Zyklon B – the murderous Nazi chemical

This month, thoughts turn to the Nazi Holocaust. Watching one of many TV documentaries last night was intensely depressing. It still never fails to shock. How a government in Europe set about the mass murder of millions of people. Even more appalling are the experiments conducted by Nazi scientists perfecting the means to kill a huge number of people. It’s the story of how Zyklon B – an insecticide – came to be used in the concentration camp gas chambers to such devastating effect.

What is grimly fascinating is how the Nazis almost stumbled into the idea of the Holocaust. Mass murders by shooting of both Jews and Communists in seized Soviet territory proved to the Nazis that wiping out entire Jewish populations was feasible.

But shooting was too close up and, believe it or not, the Nazis fretted about the psychological impact it would have on the executioners. The fate of the executed was not taken into consideration! So, they set about experimenting with different techniques of murder. Preferably a method that could be out of sight and kill the maximum number of people in a short space of time.

FIND OUT MORE: Five top Nazi mysteries!

British soldiers discover the truth about Zylon B

When British forces reached Hamburg in the closing days of World War Two, they discovered incriminating files at the headquarters of a chemicals firm, Tesch & Stabenow. What they read in those files and the testimonies of employees led to the firm’s founder, Bruno Tesch, and his chief assistant, Karl Weinbacher, being hanged following a trial by a British military court.

It was unusual for industrialists who had supported Hitler to be executed. But in this case, it was beyond any reasonable doubt that Tesch and Weinbacher were completely aware of the planned use of Zyklon B to commit murder on an unheard of scale. They colluded with the Nazi authorities and concentration camps to test the practical application of Zyklon B with pellets dropped into an enclosed space full of victims releasing toxic gas.

DISCOVER: The American Nazis of the 1930s

The corporate machine behind Zylon B – the Nazi death agent

Tesch and others initially developed Zylon B as a fumigating agent creating a process where hydrogen cyanide could be manufactured and deployed in solid form. The patent was assigned to a company called Degesch, which was a subsidiary of the German chemicals giant, I.G. Farben.

Contemporary news reports after the war argued that I.G. Farben took the decision to develop Zyklon B through Degesch to keep its complicity in genocide at arms length. In reality, Farben brains were running the show and Degesch was at least 42% owned by I.G. Farben.

The question for prosecutors after the war was whether Tesch knew that Zyklon B was being manufactured specifically to kill millions of people. In addition, were the directors of I.G. Farben complicit. The testimony from witnesses revealed that Tesch returned from meetings with Nazi leaders in Berlin having been told that the manner in which Jews were being slaughtered in eastern Europe was “unhygienic”.

Tesch believed he had the answer. Zylon B pellets were tested on a group of Russian officers at Auschwitz in 1941 with fatal results. The quantities subsequently delivered to Auschwitz had the potential to kill 19 million people if used economically by the SS guards. Another upside was that these guards wouldn’t have to view the actual deaths. They would just listen outside the locked chamber. When the screams stopped, the job had been done.

The court had heard enough. Tesch was found guilty and hanged.

I.G. Farben was described in press reports as a “man eating spider” or a “state within a state” during the Nazi period. It had clearly expected to have a chemicals monopoly in a Nazi-run Europe. Its own PR messaging regarding Zylon B was that the company thought the pellets were being used to fumigate the living quarters of inmates. To kill lice in other words.

And it came as a complete surprise to discover the SS had extended that to slaughtering the inmates en masse. Few people then and since have bought this argument. Especially as those inmates were working for I.G. Farben within spitting distance of the camps where they were being killed.

I.G. Farben directors escape the noose

Germany had been the global centre of the chemicals industry in the 19th and early 20th century. I.G. Farben was the biggest firm – a vast conglomerate founded in 1925. It made extensive use of concentration camp labour siting factories near to the notorious Auschwitz camp. But again, this was done at arm’s length so that ultimately the camp’s management could be blamed for the forced labour.

In the trials of Nazis following Hitler’s defeat, private sector firms that had supported Hitler portrayed themselves as politically neutral and unable to shape events that occurred during the Third Reich. Not exactly true.

I.G. Farben financially supported Hitler and the Nazis before they took power. The firm then adapted swiftly to the Nazi takeover in 1933 firing its Jewish employees and militarising production. But worst of all by 1943, half its employees were those working next to concentration camps, despite the firm’s attempts to hide the fact.

