We all hate Nazis, agreed? (If not, stop reading here). When I was a small boy, the ‘Germans’ were the baddies in our games, on TV shows and those stalwart WW2 films. Only when I began to study history properly did I understand the difference between the Germans as a people and Fascism as a creed. You could indeed have ‘Good Germans’, even in a WW2 context. In films such as Cross of Iron and Stalingrad, and the TV series ‘Das Boot’ and ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’ we see the war from the German side. We empathise with characters doomed to fight a losing war they no longer believe in, but we never empathise with the Nazis. Even when we are rooting for the German squad or submarine crew we see the shadow of the ‘hardened Nazi’, the Gestapo and the SS falling over the characters’ lives. The ‘Good Germans’ become victims too. There is plenty of room for ambiguity – are we really hoping that Oberst Steiner will kill Churchill in Jack Higgins The Eagle Has Landed?
A panel at the entertaining ‘Morecambe and Vice’ festival last weekend chaired by Guy Fraser-Sampson comprised Howard Linskey, Chris Petit and Luke McCallin. All have set novels in the context of Nazi Germany. The question was posed as how a detective story can be written against a background of escalating horror and atrocity that marked the Second World War. When millions are being systematically murdered, when people can be arrested, tortured and killed without recourse to legal process, who cares about a single body in the library or the theft of some countess’ emeralds? It is the job of the author to make us care.
The Nazis were intensely bureaucratic and whilst their leadership behaved like gangsters, pillaging Europe’s riches for their own enrichment, the lower tiers busied themselves with solving humdrum traffic offences, fraud, theft and ‘ordinary’ murder. The Germans had tiers of police and security services – not just civilian police, but also the Abwehr, Kripo, Gestapo, the SD, Sipo and so on making ripe territory for intrigue and setting tripwires in the path of any investigation.
Contrary to popular belief the Germans did not have a well-oiled efficient war machine. Nazis of all levels were spurred on by personal ambition, jealousy and fear as much as doctrine. Hitler encouraged jockeying for position between his officers. Inter-service and inter-departmental rivalry was poisonous, and putting a foot wrong could ultimately be fatal. McCallin’s Abwehr officer Reinhardt has to negotiate this political minefield to solve the murder of a high-profile woman in occupied Sarajevo. He remains the ‘Good German’ whilst others around him participate in war crimes with enthusiasm or at least allow themselves to be dragged along by the tide of history. ‘Only following orders’ many tens of thousands adopted a ‘grey morality’ simply to survive.
‘Great’ historical personalities such as Caesar, Alexander and Napoleon committed brutal acts that today we would call war crimes but the distance of time has dimmed the shock. All the world’s major nations’ histories hold atrocities to be ashamed of and there are a fair few men such as Ghengis Khan with the blood of millions on their hands, yet the Nazis hold a special place as the villains par excellence. Perhaps it is because their atrocities were so recent, perhaps because they were more visible than those of Stalin, or closer to home than those of Pol Pot. My Channel Island home fell under their darkness, and the rest of Britain so nearly fell too. The ‘what if’ of Len Deighton’s SS-GB came close to being a reality. The Czechs faced this horror at the hands of Heydrich, the subject of Linskey’s Hunting the Hangman; he shows up the contradiction in many Nazis, as when home from being a ruthless liquidator of undesirables Heydrich apparently loved his family.
The Nazis have become the poster boys for evil chic; smart grey uniforms, skull badges, black leather coats, sinister swastikas and screaming eagles. Unnervingly this still lends them glamour, shown by the auction value of SS-daggers and the like. Their uniforms contrast with the dull greens and browns of the Allies, their ‘wonder weapons’ contested against utilitarian Allied machines. History porn TV documentaries and books endlessly probe into their mystique. Their influence extends routinely into Science Fiction, especially the barely disguised ‘First Order’ of Star Wars Episode VII with its Stormtroopers and gleefully ruthless commanders. ‘Neo Nazi’ groups still strut around, forgetting how decisively the fascist creed was crushed.
Nazis become the enemy of choice in movies as diverse as the Indiana Jones series, ‘Captain America’ comics, to The Blues Brothers. It is so easy to cast Nazis as the bad guys that we writers must not become lazy. Yes, we know they are bad, we get it. Yes, the iconography oozes evil. Now make us care about the characters opposing them, or oppressed by them, or forced to co-exist with them; we know how Nazism ultimately fell, but the characters don’t.