Sunday, 20 January 2013

Fritz Thyssen. A warning from history.

Friends in Germany have told me how the collective-guilt rammed down the throats of kids in the school system there can actually be counter productive. Rebellion is and should be the default setting of youth - and if it's rebellion against a well-meaning liberal agenda then it can produce a new generation of neo-Nazis.

In this country anyone with digital telly can at any given moment find a couple of programmes about the Nazis or WW2 on History or Discovery. And kids in our schools might easily find that they are studying the Nazis and/or the Holocaust in History (possibly both before and after they chose their GCSE options), in English, in Drama, in RE and PHSE.

I have now seen at first hand that many kids seem to compartmentalise the Nazis, WW2 and the Holocaust. They can easily come away with the view that WW2 is quite cool. The Holocaust is a bad thing but fairly divorced from antisemiticism. And  Hitler was  really charismatic.

So when coming to teach this I thought I'd try to get across the idea that the Nazis weren't just about Hitler's personal charm. And that they went from fringe nutters to viable force only when rich and powerful people decided that they were the best bet in helping them hang on to their power in the face of crisis and revolution. Not an original analysis I know - but still one that seemed to be lacking.

I hit upon the idea of getting this across by looking at a potted biography of Fritz Thyssen. The steel magnate was one of the richest men in Germany - and an early adopter of Nazism once the depression started to grip. He recruited his mate to the party - who also happened to run the national bank. They donated millions to the party to help fund one of the most extraordinary election campaigns in history. And they orchestrated a letter signed by a group of twenty seven leading businessmen calling on President Hindenburg to ask Hitler to form a government in the interests of law and order and social stability. Unfortunately for Thyssen he was also a devout Catholic who had qualms about Crystal Night and fell out with the party as the Holocaust was getting underway. He fled to Vichy France, was brought back and put in a concentration camp. After the war the allies tried him as a war criminal.

In other words a perfect personification of the uneasy but intrinsic relationship between big business and fascism. However I was told that none of this was needed. It simply isn't on the syllabus - not even at A level. It is however essential reading for our own times.

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