It developed poison gas fully expecting it to be used in combat conditions as it had been on the battlefields of Europe during World War One. But the Second World War was fought on different terms and gas came to be used in the civilian area – the concentration camps – on a horrific scale. But I.G. Farben maintained it knew nothing about this Nazi use of Zyklon B.

The trials of 24 I.G. Farben executives at Nuremberg was a very drawn out affair, finally concluding in 1948. They were cleared of planning to help the Nazi war effort, which seems ludicrous in retrospect. But found guilty of seizing private property in countries invaded by the Third Reich.

Astonishingly they were cleared of complicity in the mass murders and medical experiments conducted in the concentration camps. Instead, the managers of I.G. Auschwitz were deemed to have acted alone and not directed from above by I.G. Farben.

Did I.G. Farben know about the Nazi use of Zyklon B?

After the war, I.G. Farben was split up. The main successor companies were Agfa, BASF, Bayer, and Sanofi. Today on the BASF website, there is the following statement:

After the war (1945) and especially during the Nuremberg trials, the question is raised whether the representatives of I.G. Farben knew that Zyklon B was used for the mass murder of people from September 1941. A definitive answer has yet to be found.

It is also denied that Degesch was controlled by I.G. Farben:

Furthermore, new research concludes that even after the participation of other companies (1930), Degesch “[remained] an integral part of the Degussa enterprise and not I.G. Farben, as it was falsely assumed during the trials against the board of directors for war crimes between 1947 and 1948, and is still commonly believed today.”

It’s also stated that, “more and more people were housed in camps so it was to be expected that the demand would rise for pediculicides and other special pesticides. Moreover, the actual sales of Zyklon B were not significantly higher after the mass executions at Auschwitz begin in September 1941 than they were before“.

Nazis who fled to Egypt

Leading Nazis either died with Hitler in the bunker in Berlin as the Soviets closed in; got themselves executed by hanging after being tried by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg at the end of the Second World War; or simply disappeared off the face of the Earth (often to Latin America). Some Nazis though found a new home – in Egypt.

In a bizarre turn, many adopted new Arab names and even converted to Islam. Living in the Egyptian capital Cairo, they enjoyed the protection of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. These unrepentant Nazis played a massive role in poisoning the discourse between Arabs and Jews continuing the anti-Semitic propaganda they had refined and spread under Hitler’s Third Reich.

Nazis working in Egypt as propagandists against Zionism

President Nasser of Egypt was a charismatic figure on the 1950s world stage. An imposing and proud nationalist attempting to shake off the last vestiges of British Empire rule in Egypt but also embroiled in an increasingly hostile relationship with neighbouring Israel.

Without going too much into the dynamics and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which is well covered elsewhere – Nasser sanctioned the setting up of the Institute for the Study of Zionism in Cairo in 1955. This organisation staffed by Nazis who had worked for the Reich used conflict with Israel to stoke hatred of Jews. This was simply a continuation of the work of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry in a different context.

Two of the Institute’s leading lights were Nazis who had reported directly to the head of propaganda in the Third Reich – Joseph Goebbels. One was the Institute’s Director Alfred Zingler who converted to Islam and adopted the name Mahmoud Saleh.

Some people seem to have even believed he was Egyptian born and bred. He was nothing of the sort. Zingler was a German Nazi who fled his homeland as the war ended.

The other leading light was Johann Jakob von Leers who had also become a Muslim and taken the name Omar Amin. His route out of Germany to Egypt had been via Argentina. While working for Nasser, Von Leers kept up a correspondence with Otto Ernst Remer, the military officer who foiled the Valkyrie plot against Hitler’s life in 1944 leading to the execution of all the main conspirators. An event dramatised in the Hollywood movie Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.

Von Leers was no slouch when it came to attacking Jews under the Third Reich. An academic, he had produced papers likening Jews to a plague that needed to be eradicated. He and Zingler brought in other Nazi chums from their time working for Goebbels – who had committed suicide with his wife in the Berlin bunker at the end of the war. Goebbels’ wife Magda notoriously poisoned all six of her children as one last act of loyalty to the now crazed Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.

Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry might have been no more – but there was plenty of work for former employees in Cairo.

Dr Werner Witschale and Hans Appler were two former Goebbels operatives who now joined the Institute. Appler had taken the name Saleh Shafar. Louis Heiden had worked for the Reich’s news agency and in Egypt set about producing an Arabic translation of Hitler’s seminal work, Mein Kampf.

