Posted Sunday, October 20, 2002

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 Celebrities come and go, but publishers have known for ages that the English male has an unhealthy obsession with the Nazis.

The Spectator

London, Saturday, October 12, 2002


by Guy Walters


IT IS a shaming truth that Nigella [Lawson], Posh 'n' Becks and all the Pop Idols put together can't sell books as fast as a swastika can.

Celebrities come and go, but publishers have known for ages that the English male has an unhealthy obsession with the Nazis. It is an addiction on which, as I know to my profit, they are more than happy to capitalise.

When I first told my editor my idea for a thriller, her eyes practically lit up with dollar signs. You mean there was a shadowy unit of the Waffen-SS called the British Free Corps? And it was composed of 57 treacherous British and Commonwealth nationals? Sign here, boy. Whatever my ability as a thriller writer, I was left in no doubt that any future efforts had better be rooted in the war. In its mildest form, the fascination with the Third Reich can be seen everywhere, from the pinstriped commuter reading Antony Beevor, to his teenage sons who will have wasted the summer playing the second world war Boche-blasting computer game 'Return -- to Castle Wolfenstein'. In the evening, they will watch Where Eagles Dare for the 57th time, and Dad will still not understand the twist.

In some Englishmen this interest has mutated into a not-so-guilty admiration for the Nazis and their uniforms, their pageantry, their military brilliance and -- this is the really terrible part -- their brutality. It is emphatically not a condoning of the Holocaust; rather, a fetish that exists despite it. In its advanced state the fetish will have evolved into a secret yearning to march up and down a bedroom in the togs of a Hauptsturmführer, riding-boots shining, the red swastika armband set smartly against the blackness of the tunic, the silver death's-head badge glinting on the peaked cap. Of course, the Beevor reader is a far cry from a Nazi fetishist; but I wonder whether Beevor would enjoy such staggering sales figures if he had written only about the war in the Far East.

What kind of boy contracts this unpalatable Nazi obsession, and at what age does it begin? The condition manifests itself in the prep-school sick bay during the springterm flu epidemic. Apparently too ill to work, our subject, just ten years old, reads dog-eared copies of the Beano and Whizzer and Chips. While bedridden, he hears the older boys discussing magazines that sound infinitely more exciting, 'war mags' with names like Commando, Warlord, Victor and War Picture Library. He catches snatches of schoolboy German: 'Donner und Blitzen', 'Ach, Fritz!', 'Gott in Himmel' and 'Schweinhund!'.

At the end of term, the flu now conveniently in remission, Mr Priestley unearths the projector and makes a selection from the school's extensive range of films. The product of a broad mind, the library consists of just two works, The Guns of Navarone and Force 10 from Navarone. Our nascent fetishist will be particularly drawn by the stylish ease with which David Niven carries off the wearing of an SS officer's uniform. He will be less than impressed, however, with Edward Fox's absurdly pukka sergeant in the latter film.

His small head brimming with Nazis, our subject goes home for four solid weeks of constructing Airfix Messerschmitts, Stukas, Heinkels and Dorniers. He will know that the correct colour of the underside of most Luftwaffe aircraft corresponds to Humbrol's 'duck-egg blue'. If his condition is particularly advanced, the subject's mother will be asked to purchase a Tamiya Jagdpanther tank, which he will place in a 'diorama', a word he will use in no other context. By now, he should be showing further classic early symptoms of a Nazi fetish: Allied aircraft and armour will hold little or no interest. Most of the young fetishist's exercise books will be adorned with thousands of tiny swastikas.

At the beginning of the next term, fellow fetishist Smith mi will have brought back six of his elder brother's Sven Hassell books. With titles such as The Bloody Road to Death, Legion of the Damned and Liquidate Paris, these novels are particularly gruesome accounts of the war, written from the perspective of Wehrmacht and SS soldiers. Their covers usually feature bloodied German soldiers brandishing MP40 Schmeisser submachine-guns, a weapon our subject will soon be able to make for himself out of a couple of branches ripped off a fir tree in Shrubs.

When he and his friends come to re-enact D-Day up the sloping banks of the grass tennis court, our subject and others will readily volunteer to be Germans. Few will volunteer to play Yanks.

By puberty, the fetishist will have repeatedly watched every war film available, including A Bridge Too Far, The Night of the Generals, The Dirty Dozen, The Eagle Has Landed, The Boys from Brazil, Cross of Iron and, for a younger generation, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. He will have read Pat Reid's Escape from Colditz and Airey Neave's They Have Their Exits.

When our subject starts in the sixth form, it is here that the fetish can be incorporated into, and disguised by, his academic studies. Naturally he chooses modern history for one of his A-levels, and his special topic will, of course, be Nazi Germany. He will now be introduced to the diaries of Nazi bigwigs such as Albert Speer, which will breathe life into sinister figures such as Himmler and Goering. In fact, the widespread predilection for Nazi Germany as an A-level subject has angered many university tutors, who have complained recently that it is the only period of history about which undergraduates have any real knowledge.

There are, of course, degrees of Third Reich fetishism. Some, such as the late Alan Clark, had a particularly extreme interest in the Nazis, an interest that matched his politics. In the second volume of his diaries, he recalls a conversation with Frank Johnson in which he admitted that his admiration for the regime was total:

'Yes, I told him, I was a Nazi. I really believed it to be the ideal system and that it was a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races and for the world that it was extinguished.

He both gulped and grinned. . . .'

With the additional evidence that his dogs were named after Hitler's Alsatians, it would be fair to say that Clark had a Führer Complex, a particularly harsh form of the disease. This, when left unchecked, can mutate into the vile and repugnant strains of historical revisionism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

My original schoolboy subject is no David Irving, however. What attracts our fetishist to the Nazis is that they are the best baddies that history has produced so far. They married technology with brutality, efficiency with iconography, mediaeval Schindler's List, although overweight, dangerously appealing in his SS officer's garb.

Remember P.J. O'Rourke's dictum: No woman ever fantasised about being tied to the bed and ravaged by someone dressed as a liberal.

This, I believe, is the cause of the fetish: the human attraction towards evil. The Devil not only gets the best tunes, but, in the case of the Nazis, the best costumes, the best generals, the best weapons, the best iconography and even the most powerful-sounding language. From Göttermorgen to Götterdämmerung, it is the blackest story ever told, and it's still being told everywhere. And some boys will always want to play the baddy.

Guy Walters's The Traitor is published by Headline.

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