Sunday, 30 October 2011

November 5th

November 5th is upon us, and once again we commemorate the day in 1605 (except that nobody ever remembers the year) when Guy Fawkes was caught in the very act of preparing to blow up the Houses of Parliament - assuming, of course, that it was a genuine plot, not a put-up job by the government of the day, as some historians have suggested.
Fawkes and his fellow-plotters were all Roman Catholics. Celebrating the detection of the plot with bonfires seems to have started around 1680, when England was in the grip of a new wave of anti-Catholic hysteria: the great “Popish Plot” scare. The figure ceremonially burnt on the November 5th bonfires is often called “the Guy”, but it actually represents the Pope rather than Fawkes (who was hung, drawn and quartered, the traditional penalty for High Treason, not burnt at the stake). Burning or hanging in effigy was an ancient method of demonstrating popular hatred of some prominent person, and the figure on the bonfire was actually labelled “The Pope” until very recently in some places; notably the town of Lewes in Sussex.
By a happy coincidence, November 5th was also the day when in 1688 William of Orange landed at Torbay on his way to take the crown from England’s last Catholic king, James II. William’s supporters hailed as a clear mark of divine providence the “Protestant wind” which blew from the east to carry William’s fleet down the Channel from Holland, whilst keeping James’s fleet bottled up in the Thames estuary, unable to get round the headland of Kent. James ran away, William occupied London bloodlessly and was proclaimed King. Since then it has been laid down that no King may be a Catholic, and any member of the royal family who marries a Catholic is automatically excluded from the line of succession.

I found in an old Church of England Prayer Book prescribed prayers for November 5th, bringing together this double anniversary under the heading of “Gunpowder Treason”. The first prayer begins:-

“Almighty God, who hast in all ages showed thy power and mercy in the miraculous and gracious deliverance of thy Church, and in the protection of righteous and religious Kings and states, professing thy holy and eternal truth from the wicked conspiracies and malicious practices of all the enemies thereof; We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious sovereign King James the First, the Queen, the Prince and all the Royal branches, with the Nobility, Clergy and Commons of England, then assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous and savage manner, beyond the examples of former ages. (etc etc)”

And then the second prayer:-

“Accept also, most gracious God, of our unfeigned thanks for filling our hearts again with joy and gladness, after the time thou hadst afflicted us, and putting a new song in our mouths, by bringing his majesty King William upon this day, for the deliverance of our church and Nation from Popish tyranny and arbitrary power. We adore the wisdom and justice of they providence, which so timely interposed in our extreme danger and disappointed all the designs of our enemies (etc etc)”

These prayers were abolished by Parliament in 1849. We are not likely to find such violently anti-Catholic sentiments in these ecumenical times. Indeed, we are now told that the relevant clauses of the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) will be repealed, to allow Catholics once again to succeed to the throne!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Literature: Stephen Potter and Gamesmanship

Stephen Potter was one of the few writers who coined a new term in the English language; the word being "Gamesmanship". In the 1950s he wrote four short but very funny books: "Gamesmanship", "Lifemanship", "One-upmanship" and "Supermanship", followed by two others in a similar vein: "Anti-woo" and "The Complete Golf Gamesmanship". Unfortunately the word "Gamesmanship", though widely used in commentary on sports, is invariably misunderstood and misapplied by people who have obviously not read any of Potter's books. This essay is an attempt to put the record straight.

"Gamesmanship" is nowadays used to describe what is in fact straight cheating, especially in football: for instance, pretending to have bben fouled in order to win a free kick. Such behaviour is totally unlike anything described by Potter, who defines gamesmanship as "The art of winning games without actually cheating". Indeed, Potter's concept of gamesmanship is scarcely applicable to professional sport at all, and certainly not to football. What Potter typically describes is a purely amateur encounter, in a sport such as golf or tennis, between two players who each assume the opponent will behave like a gentleman - except that the gamesman isn't really gentlemanly at all. Thus the gamesman might indicate that he has recently suffered some injury or bereavement, in the hope that his opponent will feel sorry for him and ease up on his efforts, in much the same way that, when playing against small children, we often let them win. The same result may be achieved by the gamesman giving the impression that he doesn't care whether he wins or not, but is playing purely for the fun of it. The gamesman might try to confuse his opponent by adopting bizarre tactics, or embarrass him by his inappropriate clothes or peculiar behaviour. If the opponent plays a bad shot, the gamesman should irritate him by offering gratuitous advice on how to improve his technique. If the gamesman on occasions put his opponent off his stroke by moving at the wrong time or causing some other distraction, he should always apologise profusely for such "accidental" misconduct. In sedentary games such as chess, the gamesman can imply he has made a deep atudy of the subject.(My suggestion: when the opponent makes some perfectly innocuous move, the gamesman exclaims, as though talking to himself, "Well, well! The old Zinoviev gambit! I haven't come across that for years!" Opponent will vaguely remember he's heard the name Zinoviev somewhere before)
Potter's gamesman, in fact, is a thorough cad, but not a cheat.

