Monday, 29 October 2012

How the Nazis united the world against them



I don't normally watch much television history - it's too much like a busman's holiday. Who really wants to watch car engineering programmes after working under one all day? That's how I feel a lot of the time.

But I did happen to catch BBC Two's Codebreakers last night - which was very good, give or take the usual dramatic and/ or doomladen music and graphics. 'Bletchley's Lost Heroes' turned out to be a poignant look at two experts whose role has often been rather obscured amidst a focus on the deconstruction of the Germans' Enigma naval codes, or the controversy generated over codebreaking hero Alan Turing's disgraceful post-war persecution. Bill Tutte, who first broke the Nazis' top-level Lorenz codes, and Tommy Flowers, who built the first electronic computer to systemise the process, probably shortened the war by a year or even two. Hitler himself used the Lorenz machine, known to the British as 'Tunny' - and which they managed to defeat without having even seen one. And yet neither man was ever really honoured for their key role in the winning of World War Two, for the secrets of Bletchley Park (above) stayed in the dark until they began to leak out into the public arena in the late 1970s and during the 1980s.

For me, it was yet another interesting proof of how the Nazis had united the world against themselves. From Norwegian schoolteachers refusing to co-operated with their occupiers, to Greek Communist and Yugoslav nationalist partisans, from American capitalists to Stalin, from Churchill to Cripps, what the German state did between 1933 and 1945 was systematically cut off every avenue of escape from its dilemma. Nineteenth century German nationalists would have said: don't annoy the British; don't build a fleet; don't fight on two fronts at once; anti-French and anti-Russian nationalisms are your friend. Each and every one of these traditional nostrums Hitler ripped up - giving the lie to A.J.P. Taylor's absurd-but-enlightening contention that the Nazis engaged in a 'traditional' German foreign policy.

And there is one further, and actually rather optimistic, irony. The Nazis thought that they were waging a war against 'weakness' - against the different; the non-conformists; the apparently 'useless'. But who defeated them, at Bletchley Park? Jews; gays, like Turing; working women, employed throughout the Park; oddballs; academic eccentrics.

The Nazis were defeated by the absurdity of their own ideas. Which, when you come to think of it, is a pretty encouraging thought.

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