What did these German soldiers believe?
There is a lot in the news at the minute about the power of religious faith as a motivational factor. But we mustn’t forget that a study of Nazism teaches us that it is perfectly possible to have fanatical faith without believing in a traditional religion at all.
Hitler, for example, despised Christianity, yet he felt compelled for purely pragmatic reasons – especially when starting out as a political leader – to sometimes speak well of the religion in public. He could do little else, he felt, because a number of his followers were Christians. But Hitler put a very different slant on traditional Christian beliefs. In a speech in April 1922 Hitler said: ‘My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who, once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognised these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who – God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read the passage [in the Bible] which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. ’
And, as I wrote in the Dark Charisma of Hitler: ‘It was possible for Nazis to make personal – and blasphemous – comparisons between Jesus and Hitler. For example, that both leaders had waited until they were 30 years old before beginning their ‘mission’, and that both promised redemption from the suffering of the moment. In order to support such views the Nazis – not surprisingly – ignored the historical record and claimed that Jesus was not Jewish.
All of which makes the increasingly quasi-religious role of Hitler in the Nazi state particularly intriguing. The hordes of Germans who traveled – almost as pilgrims – to pay homage to Hitler at his home above Berchtesgaden; the thousands of personal petitions sent to Hitler at the Reich Chancellery; the pseudo-religious iconography of the Nuremberg rallies; the fact that German children were taught that Hitler was ’sent from God’ and was their ‘faith’ and ‘light’; all this spoke to the fact that Hitler was seen less as a normal politician and more as a prophet touched by the divine. For Wilhelm Roes, growing up in the early years of Nazi rule and who would later join the SS, Hitler ‘was God himself. All the media sort of glorified him. And we young people believed all of that; you know we were stupid. If I look at my grandchildren, we were so stupid’
Hitler wanted, in the long term, to get rid of Christianity, but he still recognized the immense value of ‘faith’. He dreamnt ‘of a state of affairs in which every man would know that he lives and dies for the preservation of the species’. He wanted his soldiers to have fanatical ‘faith’ in him and in Germany – not in some supernatural being.
Antony Beevor’s new book ‘Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble’ is published today. The appearance of a new book by the master of military history is always special, and this new work does not disappoint.
The book displays all of the skills as a historian that have justifiably made Beevor famous. He combines a meticulous attention to detail with an ability to explain the immensity of the campaign and its context within this most horrific of wars. In particular, his description and assessment of the character of the British commander, Bernard Montgomery, is quite brilliant. How Montgomery managed to achieve such fame – despite his many personal inadequacies – is truly extraordinary.
‘Ardennes 1944′ is an important read. Anyone seriously interested in the history of the Second World War should buy it now.
I met Oskar Groening, the former SS soldier from Auschwitz whose trial started this week, more than 10 years ago. We were filming him for a BBC TV series I wrote and produced called ‘Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution”. The interview he gave us is of real historical importance, since he offered insights into the role of the SS at Auschwitz that I’ve not heard anywhere else. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. If you want to read the views he expressed in his interview then just look in the book I wrote about Auschwitz. I discuss Groening at length there.
All I wanted to write about here was the personal impression he made on me. Oskar Groening was a bank clerk before the war and a personnel officer after the war. You could scarcely meet a more ‘ordinary’ person.
And that’s one reason why it is important that we think about Oskar Groening. Because many people want to believe that they would recognise someone who worked at Auschwitz if they met them. They think that a member of the SS at Auschwitz would almost certainly be red faced, slathering and stupid – an obvious monster of a person. Not someone who is mild mannered and wears glasses.
I think it is right that Oskar Groening is on trial. In my view, every single one of the 6, 500 members of the SS who worked at Auschwitz should have been held accountable for their actions immediately after the war. It is a scandal that less than a hundred have ever been prosecuted.
But just remember that whilst Oskar Groening must be held personally responsible for what he did at Auschwitz, he doesn’t conform to the stereotype Nazi that many might want him to be. Life would be much less troublesome and much more comfortable if people who did bad things were obviously bad when you met them, and people who did good things were obviously good – but it doesn’t work that way.
The Holocaust Educational Trust have just put online a podcast I recorded with their head of education, Alex Maws.
‘Touched by Auschwitz’ transmits on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday 27 January
‘This immensely powerful programme’
The Daily Telegraph
‘Laurence Rees’s film tracks down six survivors of the camp in five countries to ask the complex questions of how a person endures the unendurable and then explains the inexplicable’
‘Hard hitting… compelling’
After watching this documentary, you may well think that the human spirit is unbreakable’