Monday, 27 January 2020

Keith Flett on Telling the Truth about Hitler (2003)

Telling the Truth about Hitler
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: January 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 17: Lent 2003  

With the seventieth anniversary of the takeover of power in Germany by Hitler and the Nazis upon us, no doubt there will be plenty of articles and TV documentaries to mark the occasion. No doubt too it will be used to further the “Saddam is the new Hitler” that New Labour has been busy building up. Some of the TV programmes have been useful, for example The Nazis, A Warning From History. However when serious historical points do get made, a relative rarity, they usually fail to make the transition to informing, for example, the debate about Iraq in the media.

It underlines just how much of a media parade the “Hitler in schoolrooms” story has become and how little related it is to actual historical events or interests. There can be no question that there is a huge industry out there churning out any manner of materials about the Nazis - including of course teaching aids - and that this industry is fuelled by the burgeoning TV history channels, which are also fixated by the Second World War. A look at the schedules for these channels, or indeed an examination of the history stock of any high street bookshop, makes the point.

This is not an entirely bad thing. It is important that students today know about the Nazis, Hitler and World War Two, all the more so because this period of history is now passing out of living memory. The issues of fascism and war clearly have contemporary echoes, although it is a fair bet that such echoes do not find expression in school history lessons as often as they might.

A new German Ambassador to Britain has recently complained that schools should not teach only the history of the Nazis, but should also point out that since 1945 Germany has been a democracy, [Guardian 9th December 2002]. This is not a bad point, particularly if it counters any remaining anti-German sentiment amongst school students. However, football matches aside, it is doubtful if this really exists, and a wider point is that German schools themselves have not been brilliant about teaching the history of the Nazis period.

What we are seeing with the predominance of Hitler teaching in history lessons is surely history as media spectacle, rather than history as something which can encourage students to think about the present through careful study of the past. It has become an industry.

Where for example is the discussion about the nature of fascism, what it meant and what the threat of fascism might be today? Do school history lessons or TV history programmes ask if Michael Foot was right to characterise the Argentinean regime as fascist in 1982 Or if Blair was right to imply the same about Serbia in 1999?

They do not of course and for two reasons. Firstly as the Hitler, Nazis and Second World War story is a profitable industry, awkward questions and discussions are not to be encouraged. Secondly the aim is to create the impression that the Nazis were evil and had to be stopped, rather than to understand why Hitler was able to seize office and launch a war. The reason is because the latest US and UK bogeyman can then be compared to Hitler, labelled as evil and some historical justification found for a further war. At the moment Saddam Hussein is in the frame to be the next Hitler, however absurdly.
The ideological nature of the exercise is underlined by the almost total silence that has so far met another great twentieth century anniversary of 2003, namely that it is fifty years since the death of Stalin. 15 years ago we would have had programmes and articles about how evil Stalin was and why the USSR’s ‘evil empire’ had to be stopped. However since Stalinism has largely collapsed the history industry feels little need for new product in this area. Socialist historians by contrast will be anxious not only to look at new research on what Stalin and Stalinism was about, but also to consider what, if any, continuing impact it has today. That surely is the difference between history for profit and history as a search for knowledge

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