In the following books, Potter developes the concept of "Lifemanship", which essentially consists of how the "lifeman" manages to convey the impression that he has certain expertise or erudition which he does not in fact possess; as a motorist, birdwatcher, linguist, rockclimber, academic, sportsman or whatever. Telling direct lies is cheating, and even worse, runs the risk of being exposed by a genuine expert. Potter gives various examples: how to be one-up on your doctor or supervisor (or, if the boot is on the other foot, how to prevent this happening), how to become the dominant person at a meeting or seminar, whether as speaker, chairman, or simply someone who asks a question from the floor; and the style of book-reviewing which Potter styles "Newstatesmanship": the art of appearing to know far more about a subject than does the author of the book under discussion.
Potter recommends some basic ploys which can be employed in many different situations. For instance, if asked to identify a certain bird, the lifeman can say firmly, "Where I come from, we used to call it a frog-pippet". This is, of course, quite unanswerable, and can easily be adapted for use in a discussion on, say, botany, or architecture, or even as a spectator at a sporting event.
The technique which Potter uses in his books is to make his points through the medium of anecdotes about the successes, and occasional failures, of various gamesmen and lifemen, and these stories are frequently extremely funny. Obviously most of his characters are fictitious, but some are perfectly genuine, such as Professor Joad and the journalist and politician Tom Driberg. They are treated in exactly the same way as the fictitious characters.

I can claim a few small successes myself. Some years ago, when I used to attend lots of gymnastics events, I was once asked if I was the editor of the "International Gymnast" magazine. I was honest enough to admit that I was not that person; but the point is, why should anyone think I was? But I have also come across some sad cases of opportunities spurned. A former colleague of mine was once seen wearing the distinctive tie of the M.C.C., the Maryleborne Cricket Club; a most exclusive society, very difficult to get into for anyone who is not a top-class cricketer or is without the right social connections. Since my friend was hardly a cricketer at all, I asked him how he had contrived to gain entry to such a prestigious club. He admitted that he wasn't actually a member, but had simply bought the tie at a jumble sale. I was most disappointed at this feeble response, and recommended instead something on these lines:- "Well, I'm afraid I'd never get in nowadays.... I can hardly swing my bowling arm at all..." (make suitable creaky movements of the shoulder) "These endless repetitions always get you in the end, you know.... And what have I got to show for it? Look, even the calluses on my hands have worn off..." The obvious value of this approach is that one's fundamental ineptitude as a cricketer need never be revealed.

Gamesmanship as Stephen Potter envisaged it is thus perhaps now of limited relevance, but lifemanship still lives on!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures, Part 4: Concentration Camps

Concentration Camps (“Konzentrationslager” = KZ)

The earliest concentration camps in Nazi Germany dated from March 1933. At first they were simply convenient buildings where the Nazi forces interned and sometimes beat up or murdered their opponents. Under the emergency decrees enacted after the Reichstag Fire, “protective custody” was authorised for “enemies of the state” or “subversive elements”. The victims at first were mostly communists or socialists. Over 25,000 were arrested in Prussia, and perhaps 15,000 in the rest of Germany. In April 1934 a new Protective Custody law allowed for the internment of enemies of the regime and other “undesirables”. They could be held without trial, or sent to the camps after they had served out their sentences in normal prisons.

The early camps were mostly run by the SA, and were violent, murderous places, with savage mistreatment of victims. The Ministry of the Interior under Frick moved to close down the more lawless camps, and the SA lost most of its power after the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.

