I’m not an especially religious man, but I do believe in an essential goodness, and I see it in a lot of people. I married into a family of Scottish exiles who took their religion seriously. Church on Sundays and the importance of the community that went with it were all part of the gig. My mother-in-law May, was a lovely woman, a true matriarch; the embodiment of love; she had been a CSM in the army during the war! My father-in-law, Jim, a Merchant Navy veteran of WW2 and a long serving London copper, died this year, aged 91. The whole thing was done without any fuss and was made up of hundreds of small kindnesses given and shared by people, many of whom are gone now. I can see their faces.
All this goodness has to have a counterpoint and while I know there are countless examples of it here in our own islands this book by Ian Baxter is the perfect example of where all the very worst of humanity comes together. The book isn’t about the top table, the grand hierarchy of monsters affixed in our psyche. It is a catalogue of the little people and, in truth they are even scarier; because once removed from the sanity of your every day hum drum get up go out come home boring existence they are you and me.
You see them smiling, smirking, playing with puppies, looking good in uniforms and doing all that casual “this is us going about our daily business” stuff, just like anyone does in their working lives in any any town, any war history life we’ve come to know. But this lot are a bit different, because they were part of a machine that killed six million Jews and a great many others. They meted out casual and cynical cruelties to mothers and children, to the infirm and the elderly and they did it with relish and with automatic calmness or mad rushes of the wild zealot. They just did it because they could.
When it was over some were hanged and some were shot. Some went to the Gulag and some got clean away with it or lived to rebuild themselves and a new Germany or managed to skulk away in car plants in the American mid-west or further south in countries where they liked similar uniforms. Some were quietly bumped off by avenging angels. Those of a firmly religious mind will all be convinced that Old Nick will have room set aside for them all.
For an instant I was a bit bewildered by the motive for publishing this book at all. I appreciate that the author, Ian Baxter, has an enormous collection of Nazi era photographs and his previous books in this Images of War series have been fascinating; but this one? It seemed a bit OTT, far too niche. But, no, it all makes sense. If you are looking for the simplest and quickest lesson for the all embracing evil of the Nazis in one package showing how their glamour, their allure their poison and their unflinching evil overtook a generation and created a monster, it’s all here in this book. They stare out at you with their smirks and their grins and their puppies and their absolute calm normality and you just wish someone is about to rain seven shades of shite down on them.
So well done, P&S. This is a lesson from history and it’s horrible. It isn’t entertainment. It’s a flame. The reader is a moth and it is a wholly uncomfortable feeling. I would consider adding this book to the curriculum. If your kids are doing ‘A’ Levels, let them see it for that background reading the teachers are so keen on. I showed it to my daughter. She said “sick”, meaning “good” in modern parlance. But, of course, she was right both ways.
HIMMLER’S NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMP GUARDS
By Ian Baxter
Published in softback by Pen & Sword Military £14.99