We live in troubled times where fear and loathing of immigrants, school yard shootings, youth violence, distant wars and poisonings in sleepy cathedral cities vie for space on rolling news or the social media feeds on our tablets and phones. Making sense of it all can be a challenge and quite often we find ourselves questioning what we are seeing and wondering who we can trust. Journalists, politicians, commentators, bloggers and spammers are in our faces twenty-four seven. Everyone is wary of fake news and the manipulation of events. Things used to be so much simpler, didn’t they?
No, they didn’t.
When we look at the events of World War II there remain a great many events that have been shrouded in mystery and doubt. Fake news may not have been a current term between 1939 and 1945 but there was a lot of it about as competing alliances vied for supremacy on the battlefield, in print and over the airwaves.
Propaganda was a weapon of equal importance to guns and tanks, allowing people in power to control opinion. The Nazis made good use of fake news to spread alarm and rumours as they tightened their grip on power. Once in control they were able to ratchet up feelings of nationalism and xenophobia to achieve their goals. By tapping in to fears and prejudices they could manipulate situations to suit themselves and encourage others to do their work for them. Having conquered so much of Europe they were able to carry out systematic murder and repression on a scale as yet unseen, often with the collusion of parties within the countries they ruled over. As the mass murders and barbarity staggered on they set in train a campaign of fake news to cover their crimes, but they didn’t have it all their own way.
Someone who had seen right through the Nazis was a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. He was fortunate to escape from Poland during the German invasion and made his way to Sweden where he set about examining the minutiae of Nazi laws and regulations. He developed his own kind of forensic test stripping back all the jargon and legalese of Hitler’s decrees and even the most mundane looking ordinances and identified how the Nazis used it all to mask their true aims to subjugate conquered territories and wipe out the Jews and other undesirables.
As the war progressed and the true horror of what was going on began to filter out of the Europe it was Raphael Lemkin who quantified the scale of the crimes being committed. They were so great he was driven to invent a new word to describe the massed murder of millions: Genocide.
I first became a big fan of After the Battle magazine a very long time ago as it offered up regular instalments of the pleasures of ‘then and now’ comparison photography. The magazines and books that followed were dominated by views of battlefields I longed to visit. While much of the output concentrated on the Anglo-Americans, there were always plenty to see of what the Nazis were doing. It sounds ridiculous to suggest that much of the content was almost benign, but there was something simpler about a history that seemed straightforward, less invidious, less evil; it was only war, after all.
But the full story is another matter altogether and this latest volume from our friends at Hobbs Cross takes us closer to the finale of a forty plus years mission. This time round, Gail and Winston Ramsey have chosen to look at the methods of repression used by the Nazis and their allies to control occupied Europe. It doesn’t make for an easy read.
The Ramseys close in on a number of specific events in the countries in question and whether or not the stories are big or small, the brutality and sense of outright evil are writ large. But there are heroes, too. In countries such as Czechoslovakia, France and the Netherlands, brave people were prepared to stand up to the Nazis. Retribution would be brutal and swift.
I don’t need to paint pictures for you. There is enough reliable information out there to illustrate just how awful the occupation was. Millions would die before liberating armies were able to put an end to it. Guilty men and women were sought out and punished. Some cheated their executioners by taking their own lives while others simply got away with it.
I have had in my hands a signed photograph of Alfred Rosenberg, the theorist who developed Nazi ideology and who was hanged for his role in genocide in 1946. He was handing out his autographed likeness to favoured recipients when he came to London in an abortive attempt to schmooze opinion makers in 1934. The degree of separation thing sends shivers down my spine. Much of what appears in this book doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable. Rosenberg is just one of the leading Nazis featured here.
It isn’t difficult to get an understanding of just how evil the Nazis were. You only have to look at my fellow contributor Suzanne Make’s recent article on her visit to Panerial in Lithuania to see the impact the genocide committed by the Nazis still has today. While the book takes a diversion to Katyn to highlight Soviet crimes and looks at places ruled over by the Italians and others, it is the actions of Hitler’s regime that dominates proceedings.
It’s quite easy for me to recommend such a solid piece of work. All the usual ingredients are here and the attention to detail is as powerful as ever. Military history can be exciting and occasionally overwhelming. But there is a darkness to some of it and there is no sense ignoring the fact that conquering armies of any persuasion are sometimes forced by fair means or foul to do unpleasant things. Hitler’s Nazis were in a league of their own.
This excellent book may not leave the reader smiling, but it continues a journey through events in a conflict that fascinates and repels us just as much today as it did when Raphael Lemkin was exposing some of its horrors. This piece of history is very real, but it’s ever so easy to wish that it wasn’t. It amazes me that there are people prepared to deny some of the horrors ever happened. But this book puts a block on that particular brand of fake news and it goes to show that that the old adage the truth will out is not just apt but welcome in these crazy days of ours.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online
THE AXIS OCCUPATION OF EUROPE THEN AND NOW
By Gail and Winston Ramsey
Battle of Britain International Ltd
ISBN: 9781870 067 935