2019 – a busy year for me on history TV programmes!

In the last two weeks, I finished filming for a new series of Forbidden History and for a new documentary series on the History channel that will accompany The Curse of Oak Island. There’s great Templar related content on both programmes and I think you’re going to have some amazing viewing in 2020. I’ll tell you when those programmes appear – of course!

Plus – three months ago I was up in Scotland filming with broadcaster and top comic talent Rob Riggle for a brand new series for Discovery called Rob Riggle Global Investigator. As with the other programmes above, I’m sworn to secrecy on the content but needless to say, more Templar secrets will be revealed.

FIND OUT MORE: Tony McMahon discusses Jesus and James Bond

American visitors to the blog may have seen me on the last series of Strange Evidence and NASA’s Unexplained Files – where I covered an extraordinary breadth of topics. Plus there was my outing with Scott Wolter on America Unearthed where Scott and I investigated a possible Templar link at Rosslyn Chapel back in January of this year – which has now been aired on the Travel channel.

So, all in all, 2019 has been a good year for taking history on to TV and hopefully making it accessible and fun for global audiences. If there are any subjects you think I should be covering on TV in 2020 – please do tell me and comment in the usual way.

Tony McMahon – the bearded historian – is coming to a history TV screen near you!

Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police!

In 2018, I appeared in the TV documentary series Forbidden History (UKTV, Yesterday) talking about a highly sinister secret police force called the Stasi. This followed a trip I paid to Berlin to see the Stasi prison cells where people were tortured for myself.

Communist East Germany collapsed in 1989. It meant the end of a totalitarian state where the secret police spied on the population using a web of 90,000 paid agents and hundreds of thousands of informers.

I’ve just visited the secret prison of the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi. It’s a grim place where agents physically and psychologically tortured political opponents of the government.

East Germany was created in the image of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was at the end of the Second World War when Hitler’s Germany was carved up between the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and United States. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet run territory and was in turn divided up between the four victorious powers.

In Soviet occupied Germany, there would be no democracy, no dissent and no freedom of organisation. The East German communist government took orders from Moscow and created a Kafka-esque nightmare of a society. Show trials and denunciation were the norm, echoing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

A culture of informing was encouraged. Neighbours, friends, family members and even husbands and wives would spy on each other. Often with a designated code name, they would ring up the Stasi and snitch on their loved ones. Private scores were settled just by picking up the phone and spilling the beans to a Stasi operator.

Only when Stasi files became public in 1990 did people realise the extent of the secret police activity. One woman, now a German politician, discovered her husband had been reporting on her activity to the Stasi for decades. A punk singer who was seen as a bit of  rebel was in fact a spy. All over the country, listening devices were planted in suspect’s flats or even in bizarre places like nesting boxes, watering cans and even a specially designed bra!!

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The cell inside the supposed delivery van

Once somebody came to the Stasi’s attention, they would be picked up and taken to the prison I visited for interrogation. They might be dragged out of their home or simply accosted in public. The hapless individual was then bundled into what deliberately looked like a delivery van. It could contain up to five very cramped cells.

They were then driven for hours, unable to see out of the window. This would create the impression that the prison was far from their home when in fact, it might have been a mere 20 minute ride. From outside, ordinary people would have just seen a delivery van for groceries trundling past.

They they arrived at the Stasi prison. The van stopped in a holding bay harshly illuminated by strip lighting. The political detainees shielded their eyes and fell to the ground. This was followed by a strip search, an exercise in humiliation. A kind of track suit was then issued with no consideration given to size. If it was ill-fitting – so much the better. Everything was geared to dehumanising the suspect.

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Down in the “submarine”

In the basement of one building is an underground labyrinth of corridors and cells nicknamed the “submarine” – a windowless hell where the first inmates in the late 1940s and 1950s were incarcerated. With no light, prisoners hadn’t any idea whether it was day or night. Twelve or fifteen shared a single cell with one bucket to relieve themselves and a single bed to share on a rota. Many died in that darkness.

