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.

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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.

salazar fascist

American conservatives and Portuguese fascist Salazar

Over the last couple of years, some American conservatives have been going public on their admiration for the former Portuguese fascist dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970). Convinced that democracy as presently constructed isn’t working in their favour, they’ve wondered whether a more illiberal approach to enforcing conservative values wouldn’t be out of the question.

I’m not indifferent to this debate as I’m half Portuguese and grew up with the name of Salazar being mentioned favourably and unfavourably around me all my life. As late as 2007, a Portuguese TV poll asked the public to name the greatest Portuguese hero of all time. There was incredulous horror, when Salazar got 40% of the popular vote. I was utterly dismayed myself.

It may seem incredible now, but Portugal and Spain had fascist dictatorships stretching from the 1930s through to the 1970s. On 25 April, 1974, Portugal erupted into revolution and overthrew the dictator. By that time it was Salazar’s successor Marcello Caetano at the helm. Salazar had suffered a stroke after his deckchair collapsed under him in 1968 before dying in 1970.

How did these dictators survive the Second World War after the demise of Hitler and Mussolini? Well, the answer is the Cold War. With Hitler out of the way, the post-war era saw the United States and the Soviet Union squaring off against each other. Fear of communism overrode distaste towards the politics of Salazar in Portugal and General Franco in Spain.

Salazar was a fascist – and proud of it

Take a close look at the images I’ve attached to this blog post. Yes, that is a photograph of Mussolini on Salazar’s desktop. So why is it there?

Contrary to some of the nonsense I’ve read on certain websites, Salazar was ideologically aligned with the prime objective of fascism. To terminate liberal democracy in order to crush communism and defend private property. His style was hugely different from the swagger of Mussolini and he didn’t embrace the genocidal policies of Hitler, but he indisputably recognised himself as part of the fascist wave that swept across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Don’t take my word for it – read what Salazar himself said.

“Our dictatorship clearly resembles the fascist dictatorship in the reinforcement of authority, in the war declared against certain principles of democracy, in its accentuated nationalist character, in its preoccupations with social order”

As a bookish academic and with a burning hatred of liberal democracy, Salazar knew exactly what he was doing. The structure of his ‘new state’ – the Estado Novo – bore a close resemblance to the corporate state of Mussolini. With ‘vertical’ unions and organisations that sought to unify the ‘nation’ as opposed to the class-based ‘horizontal’ organisations of the socialists, communists and trade unions.

The fascism of Salazar and Mussolini was at root the same in terms of substance – even if the style differed. Some people today are confusing form and content. Salazar certainly didn’t.

Salazar and Mussolini – nationalism and globalism

There are two variants on the fascist right that are well recognised. The ultra-nationalist and reactionary mindset versus the global new order. Salazar was more the former. His instincts were always opposed to change and anything that smacked of disruption. He was not looking towards a brave new world but the reawakening of a mythical glorious past.

Salazar adopted the stance of a grim and sombre patriarch bringing an unruly family into line. He referred to the Portuguese people as ‘children’ who needed a stern father figure. There was no Mussolini-style swagger or Hitlerite screaming from the podium. Salazar bored the nation into submission. Tedium was his preferred weapon. But under the dining room table, his right hand held a big stick.

Portugal was run like a stifling, over-disciplined Victorian family. Not for Salazar what he termed the ‘Pagan Caesarism’ of Mussolini. Unlike his Italian counterpart, Salazar had never gone through an anti-clerical phase. The Portuguese people would attend mass on Sunday. Women would know their place in the kitchen. Men would be the breadwinners. And children would be strictly obedient.

Salazar’s fascism was essentially an ultra-nationalist, socially reactionary dead hand laid firmly on the country. He was suspicious of progress, rising living standards and modernism. Church, landlords and industrialists were the right people to run the country with enforced deference from the rest of the population.

That deference was guaranteed by a secret police – the PIDE – modelled to a degree on the Gestapo. The PIDE tapped into a culture of ‘denunciation’ that some historians have suggested is a psychological scar inflicted by the activities of the Inquisition in past centuries. An internal 1964 report by the PIDE revealed that in the northern Portuguese town of Guarda, people had no qualms about snitching on young men avoiding military service and other alleged misdemeanours.

