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Wednesday 20 October 2010

“The Perfect Nazi” could be described as the darker side of tracing one’s family tree. Imagine discovering that a close blood relative, your grandfather to be exact, was a high ranking member of the SS? For Martin Davidson, a man who has enjoyed senior positions at the BBC, RDF and again at the BBC in charge of history, the challenge and revelation must have been considerable. For most of his life, Davidson grew up knowing that his grandfather had served in Germany during the Nazi regime. Little was ever spoken to him about his mother’s father, Bruno Langbehn’s involvement with the Nazi party.
The man had been particularly tyrannical and dictatorial in his position as father and husband, persuading Davidson’s mother to leave him in Germany for Scotland, where she married Davidson’s father, as soon as she could. This estrangement between daughter and father was further aggravated when Langbehn left Davidson’s doting wife for her best friend. However, Davidson remembered his grandfather’s periodic visits to the UK and his own to Berlin up until Langbehn’s death in 1992. Over this time, the question of his grandfather’s part in the war always seemed to be just below the surface, as if Langbehn was daring his grandson to ask. Almost two decades after his passing, Davidson decided to find out the truth and was both horrified and fascinated by his discoveries.
Being a highly experienced professional historian with useful contacts, Davidson knew his way to the right archives to acquire primary source material. He also had the support of his sister, who knew Langbehn far more intimately than Davidson. The evidence clearly demonstrates that Langbehn was not only a card carrying Nazi party member, but also an early joiner. Davidson cannot - as many of his generation with German ancestry have been able to – dismiss his grandfather as one of the millions of individuals who were swept up into the Nazi madness after Hitler came to power. Bruno Langbehn joined when the party operated as an extremist minority on the fringes of politics. He joined as soon as he was old enough to join the party as part of the Freikorps precursors to the Nazi “brown shirt” paramilitary, the SA. He then later joined the violent SA and climbed the ranks in a division known for their extreme brutality. His career continued to rise and when dissention in the SA caused them to rebel against the Nazi party, Langbehn took the side of the party. Despite having a career as a dentist that improved dramatically under the Nazis, Davidson postulates that his grandfather wasn’t a “career Nazi”. He was a fanatic who joined the Nazis as soon as could and stayed with them until almost the bitter end - there is primary source evidence indicating he was going to be one of the main organizers behind the Nazi “Werewolf” espionage plan set to follow after the Germans lost the war. He could not have seen the advantages being a part of the Nazi party had to offer back in those very early days anymore than someone joining the BNP might do today.
The book is a relatively short but a concise and detailed read. Davidson is an accomplished and highly experienced writer with a clear understanding of how to grip a reader, but be meticulous with his evidence and source material. No doubt this comes from his responsibilities held at the BBC, where entertainment and scholarly concerns are generally kept in a highly scrutinized balance. All chapters carry many endnotes, many of which are written in prose with additional quotations and the bibliography offers a list of many tempting titles, including primary source surveys on the Nazis during the 1930s. A clear concern of Davidson was an understanding of Langbehn’s “old fighter” Nazi type. The facts were there, but Bruno – who assumed another alias after the Soviets took Prague when he was stationed there and Berlin where his family home and dental practice was situated – was never called to account for any crimes. He was not directly involved with the concentration camps, but his career and eventual rank in the SS would have mean that it was highly improbable for him to have not been connected or active in much of the Nazi violence and brutality. He also admitted once to Davidson that he had been offered a job by a certain member of the Nazi’s elite inner circle.
Here lies the only real problem that most people, including the book’s author, will have with this work. Despite painting a very interesting and informative view of the way the Nazis seduced a generation through the use of conspiracy theory, nationalism, racism and drawing heavily from their Prussian and Bavarian military ideals, it doesn’t complete its entire mission. Try as Davidson does by using contemporary accounts by individuals in similar positions as his grandfather, by piecing together what is known about the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany and by the hard facts he has on his grandfather, everything he has to say about Bruno Langbehn is speculation. We don’t know what crimes Langbehn committed. We know he was part of an illegal party and that luck and timing pretty much saved him from suffering at the hands of the Soviets and the Allies. We also know that he acquired civilian clothes in Prague from a Czech neighbour when the Soviets arrived, an act which saved his life as SS uniformed officers would have been shot on the spot. This act of kindness may point in Langbehn’s favour – after all it was a time when the occupied Czechs were taking advantage of the opportunity to avenge themselves on their brutal suppressors - but Davidson refuses to allow any family sympathy towards confirmation bias override his investigation. In fact, it could be argued he is positively masochistic in the way he forces himself to accept the way much of the evidence points to his grandfather’s love of the Nazi ideology.
“The Perfect Nazi” offers us yet another interesting study into the different types of people that allowed the Third Reich to happen. There is a very human story behind the origins of Nazi Germany, but never a mitigation for the crimes committed. On a personal note, I agree with the author that this should be considered to be a “cautionary tale”. Some of my favourite dramas – both literal and allegorical – have been inspired by this dark and terrible time in our too recent history. We don’t need to look too far to see in our current climate extremist fringes in western society that gather support when there country is thrown into a crisis. We also don’t need to look too far to see examples of when certain cultures feel unjustly oppressed decide to enact vengeance. I am often considered to be a little too harsh on conspiracy theorists and I don’t wish to use the appeal to Nazism logical fallacy argument here, but a clear part of the ideology and an inspiration for what drove the Nazis came from irrational belief in secret societies working against them. Not only did they look to the debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion for proof of a Jewish world conspiracy (see many 9/11 conspiricists for continued reference to this nonsense), but the top of Bruno Langbehn’s list of threats to the Nazi party were not communists or any other obvious opponents to their politics. They were none other than that innocuous all boys charity club that is regularly recycled by most global conspiracy theorists from daft Ripperologists to David Ike’s congregation to Dan Brown’s ridiculous fiction - the Freemasons!
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