ISBN 978-0-330-48757-3. “The Third Reich – A New History” by Michael Burleigh was published by Macmillan in 2000 (then Pan Books for this the paperback edition in 2001). This is an enormous book weighing in at over 800 pages alone just for the main body of the text. This is from a man who has already written five significant books on the same lines. The covers drip with accolades from reviewers falling over themselves to applaud this work. Given the drift of contemporary European history it is a book that just had to be studied. In a political sphere sliding rapidly towards racism and authoritarianism what do any of us really know about fascism? It seemed time to find out. How does the past inform our future?
With a work of this enormity, from a giant in this topic, you can expect nothing less that an intellectual masterpiece. For this is what it is. We have to admit this is not an easy read for a farm boy from Suffolk. The reach of its vocabulary is quite beyond what most ‘well-read people’ will normally encounter. You may need a very large dictionary. Sometime it is hard to fathom who the target audience was. The author seems to have aimed this at his fellow historians. Maybe he imagined it would be printed in low volume to gather dust in the world’s more prestigious libraries. Did he expect it to be churned out in paperback and get awarded the Samuel Johnson prize for non fiction in 2001? There is no chance of Burleigh dumbing this epic down, but let that not put you off. It might take you several weeks to wade through this volume but it is worth it – even if a few of the paragraphs escape general meaning for us mere mortals.
It is also difficult to read in a less literal sense. Burleigh exposes the crimes of the Nazis in brutal fashion. The dead mount up in page after page. The victims are normally the innocent, old people, women, children – all guilty of nothing more than being of the wrong race, religion or colour. Some were simply ill, others in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not all were simply shot or gassed. Many starved or were driven into swamps to drown. The inhumanity of it makes you shudder. The mass murder lasted for years and knew no geographical boundary. Where ever the Nazis went people died in large numbers – long after the battle had moved on. Much of the pre-war violence seemed to be fuelled by alcohol as the author often describe the perpetrators as ‘hooligans’, ‘drunks’ and ‘thugs’. Few seemed any different from a modern mindless neo-Nazi. History seems to have glossed over the ugly truth of the street violence with glossy footage Nuremberg Rallies and German tank battles.
This is also not a simple tale of cartoon good guys versus bad guys. Many people in the East suffered under the Nazis only to suffer again after liberation by Stalin’s forces. People caught up in the middle were accused of being Communists by the Nazis and then accused of being Nazis by the Communists. Ethnic cleansing by the Nazis spared many people who were later exterminated by Soviet ethnic cleansing. The Allies sold their soul to the Devil to rid the world of Satan. It seemed that the whole of Europe drowned in the madness of Nazism. In every country invaded there were many thousand if not millions of people willing to join the Nazis and equally willing to ethnically cleanse their neighbourhoods and nations of any undesirables there. The war gave everyone an enormous opportunity to settle old scores and commit theft on a mind-boggling scale. So many crimes were never committed by the Nazis. They didn’t need to, they only needed to initiate the pogrom for it to gain a momentum all of its own. Europe was alive with hate on a scale few can comprehend today. The Nazis simply facilitated the awakening and made it “alright” to go around killing people. Lawlessness was the new law and order and everyone was welcome to play along at home. Many wanted to – and that remains the scary part. It is too easy to scapegoat the Nazis alone.
But they were not alone.
Beyond even these narratives Burleigh drills down into many individual stories and anecdotes, picked from the records, by way of illustration. Most revealed that even the Nazis themselves rarely stuck to the movie script that history wrote for them. Many ardent Nazis seemed like good people. Much evil was also conducted by Germans who hated the Nazis. This muddled tale defies any attempt to draw up a list of who was naughty or nice. Burleigh’s “New History” reveals endless complexity and subtlety. People capable of great evil were also capable of great good. Many who were coerced into evil suffered mind-bending guilt as a consequence and suffered for the rest of their existence knowing what they had done.
