That Hitler Thing

February 14, 2013 12:26 pm

I was in Waterstones the other day (while it’s still there). I was looking for a book for my wife’s birthday. I got her a copy of ‘Call the Mid Wife’,  the book on which the current Sunday evening TV ‘feel good’ slot is based. She likes that slushy sentimental stuff, she’ll be the first to admit. Battered wives, abandoned babies, orphaned kids, then it all comes right in the end.

She won’t watch things like ‘Marley and Me’ because the dog dies. She still bawls herself silly at the end of ‘The Incredible Journey’ when the two golden labradors and the Siamese cat come running over the hill, finding their way home after their, well, ‘Incredible Journey’. So I thought ‘Mid Wife’ a sure winner. Trouble was, the assistant at the counter told me that I was entitled to another at half price because I was buying a book with a sticker on it.

So, inevitably, I was drawn to the history and politics sections to look for a suitable bargain for myself. Can you imagine the surprise when I saw a thick paperback tome stood there on the shelf? ‘Mein Kampf’  by Adolf Hitler. ‘Mein bloody Kampf!hitler mein kampf

I’d read extracts from Hitler’s turgid book in William Shirer’s classic ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’ and a cursory glance through some of the pages confirmed the hateful tone, the virulent vileness of the man that caused so much bother last century. I mean, his chapter on the Jews is called ‘The Reckoning’ – enough said. I felt as dirty as a vicar in a porn shop just handling it, so I quickly shoved it back up there.

Distant searchlights

What was it that made me do that? I’ve got an open, enquiring mind, I like to think. I’ll read most things on history, and have read many books on that period. In fact, it would probably be my specialist subject if I made the quarter finals of ‘Mastermind’. Then it made me think about my relationship with Adolf Hitler. How did he figure in my life?

I suppose it started when I was quite young, seven or eight, when I watched my first war films on the TV. This was supplemented with a regular programme called ‘All Our Yesterdays’ which looked back over ‘twenty-five years ago’ in weekly instalments.

Of course, Hitler loomed large in my parents’ lives. They were teenagers when the Wehrmacht was just across the Channel and they remembered the Luftwaffe flying overhead. They heard the distant bombs dropping on Manchester and Liverpool and saw night skies lit up in the distance with searchlights and fires.

One of the most profound things my mother said concerned Hitler. It was after watching one of his mad Reichstag or Nuremberg speeches. She said: ‘He told the German people he was mad, but they didn’t believe him.’

Mum actually saw the first newsreels of the liberated camps at the end of the war in the cinema. How one man could keep a grip on a nation fed my curiosity, so I began to read up on anything I could get my hands on about that time.

How we laughed

At school, in my early teens, a good way of winding up the teachers, who treated us like dirt, was to stick a picture of Hitler up on the classroom wall with a note underneath that read: ‘Uncle Adolf, Our Hero’. Some of our teachers were ex-servicemen, and nothing pissed them off more than things like that.

I drew childishly obscene cartoons for our ‘Concentration Camp Comic’. I’d pass them around when the teacher was writing on the blackboard. It was better, healthier, being one of the class clowns than competing with the bulky hardnuts, no matter how tasteless the humour.  I sold twenty copies of the ‘comic’ for £3, my first sale.

On a school trip to Remagen in Germany, I posed as Hitler in the balcony of our hotel room. My mate smudged a cigarette ash moustache on me and I combed a ‘Fuehrer fringe’ and raised my arm in salute. How we laughed. The photo didn’t turn out right – too dark (in more ways than one, I suppose).

I think it was ’72 or ’73 when they first aired the classic documentary series ‘The World at War’. I was glued every Sunday for 26 weeks, hooked by Olivier’s narration. For the first time, I saw what Hitler meant in real terms, particularly when it reached that ‘Genocide’ episode. It all fell into place. I finally understood those memories of my parents, the meaning of my mother’s profundity, and the disgust of my teachers at my immature urge to shock.

Those images of Belsen and Auschwitz: the walking skeletons; the sunken eye sockets; the shaven heads; the ovens; the burial pits; and the British soldier with kerchief covering his mouth, as he scooped up flattened, stiff corpses with the bulldozer. The way that episode played no emotive music on the soundtrack for this one time – just silence, broken only sparingly by the hushed tones of Olivier.

Earnest moments

Some of me grew up after that. I would never treat such things with disrespect again. I found my anti-racist stance at a relatively young age, and it felt right. Every schoolkid should watch that episode.hitler

But I extended this stance to all peoples. I would argue, in my earnest moments, against those who said anything anti-German. ‘They’re not all Nazis,’ I’d say. On my second school trip to Germany, I found the people warm, kind, cheerful and I was armed with my ‘O’ level German to inflict on shopkeepers.

The summer I left school, I hitch-hiked with a mate to visit his German penfriend. I paired up with her friend. I had to ask questions. ‘What do you think about Hitler?’ (Straight out with it). She told me what they (then) taught in school was that Hitler had been ‘good for Germany to a point’. He had put the six million unemployed back to work and made the economy strong, but he had then ruined everything by persecuting the Jews and invading other countries.

What some forget is that the first inmates of the camps were hundreds of thousands of Germans – socialists, communists, trade unionists, Liberals, clergymen,  journalists.

Some were b*****ds

It was five years after that, 1980, I went to live and work in Germany. I remembered, idealistically, writing in my diary on the eve of my departure – ‘I want to get to know a country and a people’ – and that’s what I did.

What I found wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. In the five years I lived there, the conclusion I came to was that the ‘German people’ (ie. those I knew, friends, colleagues, neighbours, acquaintances) were among the nicest, funniest, friendliest people I’d ever met. Some, of course, were b*****ds and not at all pleasant. But so were a lot of British, French, Americans I knew. What a revelation!

I’ve got a handful of German mates. They will be friends for life and, though I haven’t seen most of them for around twelve years, I know, like any other close friends, if I saw them tomorrow, we would pick up exactly where we left off. So, it’s a shame some people still deal in stereotypes, or buy into ‘that Hitler thing’.

In the five years I spent in Germany, I met a right-wing biker who was eager to introduce his knife to my throat. Once, in a cafe, an old man heard my English accent. He threw his artificial leg onto the table and told me a ‘British pilot did that to me!’ On both occasions, my German buddies jumped in and intervened.

Yes, the old beast is alive too. An American GI, a Latino with a German father, told me he thought Hitler had some ‘good ideas’:  ‘He took all the weirdos, faggots and communists off of the streets.’

I knew this guy to be one of those born again bible-bashers so I told him: ‘But that’s not very Christian of you, is it?’ He looked at me with that blank ‘psycho’ stare. He replied: ‘But communists ain’t Christians?’ True.


I couldn’t find a book I wanted. The assistant tried to tempt me with a copy of ‘The Life of Pi’.  I looked at the picture on the front.

‘I don’t think I want to read about some guy on a boat with a tiger,’ I said.

‘Ah,’ she said. ‘It’s about much more than that. Don’t judge a book by its cover now.’

She was right, of course.

And don’t judge a people by their Fuehrer.

Final thought: ‘For though the world stood up and beat the b*****d, the b***h that bore him is in heat again’ – Berthold Brecht.

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