In March 1933 Himmler founded the camp of Dachau, in Bavaria, in a disused gunpowder factory. In June it was placed under the command of Theodore Eicke of the SS, a former policeman with a conviction for bomb-planting. Himmler approved of Eicke’s methods, and in 1934 Eicke was appointed Inspector of all camps in Germany. The other camps were taken over or closed down, and the running of the camps was given to the “Death’s-Head” branch of the SS ("Totenkopfverbande", with a skull on the cap badge), using Dachau as the model.

Eicke introduced three grades of severity for inmates (III being the harshest; “punishment grade”, involving a bread-and-water diet and sleeping on bare boards). Flogging was imposed for breaches of discipline, and hanging for trying to escape or “agitation and incitement”. Guards were forbidden to fraternise with the inmates, but were made to follow the rule-book rigidly, and to avoid arbitrary or uncontrolled violence. Prisoners were supposed to be “reformed” by hard labour and discipline: hence the famous slogan above the gate of Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work sets you free”. In fact, the work was frequently meaningless as well as exhausting, and the treatment to harsh that prisoners often died.

Many categories of people might be found in the camps: originally Communists, Socialists and other political opponents, but also habitual criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, troublesome priests, Jews (especially after 1938), gipsies, and “asocials” – who might include beggars, drunks, hooligans, the “workshy” etc. The different groups were identified by different badges (Jews wore a yellow star, homosexuals a pink triangle, etc), and some would be treated more harshly than others.

Until 1938 there were only three Death’s-Head camps in Germany, (Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen), with about 8,000 inmates. Their main function was to terrorise certain targeted groups, and to keep the streets clear of “undesirables”. Many prisoners only served a few months in camp before being released; even Jews. Ordinary Germans outside the targeted groups had little to fear. But in 1938 came the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, with mass arrests of opponents there, and the arrest of 10,000 Jews after Crystal Night. Two new camps were set up, at Flossenburg and Mauthausen (in Austria); the latter particularly feared, with its Grade III regime and brutal forced labour in the stone quarries. At the outbreak of war, there were about 25,000 in the camps – a small number compared with the millions in Stalin’s camps in Russia. Many new camps were built in the war, including Ravensbruck (the women’s camp) and Belsen. This last is second only to Auschwitz in notoriety, since when it was captured by British forces near the end of the war it contained the emaciated bodies of thousands of victims who had died of starvation and typhus as supplies had broken down. (After the liquidation of Auschwitz at the beginning of 1945, the survivors were force-marched in the depths of winter across Poland and Germany to Belsen, thus swelling the camp's numbers uncontrollably. Those who fell behind on the march were shot. It was an operation whose cruelty was exceeded only by its utter pointlessness)

None of the camps in Germany was built for mass extermination. The gas-chamber camps were all in Poland, and were opened in 1941-2. There were four camps which existed solely to gas Jews on arrival: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, which functioned to gas the Polish Jews, mostly in 1942 (an operation known as "Action Reinhard", in memory of Himmler's assassinated deputy Reinhard Heydrich); and two other camps which had gas chambers as well as labour facilities: Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau, which operated until captured by the Russians in 1945. We have comparatively few accounts of the Reinhard camps, because hardly anyone survived to tell the tale, and they were demolished once their work was done. Auschwitz is the most famous for a variety of reasons: it took its victims from all over occupied Europe; there were many survivors (such as the Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi); and most of the camp was still intact when it the Russians arrived - though the huge gas chambers and crematoria had been blown up, and reduced to the heaps of concrete rubble which we see there today. The Reinhard camps mostly killed their victims with fumes from diesel engines rather than with the Zyklon-B gas used in Auschwitz.