Every factory had a director whose job was to discipline bolshy workers. I know because, regrettably, one of my cousins (long dead) performed this role at a workplace near the city of Porto. This was not dissimilar to the German Labour Front set up by the Nazis to replace the free trades unions.

Salazar building a fascist movement

Unlike Mussolini and Hitler, Salazar came into government in 1926 as finance minister without a ready made fascist party behind him. The government in question was a military dictatorship that had just overthrown democracy in Portugal. Its inability to get a tight grip on society convinced Salazar of the fascist approach.

From 1930, he built a political force called the National Union which may not have emulated the street-based thuggishness of the National Socialists in Germany but two years later became the only legal political party in Portugal. That would remain the case until 1974.

In 1932, Salazar became prime minister. This was the title he held throughout his unelected dictatorship. One of Salazar’s first acts was the creation of a distinct secret police force that came to be known as the PIDE. It had responsibilities around immigration and counter-espionage – but its key fascist function was political repression.

In 1936, Salazar allowed the creation of a compulsory membership youth movement called the Mocidade Portuguesa which was closely modelled on the Hitler Youth. My mother, at school in the 1930s and 1940s was pressured to join but my grandmother destroyed her uniform as my grandfather had been imprisoned by the Salazar regime in its first years.

Just as Hitler had his own hotheads with the brown shirts of the SA, Salazar faced a group of ‘blue shirts’ called the National Syndicalists who wanted a much more overtly fascist state in Portugal. They adopted Nazi-style attire but instead of a swastika, bore the Templar-style cross of the Portuguese Order of Christ on their arm.

If you recall, at the urging of the German establishment, Hitler drowned the SA in their own blood during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Salazar didn’t have to resort to such a violent purge but he arrested and exiled members in 1935. It’s hard not to see a parallel here.

Goodbye democracy, hello Salazar

To Salazar, the democracy Portugal experienced after the end of the monarchy in 1910 up until the military takeover in 1926 had been one of chaos and disorder. And indeed, the military dictatorship wasn’t much less chaotic. To understand Salazar you have to grasp his complete aversion to any form of instability which to him included parliamentary debate, questioning of state and church authority, liberal values and intellectual inquiry.

His fascism – and I paraphrase him – was about the systematic infantilising of the nation. Politics was for Daddy. The rest of you just shut up and behave. On several occasions, Salazar made it clear that only he truly understood the challenges Portugal faced. And when he resolved how to meet these challenges – he expected total compliance.

Social organisation would be influenced by the papal encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI. Presented as documents outlining Vatican concern for the plight of the working classes, what these pontiffs really wanted was an end to class conflict. Pius XI – who signed a concordat with Mussolini creating the Vatican state – argued for medieval style guilds where employers and employees were required to work together in compulsory harmony. Music to the corporatist ears of both Mussolini and Salazar – no matter what their style differences.

Thanks to Salazar, Portugal was subjected to political chloroform for decades. The National Assembly (parliament) would be ‘apolitical’ (just one party) and social organisations like unions and guilds would represent all classes along nationalist and ultra-conservative lines. The Catholic church would determine the moral values of the nation and the history taught to children would be one heroising the Portuguese navigators of the 16th century and emphasising Portugal’s ‘civilising mission’ in its colonies – especially Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

This ideology would be used to justify the catastrophic colonial war in those three African countries that raged throughout the 1960s and 1970s and in which most of my relatives aged over 70 today were required to fight. Unless of course they wanted to discuss their conscientious objections in a secret police cell with electrodes attached to their body. These wars, fought as Britain and France were giving their colonies independence, would eventually gobble up half of Portugal’s GDP.

Salazar and balanced budgets

Those lauding Salazar today always mention his budget balancing acumen. There was healthy economic growth in the post-war boom and what had been a very rural society saw increasing industrialisation. But the creation of an ever larger urban working class was always viewed as a potential threat by Salazar.

