Posts Tagged ‘still’

Whether it’s Cologne sex assaults or Mein Kampf, Germany still doesn’t trust its people

January 12th, 2016

The book is a virtually unreadable ragbag of personal reminiscence, anti-Semitic diatribes, self-pitying sentimentality, and a chilling forecast of Hitler’s future plans for Germany after the Nazis came to power, including conquering France, battling Russian Bolshevism, enslaving the Slavs, and veiled hints of the Holocaust itself.

The publisher this time around is the heavyweight historical Institut fur Zeitgeschichte (Institute for Contemporary History) based in Munich, capital of Bavaria, the south German city and state that was the cradle of the Nazi movement in the 1920s, and where Hitler spent his happiest hours.

The Bavarian state government, which inherited the publishing part of the former Fuhrer’s estate, and is extremely sensitive about its most infamous one-time resident, had resolutely refused to republish while the seventy years copyright lasted. However it was unable to prevent publication of the toxic work after the copyright expired. Discretion about Nazism, in official Bavaria’s eyes, was definitely the better part of valour.

Although some members of Germany’s Jewish community – now 100,000 strong – expressed unease that the book’s release would fuel a new wave of neo-Nazism, and despite the fact that the first edition sold out within hours on Germany’s Amazon website, independent historians have backed the republication, and it seems unlikely that the heavily annotated and deliberately dull-looking tome will ever again attain bestseller status.

Historian Roger Moorhouse, author of His Struggle, an account of the writing of the original book, says the controversy is “much more about Germany’s continued obsession with Hitler, and the curious assumption that his horrid, outdated ideas are still ‘infectious’, than…about the book itself.”

There is, surely, also a coincidental link between official German efforts to stifle or filter Hitler’s rancid tex and the same establishment’s current ham-fisted attempt to cover up the true extent and the identity of the perpetrators of the mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne and elsewhere in Germany on New Year’s Eve

It as if Germany’s rulers do not trust their own people with the ability to handle uncomfortable truths. Whether those truths are the poisonous doctrines that once entranced the nation and led to the Holocaust and the devastation of Europe in the Second World War, or the more immediately dismaying reality that parts of German cities are no longer safe for German women to walk in because of their own government’s policies, the instinct to suppress the truth remains the same. It is a profoundly unhealthy trait.


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Germany still paying pensions to Spain’s Nazi volunteers during Second World War

November 5th, 2015

The German government has continued to pay pensions to Spaniards who volunteered to fight for the Nazis in the Second World War.

Berlin is still honouring an agreement made with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whose regime encouraged volunteers to sign up to fight for Hitler against Communist Russia between 1941 and 1943.

In a written reply to a parliamentary question by Left-wing MP Andrej Hunko, Angela Merkel’s government admitted that it was still paying out over €100,000 (£71,000) a year in pensions to survivors and relatives of troops from the so-called Blue Division, in whose ranks Spanish volunteers fought on the Eastern Front.

The current annual bill to German taxpayers stands at €107,352, which is granted to 41 veterans who were wounded while fighting for the Nazis, eight widows of former fighters, and one orphan of a Blue Division volunteer.

Mr Hunko, of The Left (Die Linke) party, said it was “a scandal that 70 years after the war, Germany is still paying more than €100,000 a year to Nazi collaborators”.

He added: “At that time, those people volunteered to join the German fascists to fight on their side in the war of extermination in eastern Europe. For me it is incomprehensible that the German government should stick to those payments when so many victims of the war are still waiting today for their rightful compensation.”

The agreement to pay pensions to Blue Division veterans was made between Franco’s government and the Federal Republic of Germany in 1962.

The German government said that 47,000 Spanish volunteers had fought for Nazi Germany under an agreement between Hitler and Franco, part of a deal which prevented Spain from entering the war too quickly after the three-year civil war won by Franco’s fascist forces in 1939 with help from Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy.

The written answer also said that 22,000 Blue Division members were either killed, wounded or declared missing in action during the war, without dividing the different groups of casualties. Other estimates put Spanish dead on the Eastern Front at around 5,000.


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Mary Ellis was a Spitfire pilot in WW2. At 98, she still flies

March 11th, 2015

“Come to lunch,” said some friends on the Isle of Wight, “there’s a lady we’d like you to meet.” And so we went, and we met her – a slight woman, with a twinkle in her eye and a warm, engaging smile – and were simply enchanted by the most remarkable story.

Mary Ellis is 98 and bright as a button. When she was at school she was hopeless at hockey and so she opted for another sporting endeavour: she learnt to fly. It was at an air show in Hendon that she was bitten by the bug, after persuading her father to let her take a pleasure flight in an Avro 504. “From that moment I was hooked,” said Mary. She had been awarded her flying licence by the time she was 16. That in itself is remarkable, but it was only the beginning of Mary’s story, for in 1941 she heard an appeal on the radio by the civilian Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) for women pilots. She applied, took a flying test and was accepted into their ranks.