“Others broke down in tears, drank excessively or had nervous breakdowns; one man went berserk in a barracks and shot dead several of his colleagues. Many regularly experienced impotence. By November 1941 at least one psychiatric hospital specialised in treating SS men ‘who have broken down while executing women and children’.”
After enduring page after page of nearly unmitigated evil the distinct takeaway is just how pale the latter day Nazi imitations are. There really is nothing to compare them with. Sure our nations’ politics have drifted to the right-wing flavoured state corporatocracy that would not have been unfamiliar to Mussolini, but neo-race-based politics has never quite reached the same peak unless you take into account minor regional conflicts such as Rwanda or the Balkans. The modern political-right share much in common with the fascists of yesteryear, with there unnatural fear of foreigners and the blaming of victims for being poor. Both wish to create a hated underclass to be despised – but at least their modern cousins mays choose the Council House sink estates instead of a ghetto with murderous intent. The lessons of history are not lost on the Right of modern Europe and the events of the 1930’s are still too close-by for them to be forgotten.
The distance of time inevitably forces us to simplify the lessons of the Nazis into narrow concepts. Burleigh challenges some of these assumptions. The class divide in 1930s Germany was not monolithic and defied simple categorisation into left and right:
“…many workers did not work in factories and did not regard themselves as proletarians…”
Germany at the time was every bit as fractured and sophisticated as any modern European nation. We should not try and excuse history by making out that these people were so different from us. They lived through extraordinary times that few today can properly comprehend but they defy simplistic narratives that attempt to force them into concept of class versus class. Burleigh prefers instead to consider Nazism as a Political Religion and he dwells much upon it conflict with the church. The Nazis tried hard to rid society of religion and not just Judaism, the Catholic and Protestant churches were diminished by attacking many of there traditional community roles. Church charity was replaced with secular support mechanisms in addition to the more direct rounding up of troublesome Priests who often found themselves languishing in Dachau for their pains. The most ardent internal dissent to Nazism came from ordinary people when they saw their place of worship being desecrated by men in jackboots. The Nazis did not always get their own way.
Another path often taken by the author is to examine the very criminal nature of the Nazi regime. The law became malleable to whatever best served the needs of the “Volk”… And whatever served their needs was at the whim of Nazi officials. There was no law and order as we would understand it today, for all objectivity became lost
The Nazis “relied more on the mindless razzamatazz of entertainment, parades and marches. By contrast, their rivals on the left developed a belated appreciation of the emotional potency of symbols and the irrational.”
There is little here that has not been developed to a fine art in post war modern politics. The issues no longer need discussing. The issues, if understood properly would seem irrational. Instead we get bread and circuses. Election times become a beauty pageant for whomever can woo the voters best with their mindless TV performances and 5 second sound-bites. The Nazis invented modern politics. They knew how to seduce a nation and our latter-day politics has spent eighty years trying to recapture that magic.
“Sentimentality was arguably the most modern feature of National Socialism, in that turn-of-the-millennium politics are permeated, if not by presentiments of apocalypse, then by a cloying sentimentality from politicians hard to distinguish from preachers…”
From politics to big business the events in 1930s Germany still haunt us today with spooky familiarity
“…disparity between the treatment of large and small enterprises was because the unemployment consequences were especially grave when a big firm closed, but also because the anti-capitalism of the SA hooligans focused more easily on small shops than on boardrooms.”
How little has changed in that sense. The dreams of the 1980s Thatcherites turned so sour when the property-owning democracy of small businessmen crumbled beneath the machinery of big business monopolies and the casino economy. So it always will be for it is a force of nature.
Of the Nazis Burleigh concludes with a flourish that I will recite at length:
“The Nazi empire was created by violence, lived by violence and was destroyed by violence. In contrast to other empires created by armed might, which bequeathed art and literature that are still widely admired, or administrations, customs, languages and legal codes that Europeans and non-Europeans still adhere to, from Ireland to India, the tawdry Nazis left nothing of any worth… Nazism was literally ‘ from nothing to nothing’… Rarely can an empire have existed about which nothing positive could be said… Even in the limited terms of its own aesthetic politics, the Nazi ‘New Order’ was merely the universalization of ugliness.”