Other hallmarks of his economic policy included protectionism. This meant dumping Portuguese goods on its African colonies. Foreign investment in those same colonies was also discouraged and raw materials were extracted on favourable terms for the mother country.

Incredibly, Coca-Cola was banned in Portugal until 1977. For different political reasons, the Communist Party continued opposition to this ‘imperialist’ product after the 1974 revolution. I was at a disco in 1979 aged 16 and innocently slurping a Coke when a girl marched up to me and announced that I was drinking ‘the dirty water of imperialism’. Sounds better in Portuguese: agua suja do imperialismo!

The legacy of protectionism was hard to ditch. Intended by Salazar to protect his rich friends’ businesses, it then became a policy for protecting workers’ jobs.

Salazar’s budget balancing miracle was achieved by predictable means. Raising taxes that hit the urban poor and colonial populations hardest, driving up the cost of food and cutting public expenditure on the civil service and pensions. With no free trade unions and opposition parties to object – it really didn’t matter what anybody thought.

Where Salazar did spend money on infrastructure, it was to create public buildings from town halls to railway stations that conformed to ‘authentic’ Portuguese styles. Not for Salazar the futurism of Mussolini.

As a child, I visited Portugal under the Salazar and Caetano years. Coming from Britain – where my mother had emigrated to in 1959 – the poverty was glaring and untreated diseases were very evident. There was no public health service until after the 1974 revolution (in 1979).

For a visitor, there were plenty of charming scenes in those days. The peasant women clad in black gathering seaweed off the rocks on the beach to fertilise their family owned farm plots. The crudely made farm carts drawn by oxen with great big lumps of wood for wheels. Villages that seemed lost between the Middle Ages and modern times. Around 1972, I stayed in a stone house where my ground floor bedroom was right next to a hog pen.

I’ve got heaps of fond memories but even then was aware that there was a stark contrast between me in my Harlem Globetrotters T-shirt and new flared jeans and kids walking around in rags.

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American conservatives and Salazar the fascist dictator

If Salazar today is viewed as a gentle, thoughtful and mild authoritarian ruler who simply wanted to protect his people with conservative family values – then that is a victory for his propaganda machine. And it’s a victory that keeps giving beyond the grave.

Because right now, Salazar is going through yet another rehabilitation. Especially on the American conservative right. He is portrayed as a ‘benevolent autocrat’. And despite his closing down of liberal democracy, banning of all parties except his, creation of a corporate state and a secret police – he has been unfairly described as a fascist according to one new biography. This recently published life story of Salazar includes an ominous statement that a similar kind of leader may be called upon in the future.

American conservative publications and pundits have increasingly invoked Salazar as a credible alternative approach to liberal democracy. To do this, they have to first remove the ‘fascist’ tag. So Salazar’s stated differences with Mussolini are transformed into outright opposition to fascism – which is utterly ridiculous. There is no doubt that Salazar saw his regime as part of the fascist wave but with a distinctive Portuguese flavour.

Towards the end of the Second World War – both Salazar and Franco rapidly pivoted towards the US and UK. Not on principle – but to survive. However not without a good deal of teeth gnashing on both sides. Salazar, for example, bitterly resented the pressure put on him to give Portugal’s colonies independence.

And this makes a laughing stock of one current claim doing the rounds that Salazar had no expansionist ambitions – unlike Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, he may not have invaded new countries – but he spent half the nation’s GDP trying to hold on to big chunks of Africa.

Salazar’s alleged anti-Nazi credentials are ‘evidenced’ by the Hollywood movie ‘Casablanca’ (1942) on the grounds that the protagonists are trying to get to the neutral city of Lisbon, capital of Portugal. Seriously. That is offered as proof of Salazar opposing the Nazis. My advice… Try finding a full-throated condemnation of Hitler from Salazar instead because you may have difficulty!

As regards claims that Salazar was not anti-Jewish, the huge number of visas issued to Jewish refugees by Portuguese consulate around Europe during the Second World War is cited as proof Salazar wasn’t anti-Semitic. An illuminating corrective to this is the story of one diplomat, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes. Issuing Portuguese visas to Jews fleeing Hitler was explicitly banned by Salazar. Mendes, based in Bordeaux, continued to do so and not only lost his job but had his life wrecked.

