences in pig Latin, which I haven’t read for years – thank you, Beverly Cleary, for teaching me pig Latin! And references to Haitian voodoo.

It’s not particularly well-written.  Although the book’s written in the form of a diary, is there really any need for quite so much swearing and crude language?  Also, the author repeatedly uses “English” for “British” and “Russian” for “Soviet”, which is very annoying.  However, it packs a lot into 300 pages, especially as regards groups of Nazi victims who do not always receive that much attention, and it gets better as it goes along.

Towards the end, when he hears about the liberation of Auschwitz and what the Soviets found there, Clifford (who, despite being in the home of a Nazi official, manages to listen to the BBC World Service in the radio, which doesn’t seem very likely but you just have to accept that, or else the book won’t work) says that now he can think about how big and how evil everything that’s happened is, and how he heard all about evil from preachers in church but none of that could ever have prepared him for this.  Maybe that’s why the focus is on the death camps, because mass shootings and mass imprisonments, even if not on that scale, had happened before, so people could get their heads round them.  But there are other stories to be told too. 75 years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, there are still many Holocaust stories to be told, and the experiences of black people and gay people, and indeed black, gay people – this book did make a lot of reference to people with more than one “badge” – are amongst those which we still need hear more about.

And, at the end, it mentions a man who Joseph Nassy, who really existed – a Surinam-born mixed race American, working as an artist in Belgium at the start of the Second World War, who had Jewish heritage.  He was held in internment camps which were close to Dachau geographically but where the rules of the Geneva Convention were honoured, and drew many pictures of life there.  It’s a unique story.  So is everyone’s.


1944: Should We Bomb Auschwitz? – BBC 2


Another Second World War programme, this one about the very difficult question of whether, having learnt about the atrocities taking place at Auschwitz-Birkenau from two incredibly brave men who managed to escape, the Allies should have tried to destroy the gas chambers by bombing the site. Those in favour felt that doing so might save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews whom the Nazis were planning to exterminate, and also that it would make a strong moral point. Of those opposed, some were concerned about the risk of killing tens of thousands of prisoners in the process, whilst others, the majority, felt that it was more important to concentrate on winning the war.  There are no easy answers, but this programme asked a lot of important questions.

It was presented as a docu-drama. I think that that format does work better than the rather dry format of a professor sitting behind a dusty old desk, but it did feel quite strange to see something as horrific as the two escapees describing their experiences at Auschwitz being shown as a “drama”. One of them was played by David Moorst from Peterloo … and I know that this sounds daft, but hearing all these horrors described, as if by an eye-witness, in a Lancashire accent, really hit me particularly hard. What courageous men Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, the two Slovakian Jews who, in April 1944, somehow managed to escape from Auschwitz and make it from Nazi-occupied Poland into the Slovak Republic, a Nazi client state, were. Why are their names not better-known?  We should all know those names.  And how courageous also were the people working for the Jewish underground in the Slovak Republic and elsewhere.  Before going to Budapest earlier this year, I read a lot about their work in Hungary.  Incredible.

One of the underground leaders interrogated them about what was going on – and we’re talking a real inquisition. How horrific for them to be grilled like that, after everything they’d been through already, but obviously they had to make sure that the report was convincing, and that people wouldn’t just dismiss it as some kind of propaganda or even fantasy … because it was so far outside the scope of human experience that people were going to struggle even to begin to take it in.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of what the Nazis had done. I honestly don’t know whether someone – a family member, or maybe even a teacher – told me, or I read about it, or I just somehow gradually absorbed it as little kids do.  But I feel that I’ve always known about it, and that everyone around me has always known about it.  It’s hard to try to comprehend how people in 1944 and 1945 felt when they found out what was going on, because this was something new to history. Mass shootings, prison camps – people knew about these, both in the context of the Second World War and in the context of previous dark periods in history.  But to find out about these extermination camps, about the industrial killings of thousands of people a day – how did they process that information?  And that was why the report had to be so detailed, and to be factual rather than emotive.  People would struggle to believe it otherwise.