All we are left with is an ugly lesson from history that semi-permanently hems in our political realities to this day. Today politicians dream of the power the Nazis had but they cannot square the circle of how to make fascism work in a democracy when everyone is so too well aware of the crimes of the past. For this is the function of the Nazis in today’s culture. We want to be them yet not them in equal measure. They repulse us like they attract us. They fascinate us yet their actions disgust us. They lead us all to question who we are, what we are and we wonder what we would do in their shoes. We are nothing like them yet manage to copy them in some third rate imitation of madness. We all live in their shadow yet few of us really understand what Nazism was until we read a true work of history like this.
“However much of the modes of memorialisation and representation are debated in the future, the history of the Third Reich reminds us what can happen when desperate people turn to the politics of faith…”
For desperate times are upon us and fascism is only as far away as the burning of some Reichstag, the bombing or Pearly Harbour, the attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin or the attacks of 9/11. We should never forget how easy it was to be a Nazi.
ISBN 9781782392538. “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos was published in the UK by Atlantic books in 2013. I decided to add a few words about this book to the end of our review of Burleigh’s “The Third Reich” for a couple of reasons. Firstly the trivial reason that both were purchased after being spotted in a bookstore, both nagged me to buy them. Secondly the more important reason is that they both address the same slice of history but from very different perspectives. Whereas Burleigh put the microscope on the Nazi war of extermination Makos has focused on the tale of one fighter pilot. Seemingly they would have little in common but this is no ordinary war story.
This is, basically, a biography but springs from a specific incident in December 1943 when a troubled USAAF B-17 bomber was limping out of Germany after a raid. It seemed certain it would not have survived the coastal flak batteries that were sure to finish it off. The bomber made it back to England after a highly unusual intervention by a German fighter named pilot Franz Stigler – the principle subject of the book. The reasons why Stigler spared the lives of the US bomber crew is the subject of the biography.
Adam Makos himself matured in his outlook whilst writing this book. He started as a young enthusiast writing up war stories recorded from the testimony of veterans. He admitted to being only interested in Allied veterans whilst completely disregarding the experiences of combatants from the Axis powers. In his simple world-view the “enemy” were Nazis not worthy of interest. Franz had emigrated to Canada after the war and in his early interviews with Makos the author realised his mistake in labelling the adversaries as “Nazis”.
Young Franz grew up in deeply religious family – Catholics who were never Nazis. They never voted for Hitler and hated the fascist regime in Germany. Franz himself was an altar boy destined for a career in the priesthood although his life took a different turn when it became clear he was not entirely cut out for that destiny. Indeed he was excommunicated from the church after joining a duelling club at University – an incident that was work in his favour later in life. His father had been a WW1 flier so Franz and his brother grew up learning how to fly gliders in one of the many clubs that formed for these activities in Germany in the inter-war years.
So how does a Nazi-hating former altar boy end up flying a Luftwaffe fighter plane over Nazi Germany? It is in answering this question that this book derives its fascination. If we learnt from the many anecdotes in Burleigh’s book it is that life in Nazi Germany was complicated. Most Germans simply had to cope with a regime that the majority found distasteful, most who fought in the war considered themselves patriots, not Nazis. This was most true in the Luftwaffe that, although lead by the Nazi buffoon Goering, remained an elite organisation that despite its amazing war record actually refused admission to Nazi party members until later in the war. Indeed it was not until 1944 that the straight arm Nazi salute was forced upon the Luftwaffe who had, until then, used the regular bent arm salute to the head.