The decision to exterminate the Jews

No researcher has ever found any document in which Hitler specifically orders the mass killing of the Jews (or even that Hitler had even heard of Auschwitz). Some historians have even suggested that there never was any specific decision as such to initiate the Holocaust; suggesting that it might have been a policy which emerged as it became clear that the Polish ghettoes could only be a temporary measure and all other “solutions to the Jewish question” proved unworkable (such as mass deportation to a very remote area, like the island of Madagascar or the wilds of Siberia). On the other hand, although Hitler was a very “hands-off” leader, to the extent of often being dubbed a “weak dictator” who exercised little direct control over his subordinates, it seems unlikely that such a major policy could have been implemented without Hitler’s specific approval.
There can be no doubt that Hitler nursed an extreme hatred of all Jews, and that this hatred was shared by most of the Nazi party leaders and membership. A whole chapter in book 1 of “Mein Kampf” is devoted to the Jews. (Exactly when Hitler began to think like this, or why, is still unclear. This kind of anti-Semitic thought was by no means limited to Germany: indeed, the classic work of anti-Jewish ideology, the famous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was produced in Tsarist Russia at the end of the 19th century). It is clear that when Hitler came to power he intended to do something extreme to “solve the Jewish question”; but what precisely did he have in mind? Discrimination and low-level persecution began in 1933, but nobody anticipated the Holocaust, and up to about 1938-9 Jews in Germany were treated no worse than black people in the southern states of the USA at that time.
If we assume, as do most historians, that at some point Hitler did give the go-ahead for mass killing, then when would be the most likely time? Two important surviving documents are not much help. On July 31st 1941 Goering sent a decree to Heydrich authorising him to initiate a “final solution” to the “Jewish question”. This can hardly mark the start of a new policy, since the mass killing of Jews in Russia had already been going on for several weeks; and it is questionable whether Goering (who never showed any fanatical interest in the “Jewish Question”) actually composed the decree, or simply signed something that Heydrich placed in front of him. Similarly the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 was clearly held to announce and explain a policy that was already being implemented: the building of the death camps had begun some weeks earlier and the first gassings had already taken place in Chelmno.
Some historians think the decision on the Holocaust was made before the invasion of Russia in June 1941; others prefer to date in that autumn, perhaps quite late in the year, once the Germans came to realise they were not going to take Moscow before winter set in. There survives an odd exchange of letters: Lohse, the chief of the occupied Baltic territories, found that a great many of the motor mechanics in Lithuania were Jews, who could do useful work servicing tanks if allowed to live, and wrote to Berlin seeking guidance. Himmler replied in December, informing him that economic considerations were not to be taken into account: all the Jews must be killed. “Tell Lohse these are my orders, which also correspond with the Fuehrer’s wishes”. Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, stated in his postwar testimony that he was informed verbally of the decision to exterminate all Jews "Sometime in the summer of 1941, but he could not remember the date". This is probably all we are likely to get in the way of direct evidence.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures: the War

The Reich Security Head Office (RSHA)

This was set up by Heydrich in 1939 to co-ordinate all police and security operations. It was originally divided into these six departments (with the departmental head in brackets)

I – Administration (Best)
II – Personnel & Ideology (Six)
III – SD: Home Intelligence (Ohlendorf)
IV – Gestapo (Muller)
V – Kripo (Nebe)
VI – SD: Foreign Intelligence (Jost)

Each department had its own divisions. Thus the Gestapo work was divided into IVA (Home Territories) and IVB (Foreign Territories). Eichmann was put in charge of department IVB4 (Gestapo: Foreign Territories: Jewish Affairs), and from 1942 became responsible for the rounding-up and deportation of Jews from all over Europe to the gas chambers in Poland. Only military intelligence (Abwehr) was outside Heydrich’s control.
In occupied Europe, the key official was the local Higher SS and Police Leader (HSSPL), who had immense power. Globocnik, the HSSPL in Lublin, south Poland, seems to have begun the extermination of Jews in his territory without any reference to Frank, the nominal Governor of Poland. Similarly Rosenberg, the Governor of occupied Russia, had no control over the mass killings there. It can therefore be said that the SS-Police system increasingly functioned as a “state within a state”, beyond the control of the legal system or the other organs of government.

The Einsatzgruppen

These were “Hit Squads” organised by Heydrich to enter occupied countries behind the front-line troops and arrest or shoot anyone likely to cause trouble: Jews, Communists, clergy, community leaders etc. They were first used in Poland in 1939, but the most famous Einsatzgruppen were the four squads organised for the invasion of Russia in 1941. 3,000 men were assembled, drawn from the ranks of the police and the SS, and divided into four groups, A-D, to cover the entire front from the Baltic to the Ukraine. The commanders (from north to south) were Stahlecker, Nebe, Rasch and Ohlendorf. These men were not crude thugs: Stahlecker was an SS major-general drawn from section VIA of the RSHA; Artur Nebe, as we have seen, had been for the last few years head of the Criminal Police, Rasch had two university degrees and was thus nicknamed "Doctor Doctor", and Otto Ohlendorf was a very clever young man, aged just 34, who also held a senior post in the Economics Ministry. He was the only one of the four who survived to be executed as a war criminal.
It has been pointed out that 3,000 men are not physically capable of shooting millions of victims, and that really large-scale killing only began when Himmler assigned SS battalions to Russia for this purpose in autumn 1941. Local people, mostly Ukrainians or Lithuanians, were recruited to assist them, nicknamed "Hiwis" (helpers). By winter 1941 they had shot at least ½ million Jews and other enemies, including a great many women and children.