The first report, the Auschwitz Protocol, was prepared by the end of April 1944, and a copy of it was somehow transferred to the American-run War Refugee Council in Switzerland. I’m not quite clear on what was going on with post coming out of Switzerland at this time, but apparently they couldn’t get the full report out, so an edited version was distributed – but it said more than enough.

The rest of the programme alternated between what was going on with the report and what was happening to the Hungarian Jews, which worked very well: it really got across the message of what was going on. I visited the Budapest Ghetto only a few months ago, and I read quite a few books about it beforehand, but actually seeing the deportations on film – there was a lot of film, from both Hungary and from Auschwitz – was really horrible . And there were interviews with survivors. They genuinely had no idea what they were going to. They smelt a strange smell when they arrived at Auschwitz, but thought it was some sort of industrial process, or even a bakery. They were separated from other family members on arrival, but just assumed they’d been sent to a different barracks: it was only later that they realised that they’d been murdered.

Meanwhile, the British, other Commonwealth and American forces were preparing for the D-Day landings, the Americans were also advancing on Japan, and the Soviets were advancing through Eastern Europe.  Everything was happening at once.

The report reached Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, in London. It also reached the War Refugee Board in Washington. The people at the Swiss end were urging the Allied authorities to bomb Auschwitz, or to bomb the railway lines which led to it: they were in no doubt that this was what had to be done. In London, Eden called in Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok.   Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, was born in what’s now Belarus but lived in Manchester for decades and was very involved with the “Manchester School of Zionists”, whose other members were mostly old girls of my old school and old boys of our “brother” school (sorry, I do know that that’s irrelevant), and is a very familiar name … well, to me, anyway.  Shertok, later the second prime minister of Israel, had spent most of his life in what was then Palestine.  It’s quite interesting that Eden called in Jewish Agency/Zionist leaders.  Somehow, I would have expected the Foreign Office to call in someone more from the Anglo-Jewish Establishment. I don’t know why.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.

They were in favour of bombing Auschwitz.  Although it’s all a bit confusing and a lot of changing of minds seems to have gone at various points, it seems that so was Eden, and so, when the report was passed to him, was Churchill.  We were shown some of Churchill’s letters: it was clear how deeply, deeply shocked, distressed and traumatised he was by the news. It does seem that there were some people at Westminster who dismissed the report as some sort of attempt to try to guilt-trip Britain into letting refugees in, but Churchill and Eden were certainly not amongst them.

The Allies did have pictures of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. The airmen who’d taken them could have had no idea what they were photographing, presumably thinking it was an industrial site, but, putting them together with the drawings made by Vrba and Wetzler, it was pretty clear where the gas chambers were. But obviously there was no sort of precision bombing then, and any sort of air raids would probably have killed many or all of the prisoners. Forty prisoners were killed when Allied bombs aimed at a nearby factory hit the site in the September.

However, no-one seems to have been willing or able to make a decision, even over something so big and even when so many big decisions were being made about so many things. British and American Air Force leaders were consulted, and the commander of the US Air Forces in Europe seems to have supported the idea. The British Air Ministry seems to have argued against it, because of “operational reasons”, but it’s not clear whether this meant in terms of actually being able to hit the site or concerns about killing prisoners or anything else. It’s all very vague and very unclear.

Over in Washington, nobody even told Roosevelt. I find that really weird. OK, you can’t bother the president with everything, but this was pretty big, to say the least. And, yes, he was in poor health – but then why not tell the vice-president, or the Secretary of State? It doesn’t seem to have got much past some fairly junior minister at the War Office. Someone must have told Roosevelt at some point, but we don’t seem to know when. And yet the news was getting out – there were rumours flying about.  In fact, the news had spread sufficiently for a huge demonstration to be held in Madison Square Garden, in August 1944.

