Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nazi Mega Weapons: The S.S. and the Siegfried Line (Darlow Smithson Productions, PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a couple of episodes of the TV series Nazi Mega Weapons, a British production from 2014, on PBS — lists three seasons for it (2013, 2014 and 2015) but even on these shows, the second season, the producers were obviously pumping up the project by covering aspects of the Nazi regime and its military machine that were not really “mega weapons” in the sense of the huge construction projects, many of them so big as to be impractical, covered in the show’s first season. One episode, originally aired January 21, 2015, was called “The S.S.” — which wasn’t a mega-weapon at all but an elite force, essentially the worst of the worst of Nazidom, who began before Hitler took power as his personal bodyguards but soon expanded under its commander, Heinrich Himmler, to run virtually the entire police force of Nazi Germany, to control the concentration camps (which were originally built before World War II as a place to imprison political enemies and turn them into slave laborers before they were expanded into the territories Germany conquered in the early years of the war — the most famous camp, Auschwitz, wasn’t in Germany but in Poland — and converted from forced-labor camps into extermination facilities) and in its later incarnation, the Waffen S.S. (which simply means “armed S.S.”), to fight alongside the regular German military in operations for which the Nazis wanted a particularly brutal and uncompromising force. The show contains at least one fortress the S.S. built (with slave labor) in Poland, where they dug under no fewer than 36 mountains to build an underground facility called “The Giant” which would have enabled the Nazis to maintain a government and continue a resistance movement even if German lost the war above ground (which in fact was never used because the Soviet troops advanced through that part of Poland and recaptured it before “The Giant” was anywhere near completion).

When the show’s narrator (who in some ways is its most risible feature; he sounds and looks all too much like Eric Idle parodying British newscasters on Monty Python’s Flying Circus) descended into “The Giant,” some of the original caves had become so flooded he had to go into them on a raft à la The Phantom of the Opera. The show also mentions the weird cult Himmler tried to create to give the Nazis in general and the S.S. in particular a “spiritual” basis, linking them to old Teutonic myths. The program didn’t describe Himmler’s spiritual cult as a direct attack on Christianity, but Himmler himself certainly did: he said, “We live in an era of the ultimate conflict with Christianity. It is part of the mission of the S.S. to give the German people in the next half century the non-Christian ideological foundations on which to lead and shape their lives. This task does not consist solely in overcoming an ideological opponent but must be accompanied at every step by a positive impetus: in this case that means the reconstruction of the German heritage in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Himmler seized a castle that had been built on the site of a victory the ancient German tribes had won against the Roman Empire and remodeled it into what amounted to the Vatican of his S.S. cult, and (though this isn’t touched on in the program) he also sent out anthropologists worldwide to dig up “evidence” of his racial theories — an effort even some of the other leading Nazis thought was nuts. The show goes into some detail about how the S.S. were recruited (Himmler wanted people with blond hair, blue eyes, at least 5’ 11” tall and with perfect vision — even though Himmler himself was shorter than that, dark-haired and wore glasses) and how they were trained to wipe any amount of humanity or compassion out of them — though the S.S. training as shown here wasn’t that different from what any army puts its recruits through so they’ll lose their individuality and blend together as a unitary fighting force.

The other Nazi Mega Weapons episode shown last night was at least closer to what the show’s concept was originally: it was first aired January 28, 2015 and called “The Siegfried Line” — after the nickname Hitler’s enemies gave to the Westwall, the extensive fortifications and defenses Hitler ordered built on the border between Germany and France to prevent a repeat of the trench-warfare stalemate that had made World War I last four years and produced so many human casualties. (The French similarly built the Maginot Line but stupidly ignored the fact that in World War I the Germans had invaded France via neutral Belgium; so they stopped the Maginot Line at the French-Belgian border — and the Nazis, like the Kaiser’s army before them, once again crossed through Belgium and got into France without having to bring down the Maginot Line.) The Siegfried Line took advantage of the natural defenses of the Hürtgen Forest on the German-French border — with its closely packed trees and rolling terrain — and among its elements were “dragon’s teeth” (giant concrete outcroppings built to stop enemy tanks), huge pill-boxes and turrets from which German soldiers could aim machine guns at the enemy without being vulnerable themselves, and concrete abutments that reinforced the natural defenses of the Hürtgen Forest. Ironically, the Siegfried Line was at least in part a victim of the Germans’ early successes in the war: Hitler ordered many of its guns removed so they could be used in the Nazi invasion of France, and by the time the fortunes of war reversed and he once again needed to worry about defending the homeland, much of the Line’s fortification was obsolete because improvements in light artillery, tanks and other mobile weapons had made it possible for the Allies to break through the line.

Nonetheless, the Line was effective enough as a defense that the U.S. Army’s first attempt to break through the western border of Germany at the town of Aachen (also known, by the way, as the city where Herbert von Karajan got his first important job as conductor in 1938) turned into a bloodbath and delayed them long enough that Hitler was able to put together an army for the counteroffensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. “The Siegfried Line” tells its story largely through two experts, retired British Army Captain Patrick Bury and “battlefield archaeologist” Tony Pollard (one wonders just how you decide you want to be a “battlefield archaeologist” and where you go to train as one), as well as the diaries and letters of Fritz Tillmans, a German soldier who fought in the battle for Aachen — and it’s a compelling one, even though the moral of Nazi Mega Weapons as a whole is that the Germans hobbled themselves with their mania for size; instead of doing what the Allies did — building large quantities of small, maneuverable tanks and guns — the Nazis concentrated on a few big weapons they didn’t have the resources to mass-produce and which in some cases were absurdly vulnerable. One of the previous episodes of Nazi Mega Weapons was about an ultra-huge cannon that was so large they had to build special railway tracks just to move it — and it was so big and so difficult to move it was a sitting duck for enemy aircraft. I know we’re not supposed to make comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump — that’s considered very politically incorrect even by Trump’s bitterest enemies — but they have an awful lot in common, including this mania for making everything “yuge” as well as a maddening (to their associates as well as everyone else) tendency to base their decisions on whatever they’re told by the last person who discusses something with them — the surviving diaries of Joseph Goebbels and the memoirs of Albert Speer both describe their machinations to make sure they were the last people to see Hitler on a particular issue they wanted his support on, and their frustrations when someone else in the Nazi hierarchy got to der Führer before they did!