Predictably, the Institute also published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a book purporting to reveal a conspiracy by Jews to take over the world that was in fact, an early 20th century example of disinformation or fake news. Forged by the Tsarist secret police as part of the Russian state’s anti-Semitic policies. Yet, it has retained the veneer of authenticity in the Middle East to the present day. In no small part due to the activities of Nazis operating under the radar in 1950s Egypt.

Other Nazis who found a new life under Nasser in Egypt – and an opportunity to continue venting their hatred of Jewish people included ex-Gestapo officer Franz Bartel, SS espionage chief Walter Bollmann and SS officer Werner Birgel.

Doctor Death in Cairo

One of the most ghoulish Nazis to end up in Egypt was Aribert Heim – better known as the Butcher of Mauthausen. An SS doctor, Heim enthusiastically took up a medical position at the Mauthausen concentration camp as it exterminated enemies of the Reich using lethal injections, a gas chamber and a combination of starvation and backbreaking work.

Inmates referred to him as Doctor Death. Pseudo-scientific experiments were an exercise in brutal sadism. Heim kept the skull of an 18-year-old patient he murdered while under anaesthetic as a desk ornament. It’s alleged that he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of non-terminals patients.

Incredibly, Heim was released from prison by the Allies after the war and worked as a gynecologist in Germany until 1962 when he fled the country as the West German police closed in on him. He ended up in Cairo where he followed the example of his Nazi comrades and converted to Islam adopting the name Tarek Hussein Farid. Local people came to know him as “Uncle Tarek”.

It was claimed that he died of cancer in Egypt in 1993 but this was disputed for a decade by the Simon Wiesenthal Center which has specialised in hunting down surviving Nazis since World War Two.

Nasser, Israel and the Nazis

It’s ironic that while Nasser protected former Nazis who were used to develop arguments against Zionism, he also characterised Israel as a Nazi state – something that you still hear today. Of course these Nazis – who had overseen the Holocaust of millions of Jews – were only too happy to do their bit to try and sink Israel. A country created largely as a result of what had the Third Reich had done to European Jewry.

There had been a significant Jewish population in Egypt for over two thousand years if not longer. And Nasser grew up very near a Jewish neighbourhood so it wasn’t like he’d never met a Jewish person. In fact, in his early years as a political figure in Egypt, Nasser wasn’t immediately hostile to Israel.

But as he positioned himself as the leader of a pan-Arab movement spanning the whole of the Middle East, the pressure built to adopt an anti-Israel position. Something that would play well on the street and with other Arab countries. He fell into line with the argument that Israel’s creation was a catastrophe for the Arab world that had split Arabs in North Africa from their brothers in the Middle East. Only its disappearance would resolve matters.

Today, the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbours is becoming more complex while the plight of the Palestinian people remains intractable. But whatever one thinks of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East today – the role of undercover Nazis in stoking hatred in the region after the Second World War is a story that needs to be told and remembered.

Five Top Nazi Mysteries

The Third Reich was one of the most evil regimes of all time and continues to morbidly fascinate audiences up to the present day. I grew up in the 1970s with Hitler still casting a long shadow over England. Many of my school teachers had fought in the Second World War or had seen their homes destroyed during the Blitz. Hitler and the Nazi legacy loomed large. But what grips many today are the unsolved mysteries that surround the Nazis.

So – let’s look at some of the main examples.

The Nazis in Argentina

In 2017, Argentinian police officers found a secret treasure room. It was accessed via a door hidden behind a bookcase in a suburban house near Buenos Aires. They could hardly believe their eyes as a massive Nazi eagle presented itself plus a silver bust of Adolf Hitler. More than 75 objects covered in swastikas were taken to the offices of Interpol. These items were most likely the property of one or more high ranking officials of the Third Reich.

This included a magnifying glass that was found to be identical to one being held by Hitler in a photograph. Even more disturbing were children’s toys including harmonicas emblazoned with swastikas. An example of Nazi brainwashing. There was also a tool used to measure people’s heads – possibly linked to the Third Reich’s racial purity program.

All of which resurrected stories of Nazis fleeing to Latin America using so-called ‘ratlines’ – well established routes to escape Allied justice. One of those who managed to evade capture at the end of World War Two was the notorious concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele. He passed through Buenos Aires eventually ending up in Brazil where he drowned while swimming in the sea in 1979 after suffering a stroke.

