Showing posts with label Hitler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hitler. Show all posts

28 October 2015

The Windsor Folly

by David Edgerley Gates

David Windsor came to the throne as Edward VIII, king of
England, in January of 1936. He gave it up in December of
the same year, to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was the celebrity scandal of the decade, what with the king throwing duty over the side, Mrs. Simpson under the misapprehension she could become queen, the ruling Tory party mutinous and ready to resign from government, the Archbishop of Canterbury discouraging any Anglican clergy from performing the wedding, the Royal Family caught up in both a domestic soap opera and a political crisis that threatened the monarchy - and just when you thought it was all a tempest in a teapot, it could well have affected the outcome of the Second World War.

You have to cast your mind back to the climate of the late 1930's, the consuming fear of Bolshevism and the rise of Fascist reactionary politics in Europe - the Arrow Cross in Hungary, the Iron Guard in Romania - but more particularly the Fascist states, Spain, Italy, and Nazi Germany. You also have to remember the strong isolationist and antiwar sentiment in the U.S. and Great Britain, and even overt sympathy for Nazism. (Sir Oswald Mosley married his second wife Diana Mitford in Berlin, at Goebbels' house. Hitler was there.) The most charitable thing you can say about the Duke of Windsor is that he was hopelessly naive.

Invited to Germany in 1937, after the abdication, the Windsors toured the Krupp weapons works, were Hitler's guests at Obersalzberg and Goering's at Karinhall, and gave energetic Nazi salutes. It was a general embarrassment to the British government and personally to David's brother Bertie, who'd succeeded him as GeorgeVI. Windsor, who was himself extremely sensitive to slights, apparently had no shame, or was simply insulated from questioning his own conduct. He led an unexamined life, immune to consequences and tone-deaf to anybody's grievances but his own.

The plot, however, thickens. Once the war began, the Windsors retreated first to the south of France, then to Barcelona, and then in July of 1940 to Lisbon. Spain and Portugal were neutrals, but Franco's regime was in bed with the Nazis. Windsor had made some extremely ill-judged and gratuitous remarks, proposing a negotiated peace, which came close to sedition, and the Germans pricked up their ears. David also insisted to his brother the king that Wallis be treated as a member of the Royal Family. It was this last bone of contention that suggested itself to the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop, as leverage. What if, he reasoned, the Duke of Windsor were to return to England, and be crowned king again? Would it take England out of the war? In hindsight, it's hard to believe this ever got legs, but in the event, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer Walter Schellenberg, deputy chief of Reich state security, flew to Madrid. The operation was code-named Willi.

None of this took place in a vacuum, British intelligence not being utterly comatose, and Windsor known to them. He was never celebrated for discretion. It had been hastily arranged for him to become governor of the Bahamas, safely out of circulation. He was supposed to sail from Lisbon on August 1st, but mulish as usual, he was dragging his feet - his suspicions are being fed by German agents, who plant the idea that MI6 is plotting to assassinate him once he's aboard ship - and Schellenberg, now based in Lisbon, is wondering if simplest is best: why don't they just throw a blanket over the guy and smuggle him out of town? This admirably direct strategy is vetoed by Wilhelmstrasse, the Windsors set sail for the Bahamas, and the plan (such as it was) evaporates.

The issue isn't that Windsor was a vain and deeply unserious person, but that the Nazis, delusional as they were, had reason to think he might actually go along. David was a featherbrain,who probably deserved no better than the equally fatuous and self-absorbed Wallis. On the other hand, von Ribbentrop was generally regarded as a meathead by his own colleagues and in foreign chanceries - his one success the non-aggression pact with Stalin - and he lacked the imagination. Schellenberg, though, was nobody's fool, and wouldn't have chosen a fool's errand in Lisbon. So how did they persuade themselves? My guess is that it was wishful thinking. Hitler's main strategic objective was the defeat of Russia. He thought England would come to the bargaining table once Luftwaffe bombers began crossing the Channel, and it suited him to believe Windsor was more sympathetic to German aggrandizement than George VI. But as petty or foolish as David Windsor was, he must have realized he couldn't be a Nazi collaborator, a puppet king. It would have been beneath contempt.