The full text of the report eventually reached the US, and presumably Britain as well. In Washington, the War Refugee Board was definitely in favour of bombing, but the War Department wasn’t. And, in London, Weizmann was told that bomb attacks on Auschwitz weren’t possible. Frustrated at the lack of action, the War Refugee Board linked the report to the press. The word “Genocide” appeared emblazoned across the front page of the New York Times.

Nothing was done.

As we know, Auschwitz-Birkenau was eventually liberated by the Soviets on 27th January 1945.

About 140,000 Hungarian Jews survived. The Soviets liberated around 6,000 people at the camp, although some of them were too ill for their lives to be saved. 15,000 others, maybe more, died whilst being marched away from the camps as the Nazis tried to cover up what had been going on. Some were transferred to other camps, and were liberated there.

The BBC interviewed a number of prominent Holocaust historians, including Deborah Lipstadt. Most of them seemed to feel that the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau – but not so much because it would have done any good as because it would have sent a message to the Nazis, and to history, that what they were doing was morally unacceptable – to put it ridiculously mildly.

I don’t know. I can certainly see the argument that bombing the camp would have killed tens of thousands of innocent people. I don’t know that it would have done much good anyway – there were other death camps, and the Nazis had other ways of killing people. But not on that scale, though? Could bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau have saved tens, even hundreds, of thousands of lives?

And I don’t claim to be a military expert, but, if there were air raids being made close enough to the site for it to be hit by accident, and given the scale of the bombing on Germany and elsewhere at the time, how much could it have affected the war effort if a number of raids had been made on Auschwitz rather than on other targets? But I am presumably missing something major, because the general verdict seems to be that the reason no action was taken was that it was considered more important to focus on winning the war. I can certainly see the argument that winning the war sooner rather than later would save lives.  And, whilst I hear the argument that bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau would have made a moral statement, it’s easy to talk about moral statements seventy-five years on, when you’re not trying to win a war that’s already been going on for five years.

There aren’t any easy answers, but I wish we knew what the answers that were reached actually were. The questions were asked. The issues were raised and discussed. It’s not as if it was a subject that just never arose. It was decided not to bomb Auschwitz: that’s the only answer we really have. I’m sure that the people who made that decision had very good reasons for it, and felt that it was the right choice. And talking about it now isn’t going to make any difference. But I want to know exactly what those reasons were, and which of them carried the most weight.  And, for all the discussion, and all the speculation, no-one can give me a definitive answer on that.  I really wish they could.

Rise of the Nazis – BBC 2


I’ve had the strange privilege of visiting Auschwitz, Babi Yar, the sites of the Vilnius and Warsaw ghettoes, and a number of other places – and there are so many of them – associated with Nazi atrocities.  What the Nazis did once they’d gained control within Germany and beyond is so horrific that we inevitably focus on that rather than on how they rose to power in the first place.  But how that rise came about is something that we need to understand, so thank you to BBC 2 for this three-part series, being shown to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Please don’t ever use the word “Nazi” to describe present-day politicians: however unsavoury some of them may be, they aren’t going to order mass executions or send people to gas chambers, and comparing them to those who did is an insult to the memory of the millions of people murdered by the Nazis because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or politics.  A row’s already broken out over the choice of presenters for this series.  But please be aware of how quickly democracy in Germany was destroyed, and of what that led to; and please don’t ever let anything like this happen again.  I thought that the focus of this first episode was very narrow, though.  It was all about political manoeuvring, and said hardly anything about how the Nazis actually gained the support that enabled them to become part of that.

In 1928, the Nazi Party won just 2.6% of the vote and 12 seats in the Reichstag.  In 1930, it became the second largest party, with 18% of the vote, and in 1932 the largest party, with 37% of the vote.  In 1933, non-Nazi parties were banned.  In 1934, Hitler was confirmed as sole leader of Germany, combining the positions of chancellor and president.  How could the Nazis, a fringe extremist party led by an “Austrian corporal”, seize power and impose a dictatorship, in so short a space of time?   And then cause a war which led to the deaths of eighty million people, many of them by genocide?

