Up from The Cape: 24 February 2019
I’ve been reading William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. It’s not a book that hides it’s subject behind a euphemistic title, so I won’t waste time explaining what it’s about. As Ronseal used to say about its products, it does what it says on the tin. What’s of immediate relevance is how the unfolding history of Nazi Germany has been a revelation to me.
The rise to power of the Nazis was neither inevitable, nor rapid. One evening I realised that I’d been reading the book on and off for about ten hours, and National Socialism still had yet to take power, though they had grown to become the largest single party in pre-war Germany. Along the way, their path was littered with the usual petty squabbles and casualties of any party on the rise. Hitler almost became one of those casualties when, leading an attempted coup in about 1925, he was the first to run for his life when the Police opened fire on his mob and killed several of them. School history makes it all seem a lot quicker and simpler. I suppose you had to be there to make sense of it all and appreciate the timeline, if not enjoy the ride.
Of necessity, history has to be compressed and simplified for school in a way that always leaves tremendous gaps. Along the way some significant nuanced detail gets lost. What we’re left with is a Twitter version of history – something one-dimensional that’s been reduced to a bare shouty minimum for the space and time available. It isn’t always helpful, because sometimes it can lead the unwary astray. I had a classmate when I was in my mid-teens who was a bit of a Third Reich fan. I can’t judge why he was a fan. That secret will probably have to remain with him. Perhaps like me he was an only child (though that never did me any harm I like to say in a shrill attention-seeking voice). It may be that sometimes there are aspects of history that appear glamorous over half a century on from the events. What I can say is, like the Nazi invasion of Poland that kicked off the second world war, my classmate’s interest in all things Third Reich had some unfortunate consequences for him too.
The universal consensus when I was at school was that Nazis were bad. All of the war films said so, along with boys’ war comics. Nazis said things like “ach!” or “himmel!” whenever they were jumped by a Spitfire, or a ruthless British Commando. They weren’t much good for anything beyond that unless it was delusional gloating over a tied-up hostage just before the hostage escaped. Against that background, I can’t begin to fathom why my classmate was so dazzled by the Third Reich, but it’s undeniable that he was.
One of the most reportable instances of Third Reich fandom getting a touch out of hand with my classmate, was an occasion when he took the Hitler Youth movement to heart and adopted it at school. When I was much younger, I’d worn a diagonal sash that looked like part of the Thunderbirds International Rescue uniform (or so I thought). I even wore it at school once. I think it’s excusable because I was about seven at the time, and besides International Rescue didn’t start world war two. What I never did, was try to make myself look like der Fuhrer. My classmate did.
For deeply unconscious reasons my classmate himself probably isn’t aware of even today (if he’s still with us), he “came out” as Hitler Youth briefly in a way that was impossible for anyone to ignore. It started when he snipped off a short length of black insulating tape in a physics lesson. It was about an inch wide. Then, looking perversely excited, as if he were a normal boy about to have his first grope behind the bicycle sheds, he coyly pressed the tape to the space directly below his nose to make it appear like a crude Hitleresque moustache. He then combed his hair over in a Hitleresque way. After a brief furtive glance from side to side to make sure he was being watched, he gave a classic Nazi salute. If he’d done it today the school would likely have been closed and the children compelled to undergo counselling. As it was, we were a hardier breed then. We just hooted and threw things at him.
Like most boys with a disposition in favour of fascism while living in a more liberal culture (if teenage boys can ever be said properly to have a liberal culture), things didn’t always go well for my classmate. An excessive interest in the Third Reich was something that inevitably bled through into other annoying behaviours. Thankfully it never included occupying France or organising mass rallies where he shouted a lot. I can’t say if that was an omnipresent feature of his dreams. If it was, we didn’t know about it. He was, however, inclined to heave about a large brief case filled with academic works about the Nazis. Partly because of this he walked a very fine line between being tolerated and punched. Predictably on occasion he would stray too far to the wrong side of the line, and then bear the immediate consequences.
On one memorable occasion after being especially pompous about something, he was stuffed into a stationery cupboard and locked inside – his muffled resentment giving joy to all as he complained bitterly about the cramped conditions and total darkness. On another, his bag was taken from his desperate clasping arms and emptied out of a second floor window. As his treasured academic Nazi works fluttered down onto the grass below, he actually turned crimson and went berserk, unfortunately to an appreciative cheering audience of baiting callous teenagers.
Later, thinking to get his revenge on the boys who had humiliated him, he presented himself at attention to one of the teaching staff and explained, with some sidelong gestures, that all his books had been emptied out of the window. He was asked if they’d been school books. In a “loyal party member who’s been wronged” sort of way he said “No – they’re my personal property sir”. He looked pointedly in our direction as he did this, incorrectly sensing victory. To his evident shock he received a tremendous whack on the back of the head and was told “Well then you shouldn’t have brought them into school, you bloody stupid boy!” At that moment the face he had on him was probably similar to Hitler’s after the Battle of Britain; dazed, confused, and resentful. It’s an image in my malign imperfection that I still cherish to this day.