There’s also a spurious claim that Salazar wiped out illiteracy in Portugal. This is not not backed up by the adult illiteracy campaigns that were launched after the 1974 revolution to tackle what was an endemic problem. One British diplomat in the 1950s succinctly summed up Portugal as a country where the middle classes lived off colonial war profits and the poor were “miserable and destitute”. It was a country of vast inequality where many left school early and without any qualifications.

Yet American conservatives write this about Salazar:

If we Americans lack the self-discipline necessary for self-government, if liberalism is off the table, the only alternative to a tyrant like Lenin or Hitler may be a man like Salazar: a paternalistic traditionalist, a philosopher-king.”

Or how about this:

“…the Estado Novo and its supporters did not treat its enemies with kid gloves. They were not limited by self-defeating notions of “principle.” Hostile and revolutionary elements—whether domestic Communists, fascist syndicalists, internal political factions, or international high finance—were treated as equal potential dangers.”

We’ve lived through a phase of democratically elected ‘strong men’ in recent years. Many of them have subverted democratic institutions to increase their grip on power. There is a logic to moving to the next stage. Why bother with democracy at all? But do we really think a new Salazar is the answer?

I sincerely hope not.

power crazed ruler

Most power crazed rulers in history!

History is full of megalomaniac despots and insane monarchs – so, let me select my top five most power crazed rulers in history!

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER ONE: Peter the Great

Think of crazed Russian rulers and Ivan the Terrible or Stalin would come to mind immediately. But don’t neglect Peter the Great. The tsar who both modernised and terrorised Mother Russia simultaneously. Peter was seriously impressed by the 17th century naval technology of Britain and the sophisticated architecture of western Europe. But his interest in all things modern didn’t extend to democracy and the rule of law.

It also didn’t prevent him imprisoning and more than likely torturing to death his own son.

He assumed full power after an orgy of executions to cement his position. Not surprising given he’d witnessed more than his fair share of family intrigue and murder throughout his childhood – so he was simply dishing out what he’d witnessed all his life.

I appeared on an episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs to talk about Peter the Great and was especially amused by the story of him and his mates trashing the London home of the diarist Johny Evelyn during their stay in 1698. This involved using paintings as dart boards and priceless furniture broken up to keep fires going. There was also some game involving wheelbarrows that led to Evelyn’s well tended garden being churned up.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER TWO: Caligula

There were several Roman emperors whose sanity one would have to question. But Caligula has come down to us as a byword for imperial madness. He was only the third emperor of Rome, since the end of the Republic, and was truly an object lesson in the perils of one-man dynastic rule.

He seems to have been aware of the absurdity of his position – being able to wield vast power over millions of people. But instead of coping with that situation and turning to good advisers, he revelled in the madness of it.

At one point, Caligula declared that a horse was to be made a senator. Apologists for Caligula explain that he was mocking the powerlessness of the Roman Senate. But what did he expect them to do? Offer up their real opinions? Because the consequence under Caligula was certain death.

In my opinion, the late John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula in the 1970s BBC series I Claudius has yet to be equalled.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER THREE: Henry VIII

If you want to get a child obsessed with history – I’d always recommend two periods to put in front of them: the Romans and the Tudors. The latter furnishes us with two of the most charismatic and rather frightening individuals to have ever sat on the English throne. They are Henry VIII and his strong-headed daughter, Elizabeth I.

I’ve discussed Henry VIII on several programmes including Private Lives of the Monarchs and Forbidden History. Plus I impersonated Henry VIII in full costume on ITV’s The Big Audition. And he’s a great figure to dress up as with his mighty frame, dressed to kill style and slightly psychopathic demeanour.

