“Young people are not aware of the facts of the war”

Article published on May 9, 2005
community published
Article published on May 9, 2005

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Laurence Rees, the award-winning Creative Director of BBC History Programmes, talks to café babel about his disquiet over the equation of Nazi war crimes with Allied bombings and young people’s limited knowledge of the war.

Mr Rees, who has been described by The Times as "Britain's most distinguished producer of historical documentaries", has made several series dealing with the Second World War, the latest of which is Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’.

Does the furore surrounding the recent film Downfall show that Europe is yet to come to terms with its past?

No, I don’t think so. I can understand that issues in Germany are particularly sensitive in this regard because any portrayal of Adolf Hitler will be controversial. I know with regards to books it’s very rare that it is considered acceptable by publishers even to put a picture of Adolf Hitler on the cover of a book about him, so of course any portrayal of Hitler will be problematic. But I don’t think that any press coverage around it shows that Europe has got difficulty coming to terms with the past, it just shows the enormous sensitivity of this subject.

Is the current debate surrounding the Allies’ guilt of committing war crimes a moral one or a symptom of a nationalist revival?

I think it’s a bit of both in the sense that, even at the time, Churchill was unhappy towards the end of the war with the actions of Bomber Command [which controlled the RAF's bomber forces]. I think Detlef Siebert showed in a film he made for Timewatch some years ago, called Bombing Germany, that the latest research showed that one of the criteria used for targeting in 1945 was, for example, burnability, so we’ve got to ask questions about the ethics of that. But, there is the most terrible danger in moving on from that debate to any form of equation with the horrors of Nazism. This is something I discuss in detail in my book about Auschwitz and that’s because Nazis like Rudolf Höss, who was the Commandant of Auschwitz, did rely on this as almost a justification for what the Nazis did by saying that in effect they were no different from the bomber pilots who bombed German cities. I think that’s an obscenity because the difference in kind between the bombing campaign and the atrocities of the Nazis is huge – not least because the bombing campaign by the allies was not targeted at the elimination of one particular group of people. It was targeted at houses, factories and railway lines and it would have been stopped immediately had the Germans surrendered, whereas no-one can seriously believe that the persecution of the Jews would have stopped had the Nazis been anything other than comprehensively defeated. So there simply isn’t, in my judgment, any comparison possible between those two events.

The Moscow celebrations marking the end of the war have caused controversy in the countries which came under the Soviet yoke. How legitimate is the Soviet Union’s claim to have ‘liberated’ Europe?

Well in one sense, of course, the Soviet Union did liberate the countries of Eastern Europe because they liberated those countries from Nazi rule. But there is another sense in which all that happened in those countries was that the rule of one cruel tyrant was replaced by the rule of another in the form of Stalin, and I do have sympathy with those that see the war that way. I have met so many people that suffered at the hands of the Red Army, so think that of course there would be resentment, particularly in countries like Poland, about this. But on the other hand they did defeat Nazism.

How far is the success of the EU, which was created to ensure peace on the continent, dependent on the continuing memory of war?

Well, since we showed last year with our poll on Auschwitz that nearly 60% of women and those under 35 in Britain had never even heard of the word Auschwitz, I think it is very difficult to maintain the argument that the EU is sustained by a common memory of war, since I bet if you question people under 35 then their knowledge about the Second World War would be sporadic to say the least. But, on the other hand, it’s certainly true that those in power in the EU, I think, are aware of this history and that the close links, for example between France and Germany, can be traced back, at least in part, to a desire not to have conflict between those two great European nations again. So yes, at one level the history is important, but as we go forward now I believe, as I said, if you polled young people I’m not sure they’d even be particularly aware of the general facts of the war.