DISCOVER: How the movies depicted the Nazis

Hall of the Supreme SS Leaders

What on earth was Heinrich Himmler up to at Wewelsburg Castle? The Reichsfuhrer of the SS – the elite squadron of the Third Reich – took over this Renaissance castle in the 1933, the year the Nazis took power. From that date, he seems to have tried to transform this building into a Nazi Camelot. It wasn’t just a conference centre for the SS but some kind of sacred site, even described as being the centre of the world.

Using concentration camp labour, Himmler set about turning the castle into something more daunting to the eye. Apparently the original medieval builders hadn’t created a stunning enough piece of architecture. So the moat was deepened to create a more forbidding elevation and the interiors were given a very Nazi makeover.

This included the creation of the so-called Hall of the Supreme SS Leaders. Quite what was supposed to happen in this space died with Himmler when he committed suicide rather than face the hangman’s noose at the Nuremberg trials. SS officers did attempt to destroy the castle before its capture by American forces in 1945 – clearly determined to keep its rituals a secret.

This is certainly one of the more intriguing Nazi mysteries.

The death of Otto Rahn

Otto Rahn was a German medievalist with an interest in the Cathars and the legends of the Holy Grail. In any other era, he might have written some esoteric books and presented a TV documentary or two. But in the Third Reich, Rahn was almost destined to cross paths with Nazi Grail obsessive and right hand man to Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler. Rahn’s 1933 book, Crusade Against the Grail, brought him to Himmler’s attention.

Initially ignoring Rahn’s homosexuality (which carried a potential death sentence under the Third Reich) Himmler enlisted the medievalist into the SS and sent him off looking for the Holy Grail. This was one of several insane projects being run by Himmler to variously discover the roots of the Aryan race (possibly in Atlantis) or seize sacred relics that might guarantee victory for the Nazis in the Second World War.

Rahn’s mission was of course futile. The Grail eluded him in France, Spain, Italy and Iceland. Himmler became steadily disenchanted with Rahn who in turn took to having very open gay relationships and voicing his criticism of the Nazis. This led to the disillusioned medievalist being forced to work as a guard at Dachau concentration camp.

On 13 March 1939, his frozen body was discovered in the Austrian Alps. Accidental death was the official ruling. Many however doubt this was the case.

The missing Amber Room

One of the most spectacular examples of art theft by the Nazis was the plundering of the 18th century Amber Room from the Catherine Palace near St Petersburg in Russia. Ironically, it was a present from the King of Prussia, Frederick William the First, to Tsar Peter the Great in 1716 when it was shipped from Berlin to St Petersburg. In effect, the Nazis were taking it back on an illegal return journey. But then it vanished.

One theory was that in the closing stages of World War Two, it was loaded on to a ship – the Wilhelm Gustloff – which was promptly torpedoed by Soviet forces. Tragically, the ship may have been transporting over 9,000 people fleeing the Soviet advance against Germany. If true, that would massively eclipse the death toll of the Titanic.

In 2020, the wreck of another ship – the Karlsruhe – was investigated by Polish divers who claimed there was possible evidence that parts of the Amber Room may have been on that vessel.

The Nazis turn on the Freemasons

Quite why the Nazis suddenly on the Freemasons breaking up lodges and killing members is one of the more curious Nazi mysteries. At some point, the Third Reich decided that they constituted an alternative and threatening network beyond Nazi control. In 1935, all lodges were ordered to disband.

Incredibly vicious propaganda linked Freemasonry to Judaism which was clearly a death sentence. The head of the security police Reinhard Heydrich declared that masonry had to be eliminated as quickly as possible and formed a special division to carry out this gruesome task.

The anti-masonic hysteria reached a fever pitch in the mid-1930s but as war loomed, even Hitler had the sense to realise this was wrecking the civil service and other public institutions where people had been forced to leave their jobs after being revealed as Freemasons. Some were pardoned and able to resume work.

Yet in Paris in 1940 and Brussels in 1941, we find the Nazi occupying authorities organising anti-Masonic exhibitions with artefacts stolen from lodges. It seems that the Third Reich was spooked by Freemasonry viewing it as some kind of existential threat.

Is Babylon Berlin a warning for our own time?

Babylon Berlin has been the most enjoyable TV viewing for a while. A three season drama steeped in the sleazy but vibrant world of the Weimar Republic. It weaves crime stories with political intrigue and the decadent night life of Berlin in the 1920s.

And yet – it seems compelling to watch because there’s a warning for our own time. Here was a democratic Germany in the 1920s. It had an elected parliament, trades unions, combative political parties of all colours and strong feminist, anti-racist and LGBT friendly aspects to its society. And yet – it all collapsed into Nazi tyranny by 1933.

