Universal Knowledge

Universal Knowledge: Nazis

You know what Nazis are, right? You can picture Adolf Hitler, can’t you? Me too. But most people under 30, especially outside Europe, don’t know what Nazis are. It’s likely that more than half of the world’s population right now have no idea who Hitler was and what the Nazi party did between 1933 and 1945. How many people in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh (combined population around 3.4 billion) would recognize Hitler from a photograph? And how many people under 20, even in Europe, the United States and Latin America, would recognize him?

My wife is Jewish, I’m Irish Catholic. Our children are 9 and 11. They have no idea yet about Nazis, pogroms, the Holocaust, or indeed the Irish Famine of the 1840s. I’m not looking forward to explaining any of these things to them. Maybe I’ll start with the Famine (around a million deaths and two million emigrations, from a population of around 8.2m) before moving on. It was further back in history. There is nobody alive today who was there. The Holocaust will always be important, but especially so while there are people alive who survived it, and people who made it happen, even if they were “only following orders”.

Hitler and the Nazis can no longer be thought of as “Universal Knowledge”. I have to remind myself of this all the time. Like most people of my generation I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know about them. Watching “The Sound of Music”, aged six, nobody had to explain to me the significance of the Nazi uniform. When “Dad’s Army” began, with Bud Flanagan singing “Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?”, none of us had to ask “Who’s he singing about?”

I was struck by how things have changed when reading about Luise Rainer a few years ago. I saw “The Great Ziegfield” and later “The Good Earth” as part of my Oscars Project. (She won the Best Actress Award two years running, 1936 and 1937.) I knew very little about her, checked out her profile on IMDB and was surprised to find that she was still alive, aged 102, and living in London. (She died in December 2015, two weeks before what would have been her 105th birthday.) I was even more surprised to find that her reasons for leaving Europe for Hollywood were explained with something more detailed than “She left Europe to escape the Nazis”.

Here’s a quote from her IMDB biography:

“Rainer … terminated her European career when the Austrian Adolf Hitler consolidated his power in Germany. With his vicious anti-Semitism bringing about the Draconian Nuremberg Laws severely curtailing the rights of Germany’s Jews, and efforts to expand that regime into the Sudetenland and Austria, Hitler and his Nazi government was proving a looming threat to European Jewry.”

That summarizes it well enough for young people, but many of them might need to have words like “anti-Semitism” and “Draconian” explained to them.

I remember a friend a few years ago talking about a Pavlovian response, and he went on to explain (or remind me) about the dog, the bell, the food, the saliva. I could cut him short with “Yes, I know what a Pavlovian response is”. His daughter was about ten at the time so he was in the habit of explaining things that shouldn’t need explaining to an adult, and he did so even though she wasn’t with us at the time. I do it myself all the time now.

So, how would I answer the question, “Daddy, what’s a Nazi?”? Maybe I’d start with this: “Before I tell you what a Nazi is, and what they did, let’s start in 1845, in County Mayo …”


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