This was about the destruction of democracy, the rise of the Nazis, not about war or genocide – which I don’t think anyone could have foreseen even in 1934.  It had a very narrow focus: I was expecting it to start by talking about the Treaty of Versailles, the issues over reparations, and the Great Depression, but it started off with the events of 1930, with virtually no background information.  And it was all about political manoeuvring and machinations: next to nothing was said about how the Nazis won the votes that got them the parliamentary seats that got them into a position to be part of that.  Maybe that’s coming in later episodes?

It was shown as a docu-drama, with interviews with various different experts interspersed with actual film of the time but also with a lot of dramatisation.  It’s a very emotive subject, and I did wonder if a docu-drama might not seem a bit flippant – especially when, early on, they showed what was supposed to be Hitler’s apartment, featuring cushions with little swastikas on them, like something out of ‘Allo ‘Allo . But I think the format did work OK.

The argument that the programme was making was that the Nazis were able to come to power because two right-wing Establishment politicians, Kurt von Schleicher and Franz von Papen, both thought that they could use the Nazis’ popularity and numbers in parliament to gain power for their own blocs.  Nothing much was said about economic issues, reparations or rearmament, and next to nothing was said about how and why the Nazis’ share of the vote increased so much.  It was all about the political machinations.

It wasn’t that any of it was inaccurate.  It was just so … narrow.  The BBC presenters did at least have the decency not to compare any present-day politicians to the Nazis.  I’m disgusted that so many people haven’t.  Do people seriously think it’s appropriate to compare any politician or political party with whose views they happen to disagree with the people who perpetrated the worst genocide the world has ever seen?  It’s also unfortunate that next week’s episode is going to feature a political commentator who’s expressed support for the spraying of graffiti on the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Everything seems to turn into a row these days.  That sounds worryingly like the “Everybody’s cross these days,” line from The Sound of Music.  It wasn’t intended to.

In 1930, there were 14 parties represented in the Reichstag. As often happens, the major parties, rather than even thinking about forming a grand coalition, looked to the extremist parties for support. Karl von Schleicher, a close ally of President von Hindenburg, concerned about the growth in support for the Communists, wanted to use the Nazis for support against the Left. But the Nazis were not a fringe party by this stage. They’d won 18% of the vote in the 1930 election. The programme just didn’t explain the social, economic and political factors which led to the growth in support for both the Nazis and the Communists. There was a brief mention of “hearts and minds”, and there were a few shots of Hitler shaking hands with people during the 1932 election campaign, but that was about it. And the stormtroopers were mentioned, but more in the context of von Hindenburg wanting to use their brutality to achieve his own ends than in the context of what they were actually doing.

Anyway. Von Hindenburg wasn’t at all impressed with Hitler. Hitler wasn’t very impressed with von Schleicher. And the programme’s insistence that the rise of the Nazis was all about political machinations wasn’t very impressive at all, at this stage. On to the 1932 election, in which the Nazis’ share of the vote rose from 18% to 37%. Where were the explanations of why this happened? Maybe they are coming in a later episode?

The focus then switched to Hans Litten. The BBC described him as a Jewish lawyer. To be accurate, he had links with both Judaism and Christianity, being the son of a Lutheran mother and a father who’d converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, and showing interest in both religions. He successfully prosecuted a number of stormtroopers, and cross-examined Hitler for three hours in court, showing that the Nazis were indeed using violent, illegal methods against their opponents. He eventually committed suicide after five years of imprisonment and torture in Dachau. The programme returned to him later, talking about how he’d uncovered evidence that the Nazis had infiltrated the police and the judiciary – but didn’t go into how they’d infiltrated the police and the judiciary, because all the focus was on political game-playing.