FIND OUT MORE: Berlin museums shut because of Coronavirus

In Babylon Berlin, you get all the warning signs flashing big, bold and red. We get a constant sense that none of this is going to end well. Young people are joining the Hitler Youth. German Jews are being disparaged and insulted as sub-human and wicked. Democratic politicians are the subject of assassination plots. All the institutions of the state from the courts to the police, army and civil service are not just corrupt but appear to be employing murderers.

Weimar is fun. Weimar is cultured. But Weimar is also in constant crisis. And eventually, the embattled middle class will give their votes to Hitler. At the end of season three we see one reason why that would happen – the 1929 stock market crash. One police officer – a typical mediocre petit bourgeois – has been trading in stocks way beyond his means and conned into doing so by silver-tongued financial salesmen. A desperate man like him will turn to extreme political solutions.

DISCOVER: Hitler really did only have one ball

Hyper-inflation was another curse of that era.

I have a sheet of stamps I bought years ago from around 1924 that were printed on top of to change their value by adding six or seven noughts. In addition I have a bank note from 1923 with a face value of 100,000 Marks. Here I am holding it below…

No wonder Weimar tottered so badly throughout the 1920s.

But it was also a cultural nirvana. Great artists and authors flourished in Berlin at this time. In season three, the plot of Babylon Berlin centres on the filming of a movie in the German Expressionist style. In the Weimar era, the director Fritz Lang reigned supreme making such incredible films as Metropolis and Dr Mabuse. And if you can, watch the 1920 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Yet it was all about to end. And maybe as our own society seems to be transitioning from post-war liberal democracy to something potentially more disturbing, Babylon Berlin resonates on many levels. I strongly advise you to watch it for yourself.

Meanwhile – here are some snippets from the incredible Metropolis!

Ten weird facts about Hitler

Just how odd was Adolf Hitler – as well as murderous, dictatorial and war mongering. Here goes with some weird facts you may not have known about the Fuhrer:

HITLER WEIRD FACT: He wanted to murder his father and marry his mother

Well, that was how one German journalist summed up a man fit for the shrink’s couch. His parental relationships were very Freudian. Daddy was a brute or as Hitler ironically commented: “a tyrant in the home”.

I say ironically as the son of Alois Hitler, a low ranking tax inspector, went on to be a tyrant all over Europe. Mummy, on the other hand, was – according to a doting Adolf – “a source of goodness and love”.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: He dodged the draft

What is it with right-wing militarists and tough talking politicians and their inability to serve in uniform? Hitler should have been conscripted into the Austrian Army during the First World War as he was born in that country. The prospect clearly didn’t appeal as he fled to Munich where a German detective eventually tracked him down forcing Adolf to return to his birthplace, Linz in Austria, where he failed an army medical examination.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: He was referred to as a “rear area pig”

Hitler did eventually serve in the Germany Army in World War One. He later painted a very glowing picture of his war record. But veterans for years afterwards muttered about him being nowhere near the front lines. They scornfully referred to Adolf as an Etappenschwein – a glorified messenger boy scuttling between officers far from the front.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Hitler was a late riser – even during World War Two

You might think that the impetuous dictator, having committed Germany to wars on many fronts, might get up and manage the situation on a daily basis. But Hitler never seems to have shaken off the bad habits he acquired dossing around as a wannabe art student in Vienna. He went to bed very late often asking for a special apple cake to snack on – referred to by his staff as “Fuhrer Cake”. And this was at the height of WW2 with cities being blitzed and German troops dying by the thousands in the Soviet Union.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Hitler had an affair with his niece

OK, it was his half niece. Does that make it better? Geli Raubal was 19 years younger than Adolf Hitler. He made Geli his housekeeper then suffocated her with creepy attention. After she had an affair with Adolf’s chauffeur, Geli was forbidden to leave the apartment. Eventually, she grabbed a gun and fired it into her own chest committing suicide.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Maddest marriage vow ever

When Hitler eventually agreed to marry Eva Braun – another women he fell in love with who was again, way younger than him – she had to recite some very odd Third Reich marriage vows. This included “I am an Aryan” and “I have no hereditary disease”. Nice.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Hitler read books – really horrible books…

Yes, Hitler had a very large library. Surprising considering the number of books he burnt. But the reading matter was a bit unpleasant including such delightful tomes as Henry Ford’s International Jew and Alfred Rosenberg’s Zionism as an Enemy of the State. Probably read late at night with a slice of Fuhrer Cake!