DISCOVER: Me as Henry VIII on ITV

No monarch before or since – correct me if I’m wrong – got through six spouses in one reign. And to have two of his wives executed on trumped up charges doesn’t suggest a balanced mind. It’s a royal soap opera without equal and so Henry is definitely one of the power crazed rulers.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FOUR: Hitler

Unlike Peter the Great, Caligula and Henry VIII – Adolf Hitler didn’t grow up in a murderous dynastic family. He wasn’t groomed for the top job and never saw family members murdered all around him. His family background was very unremarkable. Hitler was a petit-bourgeois, chip-on-the-shoulder small town operator who clawed his way up the greasy pole.

FIND OUT MORE: Maddest rulers in history

Talking about him on Discovery and UKTV’s Forbidden History, I mentioned the absence of a descended testicle – which seems to be true – but also his worrying penchant for very young girls. These are aspects of his character often ignored as trivial but I think Hitler was a deeply troubled and unpleasant man.

POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FIVE: Emperor Bokassa

Gone for somebody quite unusual who you may not have heard of for my fifth power crazed ruler. Born in 1921, Jean-Bédel Bokassa was an ambitious military officer in the former French colony, the Central African Republic. He’s been compared to another African ruler of the same era, Uganda’s Idi Amin. Both had a complex relationship with their respective country’s colonial and imperial heritage.

On the one hand, they wanted independence and respect for their countries. But on the other hand, they weren’t able to break free in their own minds from the colonial past. Both Bokassa and Amin revelled in wearing their medals from youthful military service with the French and British armed forces respectively. And they felt a strange affinity to the history and culture of their former colonial ruler.

In 1965, Bokassa seized power in coup d’etat and initially his rule had some progressive aspects. For example, he banned the appalling practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, like his hero Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa would begin as a revolutionary and end as a gilded dictator.

Bokassa hankered for the trappings of French imperial power. After a brief flirtation with Islam, he converted back to Catholicism in the 1970s and in 1976, announced his intention to be crowned emperor. The Central African Republic would now be transformed into the Central African Empire. In a US$20 million ceremony (a third of the country’s budget that year), he was proclaimed emperor on a huge golden eagle throne and with laurels on his head.

I remember seeing this on TV as a teenager. His attempt to get Pope Paul VI to come and crown him came to nothing. Wisely, the Pope found he had a diary clash that day! Bokassa’s imperial rule didn’t last very long and by 1979 he had been swept off his throne and the country was once more a republic.

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!

Hitler really only had one ball

In the Second World War, British soldiers used to sing a saucy song suggesting that Hitler only had one testicle. I always assumed this single ball slander had no basis in fact.

Interestingly, medical reports on Hitler when he was imprisoned in the 1920s suggest that far from being an invention of British propaganda, the Fuhrer may indeed have only possessed one properly descended ball.

The lyrics to the song sung by soldiers varies. As a child growing up in London in the 1970s, this ditty was still being belted out by kids. We all knew the words!

Hitler has only got one ball
Göring has two but very small
Himmler is rather sim’lar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all

British Army song – possible author: Toby O’Brien in 1939

Another version says that Hitler’s missing ball is in the Albert Hall – rhymes you see!

It’s been asserted that an even earlier version of the song had Göring, a leader of the Nazi high command, with the testicular deficit. He was said to have lost half his manhood during a Nazi failed coup d’etat in 1923 in Munich known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

DISCOVER: The forgotten American Nazis in the 1930s

It was after that 1923 attempt at a Nazi revolt that Hitler was put in prison. While under lock and key, he was examined by Dr Josef Brinsteiner. His report, alluding to the missing ball, was discovered in an archive by a professor at the University of Erlangen and published a few years ago in the German mass circulation tabloid Bild.

Here I am discussing this on Private Lives – the history documentary series presented by Tracy Borman and broadcast on UKTV and Yesterday.

It’s true – Hitler only had one

Napoleon and Hitler – Private Lives

In 2019, I appeared in every episode of Private Lives broadcast on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world such as the Smithsonian. Historical subjects included Napoleon and Hitler.

DISCOVER: Top ten medieval TV series!

Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I covered the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing – and hope you learn more about Napoleon and Hitler!!

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Forbidden History: Insights on Jesus and James Bond!

Theakston

This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?

  • The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
  • The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
  • Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
  • The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
  • Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
  • Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?

Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.

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.