Wednesday, June 09, 2010

385. The Lighter Side of Adolf Hitler

Having discovered the Internet Archives a short while ago, I have been happily listening to and downloading a wide range of music, audio books, and just recently, recorded speeches from the worldwide uninvited trauma of the Second World War, in which various nations in Europe and Asia went under and others seemed teetering on the brink.

It is eerie to listen to the tired dispirited voice of Neville Chamberlain as he informs his bemused countrymen that a Final Note sent through diplomatic channels has not been answered … “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.” He goes on to record his disappointment that all his efforts have come to nought, and that Herr Hitler had not been … well, quite honest with him. It comes as a relief to hear the infinitely more pugnacious tones of Winston Churchill who replaced him as Prime Minister in May, 1940. Churchill talks to the nation in a series of memorable, literate, punchy, well-phrased speeches in which his loathing of Hitler and the Nazis comes through loud and clear. It’s nearly impossible to listen to him without wanting to pick up a gun and go out and fight on the beaches, in the hills, on the landing grounds, in the fields, and never never surrender! If all else fails, pick up a club or a hammer or a sharpened stick ... and all this for Ireland’s ‘ould enemy’ England, mind you!

Then I started to listen to the Germans.

My German is not bad. I lived there as a child, many years after the war, and languages you pick up when you’re young often stay with you. I can still function in Germany, no problem: the fluency and speed comes back in a day or two.

Goebbels is easier to understand than Hitler. He speaks quickly but in a fairly standard educated accent (he was, after all, a Doctor of Letters). Hitler requires more time. I had plenty of time. My job requires me to drive long distances to various Japanese companies so I’ve long been in the habit of whiling away the driving time with Audiobooks. Now I listen to Hitler.

In the beginning it was difficult. His accent and his rhythms are hard to get accustomed to. In American terms it would be like listening to someone with a very pronounced Southern accent, much stronger than Jimmy Carter’s light Georgia drawl (for which he was much ridiculed). In British terms it would be like listening to a Geordie, if not quite a Scot. He doesn’t use dialect as such but the sounds are significantly different from ‘Hochdeutsch’, Standard German. The ‘r’s are very heavily rolled and the vowels are frequently swallowed. He speaks quickly, and when he gets excited his voice rises to a barking crescendo with what seems a hammer-fall of words. He seems to be literally banging on the side of your skull.

We all have an image of Hitler. He is widely believed to be the most evil leader the world has ever produced (Stalin was on our side) leaving behind the also-rans who people the modern world, those who nevertheless manage to ensure thousands of people – usually their own, sometimes foreigners -- die before their time or live in abject misery.

I think Hitler was a disaster, and not only for the neighbouring countries of Europe, but ultimately, as the war turned against him, for his own people. My lengthy subjection to the hours and hours of recorded material has not changed this opinion in any way. Keep this in mind as I wander into new and unfamiliar territory below!

Hitler can be funny. No, honestly. He doesn’t tell jokes, as such, but he is a very accomplished storyteller. This hardly ever comes across in his set-piece speeches when he is addressing the party congress at Nuremberg, or the Hitler Youth Congress, or when he justifies the murder of old comrades during the 1934 ‘Night of the Long Knives’, or, later, the annexation of the Sudetenland in September 1938. The annexation of Austria, earlier in the year, has a load of laugh lines. He lies brazenly to the nation about the reasons for the attack on Poland on September 1, 1939. After Stalingrad there are no more anecdotes and very few public speeches. Towards the end of the war there are no speeches at all – except one after the failed assassination attempt on 20 July, 1944.

Hitler is at his most relaxed when he is addressing the “Alte Kaempfer”, the Old Fighters, who were with him from the beginning in the early 1920s. These speeches are very obviously ex tempore, because there are a number of verbal hesitancies. He makes sounds like ‘emm’ or uhh’ and you can see he is gathering his thoughts about what to say next. He goes off into a little story about some guy who did something silly, usually in the face of some stiff and respectable figure of the hated Weimar Regime, and the stories are actually quite interesting. The crowd roars. He rambles along every now and then and tells these little stories and of course they never got reported in the foreign press who had to concentrate on the political content.

He never strays very far from political content. It becomes increasingly apparent that the most exciting time of Hitler’s life was getting this tiny little unknown political party off the ground and eventually taking over the whole of Germany. He comes back to this again and again. All the difficulties! All the problems! No, it seemed hardly possible … but we did it! And we did it because the German people were simply waiting for us (for him) to come along and show them the way. Obviously. Otherwise the Party would never be where we are today.

The thing that struck me was how similar (in some ways) he was to Churchill. Both of these men were totally committed to an enhanced historical and rather romantic notion of their own country and its place in the world, and both were totally convinced that only they knew what needed to be done and that there were crowds of useless and annoying people that had to be swept aside to allow this thing to happen. Both went through years in the political wilderness before finally attaining the power they earnestly sought and both fell upon it greedily, elbowing aside all contenders and possible opponents. The significant and telling difference is that Churchill was a dyed-in-the-wool parliamentarian, steeped in the long traditions of the House, loyal to the Crown, a self-described Servant of the State. Hitler felt no such restrictions and effectively dismantled the power of the Reichstag, took over the Presidency upon the death of Hindenburg, and sidelined, imprisoned or even murdered any opponents. He was Caesar in all but name ... but the name suggests it, "Der Fuehrer".

It was a conflict of political systems and two strong leaders in which Britain seemed slated to lose. If Hitler hadn't attacked the Soviet Union or declared war on America after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he could conceivably have won the war in the West. The RAF could not have held the Germans off indefinitely had the Nazis had no other enemies to contend with, in spite of the brave and fortuitous victories in the summer of 1940. The June 1941 attack on Russia took the pressure off Britain; the entry of the USA into the war told Churchill (he says as much) we have won; we can no longer lose.