Von Schleicher persuaded von Hindenburg to appoint his mate Franz von Papen (there were an awful lot of “vons” here, showing the extent to which German politics was still dominated by aristocrats) as chancellor. The Nazis, by now the largest party in the Reichstag, were entitled to appoint the speaker/president of the Reichstag, and chose Goring. At this stage, von Papen persuaded von Hindenburg to agree to the dissolution of Parliament and the suspending of elections. This wasn’t the doing of the Nazis: it was the doing of von Papen, with all sorts going on in terms of reparations, rearmament, the economy, and clashes between von Papen and the Social Democrats in Prussia. None of this was explained – instead, all we heard about was how it was stopped by parliamentary procedure, with von Papen bizarrely unable to get a word in edgeways to get Parliament dissolved before Goring had called a vote of no confidence.

At this point, November 1932, it was all about von Papen. The Nazis lost seats in the election, the second Reichstag election in six months, and were also struggling financially. Yet, in January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor – because von Papen, who’d had a big falling out with von Schleicher, needed coalition partners. The programme rather strangely claimed that von Papen was hoping to ruin the Nazis by giving them power in the hope that they’d make a mess of it and ruin themselves. It was more a case of a political bloc without a working majority needing support, and thinking that it could control its coalition partners.

Von Schleicher had been appointed chancellor, but, unable to form a government which could command control of the Reichstag, resigned after only a couple of months – and was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 … and this was as far as this episode took us.

The point of the programme was apparently to show that politicians’ desire for power for themselves and their allies meant that they were willing to work with extremists. That’s a fair point, and something that we often see – not so much here, where the voting system, whilst far from ideal, means that fringe parties are unlikely to win many, if any seats. But we’re not talking about a fringe party. Even in 1930, the Nazis won 18% of the vote. By 1932, they were the largest party in the Reichstag. Whatever von Schleicher and von Papen were doing, the Nazis would never have come into it had they not been able to get that amount of representation in the Reichstag in the first place… and the programme just said next to nothing about how and why they were able to do that.

So the whole thing felt a bit wide of the mark, really.  It was supposed to show how Nazism took control of a nation, but practically the entire programme was about just four people – von Hindenburg, von Schleicher, von Papen and Hitler.  And the whole point was that, in 1930, Germany was a democracy.  So what happened was about 67 million people, or at least those of voting age.  Showing pictures of cushions with little swastikas on them does not explain why 37% of the electorate voted for the Nazis.  Could have done better, BBC 2.  Could have done better.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr


Judith Kerr, who died yesterday, fled Nazi Germany with her family at the age of ten, eventually settling in Britain and becoming one of our best-loved children’s authors. This book’s based on her childhood experiences. Most people (if anyone’s reading this anyway!!) will know this book, but I just wanted to write something about it, to mark the passing of a great author.   Most of the tributes in the media are referring to her as “The author of The Tiger Who Came To Tea”, and she’s also known for many other books, notably those about Mog the cat, but this is the stand-out one for me. I’m better with history than animals, even illustrated animals! It’s a near-perfect example of how to explain difficult subjects to young children in an “age-appropriate” way.

How do you get “Hitler” and “pink rabbit” into the same book title? We see it all through the eyes of Anna, Judith Kerr’s alter ego, nine years old and part of a secular Jewish German family. The book starts off in Berlin in 1933, with elections looming and the Nazis set to take power.  Her father, a journalist, has written articles criticising the Nazis. They have to flee.  Anna and her brother Max each have to choose one toy to take with them. Anna chooses a woolly dog. Later, she regrets it, and wishes she’d taken her pink rabbit instead. When people start talking about the Nazis going through their house and taking their things, she imagines them taking Pink Rabbit. It’s part of a trilogy of books, the second set during the Second World War and the third set during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, but this one’s special.

At the beginning of the story, Anna, at nine, doesn’t really understand that anything’s going on.  Max and his friends, at twelve, have heard things, names, but don’t understand the potential consequences.  They have fights in the school playground, Nazis versus Sozis, but it’s more a case of each gang wanting to beat the other than knowing what either label stands for.  And everything’s normal.  They go to school.  They play out.  They go home and tell their parents about their day.  And they haven’t grown up with the mindset of being part of a persecuted minority, or even any minority at all.  This isn’t Anatevka, where one community lives apart from another.   Like Sarajevo, like so many other places before all hell broke loose, everyone just lived together.   And Anna and Max’s family are assimilated: they don’t even really bother with religion.