The day-to-day activities of the Einstazgruppen can be discovered on this website -

then follow the link to the Jager Report.
There you will find, spelt out in bare and terrifying detail, the day-to-day killings achieved by Stahlecker's Einstazgruppe A in the Baltic villages. To take one entry at random:-

23/8/41: Panevezys: 1,312 Jews, 4,603 Jewesses, 1,609 Jewish children

Numbers of Communists and the mentally ill were also killed. By the end of November 1941, Einsatzgruppe A could report a grand total of 133,346 killed.


The code name given to the "National Co-ordinating for Therapeutic and Medical Establishments" was "T4", after the organisation's address at Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin. It was in fact the body supervising a programme to kill the mentally ill, which operated in Germany between 1939 and 1941. It was run by Philip Bouhler, head of the Nazi Party chancellery, and Dr Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician. About a dozen euthanasia centres were established in Germany, and some 20,000 victims were gassed with carbon monoxide or given lethal injections. The programme was supposed to be secret, but details soon leaked out, and it was abandoned in August 1941 after protests from the Catholic Archbishop of Munster. Many of the men who had operated T4, such as Christian Wirth and Franz Stangl, were then transferred to the campaign to gas the Jews, which began at the end of 1941. Historians have always speculated as to whether this was a deliberate "dry run" before starting the Holocaust.

(The next entry will deal with the concentration camps, and with the vexed question of when, if ever, Hitler gave the go-ahead for the Holocaust)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures; Part 2: Gestapo


Before the Nazis came to power, Germany was a federal country, and each individual state had its own state police force (STAPO). These would each include a “Political Department”, whose main function was keeping tabs on Communists; manned by policemen of right-wing views, often poorly educated. The police were forbidden to join the Nazi party, but were often sympathetic.

Prussia was very much the biggest of the German states, and included the capital, Berlin. For many years it had been run by the Socialist Party, but in 1932 was taken under the direct control of the central government. When Hitler formed his coalition government in January 1933, there were only three Nazis in the Cabinet, but one of these was Hermann Goering, who was put in charge of Prussia.
When Goering took control of the Prussian police, he purged any anti-Nazi officers and built up the Political Department under his relative Rudolf Diels. He recruited SA and SS men as special auxiliary police, and encouraged them to shoot any opponents. The Emergency Decrees enacted in March 1933, immediately after the Reichstag Fire, gave the police extensive powers of arrest and internment, of which Goering took full advantage.In June 1933 Diels's force was named the "Secret State Police": Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo for short.

In March 1933 Himmler was placed in charge of the Bavarian police, with Heydrich as his assistant. One of his officials was Heinrich Muller, chief of the Political Department, who was not a party member. Himmler and his subordinates then accumulated power very rapidly. He took over the police forces of all the different states one by one, and in 1934 took control of the Gestapo from Goring and Diels. A special law of Feb 1936 freed the Gestapo from any interference from the Ministry of the Interior.

In June 1936 Himmler was made Minister of Police for the whole of Germany (and later, Minister of the Interior). The following structure was set up:-
Police functions were divided between the "Order Police" (Orpo): a rather low-grade paramilitary force, headed by Kurt Daluege, and the "Security Police" (Sipo), headed by Heydrich. Sipo was further divided into the "Criminal Police" (Kripo), a detective force, headed by Arthur Nebe, and the "Political Police" (Gestapo), headed by Heinrich Muller.

Himmler filled the police leadership with his own SS men. He ordered that in each district the chiefs of Orpo and Sipo should be the senior SS officers. The Gestapo rank and file were mostly recruited from the pre-Nazi police, but their new commanders were bright young Nazi graduates. He saw the role of the Gestapo as combating the “natural enemies” of Nazi Germany: Communists, Jews etc. To fight them, the Gestapo had wide powers of arrest and interrogation (often using torture) and were backed up by “Special Courts” set up in 1934 to deal with political cases. Within the SS, Heydrich maintained his own intelligence-gathering force, the SD, whose functions often overlapped or clashed with those of the Gestapo (see the previous entry)

There were never very many Gestapo. Cologne, a city of ¾ million, never had more than 99 Gestapo officers. In the war, there were about 50,000 Gestapo for the whole of Europe. But they maintained a large network of spies, informers and part-time agents. Everywhere, people were encouraged to report any suspicious behaviour or anti-government remarks by neighbours or workmates. Heydrich was of course well aware that the vast majority of information coming back from such sources was mere malicious gossip, and quite worthless from a police point of view; but the great thing was, nobody could trust anyone else. In every street, apartment-block, business and classroom there would probably be a Gestapo informant, and no-one would dare say or do anything against the Nazi regime.

