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Trying to understand – Writer-insighter

Trying to understand

German children, 1945.
German children, 1945.

Nothing you’re going to read here is new. No ground-shattering insights. No finally-revealed truths. I wish there were. There aren’t any. Almost everyone knows you shouldn’t go around killing other people and the people who don’t know that you can’t talk to anyway, because there isn’t any point.

I’ve spent the morning trying to understand people. I started reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, someone you might never have heard of in exactly the same way I hadn’t until this morning. He was a German Lutheran who entered the church. Two days after the Nazi Party really kicked off in a big way he started making speeches about how crap an idea Nazism was. When he tried this on the radio the broadcast went silent, not entirely surprisingly.

He went to America, to London, to Norway, he went to all sorts of places until inevitably the Gestapo killed him, just a few weeks before the end of the war. He seems to have worked for Admiral Canaris in the Abwehr, the German intelligence organisation, which was how he was able to travel so easily and why he stayed alive so long. The Abwehr seemed to have a rivalry with the Gestapo, the other intelligence operation, which was the one that eventually knocked on Bonhoeffer’s door very early one morning.

I don’t know anything about this stuff. All I knew was Bonhoeffer’s saying that people who stay silent, people who know and refuse to do anything are just as guilty as the people who do the bad things. It’s something I’ve always believed, coming from a family that lied and stayed silent about almost everything, but especially the physical and emotional abuse carried out within it. If you know and keep your mouth shut you aren’t doing nothing, you’re doing a great deal. You’re protecting the people doing it, actively. The same way that not voting protects the people you pretend you didn’t vote for when in fact you did, by not voting against them.

Spending the morning trying to find out more about all of this was not the most fun I’ve ever had. It lead straight to the ludicrous David Irving, whose ‘scientific’ analysis claiming to have found no trace of cyanide in gas chambers rested on the evidence of someone who wasn’t a scientist in the first place. There is a pile of testimony, not just from camp survivors but from guards as well, with plenty saying “it wasn’t me guv,” or they didn’t have a choice or the eternal favourite ah-yes-but-others-were-worse-than-me but none that I read this morning saying no, they weren’t gas chambers, they were just places we de-loused clothes in, or tried to fix leaky car exhaust pipes, like Kwik-Fit, that’s all it was, honest. I spent a lot of time reading through the Nizkor Project files. None of them said anything like that. The testimony read the same way other material from that time does, the same phrasing, the same ways of speaking. I’ve read a lot of it. I’ve talked to people who were there.

There was a pile of lies though. “They all knew about it” was one of them. There was no internet. When the Red Army Faction tried to radicalise Hamburg dockers in the early 1960s, telling people their phones were being tapped, they missed the middle-class point that back then, nearly twenty years later, most people still didn’t have phones. People didn’t drive to work en masse in the 1940s and look out of the window at the barbed wire fences when they stopped to do their lippy at the lights. There was something of a war on. And most people didn’t have cars.

This isn’t really about the war, although it haunted my parents’s generation and many of my teachers at school, from the primary school English teacher who insisted that the American forces ‘weren’t on our side,’ to the ex-Paratrooper PE instructor everyone respected, but for his fairness rather than his stabby/shooty ability with a Sykes-Fairbairn knife and a Sten gun. It’s about the other mass killing going on, but even that’s a nonsense.

There are plenty of mass killings going on, all over the world. We’re told about the ones that are good for us, the ones the news organisations and the government want us to know about. We’re not told in any detail  about the conflicting theories about the death of hundreds of people in an airplane over Ukraine; we’re told the Russians did it, one way or another. We’re not told where the mysterious tunnels and rocket launcher sites the IDF keeps not destroying in Gaza actually are or how many of them there are or how come the primitive rocket launchers keep manufacturing themselves in Gaza when there isn’t any electricity any more, no port, no airport and no way in or out. We’re not told why it’s ok to invade other countries like Iraq and totally destroy infrastructure there, then rebuild it and give the reconstruction contracts to the Vice-President’s company without competitive tender. We’re told what we need to know. And it leaves me with questions.

If the Nazis set-out to kill every Jew in the Riech, why did they leave any? Why did they start winding the programme down in 1943? Why did they do it in the first place? Why wouldn’t Churchill and the British government have any serious talk with Bonhoeffer? Or with Hess, if it was in fact Rudolf Hess who turned up in Scotland? What did Hitler and his best political mates have against Jews? Why don’t we all know about the German resistance, not just about Bonhoeffer but the doomed White Rose group or at the other end of the social scale the Eidelweiss Pirates, the working class Hamburg kids who used to hunt Hitler Youth recruits and beat them up?  Why is it ok to occupy somewhere illegally in the face of more UN resolutions than were ever passed against any other country and the US, the fearless defender of Gahd, mom and democracy, whose troops marched off to Iraq fatuously declaring they were ‘honour bound defending freedom’ has absolutely nothing to say about it?

Unidentified US pilot at Leiston, between June 1943-45. The puppy sits on a drop-tank.
Unidentified US pilot at Leiston, between June 1943-45. The puppy sits on a drop-tank.

Why? Why can’t we be told and why to any of it anyway? Is it just what we do, us humans, the worst, most adaptive destructive monkeys?

I think it is. A few years ago I met a man who was then in his eighties, who’d flown Mustang fighters for the USAAF from Leiston in Suffolk, an airfield a few miles from my house. He was from Ohio and spoke with that slow, gentle Mid-West tone that belied the fact that he’d been trained specifically to kill people, for no other purpose. He stayed in my house for ten days for two summers. There was a lot of swing music. A lot of beer and memory.

He told me a lot of things about the closing days of the war, how he’d been sent to Germany along with the rest of his squadron just a few weeks after the end of the war, how he’d had one date with a German girl and decided he’d live longer if he didn’t after someone opened up on him with a sub-machine gun just after he kissed her goodnight. He never found who it was after he spent an hour hiding in a dark wood until he was pretty sure the ex had gone. He told me about sleeping with a loaded .45 under his pillow after leftover German guerillas calling themselves Werewolves had promised to sneak into the allied bases and kill the invaders in their beds. He told me about a time when his flight had attacked four German aircraft and destroyed all of them and how he felt guilty admiring the incredible beauty of the blue-green flash of two of the aircraft as they exploded. How at least the two young men inside died instantly, unlike the other two who had a minute or more to fall to earth with the pieces of their aircraft falling around them.

He told me about the camp he’d seen.

He told me about piles of bodies. It doesn’t make a penny’s-worth of difference whether there were a hundred or a thousand or ten million, or whether they died from gas or bullets or typhoid or starvation. None of them needed to. None of them should have. He told me about how his squadron saw this and how they decided to go into the nearest town. They rounded up every German they could find at gunpoint and marched them through the camp, young and old, so nobody could say afterwards that they didn’t know. The mayor of the little town killed himself soon after that. When the last German had been lead through the camp the young Americans had another conversation. What say they stop by the armoury and just go back into town and kill every last one of those bastards? This was a serious discussion item. A very senior officer had to stop it because a lot of the junior officers were onboard with the idea. It was a popular theme.

So I can understand people being so sickened that they think the only thing to do is to do the same thing. I can’t understand why people need to lie about what they were doing, or what they intend to do. People like David Irving, American Presidents, the IDF PR department I can’t understand at all.









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