At Hatfield, Mary Wilkins, as she then was, learnt to fly Spitfires, Hurricanes and Harvards with the object of delivering the newly manufactured planes to the bases from which they would be used. After basic training Mary was based at Hamble on the south coast, and during the war she single-handedly delivered 76 types of aircraft, including about 400 Spitfires. I say single-handedly as Mary was alone in the aircraft, which was equipped only with a compass and a stopwatch. She found her way to her target using a map. The ATA delivered 308,567 aircraft during the war; Mary’s own total was in the region of 1,000 planes. I asked her if she had been shot at. “Just the once,” she said. During the war, 143 ATA pilots were lost – one in 10 did not survive – including 14 women. “Attagirls”, they were called, and not without cause.

Seated in her first Spitfire prior to delivery, Mary was asked by the mechanic who had helped her into the cockpit, “How many times have you flown one of these?” As she relates the story her face breaks into a smile. “I said never, and he fell off the wing.”

Of the different planes that Mary piloted, the Wellington bomber was probably the largest. That such an aircraft could be handled by such a slender young woman filled many with disbelief. Having landed and taxied a Wellington to its parking place at an airfield, Mary climbed down the ladder to be greeted by the ground crew who asked her where the pilot was.

“I’m the pilot,” she said. It was not until they had searched the aircraft that they finally believed her.

At the end of the war Mary delivered the very first Meteor jet. “You will run out of fuel in about 35 minutes, so make sure you’re down by then.” She did.

In 2006 a memorial to the ATA pilots was erected at White Waltham airfield in Berkshire. Though rarely the subject of recognition, they deserve our gratitude and our admiration, for their work was every bit as vital as the Battle of Britain pilots whose aircraft they delivered.

Mary still gets airborne, though she no longer flies solo. The light in her eyes when she talks of her experiences is completely infectious, but she is as interested in other people and their stories as in relating her own. “I’m nothing special,” said Mary at our lunch. “I’m just ordinary.”

Perhaps she will forgive us if we beg to differ.


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Dresden: The wounds have healed but the scars still show

February 8th, 2015

The city was quickly rebuilt. On Feb 13 1955, the restored Church of the Holy Cross (Kreuzkirche) was packed for its reconsecration. Thirty years later, a crowd of 200,000 gathered for the inauguration of the rebuilt opera house. And, 60 years after its ruins had become an icon of the city’s destruction, in 2005, the Frauenkirche reopened.

The contrast between the blackened original stones and their fresh, white counterparts serves as a permanent memorial. “Its wounds have healed,” says Rev Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the church. “But the scars still show.”

Wounded pride takes longer to heal. The flames that skipped through Dresden have long since died out, but the passions sparked that night burn on. As the city prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the raid on Friday, official talk is of reconciliation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, will deliver a sermon in the Frauenkirche, and the Duke of Kent will be presented with a prize for his efforts to reunite the old enemies.

Away from the town hall, some Dresdeners recoil from these overtures. Where once February 13 was a day of quiet contemplation, it has now become a violent clash of historical interpretations. Thousands of neo-Nazis march across the city, hijacking the anniversary to claim moral equivalence between the bombing and the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Even larger crowds of Left-wing activists throng the streets in turn, trying to blockade the fascists’ advance.

“We will sit down in the street to stop them demonstrating,” says Frank Kohler, a 19-year-old student who will take part in this week’s blockade for the third year running. “They can’t be allowed to abuse this date.”

Ursula Elsner at home in Comenius Strasse, Dresden with her husband Helmut (Craig Stennett/The Telegraph)

The commemorations have become so charged that editors of a local newspaper supplement charting the raids have spent days debating their choice of pictures. “Everything is political,” says Oliver Reinhard, heritage correspondent of the paper, Sächsische Zeitung. “If we just used pictures of the bombing, some people would ask ‘why don’t you show what the Nazis did, too?’?”

Dresden was never intended to become such a contested chapter of the Second World War. Many more civilians had died during a raid on Hamburg in July 1943, and by the time Dresden was bombed, most other German cities had already been targeted.

For Harry Irons, a rear gunner who flew 60 raids, the city was “just another target”. “It was nothing out of the ordinary,” says WO Irons, now 91, who lives in Romford. “I was used to seeing German cities going up in flames and losing my comrades night after night. What went through our minds was just to get there and to get back – we couldn’t have any feelings about it.”

Dresden bomber Harry Irons remembers raid 70 years on

Listening as I read out his comments, Mrs Elsner, who is now 84 but has never moved from Dresden, stays silent. At last, she nods. “From his perspective, of course,” she says. “But for me, that was the worst night of my life. The whole city became one enormous morgue.”

She and her seven-year-old brother, Dieter, had been celebrating Shrove Tuesday, and Dieter was still in fancy dress as a tomahawk-toting cowboy when the air-raid sirens began to sound. They sheltered in their cellar but when they began to be sprinkled with ash, they leapt over a burning timber to hurtle outside, Dieter still clutching his teddy bear.

