Essays: The jolly Swastika |
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The jolly Swastika

YES folks, it’s those lovable Nazis! Singing, saluting, stomping and screaming in the way you all adore, these boot-clad funsters dance into your Lebensraum, filling the air with the waving tassels of their blood-banners and the tang of burning books! No sourpuss is safe when these zany, Führer-following madmen come tumbling out of the sky to knock the stuffing out of your workaday conventions!

On the Tuesday Documentary (BBC1) it was Target Tirpitz, starring Ludovic Kennedy as the lonely commentator who with nothing but his biro and his bare hands took on a 42,000-ton battleship manned by the finest flower of the Kriegsmarine. In Midweek (BBC1) it was cultivated, mild-mannered Albert Speer, one time Reichsminister in charge of Hitler’s famed armaments industry. In Europa (BBC2) it was the rollicking Wehrmacht, roistering into the Maginot Line and snapping the suspenders of prim French complacency. On World Cinema (BBC2), it was ‘Triumph of the Will’ — yes, ladies and gents, none other than dear old ‘Triumph des Willens,’ featuring the choreography, the calisthenics and the first, careless rapture of all those young people who later did so much to change the face of Europe. Horst Wessel, Hans Westmar, S.A.-Mann Brand and Hitlerjunge Quex — where are they now? Blonde ashes.

And above all, in the latest episode of The World at War (Thames) it was the death-defying Luftwaffe. Spinning, zooming, twisting and turning in their frail Me-109s, He-111s and Ju-88s, these flaxen-tressed veterans of the Kondor Legion were no easy prey for the soft-cheeked young Britishers in their Spitfires and Hurricanes. But time and tenacity told, and finally for the Aryan aces it was flames in the cockpit, oil on the goggles and the hard-won Knight’s Cross lying twisted in a wisp of silk. Yes, friends, once again it was a week in which the world of show-biz reeled to the impact of the Nazis’ never-ending flair for entertainment. Win or lose — and even they could make mistakes — the Nazis had that certain something, that je ne sais quoi, that komischer Sonderantreib, which somehow set them apart, and which still makes you feel, whenever their name comes up, that special sense of anticipation.

In a statement which I was too ignorant to appreciate when I believed it, but can admire now that I do not, Santayana once said that those who forget history are condemned to relive it. The assumption behind such an exhortation is that we can influence the present by remembering the past. And yet the concentration camps were full of people who knew all about the past: the élite of culture and scholarship, they could do nothing to alter events. The conclusion must be that those who remember the past are condemned to relive it too. You must pursue the truth for its own sake, without hope of consolation. One small crumb of comfort, however, is, it seems to me, allowable: if a sense of history can do little to affect the future, then there is no need for despair when contemplating the manifest impossibility of teaching a new generation about how things were.

Such a glimmering of fatalism comes in handy when one switches on the box and finds the new generation not being taught but actually doing the teaching — assessing, and reaching conclusions about, happenings of which they possess not even childhood memories. What we are in for, as the television age grows older and takes us with it, is an increasing inner tension — the perpetual wish to tell our new educators that they have missed the feel of what they are trying to tell us about. In this respect, ‘The World at War’ is facing both ways at once. On the whole (but not in this week’s episode, which dealt straightforwardly with the Battle of Britain), its commentary has a knowingness and a glibness of summary which are probably the natural consequences of lapsing time but which demand, I think, to be resisted. Doing much to counteract the voice-over’s cute lip, however, are two main things: the authentic footage and the use of witnesses.

In this week’s episode the superbly researched old film continued to be exploited with a keen eye to its drama and a scrupulous respect for its provenance. One has grown used, over the past few years, to seeing that solitary Japanese torpedo-plane, which was really obliterated by pom-poms somewhere over Leyte Gulf, being presented to us as a German fighter shot down by the RAF into the Thames Estuary. It’s an undoubted fact that the majority of the viewing public knows little about the technology of the past and has no great desire to learn. But a lie which doesn’t matter to the told can still matter to the teller, and one has always felt, after noticing a piece of cynical editing, that the men responsible would steal your furniture if they got the chance. In ‘The World at War,’ on the other hand, the standards of relevance are set very high.

As for the witnesses, there was once again too great a reliance on the unexamined views of distinguished men. Sir Max Aitken was commendably firm about the RAF’s crucial role in saving the BEF at Dunkirk. He was, however, not a sufficient witness on the subject of Beaverbrook’s effectiveness as Minister in charge of aircraft production. You needed to lean forward and strain both ears if you were to hear Sir Max let slip that that the aluminium pots and pans donated by the public in response to the Beaver’s appeal were not just partly useless for the manufacturing of aircraft, but utterly useless.

Similarly, Churchill’s private secretary was no sufficient witness concerning Wavell’s reluctance to supply tanks for Churchill’s adventure in Crete. Wavell was a very fine commander in difficult circumstances, whose record should be either assessed at length or left alone; an unsupported Churchillian opinion on military realities is the last opinion one should he asked to listen to, not the first.

A byword for originality, Don Taylor was bound to make a bummer some time, just to obey the law of averages. The Runaway (BBC1), was it. ‘La Notte’ met ‘La Règle du Jeu’ in the middle of the Cherry Orchard, as sensitive novelist Sylvia Kay fantasised a rebel admirer while bathing in the attentions of comfortably successful lover and husband. Peter Bowles was the trendy ad-man friend who owned the country cottage, and Angela Scoular was the wittering feather-head who owned the carefree boobs — two of the best things in the show.

The Observer, 25th November 1973