Judith Kerr shows so well how normality can just fall apart.  One minute, Anna and Max and Mama are sat round the table eating apple strudel for afters.  The phone rings.  The next day, Papa’s gone, and they’re planning to go too.  Just like that – leaving their entire lives behind them.   They go to Switzerland, just outside Zurich, and they settle in there, and everything seems to be OK … until some Germans come there on holiday, and the kids aren’t allowed to play with Anna and Max because they’re Jewish.  Meanwhile, a price has been put on Papa’s head.  Again, Anna doesn’t really understand what it means.  Just that it’s not good.

Then they up and leave again.  This time, it’s for Paris.  Another new country, another new school.  New friends.  This time, a new language too.  They’ve just got settled there, and Anna’s doing really well at school, and then a film script that Papa’s written is bought by a film director in England.  So it’s another new country, another new language, another new start.

On the final page of the book, Anna ponders whether or not she’s having a difficult childhood.  She decides that she isn’t – because she’s always been with Mama and Papa and Max, and because it’s all been interesting and some of it’s been funny.

That was Judith Kerr.  She lived this, and yet she could say that, in this wonderful book that she created.  A lot of it’s funny  – their grandma’s obsessed with her annoying dog, the train journey to Switzerland is enlivened by a woman with a cat in a basket, and, when they’re on the train in England, they see adverts for Bovril at every station along the way and think it’s the name of all the places.  But there are struggles too, like their father’s shame when Anna is given a coat by a relative who works for a charity providing clothes to poor children.  And there are moments of real horror, like when they hear that Onkel Julius, a family friend who stayed behind in Berlin and fell foul of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws, has committed suicide.

It’s not bitter. It’s not preachy.  Unlike some articles (it tends to be articles rather than books which do this) written by people who have never even faced persecution or been refugees themselves, it doesn’t try to make the reader feel guilty. Like so many things written by wonderfully brave people who have faced persecution and been refugees themselves, it’s so astoundingly free of self-pity that it humbles you.  It tells a story – and it does it so incredibly well. Children’s books are written by adults, which is problematic because it’s not easy for an adult to speak like a child, think like a child and reason like a child, especially about one of the most difficult subjects in world history; but Judith Kerr managed it.

Rest in peace, Judith. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with tributes to you within minutes of the announcement of your death.  Your books meant a lot to very many people.  And you were an inspiration in yourself – an inspirational person who led an inspirational life and wrote inspirational books.



Hitler’s Holocaust Railways with Chris Tarrant – Channel 5


It’s a horrible irony that railways, once the ultimate symbol of human progress, were a sine qua non of the Nazi atrocities. Chris Tarrant’s said that he had nightmares after visiting Auschwitz. I didn’t, but it was certainly a very disturbing experience. When you’re there, you can see the railway lines which brought over a million people there from across Nazi-occupied Europe. Without the railways, it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to have carried out mass murder on the almost unimaginable scale that took place. This programme saw Chris, in a journey through Poland, the Czech Republic and Poland, explore various aspects of what the Nazis did, and the role that the railways played in that.

There are a lot of historical railway programmes around these days. Most of them have quite a romantic feel to them. This one was chilling. It was cleverly done, with a long railway journey taking in various different places and tied in with the timeline of events.  And it was good that it didn’t just focus on the death camps – because some Holocaust programmes do do that, and it’s important to remember that many people either died in ghettoes, because of the conditions there, or were killed close to their homes, whether at large scale killing sites like Babyn Yar or in woodlands near isolated villages.