We're left with speculation. Jack Higgins wrote a corker of a thriller about it. Schellenberg, in his memoirs, characterizes the whole episode as farce. Deborah Cadbury's recent book, PRINCES AT WAR, shows Windsor in an unflattering light, if she stops short of calling him a Quisling. In his memoirs, Windsor says he believed Germany was a military counterweight to the Soviet menace, but he never supported the Nazis. Which is it? There's no way of knowing. The man was shallow, written in water, and unexceptional. Only the circumstance of his birth gives him any historical weight, and simple accident put him in the crosshairs. Windsor had but one decent virtue. He was a stranger to himself, too oblivious to know better.

24 July 2013

The Lives of Others

by David Edgerley Gates

It's a commonplace that Germans don't like being reminded of their all-too-recent history, and like much received wisdom, there's some truth in it. Nobody likes it thrown in their face that they were complicit with deep human evil.  Every once in a while you might bump into some guy in a bierstube (I have) who served in the Wehrmacht, and makes no apologies for his war service, but we're talking about a soldier, not Waffen SS or some functionary who played his small part in the Final Solution. Young people, born after the war, get their back up if you mention Hitler and the Nazis, and demand why they should take any responsibility for the buried past---look at what you white Americans have done to the Negro, is the favored response. And of course there are people of a certain age who blame the Jews, for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, without feeling any embarrassment or even a twinge of irony. There's a victim psychology at work, resentful that they've been unfairly singled out, and tarred with too broad a brush. (This is second cousin to the enduring fiction that the French didn't collaborate with the Occupation, or that America First wasn't riddled with virulent anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers.) "That was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."

So it's a fascinating development, to me, that a few German film-makers have begun to explore this willed national memory loss. DOWNFALL (2004), THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008). It amounts to a public airing of dirty laundry, and predictably, these guys have taken heat for it.

DOWNFALL is about Hitler's last days in the bunker, and the final Russian assault on Berlin. In a sense, it's a war movie, the fighting in the streets a counterweight to the claustrophobic self-delusion of the Nazi leadership, sealed off underground. It's also deeply, viscerally frightening to be trapped with these people, the impossible hope of rescue, Magda Goebbels poisoning her children, Hitler, to the end, consumed by the perfidy of the Jews. It plays like black comedy, this feverish unreality, toxic with evasion and denial, but there isn't any comic relief in sight, only bitter disgrace, and suicide, and lasting shame for the survivors. The movie was attacked by critics in Germany, not for fudging the historical record, but for 'humanizing' Hitler. A curious complaint. Bruno Ganz, a Swiss, as it happens, manages the weird trick of seeming to shrink inside his clothes, wasting away as you watch. He makes Hitler human, all right, and if anything, all too familiar. This is not a monster, or an alien presence, but a mirror of our own weakness for hatred. Hitler, seen in the flesh, and without disguise, isn't a figure in some distant landscape, the diseased nephew safely hidden in the family closet. No wonder it made Germans uncomfortable.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX navigate a shifting historical landscape as well. Both are about betrayal. Both are about how Germany defines herself. And both are about doubtful orthodoxies. THE LIVES OF OTHERS takes place in East Germany in the 1980's, when Stasi informants were everywhere, and on the large scale, it's a study of life in an oppressive police state, although the major characters are actually people of privilege. In detail, though, small things matter, choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love. The moral punchline comes in a coda, after the Wall is torn down and the East German regime collapses, and old choices, large or small, can be handled like talismans.

BAADER MEINHOF is something of a cautionary tale, a Cold War story from the 1970's, about the zeal of a convert. Politics are radical and undisciplined, and a splinter faction on the Left turns to violence, a terror campaign against the neo-Fascism of the Old Guard. The security services, reading the Devil's handwriting, react with increasingly brutal tactics. The right-wing press, led by the Axel Springer newspaper chain, impatient with civil liberties, egg them on. They give the Baader-Meinhof gang its name, which over-inflates their importance, and actually generates public sympathy. The ringleaders were captured after a nationwide manhunt. Four of them were later to commit suicide in prison, which gave rise to, shall we say, unanswered questions. The legacy of Baader-Meinhof is mixed, at best. 

Taken together, these three pictures don't amount to a critical mass, and nobody expects the Germans to rend their garments and beat their breasts over the crimes of their fathers, any more than you'd expect it of Americans---and everybody, let's face it, is guilty of something. The past is never a closed book. But the unexamined life, Plato tells us, isn't worth much. We don't need to be haunted by regret, or brood on the wrongs done us, or weep for the sins of men. We do require of ourselves an accounting. Choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love.

