I am listening right now to the The Berlin Diaries 1934-1941 of William Shirer (CBS News Correspondent) read in a rich bass American voice by Tom Weiner. It’s riveting. So much insight into Germany under Hitler – rationing and death, blackouts and propaganda – perceptive insights into the diplomatic events, the Nazi propaganda machine and life in Berlin, shocking reminders of Nazi values, a gang of gangsters in charge of Europe’s most powerful country. Of course I count myself familiar with the behaviour of key figures such as Goebbels, Himmler, Goering, von Ribbentrop, but there are new names and characters here. From Shirer’s insights, I discover: how important Rudolf Hess was to Hitler, consulted on a daily basis; how risky was the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, and how important in restoring German ‘pride’.
Shirer is a harsh critic of the ‘German nation’, often using quotes from others to illustrate his amazement at their naivety: a young German woman tells him, in an ironic criticism of a Germany she cannot abide, that a true German would always wait at a red light then cross on the green, even though he can see that he will be run over by a truck, which is coming on regardless of the lights. He will die ‘knowing he has done the right thing’.
1940: A German mother hears that her son, serving in the Luftwaffe, is missing, presumed dead, in an air raid over Britain. The BBC broadcasts once a week the names of German service personnel who have been captured and are now PsOW. However it is a treasonable offence for Germans to listen to enemy radio programmes. Eight of her friends (closet BBC listeners) inform her, separately, that they have heard that her son is still alive. She is lauded in the press as a good German as she denounces her 8 friends to the police. Her friends are arrested. When Shirer tries to include this story in his regular broadcast for American listeners, it is censored – a regular occurrence. ‘American listeners’, he is told, ‘might not understand her heroism.’
As a correspondent he is only too aware of media manipulation, not just through censorship but through the hateful propaganda of Goebbels before Munich, before Danzig, against Jews. There are no critics in Hitler’s Germany. He often sees the German people as naive, accepting the stories they are fed. He describes how many of them dreaded war, how difficult it was for them to understand that there might be war over Danzig. After all, Britain and France had been happy to allow other ‘wrongs’ of Versailles to her righted (demilitarisation, union with Austria). They had even actively participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the incorporation of the Sudeten Germans into the Reich. Even after war started, with the quick defeat of Poland, many Germans expected, many Germans hoped and believed, that the Western allies would make peace. When a rumour swept Berlin, people went into the streets to rejoice.
It was the politics of the playground writ large.
Of course these experience still inform diplomacy and defence today: in simple terms, when dealing with a bully, you must show yourself to be strong, not just willing, and able, to fight, but strong in values and beliefs. Determined. Attempts to seek agreement will be exploited. The weak go to the wall.
But who has the courage, the vision or the values to speak up? Who can be strong enough in him or herself to take on the task of standing up to the bully? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his closest friends in the year before he took part in the bomb plot to kill Hitler (1944),
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remoreseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
These are the famous words attributed to another German pastor, Martin Niemöller, about the failure of Germans to resist the Nazi rise to power:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
These powerful words continue to ring through our democracies in the present day. They must always be before us.