I’ve criticised the ludicrous notion of a warm Nazi-Soviet alliance before but Sunday’s episode was the one with Marx getting dug up so that bloody well needs to go on the list. The series is set in November 1941: two years after Hitler said: “Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians,” (Andrew Nagorksi, The Greatest Battle) and over a year after the Nazis began drawing up invasion plans of the Soviet Union. By early 1941 these included the “hunger plan” that proposed that German troops seize grain, with the anticipation that this would cause the starvation of tens of millions of Soviet citizens. This didn’t come to pass but in the weeks after the German invasion the Germans took three million Soviet prisoners and within nine months two million of them were dead.
But mostly it’s the idea of the collusion between the highest ranks of the German army in Britain with the resistance — who in the fiction are still fighting each other in northern Britain — to help the British king escape SS custody.
The logical grounding for this appears to be the idea that the German officer corps was dominated by aristocrats who where a bit put out by the brash Nazis. Far easier to do a deal with their upper-class counterparts in Britain — the leaders of the resistance.
This is pretty threadbare stuff. There was indeed some resistance to the Nazis in the German armed forces, but generally split into camps that opposed the Nazis generally and those whose main concern was that the Nazis would lead Germany into another war that it would lose. These latter misgivings were washed away by German military successes. In the hypothetical situation of SS-GB, where Germany has triumphed both on the continent and in Britain, it would be reasonable to think that the morale of German army officers would be high and fears of losing on the battlefield low.
In any case, supposing this German opposition faction, the likelihood of it finding a counterpart among the British ruling classes is highly questionable given their support for fascism, anti-semitism and fear of communism. After the publication of footage of Elizabeth Windsor giving a Nazi salute as a child, Max Hastings reviewed this history in the Daily Mail. The Mail of course knows all about support for fascism, what with its owner Viscount Rothermere declaring: “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” in 1934 and all that.
The argument against this is to point to those in the ruling classes who did oppose Nazism, not least Winston Churchill. To counter this it is worth understanding the nature of the Nazi threat to their interests. Historian Adam Tooze notes:
The originality of National Socialism was that rather than meekly accepting a place for Germany within a global economic order dominated by the affluent English speaking countries, Hitler sought to mobilise the pent-up frustrations of his population to mount an epic challenge to this order.
This is confirmed in Churchill’s own words, outlining his opposition to Nazism in private to Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky in 1938:
Today, the greatest menace to the British Empire is German Nazism, with its idea of Berlin’s global hegemony. That is why at the present time, I spare no effort in the struggle against Hitler.
Churchill’s own words and actions are hardly ones that support the idea of opposing the brutality of Nazism in principle. Churchill bears much responsibility for the Bengal famine and its five million deaths; then secretary of state for India Leopold Amery noted that, “on the subject of India, [Churchill] is not quite sane” and that Amery didn’t “see much difference between [Churchill’s] outlook and Hitler’s.” In Churchill’s secret evidence to the Peel Commission of 1937, he says that it was “not wrong” for the “higher grade race” (of Europeans) to slaughter Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.
Much more could be said, but the point is not to confuse practical anti-Nazism with principled anti-fascism. In a different situation — India, Kenya, Malaya, wherever else — the anti-Nazism of the white-supremacist colonial torturer looks distinctly weak. (And, in Vietnam and Indonesia, Britain in fact re-armed Japanese troops to kill liberation fighters struggling to prevent the return of colonial domination.)
I have a lingering doubt as to the worth of this post, attacking an adaptation of a work of fiction written closer to the war than to now. What irks me, I think, is that whatever the shortcomings of Deighton’s original novel, to reproduce them now in 2017 without alteration is deeply suspect. To smear the Soviet Union in such a way is unforgivable, especially at a time when European politicians are ratcheting up the hysteria against Russia in incredibly dangerous ways, and supporting a Ukrainian government that openly and officially celebrates Nazi collaborators who murdered Jews and Poles.
I wonder about a class motivation underlying these themes, doing down the Soviet Union (and socialism by association in the popular mind) while dressing up British and German elites’ resistance to Nazism. Again, it is fiction, but I worry what people might take away from a story that purports to be based on historical fact but which is so disconnected from it.