Both men were gifted speakers, capable of rousing their people to heights of patriotic fervour. The difference was Churchill knew his people better than Hitler knew his. Churchill dealt with known strengths he had recognized from his own years in the Army and at the Admiralty: obstinacy, bloody-mindedness, a cheery surface, class-hatred tempered by admiration for courage or a touch of grace, understatement, a display of insouciant flash. The Scots and the Irish (the latter not even in the war, officially) were less enamoured, but the English lapped it up. Even the dogged class warriors of the Left got this vapid grin on their faces when the upper classes behaved nicely towards them, found themselves tugging at their forelocks: so depressing, so inevitable, so intrinsically English. Hitler, on the other hand, had no such "Fingerspitzgefuehl", fingertip sensitivity, a German expression never put into so many words in Britain but automatically acted upon. Hitler depended on blood loyalty, a racial vision of the German people that went back to Hermann (Arminius) and the German tribes who had defeated the Roman Legions in 14 AD. No Jews then! Most Germans neither knew nor cared. What was he on about? Hitler believed in all this turn-of-the-century Viennese rigamarole (he had lived there as a down-and-out) and Himmler was the little rat who set about exterminating the Jews of Europe by planned, efficient, industrial methods. Death factories. Hitler (quite carefully) never signed any papers but never raised a finger to stop him, either.

Isolated in his own glory, a stranger to any opposition, losing touch with reality, Hitler held up impossible standards of perpetual victory to his soldiers with not even the option of tactical retreat, so that after all the initial successes, the elation, when the first setbacks came on the Russian Front his adamant refusal to accept them gradually turned the Wehrmacht and his own generals against him. It was an Army conspiracy that tried to assassinate him in July 1944. Churchill visited the bombed areas of East London and other cities, went out among the people. Hitler never did. The Nazi bigwig who did go out and talk to the people was, perhaps not surprisingly, Goebbels. Goebbels was an opportunist, a professional liar ("Das Propaganda!") but he had one or two saving graces, a willingness to face the people being one among them. At the end of the war he was far more popular than Hitler. His speeches, although easier to understand than Hitler's, are unleavened by jokes or anecdotes. That was left for the more relaxed style of the Boss ... "Der Chef".

Hitler was amazingly indulgent to damaged and at times quite embarrassing public figures (Julius Streicher, pornographer; Hans Hoffmann, photographer and falling-down drunk) who dated back to the early days of the Party. Nearly everything was overlooked if you’d been with him in the Old Days. At times you feel as if they all used to play football together, or served in the same unit during the First War: Alte Kamerad! Churchill picked up and dropped people like playing cards: all he cared about was performance and Action This Day! He drove his staff crazy. His secretaries were scared stiff of him. Hitler, on the other hand, liked familiar faces and was courtly and fatherly to his secretaries, drank tea with them, and never fired anyone. He shot and hung people with piano wire instead ... but never any of his Inner Circle. Except, in the final days, the greasy Faegellein (Eva Braun's sister's husband).

Hitler's little stories are quite amusing, self-deprecatory, e.g. there were about 500 people in the hall back then, you know, and only 50 of them were listening. Some of them didn’t know why they were listening (knowing laughter) and I was in charge of a “Haufen”, a shapeless lump, but they were my crowd and I was happy and proud to be in charge of them. Maybe it's the way he tells it, the storyteller. The delivery is always dry, straight-faced, throwaway. If you didn’t know who this person was and what was about to happen, it could be seductive, calling forth complicity of a kind. I found myself smiling or grinning several times and I had to think … wait, wait, wait!! … this is, this is ... Hitler!

Time and time again he goes back to the insurmountable difficulties that were eventually overcome by “faith” and “will” and adherence to the principle of restoring the honour and freedom of Germany. There can be no question he believes this. Violence is always a method employed by the party’s many enemies – not a word about the SA or the SS.

At times Hitler sound quite genial, not the screaming fanatical fool we have been led to believe in. The crowd are obviously listening to him and hanging on his every word. Once you get used to his rhythms and the heavy accent it all starts to make more sense than before. He was a political disaster, a new Black Plague … but the charm and charisma in his less formal moments is undeniable.

What does this mean? It means, if nothing else (and I’ve been reluctantly honest about my reactions 70 years later, even with the benefit of hindsight) that what the Germans of the time heard and responded to was a form of rhetoric that was not simply a hammering political harangue in a spiky unpleasant-sounding foreign language but a series of stories and anecdotes that were often spontaneously connected and even humorous and amusing. Hitler was the Boss, sure, but he never came across to his public as a cold demanding poker-up-the-arse Prussian militarist. In reality he was far more dangerous than any Prussian but he never sounded that way: he could sound reasonable, he could tell stories, he could be avuncular, he was everybody's "Uncle Adolf". These recordings were an absolute revelation.

But none of this changes what happened. Hindsight is 100%. This is not a luxury afforded when you are living through events. When wars are far away (however unjust) and none of our friends or family are physically involved, we tend to be apathetic, if not simply content to allow them to happen. Too bad about the local Afghans and Iraqis these days, for example, just as in those days it was too bad about the Slavs and Jews. Of course it’s not the same thing – just another, slightly different, watered-down version. The aversion to doing anything about it remains, then and now, precisely the same.
What if Hitler had invaded Ireland? Here is a rather chilling article from the Irish Times which makes it abundantly clear that the Nazis had no respect for Irish neutrality and fully intended to take over the country. Our survival as a free nation had little to do with our own efforts and everything to do with the victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Thank God there were at least a few young men like Paddy Finucane who could see that!