The programme began in Nuremberg. I’ve been to various places in Germany and very much liked most of them – I have particular soft spots for Cologne/Koln and Oberammergau – but I did get the creeps a bit in Nuremberg, so I was interested to hear Chris say that he found it unsettling as well. The Nazis held annual rallies there from 1923 to 1938, the infamous Nuremberg Rallies. Thousands of people attended them – and they travelled there by train. Those huge propaganda events could not have taken place without the railways, and Chris visited the main station where people would have arrived, and followed their tracks along the local line taking them to the area, now a sports field, where the rallies were held. The Nazis had it all very well organised. Chris said that he wouldn’t like to be there after dark. I’m not surprised.

From there, he travelled on through the Sudetenland, talking about how the railways made it possible for the Nazis to get their troops to all the countries they invaded. Movement of troops by rail’s been important since the mid-19th century, so it’s hardly something specific to the Nazis, but it was still a valid point. He was openly critical of the Munich Agreement, but that’s another story.

On to Prague – and this was one part of the programme which showed how the railways had been used for good, as we heard about the wonderful work done by Doreen Warriner and Nicholas Winton in helping refugees to leave what was then Czechoslovakia. Chris spoke to an elderly Jewish lady who, aged 12, had come to Britain on the Kindertransport. It was very moving hearing about how the children had been separated from their parents – although this lady’s family had eventually been reunited, and had all survived – but at least some lives, around 10,000 in all, were saved.

He then met another elderly Jewish lady, who’d been in the ghetto/camp at … the programme referred to it by its Czech name, Terezin, but I’d’ve thought it was better known by its German name, Theresienstadt. She travelled with him on the train journey, and went round the remains of the camp with him. Again, it needs to be remembered that many victims of the Holocaust died at sites other than death camps: around 33,000 people died at Theresienstadt. This lady, who later became an artist, had drawn pictures depicting her time there. One thing she hadn’t drawn, but bravely spoke about, was seeing a group of young boys hanged because they’d tried to send letters to the women’s part of the camp, to tell their mothers than they were OK.

Thousands of people were deported by train to Theresienstadt – and then the railway line was extended right into the camp, to facilitate the deporting of people from the camp to mass execution sites further east, and then, as the plans for the Final Solution were put into practice, to Auschwitz.

The pictures of those overcrowded trains, from all over Nazi-occupied Europe, carrying people to the extermination camps, are very familiar. Chris, as he travelled on to Berlin, touched on the subject of complicity. How much did people know?   He visited the site, now a memorial, from which deportations from Berlin to the death camps took place. Those being deported were made to pay for their own transport. And he travelled on one of the railway lines along which those trains travelled. It’s a sort of heritage railway now. People go for nice days out on it, like we might go on the East Lancashire Railway or the North York Moors Railway. As he said, they’ve probably got no idea of its history.

Into Poland – and his first stop there was at Gniezno. It’s supposed to have been the first ever capital of Poland. During the war, the Nazis operated a huge railway building yard there. They forced 150,000 prisoners to work on the railways, something that’s not often mentioned.

As Chris said, additional trains were needed because of the invasion of the Soviet Union – but, infuriatingly, he kept referring to it as “Russia”. It is very, very annoying when people do that, and, given the number of people killed by the Nazis in Ukraine and Belarus, it’s particularly annoying when people do it when talking about the Second World War. Whilst I’m having a moan, he also completely mispronounced the name of his next stop, Lodz, over and over again. The researchers should have checked that. Gah!

And he didn’t mention that it was a textile city. Well, I would have done. I’ve seen the sites of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettoes, and those in Vilnius and Riga, but I haven’t been to Lodz … but it always strikes a particular chord with me because it was a textile city, and referred to “Polski Manchester”. Anyway. Like all the major ghettoes, it was close to a railway station: people were brought there from many other places. The sites were chosen largely for that reason. Had Auschwitz, Oswiecim, not been close to a major railway junction, it’d just be a quiet Polish town which most people would never have heard of.