Modern research suggests that ordinary Germans had little to fear from the Gestapo. Their efforts were targeted on certain key groups: at first, Communists and Socialists, then homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, troublemaking priests, and, increasingly, Jews. Germans outside these groups who were informed on for behaviour such as making anti-Nazi remarks, were usually treated very leniently for a first offence (probably let off with a warning). Until the war, only 644 people were sentenced to death in the whole of Germany! On the other hand, people in the targeted groups could be tortured, sent to concentration camps, and killed by brutal treatment there. This calls into question how far pre-war Nazi Germany can really be called a “totalitarian police state”.
Mass executions only began with the war: especially from 1942.

The People’s Courts

“Special Courts” were established in Germany in 1934 to deal with political enemies of the Nazi government, especially Communists and Socialists. The highest one of these was the People’s Court in Berlin. Before the war this court had only imposed 108 death sentences. The courts were generally lenient towards offenders from non-targeted groups, only imposing short prison sentences (2 years or less). Mass executions only began when Roland Freiser was put in charge of the People’s Court in 1942, imposing almost 1,200 death sentences in his first year. About 11,000 death sentences altogether were imposed in Germany during the war, with twice as many sentenced by military courts-martial: but a large number of the victims would not be Germans but foreign slave-workers. The real terror came after the bomb plot against Hitler in June 1944: at least 300 people were hanged in the main prison in Cologne in the last 4 months before the city fell to the Allies.

(The next entry will outline how things changed during the War)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Nazi Police Structures; Part 1


The first Nazi paramilitary organisation was the SA (Sturmabteilung, Stormtroopers, or Brownshirts) This was led by Ernst Roehm, a squat, ugly and extremely violent former army officer (and, incidentally, a predatory homosexual) who had joined the Nazi Party even earlier than Hitler. They would act as bodyguards, beat up and intimidate opponents, fight street brawls with Communists and Socialists, and also look impressive when thousands of them took part in uniformed parades and rallies. Their crude street violence played a major part in the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933: they were sworn in as special auxiliary police and given official license to arrest, beat and murder any opponents of the new regime. But by 1934 the old conservatives and Army generals who had backed Hitler were becoming alarmed, not only by the thuggish excesses of the SA, who were now more than a million strong, but by the alarming ambitions of Roehm himself. Increasingly, Roehm was openly saying that Hitler had betrayed the Nazi revolution by selling out to the old ruling classes, and making little secret of his desire for the SA to replace the old Reichswehr as a truly revolutionary army. (I often think that Roehm might have been happier in the Communist party!) Finally in summer 1934 Hitler was given a stark choice by the Army generals: eliminate Roehm or lose Army support. (As Field-Marshal von Blomberg said of the SA, the rebirth of Germany could not be left in the hands of "That gang of thugs, drunks and queers") After some hestitation Hitler gave the go-ahead to Goering and Himmler to dispose of Roehm; and the SA leaders were arrested and shot, together with other opponents of the Nazi regime, in the "Night of the Long Knives", June 1934. The SS played its first significant role in the mass killing. Following this, the Army raised no objection to Hitler merging the offices of Chancellor and President a few days later. Conservatives both in Germany and abroad were glad that Hitler had disposed of his "wild men", and few bothered to notice that the thuggish hooligans of the SA had now been supplanted by the infinitely more sinister SS.

Heinrich Himmler (here with Heydrich behind him)

Himmler was born in Munich 1900, the second son of the tutor to the Bavarian royal princes. He joined Nazi party in 1923, and took part in the Beer Hall Putsch, then studied agriculture. He married in 1928, to a woman 7 years older than him, and ran a smallholding with a chicken farm. In 1929 he was appointed leader of the SS, at this stage an insignificant organisation within the SA. In 1930 he became a Deputy in the Reichstag. From the Nazi accession to power in 1933, his power grew constantly. His first post was as chief of police for Munich; then in 1934 he took control of the Gestapo and helped organise the Night of Long Knives; and in 1936 he became Minister of Police for the whole of Germany. In 1943 he became chief of the Replacement Army.

