What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system. Earlier this summer the curtain rose on Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the London Coliseum, and my heart sank. The stage was alive with stormtroopers and jackboots. The banality was crashing: Faust, the Devil … Hitler, get it? By act two we were deep in the Holocaust. This week the same opera house launched Weinberg’s The Passenger. It is set in Auschwitz.
At the same time ITV is fighting the first world war from Downtown Abbey. The BBC has spent the week immersed in Stalin, Spitfires and "Entertaining the Troops". Radio 4 has decamped to the eastern front where we must hear the Ukrainian novelist, Vasily Grossman, enduring unimaginable privations. Monday’s entire edition of Start the Week was devoted to presenting his Life and Fate as a 1940s War and Peace.
Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.
Now on my doormat crashes the latest opus from the stalwart Max Hastings, entitled All Hell Let Loose. It is, need we ask, a history of the second world war. It follows his Overlord, Armaggedon and The Finest Years on the same subject. It will sell tens of thousands. Antony Beevor recently added his magisterial D-Day to his harrowing accounts of wartime Paris, Stalingrad and Berlin. Andrew Roberts entered the lists with Hitler and Churchill, Masters and Commanders and the thunderous Storm of War. They are few among many.
The British book-writing, book-selling and book-buying public seems obsessed with recounting its forefathers’ triumphs over the Germans, even if, as with Hastings, the accounts are far from triumphalist. In 2000 there were 380 English-language titles on the Third Reich, adding to some 30,000 with the word Hitler in the title. We might have hoped that the new century would see this phase of Germany’s past set in some historical context. It was not to be. Last year the tally of Hitler books rose by 850. Some 80% of these were written by Britons and published in Britain.
Topics ranged from reputable if repetitive histories to studies of Hitler and the occult, guides to SS uniforms, Nazi flying saucers and, according to a recent BBC documentary on the phenomenon, collectible spoons of the Third Reich. The programme floundered among specialists on Himmler and the Knights Templar, how astrology guided Hitler’s armies, and the confessions of a bunker masseur.
Needless to say, Nazis are still a favourite topic of that cultural wild west, the videogames industry, with little sign of their being replaced by Russians or mujahideen. When not killing mutants or aliens, players kill Germans. Perhaps understandably, Germany bans such horrors as Mortyr, Wolfenstein and KZ Manager (which puts players in charge of a concentration camp). Britain does not. The IGN videogame website remarks that "the number of Nazis in videogames probably exceeds the number of people that have ever lived on this planet". It puts this down to a lack of a need for moral relativism towards Nazis and the efficient Wehrmacht as a worthy enemy for the forces of good.