He travelled through the site of the old ghetto on a local tram, and pointed out the former Gestapo HQ, now a pharmacy. OK, I suppose they have to use the buildings for something, but … imagine going into a shop and knowing that it used to be a Gestapo HQ. Ugh. Once there, he met up with 89-year-old Arek Hersh, from Leeds, who, as an 11-year-old boy, was forced by the Nazis to work on the railways, taking away the bodies of men who’d dropped dead from overwork and starvation, and had later escaped from the Lodz ghetto before ending up back there and being taken to Auschwitz. He accompanied Chris for most of the rest of the programme.

The programme showed the Jewish cemetery in Lodz. In addition to the many graves of people who’d died in the ghetto, there were plaques commemorating those who’d been killed at Chelmno. Confusingly, whilst Terezin is better known by its German name, Chelmno is usually referred to by its Polish name, but the programme used its German name, Kulmhof. Oh well, the name doesn’t really matter that much. It was a kind of stately home and surrounding estate, out in the forest, which the Nazis took over and turned into a death camp. People, mostly from Lodz, were brought by train to the nearest railway station, and then taken to the camp by lorry. And it was the experimental death camp. They had mobile death vans. They probably looked a bit like ice cream vans or delivery vans or mobile libraries or whatever, but people were locked into them and poison gas from the exhausts diverted inside. Another step towards the establishment of the gas chambers.

And from there to Auschwitz, where, as I said, you can still see the railway lines which brought all those people there, most of them to their deaths.   There’s no way that all those people, or the building materials and supplies used there, could have been taken there without the railways. It’s so horrible that the railways, the wonderful, romantic railways which enabled people and goods to travel far and wide, which we associate with everything from The Railway Children to Brief Encounter to Harry Potter, with all those lovely heritage railway lines which you can travel on, with the incredible scenic railway trips which you can go on in Switzerland or Canada or India or the Scottish Highlands or any one of umpteen other places, with those really famous trains like the Trans-Siberian Express and the Orient Express, were used like that.

Arek Hersh showed Chris around Auschwitz, so to speak, and explained what conditions there had been like. Then Chris went alone to see the gas chambers. It was a really lovely sunny day, without a cloud in the clear blue sky. It was like that the day I went to Auschwitz, as well. It felt all wrong, somehow, as if it should have been snowing.

Chris spoke movingly about six million people having been killed in the Holocaust. I don’t like to criticise on a point like this, and it is a very sensitive and difficult subject to address – but no. No-one really knows how many people were killed in the Holocaust, but some estimates put the number as high as seventeen million. Certainly at least eleven million. It’s a difficult area, and it’s something that has unfortunately been exploited by far right elements in Poland, who claim that the killing of non-Jewish Poles is overlooked. Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Many people who were not Jewish were also murdered by the Nazis – Roma and Sinti people (many of whom were killed at Auschwitz or Chelmno), Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Serbs, and people from Germany and elsewhere because of their political or religious convictions, or because they were gay, or because they had physical or mental disabilities. I really don’t like to criticise on such a sensitive subject, but the programme could have made that clear.

Arek Hersh told Chris about how he’d been taken on one of the death marches, in the snow, with temperatures 25 degrees C below freezing, as Red Army approached and the Nazis evacuated the camp. He’d been moved from camp to camp – and then taken on one last railway journey, on a coal train, to Theresienstadt. He was liberated by the Soviets, and was one of the “Windermere Boys”, the 300 young Holocaust survivors brought Windermere to recuperate. Windermere, to where, from the 1840s, where trains have carried so many people from industrial parts of Northern England to spend some time in the most beautiful part of England. Most historical railway programmes are about romance and beauty. It sounds daft, when you think how mucky steam trains can be, but it’s true. This one was anything but.

It was very well put together, and it explained different aspects and different stages of the Nazi atrocities very clearly. Chris was obviously moved by what he saw, and it must have been difficult for the three people he spoke to to discuss their experiences, but it was done sensitively without ever being lecturing or over-emotive.  A good job done on a very difficult subject.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck


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.