By following Franz’s story we learn about what German “resistance” to the Nazi’s looked like amongst ordinary soldiers. It seems somehow contradictory to talk about Franz’s flying career as “resistance” – he was a highly accomplished ace pilot with over 30 “kills”. However, as we learn before – life in Nazi Germany wasn’t simple and “A Higher Call” reveals just how problematic this was. Franz had originally flown transports before becoming a flying instructor. It was only after his brother was lost in a flying accident in occupied France that he entered service to seek “revenge”. The culture of the Luftwaffe was that their fliers were a breed-apart. They considered themselves the knights of the air. Their victories were not “kills” and they sought not to kill enemy pilots but to destroy they planes and capture the pilots alive. This sort of attitude brought the Luftwaffe into conflict both with Hitler and Goering who pursued war as a Darwinian objective necessary to exterminate an enemy.
Despite his glittering career in the Luftwaffe Franz inevitably became disillusioned. Most Luftwaffe pilots recognised the war was lost early yet still they kept fighting, they saw little choice. Attrition was high and if any of us had to witness the kind of tragedies these young boys had to witness then few of us could doubt we would lose our sanity. Most victims of war are not combatants and for this reason I am not normally interested in the soldier’s story. But in this tale we are asked to see the combat through the eyes of young men desperate to believe they were defending their homeland and the innocents below from the ravages of enemy bombs.
But how much of this is wishful thinking? Is Makos’s retelling of the Franz Stigler story just a fanciful re-invention? Makos puts a heavy emphasis on the nobility and chivalry of the Luftwaffe pilots and the sacrifices they made to save Allied airmen. Yet do these stories tell us everything? Many of the pilots chased medals through the war and some of the chivalry gave way to cheating. Franz himself chased a magical score of victories until disillusionment set in and he simply stopped caring what his score was. Yet we do have to ask ourselves if these memories of events 60 or 70 years ago have been airbrushed to save embarrassment? Not to say that Makos has done this as he is using first hand accounts… But is Franz being honest with himself? In this we will never really know yet his actions speak loudly. His action in sparing an enemy bomber strongly suggests that he was a good man who simply wanted the American pilots to fly to neutral Sweden or crash land in Germany. His escort over the flak defences may not be as significant as Makos might suggest. Franz didn’t fire on the bomber because it didn’t fire at him – it was no threat. Given the grievous condition it was in he did not believe it would make it home. He assumed the war was over for this American crew – one way or another.
The story is unusual and maybe Franz was a very different kind of Luftwaffe fighter pilot. Certainly none of his colleagues knew about the event until the story re-surfaced 60 years later. Reactions were mixed. His former commander Adolf Galland was actually disappointed but understood. Some Germans treated him like a traitor, some Canadians treated him like a Nazi. The book closes out with a highly emotional episode in which Franz meets the surviving crew members of the bomber he saved. Their families, children and children’s children gather around to thank him for what he had done. Yet this remains a tiny drop of goodness in wars that are nothing but slaughter for all concerned.
Both Franz Stigler and the US bomber pilot who tracked him down so many years later – Charlie Brown, died in 2008. The story of how they met over the skies of war torn Germany are now part of wartime legend. The fact that both survived the war and were able to meet up after so many years is a fascinating story of human interest. But what does it really tell us about the human condition. What are we? Nazis? War mongers? Heroes? Shining Knights in armour? Naive boys?
It seems we are all capable of all these things. Our fates are what we make them. We can chose. It is our responsibility to do the right thing. It is our job to think. If we learn anything from this strange tale it is that our enemy can be our closest brother yet there is always something obscuring this from us. If we really want to avoid more wars then this fundamental truth has to be realised. Young men and women are being thrust into wars and are doing their “duty” despite the fact that they do not hate their enemy. They come to believe that their duty is the only objective. They are doing what they are told, likewise we asked to treat them as heroes… We are all doing as we are told. Maybe it is time to stop doing what we are told and start seeing people for what they are. For want of a better explanation – we should all start thinking for ourselves. Maybe more of us should start to see the world through the eyes of Charlie Brown, Franz Stigler and Adam Makos. What a world that would be.