Himmler was the only leading Nazi whose power constantly increased, and whose career never suffered setbacks. He was a colourless personality, without any obvious charisma or natural authority, and his only positive characteristics seemed to be his conscientiousness and firm faith in Nazi ideals. His frequent calls for ruthlessness only seemed to mask his own squeamishness (the only time he witnessed a killing, he was very upset), but he appeared totally impervious to the terror and suffering of his victims.

He had a strongly puritan streak; he constantly stressed the need for obedience and discipline, and disapproved of the crude, lawless violence of the SA. He was extremely superstitions: he firmly believed in Nazi racial theories, and was also interested in astrology, occultism, fringe medicine etc. However, unlike most mediocre cranks, Himmler was able to recruit men far more able than himself, and retain their loyalty. He was very dependent on the far more talented Heydrich, and the SS leadership was full of highly intelligent young law graduates.

Himmler came to oversee not only police and intelligence work, but also the vast empire of concentration camps, the deportation and extermination of Jews, and his own field army, the Waffen-SS (Himmler proved to be an extremely bad military commander!)

His fundamental lack of reality was shown near the end of the war, when he put out feelers to see whether the Allies would accept him as leader of a post-Hitler government, and even tried to open negotiations with the World Jewish Congress. (“It’s time we Nazis and Jews buried the hatchet”, he said!). The surviving SS were severely disillusioned by this “betrayal”, and one of Hitler’s last actions was to expel Himmler from the Nazi party.

As Germany collapsed, Himmler tried to escape with false identity papers, but was interned as a suspect by British forces and poisoned himself when he realised he was about to be unmasked.

Someone once commented to Hermann Goering that Himmler didn't have a brain. "Yes he does!" replied Goering, "The brain is called Heydrich!"

Reinhard Heydrich

Heydrich was born in 1904, the son of a musician, and was widely believed to be partly Jewish (which, however, was never proved). He was always arrogant, a loner, greedy for power, and found it hard to form normal relationships. His first career was as a naval officer, but in 1931 was forced to resign for ungentlemanly conduct. He then joined the SS, where Himmler was looking for someone to run an intelligence-gathering and security organisation. Heydrich convinced Himmler that he had been a security expert in the navy: in fact he had no experience of the work, but was able to bluff Himmler, who was equally ignorant of the subject!

Heydrich’s cleverness, hard work and ruthlessness quickly made him Himmler’s indispensable No. 2 in the S.S. He set up his own Security Department (SD), dedicated to gathering intelligence, including on the other Nazi leaders, and recruited some exceptionally bright young men to staff it. As Himmler rose to take control of all the German police forces, Heydrich rose with him, and became chief of the Security Police in 1936. He helped plan the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, and the overthrow of the generals Blomberg and Fritsch in 1938.

When the war came, Heydrich set up the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) to co-ordinate all police and intelligence work throughout occupied Europe. Soon only Military Intelligence (Abwehr) under Admiral Canaris was outside Heydrich’s control. He organised the “Night and Fog” operation to exterminate any possible resistance leaders in Poland, and the “Einsatzgruppen” (Hit Squads) in Russia for the mass killings of Jews. In summer 1941 Goering authorised Heydrich to carry out a “final solution to the Jewish question”, and in early 1942 he chaired the Wannsee Conference, where plans for the killing of all Europe's Jews were announced.

In late 1941 Heydrich was sent to Prague to govern occupied Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic), whilst retaining control of the RSHA. Here in May 1942 he was assassinated by a hit squad of Czechs specially trained in Britain. Although he was given a lavish funeral, his colleagues in the Nazi leadership were probably relieved to see him dead. He is considered the Nazi most likely to have succeeded Hitler, had Hitler died suddenly. Unlike the deeply superstitious Himmler, he seems to have had no beliefs at all, apart from an obsessive greed for power. Although Heydrich was violently anti-Christian, Himmler doubted whether he was really an ideologically committed antisemite, and considered that, behind his front as a compulsive achiever, he was “at heart, a deeply unhappy man”.