10 April 2013

The Night of The Generals

by David Edgerley Gates

Not that many movies begin with a guy hiding in a stairwell toilet, peeking through a crack in the door. Warsaw, 1942, the German occupation. A whore is murdered. A major in German intelligence is called in by the Polish police, because the case may have unhappy political considerations. The girl was a German informant. Oh, and the guy in the toilet? He saw somebody coming down the stairs, but he can't identify him, because all he saw was the lower half of a Wehrmacht uniform, with a red stripe down the leg. It happens only German generals wear the red stripe.

Three of the generals posted to Warsaw have no explanation for where they were on the night in question, and Major Grau of Intelligence takes it on himself to narrow the field of suspects. His immediate subordinate, a captain, asks him why it matters who killed the girl, a nobody. Grau asks him in return, Have you ever heard of the Eumenides? Grau's point is that even a whore's lonely death, unrevenged, will call down the Furies. One of the suspected officers, General Tanz, makes the explicit counterargument, later in the picture, when he says, Why should this woman's murder attract any attention at all?---our century has seen millions of deaths more horrible than hers. From this perspective, the moral question is one of degree.

NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is compelling not because of the mystery---it's pretty transparent from the get-go which of our guys is a nutjob---but because it's about a murder in wartime. Everything plays out against the worsening backdrop of Germany's coming collapse, from Warsaw in '42 to Paris in July of '44, after the Allied landings in Normandy, and everybody's got something to hide. One of the major plot strands is the conspiracy in the German high command to assassinate Hitler, for example. This raises the stakes considerably, and while you might not agree with General Tanz, and his moral relativism, you can see where he's coming from. With defeat looming, who seriously cares about dead whores? (There's more than one victim as the movie goes on. It turns out there's a serial killer on the loose.) And the dogged military cop, Grau, keeps getting the brush-off, swatted away by higher ranks, and reassigned because he's a nuisance. Not necessarily by the murderer, either. That's where the real mystery lies, not in the homicide investigation itself, but why all these people are so determined to throw Grau off the scent.

Donald Pleasance, Peter O'Toole, Charles Gray, Omar Sharif

The picture uses an effective structural device, which is basically a frame story, although that's not immediately apparent, since it begins in media res, but then it starts to shift back and forth in time, between the war and the present day---the present day being twenty years later. This allows people to comment on the events of the past, as you see them in flashback, or flash-forward, and often enough, they get it wrong. So there's an element of unreliable narrative mixed in. You don't know whether to trust the witnesses. Their memories may be corrupted by dubious loyalties, or simply self-serving, or they're still protecting old secrets.

Lastly, although this is perhaps parenthetical, when I first saw the movie, in late '67, I think it was, I'd been in Berlin almost two years, and one of the things I thought the picture got dead right was the German habit of mind. In particular, the way the Germans chose to to think about the war, or more to the point, the way they chose not to. In one scene, a veteran officer, now managing an automotive plant, laments that the Wehrmacht might have been able to stop the Allies, if the Army hadn't been stabbed in the back---as usual, he adds. This is willful disbelief, and a denial of history.  In another instance, an aging general is writing his memoirs, and he's gotten as far as the July 1944 plot against Hitler. He remarks that one has to be circumspect, so as not to re-open old wounds, particularly, he says, since so many of the convicted war criminals are now being released. This beggars imagination. Most people, on the other hand, can't be blamed for wanting to reinvent themselves, or be cast in a better light. For example, the French, everybody secretly in the Resistance, and nobody a willing collaborator. Or the Russians, or the Brits, or the Japanese, or us. Americans conveniently forget how strong the isolationist sentiment in this country was, before Pearl Harbor, and how many people thought Hitler was right about the Jews. In this sense, then, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is subversive. It chooses both to forget, or to blur memory, and at the same time to serve as a sharp reminder, that only some of us are guilty, but none of us are innocent. No less than the Germans, we congratulate ourselves on learning the wrong lessons. No matter how this turns out, Rommel says, talking about the soon-to-fail July plot, history will judge us as patriots, or traitors.

At the end, though, NIGHT OF THE GENERALS does in fact turn on justice for those murdered whores, and there's some small satisfaction in that. In spite of its large canvas, and larger issues, the picture manages to keep a tight focus, and the Furies are held at bay. Or as Stalin is said to have remarked, one death is a tragedy, millions are a statistic.

IMDb movie website link: