So said Winston Churchill. As it turned out he was indeed instrumental in the way in which at least part of our history has been written. You see, I have long since agreed with the view that history is written by winners and, as such, we view the past through the victor’s lenses and consequently run the risk of having a distorted view of some things.
For example, when I was at school much of our perceptions of Roman Britain and its trials and tribulations were influenced by the Annals and Histories of Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian. Similarly, our views into the activities of those blood-thirsty tyrants, the Vikings, were influenced by Bede – or ‘Venerable Bede’ to his friends – a Christian monk of Northumberland. Whilst their combined works appear to have stood the test of time, and although Tacitus may have been sympathetic to the struggles of our early European ancestors, neither one could be considered ‘impartial onlookers’ of the events which they transcribed onto parchment.
Likewise, our views of those Germans caught up in the euphoria of that nation’s rise to power in the 1930s and who were later called upon to serve the Fatherland for their Fuhrer are tainted by prejudice and, as vanquishers of evil, we’re able to stand atop the moral high-ground and tar them all with the same brush. But we aught to be careful as, whilst there may not be fifty shades of grey (heaven forbid), there are indeed many separating black and white. So things aren’t always what they seem.
This particular thought has been stirred up by a number of recent events, each of which has caused me to step back and think about some views I may have previously held, and prompt me to adopt a more open mind before casting judgement. One such event was September’s Victory Show, an annual World War 2 re-enactment event held near Leicester in which my son was, for the 2nd year, one of the combatants.
The group he has chosen to join is the Grossdeutschland Pioneers, a Living History group modelling themselves on the famous Wermacht regiment’s late war activities on the eastern front. Given the prejudice I have already alluded to, it may be inevitable then that the public attending the Victory Show – and other, similar events – view those feldgrou clad soldiers differently to those wearing uniforms of allied troops.
It is those ‘combatants’ then who are regularly asked ‘why on earth did you decide to join the Germans?’ This question is probably accompanied by a look of utter dismay, as though the guys had joined Isis or crossed over to the dark side – although those two may be construed as being one and the same.
My son’s reply is usually along the lines that he just wanted to be able to provide another side to the story, by educating Joe Public that not all Germans were psychopathic Nazis. And very admirable such a reply is, and it’s probably now quite true. However, if he were to be completely honest I think it would be because the uniforms were far more cool than the others. And so they should be, as they were produced (and may have been designed by) Hugo Boss. But that’s an aside. Suffice to say that many German soldiers were decent chaps and thought that right was on their side and they were justified in their actions. Not for nothing did they have ‘Gott mit uns‘ (God with us) on their belt buckles.
The thing that really triggered this thought-path for me was reading the book ‘Ostland’ by David Thomas. This is a brilliant novel inspired by actual events and is one of those all too rare literary gems – one that is immensely enjoyable to read, yet leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading. The story is based on the wartime activities and subsequent trial of Georg Heuser, a police officer with Berlin’s ‘Kriminalpolizei‘.
Heuser was a brilliant detective and had been instrumental in bringing to trial one of Berlin’s worst serial killers of the 1940s (Hitler, Himler et al. aside). In keeping with many other civil positions at that time he was also a member of the SS (despite having no affiliation with the Nazis) and was subsequently posted to Minsk to keep law and order there following the German’s invasion of Russia.
Despite his SS rank he was, essentially, a policeman, he had no strong views on ‘The Jewish Question’ and was not privy to the regime’s plans for a ‘Final Solution’. Nevertheless, he would very soon become embroiled in the Nazi strategems and become instrumental in several of the dreadful atrocities committed to Jews in Minsk. Events for which he would stand trial in the 1950s.
The book’s author does a fine job of showing the inner conflict experienced by Heuser when ordered to undertake tasks he viewed as distasteful. This same confusion was felt by many of his colleagues who drank vodka to excess in order to overcome the horror of the assignments they were called upon to perform. It was Isaac Asimov who once said ‘never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right’.
Heuser’s character is also brilliantly illustrated; one of a man who’s formative years were during the Nazis’ rise to power, and who saw and was influenced by their creation of a new, powerful nation out of the shame and humiliation of Versailles. He was also a very disciplined individual whose sense of duty was paramount.
So yes, his trial for war crimes was justified. But was he evil? This is the question posed by the book and, having read it, I don’t believe he was. This leads me to also consider that I should no longer be so swift to condemn the actions of others before I’ve given thought to their motives and mind-set.
I guess the central question should be ‘would Heuser have committed those acts had it not been for the war?’ In my view, certainly not. He was a man with an extremely strong sense of duty, a commitment to perform that duty to the very best of his abilities and was intensely loyal to those above him. These characteristics, mixed with years of indoctrination and wicked regime policies produced a result that was both tragic and inevitable.
Perhaps it is this situation that Hitler himself had in mind as early as 1925 when he wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’: ‘What luck for rulers that men do not think’.
Duty, loyalty and a belief that a task must be done well if it is to be done at all are also some of my own characteristics. The troubling question for me then is, given the same set of circumstances would I have performed any differently? And that is why the book continues to resonate with me, and probably will do for quite some time.