Then from the 1950s until 1989, a newer wing was used. The cells there had windows – and bars. Each prisoner had a room to themselves with toilet, bed and sink. But this heralded a new form of degradation.  Physical beatings and summary executions were replaced by sleep deprivation and months of vicious mind games.

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Keep prisoners awake by ratting the cell door

How was sleep deprived? Inmates were ordered to sleep on their back, arms to the sides and staring up a light bulb that flashed on intermittently through the night. If a prisoner fell asleep and turned on to their side, the cell door was rattled until they woke.

Sleep deprivation is a devastatingly effective form of torture. Add to that the horror of solitary confinement for months on end. Prisoners began to relish the sessions with their interrogator who came to be seen as a kind of friend. That was the intention. Bit by bit, it became easier to extract a confession.

It’s incredible to think this all carried on until 1989 and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. The Moscow-inspired Stalinist system was hated by most of the Left and Right in post-war Europe. But it had – and still has – its admirers. In recent years, a couple of Stasi agents have very publicly crawled out of the woodwork trying to justify what they did back in those days.

If you want to know more about the Stasi, I recommend this movie: The Lives of Others.

Why Henry VIII had no friends

At the end of his life, the bloated and vindictive Henry VIII found himself without any friends. But you can hardly be surprised when he’d executed so many of them!

Even showering admiration and homage on this volatile monarch was no guarantee that your head would remain attached to your shoulders. Let’s look at friends that Henry VIII had judicially murdered:

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey was an adviser inherited by the young Henry VIII from his father. He was a top diplomat and by that, I mean his ability to scheme and spin had no equal. Henry had in Wolsey a Chancellor respected all over Europe and elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo X.

The high point for Wolsey was organising the opulent meeting between the King of France and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. But in the years that followed, he struggled with the king’s strong desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the pope.

She had not borne him a son. And the Tudor dynasty had come to power as a result of a very bloody war between factions of the English aristocracy called the War of the Roses. Henry needed to cement the legitimacy of the dynasty and have a male heir. Catherine was clearly not able to do that.

But Wolsey wasn’t able to get the annulment – despite his diplomatic brilliance. He died aged 57 already under arrest and more than likely facing an appointment with the ax and block. With his death, Henry lost a very loyal ally and a great mind. But divorcing Catherine came first.

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas More

After Wolsey failed to convince the pope, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England. He effectively nationalised the Catholic church and ended over a thousand years of papal authority in his realm. But not everybody was happy with this development.

Thomas More was a highly effective lawyer and humanist thinker. But also an ardent opponent of the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther. He had worked with Wolsey to try and halt the spread of Protestantism into England. Succeeding Wolsey as Chancellor, he pursued his pro-Catholic agenda.

But here was a King effectively embracing this new variant of Christianity to further his desire to divorce Catherine. Thomas More found it impossible to accept the end of papal authority, let alone agreeing to the idea of Henry leading the church in his stead.

When refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme leader of the church became a crime, More found himself cast as a traitor. He tried to remain on friendly terms with the king but the final nail in his proverbial coffin was not turning up to the wedding between Henry and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

More was tried for treason and beheaded on 6 July 1535.

DISCOVER: How Anne of Cleves kept her head

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Reformation – diametrically opposed to the position of Thomas More. He organised the dissolution of the monasteries across England taking the enormous wealth of the Catholic church into the state coffers.

But he tripped up by organising the fourth marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves – a German princess that the king didn’t like at all. However, the knives were already out for Thomas when he went to the executioner’s block.

After Thomas, Henry never really had an adviser of the same calibre as Cromwell, More or Wolsey. Not just advisers but friends and confidantes. They had served the monarch wisely and loyally. But this was a mercurial and authoritarian character who doesn’t seem to have been much good at keeping either friends of wives.

Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs explaining what a wretched figure Henry VIII cut at the end.