ARTbop reviewer, Kevin Newman has contributed two reviews of books examining lives and times of World War II. The first, A.N. Wilson’s biography of Adolf Hitler. Coincidentally the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death has just occurred. The second by Caroline Moorhead, based on interviews with the survivors, is the story of the resistance by a group of French women to both the German occupiers and the French collaborators of the time.
HITLER. A Short Biography by A.N. Wilson
A fascinating and insightful biography of a repellent subject. I found the portrait of Hitler’s personality both intriguing and highly surprising.
I expect my far right, Nazi/fascist dictators to be men of drive and energy. Up at 400am in the morning for a few hours exercise, they will then spend the rest of the day in a state of utter dynamism before retiring to bed no earlier than midnight. Actually, I think that sounds more like Margaret Thatcher. Not that she was a fascist or a man for that matter. Oh no!
Hitler was very indolent, spending most of his days doing nothing much but dreaming his terrible dreams and talking interminable nonsense (Page 7). He never had a “proper” job, and seemed to consider it an insult to be expected to pay his way. The places where he lived, the cars he drove, even the dogs he owned were all given to him by other people. Wilson describes him as “almost without any skills at all” (Page 9) and “no obvious leadership qualities” (Page 9), using the tantrum as an alternative to common sense. He did however possess a talent for public speaking and the manipulation of crowds and individuals. He was also fortunate, at least in some circumstances, with his opponents. British politicians Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were easily duped.
Hitler did not drink alcohol, hated cigarette smoking and was a vegetarian. The latter must have contributed to a health problem of his. Hitler suffered from chronic flatulence.
I had also believed Hitler to be if not a war hero in the first world war, a brave front line soldier. Wrong again. He was a regimental messenger boy, spending most of his time several miles from the front line. The officer who recommended him for his Iron Cross, for faithful service was Jewish.
When he left the Army, Hitler had, in Wilson’s words, “no prospects, no money, no professional skills, no contacts” (Page 23). Yet we are sadly familiar with the consequences of his rise to power.
His Commanding Officers felt that he had no leadership skills. That is, unless, as Wilson states, “You believe that such qualities include the ability to lead vast masses to total disaster.” (Page 23)
Wilson sees Hitler as a truly modern politician for his use of cinema and radio. Those attracted to Hitler saw him as the embodiment of Darwinian rationalism. He was indeed deeply hostile to religion, particularly the Catholic Church. Controversially, Wilson claims that Hitler was the embodiment (albeit exaggerated) “Of the beliefs of the average modern person” (Page 187). I hope Wilson is wrong. An interesting and challenging biography.
A TRAIN IN WINTER – A STORY OF RESISTANCE FRIENDSHIP AND SURVIVAL by Caroline Moorhead
This very sad, but nonetheless inspiring book tells the story of 230 French women who were sent to Auschwitz for resisting the German occupation and the french collaborationist regime during World War II. They had previously been held in harsh conditions in prison in France. However, nothing could prepare them for the camps.
A majority of the women were members of the French Communist Party (PCF), though their number included Catholics Gaullists and Socialists. They were drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds and had performed many different roles in the Resistance.
Caroline Moorhead interviewed the survivors and their families and had access to extensive archive material. She paints a portrait of ordinary people resisting tyranny and enduring terrible suffering and hardship.
The book details many acts of bravery and solidarity. On the anniversary of the Russian Revolution a group downed tools and sang the Marseillaise. The women would ensure that small presents and extra food (usually stolen) were given to mark birthdays and Christmas and other special days.
Part of the original group were transferred to the camp at Ravensbruck. This broke up the strongly supportive relationships that had developed amongst the women, who were convinced that “only each others’ warmth and protection could save them”.
Following the liberation, the remaining 49 alive of the original convoy made their way back to France. They found a country that was “not altogether in a mood to hear what they had to say”. General De Gaulle needed ‘collective amnesia’, that France had been betrayed by a handful of traitors. It was inconvenient to say the least, to acknowledge that it was the French themselves that had rounded up and interned Resisters and Jews before sending them to the Death Camps.
Their experiences obviously had a profound effect on the survivors. Moorhouse states that “they no longer felt themselves to be the same people” and “there was no innocence left”.
Of the returnees sadly but surprisingly, few went on to live happy healthy lives. One survivor said in an interview with the Author, “I am not alive. I died in Auschwitz”.
In a world of facile, selfish, individualism, of Facebook friends and constant trivia, there is much to be learned from these wonderful courageous women. Values of love, solidarity, caring and political commitment are needed in our world more than ever. As Caroline Moorhead writes, “Those who came back to France owned their lives principally to chance….they owed it too in no small measure to the tenacity with which they had clung to each other.”
Kevin Newman. ARTbop contributor and reviewer, Tauranga resident Kevin Newman, has lengthy academic associations and a strong interest in world affairs and history.