I was reminded recently while watching the documentary, Night Will Fall, that the rewriting of history to fit contemporary political needs is nothing new. It wasn’t only Stalin who thought that by retouching photos and editing history books he could have history recast as he wished to see it.
Even before the guns had fallen silent at the end of the WWII, the new enemy was already in the firing line.
The nazis we had just fought were to be re-invented as our allies and our former allies, and the Soviet Union had to be demonised. One of the casualties of that realignment was the film German Concentration Camps Factual Survey.
The 1945 documentary, depicting gruesome scenes from newly liberated concentration camps, languished in British archives for nearly seven decades and was only completed in 2014. That inconvenient past had to be hidden now that the perpetrators were our new friends.
The film Night Will Fall was directed by Andre Singer and chronicles the making of the 1945 British government documentary. The film’s title was derived from a line of narration in that documentary: “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.” Unfortunately those lessons were not learned. Those lessons about anti-semitism, xenophobia and racial cleansing were clearly not learned when we look at today’s world.
The original, based on the work of combat cameramen serving with the armed forces was produced by Sidney Bernstein in collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Bernstein had been an ardent anti-fascist and was close to the Communist Party in the 1930s.
Among those interviewed is camp survivor Branko Lustig, producer of Shindler’s List. He says that the 1945 documentary was shelved for political reasons: “At this time, the Brits had enough problems with the Jews,” a reference to the situation in Palestine at the time.
The documentary also includes a recording of an interview with Hitchcock on his involvement, and clips of interviews with cameramen who filmed at concentration camps after, or during, liberation. After production was begun, the British government shelved the film without a public showing.
Andre Singer, director of Night Will Fall, said in a media interview that after the war ended in Europe in May 1945, ” Government priorities shifted. What seemed like a good idea in 1945 bec ame a problem by June and July.” The British needed the German people on board for the new Cold War against the Soviet Union and the film would not have contributed to that.
There was also a concern that “it would provoke most sympathy for the Jewish refugees still in the camps after the war [who] wanted to go to Palestine. The British were having problems with nascent zionism and fe lt the film would be unhelpful.”
Night Will Fall was, eventually, aired on Channel 4 and other networks on 24 January 2015 to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz- Birkenau – the largest Nazi death camp – in 1945.
But that history is still being rewritten today. The new united German government has been so keen to vilify the former GDR, and equate it with the nazi regime, that it has turned to falsifying history.
Anyone who visited the GDR would invariably have been taken to visit a concentration camp. All school pupils in the GDR went on these tours as part of their education. Every major concentration camp that existed on the territory of the GDR – Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, Mittelbau Dora, Gardelegen, Sachsenburg, Hohnstein was turned into a memorial to the victims of German fascism to preserve their memory and as a warning to future generations.
Sachsenhausen near Berlin was one of those most visited. It was set up by former inmates from 18 countries. Since the demise of the GDR and the complete replacement of former GDR staff by West Germans, Sachsenhausen has undergone a complete “refurbishment.”
The new director states that other nations: “will be happy to see it freed from the mildew of suffocating GDR communism. In the wake of the peaceful revolution, the absolute rule of GDR state organs and its Committee of Antifascist Resistance Fighters over this commemorative site has been abolished.” He sacked former staff because of their “communist way of thinking.”
The new administration has bulldozed an area over a burial site of those executed after 1945 in a “special” Soviet camp because Sachsenhausen should “also honour the victims of Stalinism.”
Th e fact that most if not all of these “victims” were SS officers, concentration camp guards and mass murderers is conveniently ignored in this “commemoration.” Instead visitors can now watch a film in which a representative of the Association of Victims of Stalinism talks about the ” victims” of the Red Army, but is conveniently silent about the crimes those “victims” committed.
A documentary, Sachsenhausen, made by Wolfgang Krieg and Dieter Vervuurt, reveals what has happened. When former inmates and veterans of the French resistance visited the camp in 1992, the new director told them that the Jewish victims of the camp had not been honoured in the GDR. A former Jewish inmate reacts by telling him he is lying. The camera follows this man to where Block 38 once stood and cuts away to footage of the Jewish exhibition that used to be there in GDR times, but ironically Block 38 has been destroyed in an arson attack.
“First they burned books then gassed and burned people and today they are burning the evidence,” complains the old man. The documentary made for SFB Berlin television was never shown. Exactly like Night Will Fall 47 years earlier.
In the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbruck, the third largest of the commemorative sites, nazi crimes were fully documented including the horrific medical experimentation on inmates. The exhibition showing all this was closed down after unification. Now, instead, there are landscape photos of the countryside taken around 1930. Cleanly arranged rows of sewing machines are positioned in front of photos of a large clothing factory, giving the impression of normal work – all neat and tidy .
GDR exhibitions that existed in former concentration camps have been systematically dismantled, destroyed and falsified, streets named after anti-fascists have been renamed and victims of nazism have had their pensions discontinued.
The new rulers of Germany are determined to remove all evidence of resistance to the nazis, particularly that mounted by communists, as it undermines their argument of equivalence.
In Berlin’s German History Museum evidence and documentation revealing the extent of nazi atrocities and of resistance is now rotting in the museum’s cellars. The concrete details, of what fascism was really like, is being deliberately erased from public memory, while many of its instigators have been posthumously rehabilitated and honoured.
The process is on-going and in the words of German author Monika Zorn, “a crime and a second murder of all victims of the nazi terror .”
In this way history is still being re-written to suit the masters of today.
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This post was written by John Green