On Knowing the Nazis

I realised recently that my current project of researching life in Nazi Germany, the idea of ‘knowing the Nazis’, is something I have specifically avoided in my study of German literature and culture up to this point. In my first year at university I had to read the poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue) by the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan, and I remember the tutorial on it being one of the most difficult hours I ever spent at university. There was a lump in my throat and I could not speak. This poetic rendering of the murder of Jews in a Nazi death camp was too much for me to comprehend, certainly not without a display of emotions that would have been out of place in that setting.

I decided then and there that I was never going to take modules dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi past, and the choices I made after that show a decided aversion to any aspect of German culture after about 1900. The most modern author I ever chose to study was Thomas Mann, and the novels I read by him only ‘dealt with’ the Nazi phenomenon though allegory or metaphor. Otherwise, I went as far back in time as possible, studying eighteenth-century German literature of the Enlightenment, Medieval German, and Old Norse. After graduation, I once tried to watch the film Schindler’s List because I loved the violin music in it, but had to turn it off when the female architect got shot without warning. I am a highly sensitive person, and I find it hard to ‘unsee’ things once I’ve seen them. I think I made the right choice not to engage with the Holocaust at university. So why do I feel drawn to it now?

Strangely, the path that took me to seek a deeper understanding of the rise of the Nazis in Germany came via studying the West German protest movement of ‘1968.’ This was a time when younger generations forced a reckoning with their parents’ past actions, criticising the many aspects of Nazi authoritarianism that had survived in their society, as well as their nation’s readiness for war, shown by their support of the USA in Vietnam. Many ‘1968ers’ had to face the fact that their parents had supported the Nazis, or at least tolerated them. This generation of activists was determined not to allow their nation to repeat its mistakes, and they took their protest into every significant institution in the country. I am inspired by the so-called 1968ers for their insistence on putting their ideas into practice. They knew what happens when people denounce wrongs, but do not resist them, and their spirit of protest did create lasting change in German society: equal opportunities for women and the foundation of the Green Party are two obvious examples. But in order to bring about these changes, and to resist what they saw as harmful in their society, they first had to confront their reality, rather than look the other way, as their parents had done.

The Brexit vote in 2016 shook my worldview for a couple of reasons. First, I had not been paying attention. I had not seen it coming. I realised I was not in touch with the reality of my country and its feelings. I had been looking the other way. Second, it led me to question the value of democracy, and stifled my ability to engage in a healthy difference of opinion. I do not think I am alone in this. Owen Jones has described the current climate of conflicting opinions as a ‘culture war’. The ideas of ‘wokeness’ and its opposite, ‘anti-wokeness’, similarly encourage a brand of absolutist ‘either/or thinking’ that can never lead to genuine understanding or healthy compromise. When dialogue shuts down, there is no hope for change. Instead of certainty that we are right, we must be open to ideas that seem repugnant to us. In doing this, we can then, reasonably, critique them. I decided it was time to study the Nazis. I wanted to understand how people were drawn to them, as well as what people did to resist them, both in Germany and Austria as well as around the world.

The main goal of my project is to tell a story that looks beyond the simplified narrative we have in Britain, that the Second World War was a ‘good war’ that ‘we won’, ‘by ourselves’. (Red army? What red army?) This narrative is drawn on again and again by right-wing speakers in this country, and used to justify Brexit as well as white supremacy, despite the fact that WW2 was a war AGAINST a racist regime. But then Winston Churchill believed in white supremacy too, didn’t he?

Our nation’s popular understanding of the Nazis and the ideological fight against them is incredibly vague and confused. But the sources are there. It is possible to read accounts of what really happened – why did so many Germans and Austrians like the Nazis? What resistance was offered by the many who didn’t? How did British people react to news of what was happening in Germany? Why did thousands of  British people join the British Union of Fascists? Why do we not talk about the years in which we did nothing to stop Hitler? Why do we so rarely talk about the official Nazi hatred of all black and brown people, as well as Jews? Is it because, at that time, we still had a white supremacist Empire of our own?

I am grateful to the men and women in the 1930s and 40s who refused to look the other way. Their memoirs hold the answers to these questions, and it is time for me to listen.

2 thoughts on “On Knowing the Nazis”

  1. I came to your page because I am writing an MLitt dissertation on eddic poetry in performance and I had come across your work on the role of music. It is impossible to research Old Norse and Germanic literature without encountering the shadow of the abuses to which it has been – and still is – put. I identify with much of the uneasiness about contemporary society you mention above. Good luck with your work.


    1. Thanks, Richard! Good luck with yours too. It’s a great topic – despite attracting such a mixed bag of fans.


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