In the street, sparks singed their hair and hands, but they survived: the families who remained in the cellar all succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Everywhere around me was death and destruction,” says Mrs Elsner. “I most recall seeing the prams – the babies weren’t moving any more.”

Yet, even though she remembers that night every day, she is happy to forgive WO Irons and the rest of Bomber Command. “It was war,” she says. “We can’t talk about blame.”

The British veteran plans to fly to the city for the first time since 1945 later this year, and Mrs Elsner says she would happily invite him in for a cup of tea: there they might sit, with the Frauenkirche between them, the bomber and the bombed. “It’s difficult to be angry,” she says. “What good does it do to hold a grudge?”

Mrs Elsner is typical of many of the remaining survivors, who have reconciled themselves with their former enemy.

Warrant Officer Harry Irons, DFC, joined the RAF in 1940 at the age of 16 as a rear gunner, flying in Lancasters with No. 9 Squadron (Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph)

But their efforts to make peace with the past are being threatened by a younger generation determined to exploit the legacy of that night. The neo-Nazi march has been an annual fixture of the commemorations since the Nineties, so that the city that was destroyed in the battle against fascism is now the epicentre of its revival.

“They’re young and they don’t know what fascism is really like,” says Mrs Elsner. “The day is becoming more and more political. There’s the Right-wing here and the Left-wing there: the idea of remembrance is getting lost.”

WO Irons is also depressed by the sloganising that surrounds Dresden. The far-Right’s claim that the raid was a “bombing Holocaust”, an Allied war crime on a par with the Final Solution, used to trouble him.

“I had second thoughts about Dresden for years,” he says. “But last year I went to visit Auschwitz myself. Now I’ve seen it, my conscience is clear. We killed many civilians but we lost many men too. That was war – but Auschwitz was something else.”

The neo-Nazis are far from the only group seeking to exploit the sense of loss that pervades Dresden. Pegida, a far-Right movement of “patriotic Europeans” that began to target disenchanted Germans last year, has shied away from overt references to the bombing, but few think the choice of Dresden for its regular marches is coincidental.

“It ties in with the victimhood running through the city,” says Frederick Taylor, the historian and author of Dresden. “The unresolved trauma of 1945 provides a fertile ground for those kinds of feelings.”

This exploitation began even as the embers glowed. Nazi propagandists seized on the raid to paint a dark picture of the bombing campaign. Helped by its self-styled image as a “Florence on the Elbe”, they claimed the city as an innocent victim of a war crime, omitting to mention the 70,000 workers there who toiled in factories supplying the war effort, or the city’s significance as a centre of the railway network and a sizeable barracks.

This fiction continued under the communist regime of East Germany, which used the raid as a useful shorthand for Western aggression, and branded the bombers “air-raid gangsters”.

Such blatant propaganda fooled few, but some of the misinformation it generated has proved far more pervasive. Seven decades on, the death toll is still disputed, after years in which Nazi and GDR politicians, helped by revisionist British historians such as David Irving, claimed that as many as 500,000 Dresdeners died that night.

Even after an official commission of historians settled on the far lower figure of 25,000, the number is still contested, and government press releases about the commemorations explain their workings in lengthy footnotes.

“There are still a lot of people who say it must have been higher – it must have been 100,000,” says Matthias Rogg, of the Dresden Military History Museum. When he quoted the true figure in a newspaper interview to publicise a new exhibition about the bombing, he received hundreds of furious letters.

“I don’t think this will ever become just history,” he says, detailing the emotions still stirred by any reference to the raid. “The debate will never end.”

One uncomfortable truth is sometimes overlooked in all the furore.

“You have to ask the question of responsibility,” says Col Rogg, pointing to a skyline that once again resembles the landscape in Ursula Elsner’s apartment. “The war started in Germany. And, that night, it came back to us.”


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Vera Lynn: still an inspiration

May 28th, 2014

Some performers have their 15 minutes of fame, but few manage a whole 90 years.

Yet Dame Vera Lynn is the exception to many rules. Having sung her first song on stage at the age of seven, the 97-year-old is a showbiz trouper by any stretch of the imagination – not to mention the oldest person to have had a No 1 album, having reached the top of the charts as recently as 2009.

The curious thing, however, is that Dame Vera never expected her celebrity to last. As she confesses in a new interview, she assumed that her status as the Forces’ sweetheart would be a temporary thing – that just like them, she would be demobbed, returning to civilian life as “just another singer” rather than remaining a national star.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast with the culture of modern celebrity – with the mindless pursuit of fame for fame’s sake. As Dame Vera knows, the purpose of performing is not to glorify the performer, but to entertain, console or amuse the audience. Dame Vera not only did that – amid the darkest times this nation has faced – but has devoted much of her life since to doing good work for a host of worthy causes. Her life should serve as an inspiration not just to would-be singers, but to anyone who wants to understand what makes Britain great.


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