Germany, Winston Churchill told us, was either ‘at your throat or at your feet.’ For the last nearly seventy years it has tended to assume the latter posture. According to some excitable commentators that is changing. The Teutonic beast is stirring from its long slumber and before long will be off on the rampage again—although this time it is its financial and economic muscle rather than military might that we must fear.
Speaking as a World War II historian, I would say that Germany’s reactions to the perpetual crisis gripping Europe should excite admiration and relief rather than trepidation. I am impressed—sometimes amazed—at the restraint it has shown in dealing with problems that previous generations might well have regarded as existential threats.
Early twentieth century Germany proved a paranoid state. Both Kaiser Wihelm II and Adolf Hitler were convinced that surrounding nations hated Germans and were plotting against them. It was a simple matter of persuading the population that they were victims, not aggressors. Thus they marched off to two world wars firmly convinced that they were fighting in a just cause.
Today there are many in Europe who dislike Germany for the financial penalties it has imposed on rackety southern economies. Demonstrators in Greece and Cyprus wave banners showing Angela Merkel with a Hitler mustache. Given Germany’s ghastly history in the region it’s not surprising that angry, impoverished people should reach for the handiest and most wounding insult that they can throw at their perceived oppressors. Certainly Germany has appeared high-handed in its imposition of harsh measures on bail-out seekers. But behind the apparent callousness lies a bedrock belief in the validity of the European project and its underlying rationale that a united Europe is the best guarantor of peace.
Patrick Bishop's New Book 'The Hunt for Hitler's Warship'
This attitude is the polar opposite of that which prevailed in the first decades of the last century. It can be symbolized in the story of the battleship, whose life and death I describe in my latest book, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship. Tirpitz was bigger, faster, better armed, and more heavily armoured than anything in the British fleet. Whether the massive cost in building, manning, and maintaining her was justified proved questionable. The advent of air power and submarines meant big battleships were already military dinosaurs, doomed to extinction. To Hitler, and to the German naval chiefs who commissioned her and her sister ship Bismarck, it hardly mattered. The ship was intended as an emblem of Germany’s might and aggression, of its determination to bully its neighbours and get its own way.
Churchill called the battleship the ‘Beast’ and also awarded it a symbolic importance, as the personification of Nazi Germany and its Führer. Inevitably, in the pysche of the Allies, the ship’s fate and that of the regime became intertwined. This was one reason why they continued to launch attack after major attack against it, even after it had ceased to present a serious threat to Britain and America’s war plans.
Pride in Tirpitz and what it stood for was strong. The German navy, the Kriegsmarine were supposed to be somewhat insulated from the barbarity that characterized much of the rest of the German military. They took no part in atrocities and obeyed the rules of war. Insofar as there were good guys in German uniforms, it was they. Yet the 2,200 sailors on board were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler and the war. Sometimes the ship was hit by morale problems. But it was the fact that the ship spent too much time hiding away in Norwegian fjords and not enough sinking merchant ships that was the cause. It was not until the very end, when crippled by a series of daring attacks by midget submarine and aerial bombardment, that anyone seems to have questioned whether or not Hitler was a good thing for Germany.
Blind and unquestioning obedience to malign authority was illustrated in the personality of one of the characters associated with the story. Heinrich Ehrler was a Luftwaffe ace who commanded a squadron charged with protecting Tirpitz from British bombers. Mercifully, on November 12, 1944, when two squadrons of R.A.F Lancasters armed with Tallboy ‘earthquake’ bombs arrived over the battleship’s anchorage in Tromsø, northern Norway, a series of errors prevented him getting airborne in time to shoot them down. Despite being court-martialed and briefly imprisoned for this error, his devotion to the cause remained undimmed. He died in the air a few weeks before the end of the war, ramming an Allied bomber over Berlin. His last words to his comrades over the radio were “see you in Valhalla.”
It might be thought that countries, like people, never really change. Character is formed early, and genuine repentance and reformation is rare. But the Germany of Tirpitz and the Germany of today have entirely different personalities. Faced with the appalling crimes of their past, Germans have shown authentic contrition. In the current crisis its worth bearing in mind—and giving due credit.
Patrick Bishop is the author of The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship and the international best-selling titles Bomber Boys and Wings.