Heil Schicklgruber!

During the last few weeks I have enjoyed BBC4’s German season, about Art, about walking and sharing Al Murray’s wonderful big-hearted intelligent view of a country he’s made his reputation out of mocking.

It felt good being German, coming from such a varied cultured people who have such rich history and for a few hours I could lose myself in the media without being worried that the spectre of Hitler would rise up and slap me round the face and prevent me from openly enjoying all things German.

I read with wry amusement that British ‘History’ taught in schools largely concentrates on the ‘aitches’ Hitler and the Henry’s – the heavyweights of British history. I wonder why that is? Why does the UK keep Hitler alive and well in the public mind rather than letting him settle into the slot next to Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussain, Pol Pot, Vlad the Impaler and Genghis Khan?

What is it about Hitler and the Third Reich that so intrigues people? As a German I can’t take the xenophobic anti-German jibes in the press too seriously, I actually have to find them funny and laugh, if I don’t want to be seen as your stereotypical humourless ‘Teuton’. I’ve lived here for 50 years now and love it, but it seems to me that everytime I open a popular newspaper or switch on the TV, I begin to wonder if Hitler is dead, and if he is, why he won’t lie down?

Is it all really ‘lest we forget’? In every bookshop in the UK there seem to be extensive World War 1 and World War 2 sections.  War memories abound. Lest we forget? As far as I know, most people in Germany were so-called ‘Mitläufer’1, an easier option than being sent on an extended vacation to a Nazi brainwashing camp, a torture clinic or the gallows. They secretly hated the Nazis and loathed what was happening and have lived with great shame and torment of the holocaust ever since.

My girlfriend was surprised when she couldn’t find similarly extensive WW2 sections in bookshops in Düsseldorf recently. ‘Is it because you lost the war?’ she asked innocently. I don’t really think that’s it, I think it’s more that we see the Nazis as a horror that we must learn to accept as part of our history, but at the same time we must move on and away from our past.

In December 2010 I noticed the freeview channel ‘Yesterday’ broadcast programme after programme about Concentration Camps et al. Why? Perhaps someone out there will help me think about this in a new way. What are these programmes for? ‘Lest we forget’? Most people in the UK were born after 1945 and have no direct experiences of the horrors of war. What is there for them to forget? Could there be other reasons?

Some people believe we can learn from history, that by looking at the horror images of world wars often enough and long enough, we will be deterred from solving our political differences with tanks and rockets and concentration camps. What evidence is there that by looking at past wars will stop us starting a new one? 

I believe the past can teach us nothing, but that we repeat patterns of war and hurt people. It’s in the here and now we actually live, and that is all we have. That’s where we must feel whether we are going to hurt people or not. As far as I can see, it is only from working diligently and sincerely with the givens of the present that we can learn anything at all and perhaps create a better future.

As a German toddler in the war, I was no part of it, I can’t remember a thing. I 100% accept the horror and mindless cruelty of the might of Germany having been used for evil, but is there a danger of keeping these images of past horrors in people’s minds? If so, what could these dangers be?

I set foot in London at the beginning of the Swinging 60s. What a place it was to my stiff and very formal grammar-school-tutored German mind! It took 5 minutes to shed any of my ‘good-boy’ inhibitions and to get down the pub and sink a few pints and meet a few girls.

What was fantastic then was nobody ever mentioned the war other than my late-teenage colleague in the City of London shipping office where I worked. Every morning he beamed a big smile at me across the table, stood up, clicked his heels, gave the Hitler salute and sang ‘There’ll always be an England…’ Of course, I laughed. It was funny then. It’s not funny now, why?

Hitler seemed to emerge from the textbooks of history under the reign of Margaret Thatcher.  She didn’t favour ‘Europe’, even though, forgive a German for pointing it out, isn’t the UK part of Europe? Often Europe and Germany were mentioned in the same breath, as if they were synonymous. A new jingoism raised its head, born perhaps from old WW2 fears?  And maybe belonging to Europe was felt to be tantamount to being annexed by Germany?

All of a sudden there seemed to be a rash of TV programmes based on the war and how funny the Germans were.  I must point something out, dear readers of this blog, Germans aren’t really funny at all, if you haven’t noticed.

‘Dad’s Army’ didn’t feed any prejudice about Germany, that is to say that Britain equals Good and Germany equals Bad. It was based on unadulterated British self-irony, a superior brand of humour that seems to have died out. ‘Fawlty Towers’ made me laugh, too, and I wish ‘don’t mention the war’ was real and not a joke. I could already detect signs of self-congratulatory, self-righteous, xenophobic spirit insinuating itself into this humour, which was completely absent in ‘Dad’s Army’.

When people mention Hitler or the Holocaust or the war, I feel a sense of deep shame for being a German, and for having a father who fought the Russians and a mother in the Hitler Youth. Talking to them of their experience in the war you get a sense of the sheer power of Hitler’s propaganda machine. They knew what they had been told, knew better than to question it and were glad when it was all over. To raise their hands and salute the Führer with a cheeky ‘Fawlty-Towers’ kind of ‘Heil Schicklgruber!’ 2 would have meant their certain death.

We were lucky to live in the British zone after the war and my one enduring war image is of British soldiers giving kids playing in the streets lumps of butter, oranges and chocolate from their own rations. I remember them as quiet, serious men for whom my heart will always be full of thanks.

1 ‘Mitläufer’ literally translated means ‘with-runners’ or ‘running with them’ or simply ‘paying lip service’ to the regime.

2 Before Adolf Hitler was Adolf Hitler, he was Alois Schicklgruber.