Essays: The SS criminals |
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The SS criminals

It would have been comforting to start this week’s television review with Wimbledon, but justice and a sense of proportion demand that the tennis-players should be displaced from top spot by the SS (Thames), back to haunt us in an excellent documentary produced and directed by Andrew Mollo.

The programme was a straight-up-and-down compilation of interviews, old film and narrative voice-over. What distinguished it was the quality of historical imagination displayed. Nazi organisations were deliberately constructed so that the various departments should duplicate one another. The chains of command are consequently very hard to unscramble, but by the end of the programme you knew that the Waffen SS, though it could lay claim to the odd spot of chivalrous conduct on the battlefields where it was up against a racially acceptable opponent, was fully implicated in the general SS programme of stark terror. Some of the old film adduced as illustration was enough to make you weep even at this distance. I thought I had seen all the footage in existence by now, but Mr Mollo found some more.

As the war ground on and the Nazis ran short of élite German man-power, suitable human material from the occupied countries was co-opted into the Waffen SS. This fact created an embarrassing difficulty for the victorious Allies, who very properly declared the SS a criminal organisation, but were then faced with the problem of deciding who were really guilty among the hordes of prisoners, some of whom had done no more than type laundry lists or deliver mail.

That there had to be some sort of reckoning should never be in doubt. The idea that the Nuremburg trials were a case of the victors punishing the vanquished is essentially trivial. The Allies were not half as victorious as the Nazis, who had wiped out whole populations of vanquished and would have walked away smiling if something had not been done. What was done was not perfect justice, but at least it was an attempt.

The attempt goes on, with the Germans themselves now in charge. In Düsseldorf the old Nazis who have recently been brought to book are practically senescent, but the smarter members of the younger generation have learned not to be carried away by compassion for their doddering elders. The evidence still cries out. As the Son of God once put it, those who have ears to hear, let them hear. The most heartening thing in a programme not long on heartening things was an ex-SS man saying that it was right for the message to be brought home and that any claims about the Nazi atrocities being ordinary war crimes was blasphemy. The appropriate note of reverence was hit, and indeed never unduly departed from in the whole course of a powerfully sane documentary.

Wimbledon in a moment, but first a tiny wave of farewell to the first series of The Levin Interviews (BBC2), in which various, and variously, distinguished guests have been given the opportunity of listening to Bernard ask questions which reveal his personal obsessions. The latest interlocutor was J. Krishnamurti, revered by Bernard as a repository of Eastern serenity. ‘What is the secret?’ cried Levin, basking in the radiance of the guru’s visage. ‘Look at you! Serene, realised, content. What is the secret?’ My own guess was that the old boy had attained serenity through being careful to let other people do the worrying, but this might have been an unworthy reaction to the sage’s line of chat, a stream of platitudes which might possibly sound more challenging in the original language.

The secret of inner peace, it turned out, is to avoid conflict, which ‘destroys ... the whole sensitivity of awareness.’ While pondering whether conflict ever did this for, say, Michelangelo, you could check out the wise one’s contempt for the ego against his evident concern that his silky hair should cover his skull in the most impressive possible manner, even at the cost of its being parted remarkably low on the back of his serene head.

But if conflict was bad for serenity, thought was positively disastrous. Thought was the stuff to avoid at all costs. The aim was to be ‘totally uncontaminated by thought.’ ‘Is thought the contaminant, then?’ quavered Bernard. ‘Yes,’ said the holy man ineffably. He was wearing a very elegant shirt, into which a lot of thought had gone, starting with such elementary thoughts as how to make a hole for his serene neck to protrude from.

A moment’s thought told you that it takes thousands upon thousands of people, all thinking flat out, to support one guru while he sits there burbling on about the contaminating effects of ratiocination. From the occasional atavistic tone of impatience which crept into Bernard’s voice you could tell he was still aware of this fact at some deep level, but by now the thirst for spiritual completeness has taken him over so thoroughly that his brain is almost in the same shape as Krishnamurti’s — bland, moist and cloyingly sweet, like a lychee.

In a moment, Wimbledon, but first some praise for the coverage of the US Open (BBC2), won by the Australian David Graham against my express wishes. I wanted Nicklaus to win, but the ice-rink greens of Merion caught him out. ‘What character this course has, what definition,’ raved the commentators, and they were right. Just before we get to Wimbledon I should also welcome the repeat of Henry VIII (BBC2), in many ways the best effort the Bardathon has yet come up with. TV Eye (Thames) should be commended for paying attention to Czech dissidence. And in the few seconds that remain before our Wimbledon coverage resumes, let me point out that Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (BBC1), though wildly overblown in its production values, is well worth following. If you can fight your way through the audiovisual uproar there is quite a lot of genuine serenity on offer.

And now Wimbledon (BBC1 and 2 recurring), which Harry Carpenter is this year trying hard not to call Wmbldn, although he does not always reinsert the vowels in the right order. John McEnroe started badly, goaded by some obviously duff line-calls. There was much pontificating from the commentary box. ‘And McEnroe, I fear, is indulging in a little bit of abuse of officials here.’ ‘Well this, I’m afraid, is par for the course.’ Most of the time you couldn’t quite hear what McEnroe said. ‘Mwaargh nahg ahng ewarg,’ he expostulated, ‘Newn blarghing sarg!’ ‘Please behave,’ said the umpire. ‘Yah gahng shim! Shnargh!’ Suddenly, catastrophically, McEnroe’s voice snapped into focus. ‘You can’t be serious, man! You cannot be serious! How can you possibly say that ball was out? This man’s an incarmpetent fool!

McEnroe woke up next morning to find himself pilloried by Fleet Street. Journalists whose greatest athletic triumph had been to get back from El Vino’s to the office without falling under a bus were calling him unworthy of his titles. It must have been gall piled on shame, but he controlled himself, and in the second round played an exemplary match against Ramirez. McEnroe has so much talent that nobody except himself can beat him consistently. All the other seeds in his half of the draw having volunteered for euthanasia, he should walk through to meet Borg, if Borg survives.

At that encounter temperament will probably tell. Borg has the same eyes as McEnroe, albeit placed more closely together. He is just as aware as McEnroe that some of the Wimbledon line judges need seeing-eye dogs. But Borg last threw his racket away in anger when he was a teenager. Noticing that the gesture had no result beyond its cost in energy, he never did it again. Success is the ability to learn from failure.

The Observer, 28th June 1981
[ A shortened version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]