The SS (Schutzstaffel, Protection Squad, or Blackshirts) was originally a personal bodyguard for Hitler within the SA, numbering no more than 180 men, but it grew rapidly in size and importance. Himmler saw its role as more than just a policing body; it should be the ideological and racial elite of the new Germany: pure-blooded Aryans, highly disciplined and fanatically dedicated to Nazi ideals. He set out to recruit a better type of men than the crude street-fighters of the SA.

By 1933 the SS had expanded to 50,000 members, and by 1939 to 200,000. Entry was made deliberately difficult, and before the war a large majority of applicants were turned down. A recruit had to prove his Aryan ancestry back to the 18th century; he could not marry without permission, and his bride also had to undergo a racial check. The SS bore resemblances to the orders of fighting monks in the Middle Ages: the Templars and Teutonic Knights, and there was a strong element of strange quasi-occult rituals that stemmed from Himmler's superstitious mind.

The original formation was the "Allgemeine-SS" (General, or All-purpose), bringing together all members, salaried, part-time or honorary; divided into regiments and squads, with officers having ranks parallel to those of the regular army, under Himmler as Reichsfuehrer. But within the SS different functions emerged: the Waffen-SS came to be practically a separate army, with its soldiers noted for their fanaticism in combat, the WVHA section was responsible for administration of the concentration camps and the "Deaths-head" SS provided the camp guards (these tended to be of a rather lower class: ex-soldiers unable to become army officers because they lacked the educational qualifications, who were unsettled and often unemployed in civilian life, and rarely rose above the rank of Major in SS ranks)

As Himmler's power grew, he used his SS to take on more and more functions. He ordered that in each district the local SS commander must also be the chief of police. The SS increasingly ran a vast slave-empire in the concentration camps, where SS doctors conducted medical experiments on the inmates. The "Lebensborn" organisation attempted to breed the master race of the future. The campaign to exterminate the Jews was spearheaded by the SS, and concentration camps such as Auschwitz were a vast slave-manned economic empire in their own right.

The SD was organised by Heydrich within the SS. It was an intelligence-gathering body, without powers of arrest, whose function was to keep under investigation any likely opponents of the regime, "to provide the authorities with a comprehensive mosaic picture", so that action could be taken. (Files were also kept on the Nazi leaders themselves!) The work of the SD therefore overlapped with that of the Gestapo, and the two organisations were to some extent rivals; typical of the administrative chaos that prevailed in Nazi Germany. The bright young graduates whom Heydrich recruited for the SD tended to look down on the less-educated career policemen who made up the Gestapo. It was only in 1939 that the two were co-ordinated together in the RSHA. But Heydrich did not allow his appointees to be mere desk-warriors: when the war came, he sent them out to lead teams of killers!

(Next time: The Gestapo and related topics)
There is, of course, an enormous literature on Nazi Germany, but for a biographical approach to the subject I would greatly recommend "The Face of the Third Reich" by Joachim Fest.

Monday, 3 October 2011

G. M. Trevelyan

When in 1908 the young British historian G. M. Trevelyan was in Sicily collecting information for his trilogy of books on Garibaldi and the campaign for Italian unification, he decided to follow on foot the journey of Garibaldi and his "Thousand" in 1860 from Marsala to Palermo, crossing some of the most desolate parts of the island. His parents were worried that he might be kidnapped and held to ransom, since he was known to come from a well-off family. Trevelyan wrote to explain that Sicily wasn't particularly dangerous these days, and furthermore he was intending to take with him three friends from Cambridge - one of whom was Bertrand Russell!
I have always thought this would be the most unforgettable of holidays: a walk across Sicily with Bertrand Russell and G. M. Trevelyan; both at the time young men at the height of their powers. Alternatively, can we imagine Bertrand Russell kidnapped by Mafiosi, and the dialogue that might then follow? But I am not certain that the trip ever took place, since Russell makes no mention of it in his autobiography.
Incidentally, Trevelyan never mentions the Mafia in his Garibaldi books, though he is aware of the Camorra, the equivalent organised crime organisation in Naples. This perhaps supports the theory that, although banditry has been endemic in Sicily for countless centuries, the Mafia as we know it today is actually a relatively recent creation.

(I would recommend to anyone Trevelyan's trilogy: "Garibaldi's Defence of the Roman Republic", "Garibaldi and the Thousand" and "Garibaldi and the Unification of Italy". They are a model of how history should be written for the general reader.)