Watching the movie 13 Minutes on TV last night was a reminder, if ever one was needed, that one should never lightly make comparisons with Nazi Germany.
One of the film’s many strengths is its naturalistic depiction of authoritarianism creeping up on small-town Germany. Briton’s are still raised on an historical diet of jerky clips of Hitler gesticulating from podiums, motorcades hurtling through streets and massed ranks of storm troopers rallying at Nuremberg and we think “how did they fall for that?”
In 13 Minutes, the moment we realise the Nazis have fully taken over is when the town’s Party puts on a cross between a film show and a fête. There’s free beer and children skipping. The film they show isn’t of a political rally but a country sports day – except that there’s already something recognisably totalitarian about the shots of happy, healthy sons and daughters of the motherland racing towards the camera. The mayor-turned-local-Party-chief makes sure everyone knows who they should thank for Germany’s blessings.
Georg Esner, the carpenter whose bomb missed possibly killing Hitler by 13 minutes in November 1939, possesses both the prescience to understand the devastation Adolf will ultimately wreak on Germany and the courage to try to stop him. Alone, the film suggests. And certainly despite horrific torture, Esner maintained to the end that he was working with no-one else.
All around him in the two years leading up to the attempt on Hitler, the Nazis are ruthlessly preparing for all-out war, beating up and imprisoning anyone who openly opposes them and ostracising Germans who don’t join the Party.
The timing of 13 Minutes’ showing on UK TV was fortuitous given some uncomfortable parallels between the German government reaction to Esner’s bomb attack and what happened in Salisbury.
Neither the Germans, in 1939, nor the British government, in mid-March this year, had any idea to begin with who carried out the attack. That didn’t stop both of them instantly launching media blitzes blaming their respective bêtes-de-jour. For the Nazi leaders it was Churchill. For Theresa May’s government it’s Vladimir Putin.
The difference as of today is that a German border patrol stopped a man as he was trying to slip into Switzerland and found he was carrying materials linking him to the bombing. So they had a perp whereas the British authorities today, when you parse what they’re actually saying, have no incontrovertible evidence of what the Salisbury nerve agent was or the identity of the individual(s) who deployed it.
For five years after the Munich bombing, the dwindling number of Germans inclined to believe what they read and heard in the media understood that the incident was a dastardly British attack on German sovereignty carried out via the treacherous Esner. Their leaders new different – or at least that they couldn’t prove anything of the sort, though they kept Esner alive until the bitter end of the war in the hope of somehow being able to mount a show trial.
History.com’s account concludes: ‘Hitler dared not risk a public trial, as there were just too many holes in the “official” story’.
Of course, no-one disputes that the Germans had the actual bomber in custody; a man who’d killed seven people and injured nearly 70. One could debate for a very long time the many contradictions in keeping alive a traitor, who very nearly succeeded in derailing the Nazi leadership, for five long years during which the same leadership shot, hung and gassed millions of Germans and and carelessly slaughtered tens of millions of foreigners on the Eastern and Western fronts.
No-one should equate the record of the British state since WWII with anything that happened in Germany between 1936 and 1945, although we do have bad form when it comes to scapegoating innocent people following bomb attacks. The bottom line, though, is that our State didn’t execute the wongfully convicted individuals and it – eventually – owned up to subjecting them to ordeal and injustice.
Nevertheless, the Britsh state in the twenty-teens is becoming more authoritarian and more propagandising than at any previous time in my 60 years. But if I’m tempted to make a comparison with Germany in the late 1930s, I remind myself that I live in a society that’s still a thousand times freer, more tolerant and more open than Nazi Germany was.
What a pity that the UK’s national embarrassment and disgrace of a foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, lacks a similar perspective.