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Worst dinner party guest

Hitler thought he was a great after dinner speaker. And who was going to disagree? After a late lunch – when he had finally got out of bed – he would discourse on his favourite subjects – normally something to do with the Jews or the virtue of blonde hair and blue eyes. Between 1941 and 1945, a total of 1,500 of these rambling monologues were recorded for posterity. Magda Goebbels – wife of his propaganda minister – described the content as “tedious”.

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Hitler fleeced the state

Adolf Hitler liked to project an image of self-sacrifice and Spartan living. Nothing could be further from the truth. He built up, in today’s terms, a multi-billion fortune. Every copy of Mein Kampf earned him royalties and the dreary book was in every school, college and public institution. He even earned copyright fees on his own image – including stamps and posters!

HITLER WEIRD FACT: Hitler believed the world would go vegetarian

In one of his Table Talks, Hitler opined that the world of the future would be totally vegetarian. Hard to believe that he argued this on moral grounds while sending millions of human beings to gas chambers and firing squads. But the Fuhrer maintained it was wrong to cause death in order to fill the dinner table.

How the movie industry depicts the Nazis

The Nazis ran the worst dictatorship in history that plunged Europe into a devastating war and murdered millions in concentration camps. So, how has the movie industry depicted the horror of Adolf Hitler. Well, let’s take a look:

Gritty realism: “Downfall” (2004)

A brilliant German movie about Hitler’s final days in Berlin as the Soviet Red Army and Allied forces closed in on the city, leaving it a smouldering ruin.

An incredibly atmospheric film that captures the claustrophobic atmosphere in the bunker where Hitler and the Nazis were holed up. Bit by bit we see the Third Reich crumbling leading to the Fuhrer’s suicide.

Tense thriller: “Valkyrie” (2008)

In July, 1944, a group of German military officers tried to blow Adolf Hitler and the Nazi high command up as they met at the so-called Wolf’s Lair. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed hero who tries and fails to implement the mission. Casting in this movie on the Nazis was spot on and you empathise completely with the doomed plotters.

Musical: “The Sound of Music” (1965) and “Cabaret” (1972)

The Nazis have been taken on in musicals. The Sound of Music tells the story of a singing family against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of Austria. Made twenty years after World War II, it’s not an in-depth look at German fascism, more a romantic tale in which the Nazis intrude.

Ditto Cabaret, another love story set in the Weimar republic. Starring Liza Minelli, that movie is based on a story by the English poet Christopher Isherwood. Again, it’s not really about the Nazis but they do turn up at the end of the movie to spoil everything, closing down the fun night life of Berlin.

Sentimental and whimsical: “Life is Beautiful” (1997) and “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972)

My least favourite movie type on the Nazis is the very sentimental and treacly films about life in concentration camps. I realise that many moviegoers adored Life is Beautiful, about a father resorting to comic routines to obscure the nightmare of concentration camp life from his son, but I found it unbearably mawkish.

Twenty five years before, comedian Jerry Lewis made a similar movie called The Day the Clown cried. It was so bad that even Lewis insisted it should never be released – and thankfully it never was.

Dark comedy: “The Producers” (1967) and “The Great Dictator” (1940)

Comedy is a genre that’s had mixed results. The director Mel Brooks featured a fictional musical called “Springtime for Hitler” in his musical The Producers, which was in deliberately bad taste but very funny.

In contrast, I’ve never known what to make of Charlie Chaplin’s well-intentioned but unwatchable comic take on Hitler, The Great Dictator. Might have worked when it was made in 1940 as an anti-Nazi film but today it’s just clunky and cloying.

Out and out propaganda: “Triumph of the Will” (1935)

Then of course, there are films the Nazis made themselves heroising their dictatorship. The in-house director for the Third Reich was a woman called Leni Riefenstahl. Technically very proficient, she glorified the Reich in a movie called Triumph of the Will in 1935.

It’s more of a fly on the wall documentary with no voice over that bombards the viewer with rallies, goose-stepping SS and endless speeches by Hitler and others. Riefenstahl managed not to get imprisoned after the war and died in 2001 aged over 100.

Portraying Adolf Hitler is still a very emotive subject. But the further we move away from World War II and the Holocaust, the more it seems that directors are prepared to take on the subject in ways that would have once seemed unthinkable.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, Hitler was a demonic figure. The debate now is to what extent he can be depicted as a human being without diminishing what he did.