The difference between truth and lies

Weekend in Munich: Art, Propaganda and Terror in the Third Reich Robert S Wistrich Pavilion £20 What did you do in the War, Auntie? the BBC at War 1939-45 Tom Hickman BBC Books £15.99

Throughout the Nineties we have been hearing the clear echoes of Fascism: in the anti-Semitic and anti-American rantings of Zhirinovsky, in the baseball-bat-brandishing racist skinhead subculture of the former GDR, among the neo-Nazi flag-waving football hooligans of England, in the lyrical nihilism of Germany's new anti-Moslem, anti-homosexual, anti- immigrant counter-culture, and in the mainstream politics of Italy and France. There has been a tendency to dismiss all of these as regrettable but inevitable post-Cold War fallout, forgivable rites de passage of a misguided youth culture.

Robert Wistrich's book is a well-presented warning against treating these phenomena as merely psychological or transitional, or as an unfortunate "post-Modernist" play of discarded political symbols. As he points out, Fascism and Nazism were exactly the same in origin: they were cultural rebellions before they became political revolutions. What made the whole thing so attractive to young people, 60 or more years ago, was the special show- business style of the the Fascist movement - its rhetoric and symbols, its ceremonies and semi-military ambience. It offered young people an opportunity for total opposition to a system, a complete break with an unsatisfactory political condition, and an excuse for knowing nothing, thinking nothing, continuing nothing.

Weekend in Munich, (derived from a Channel Four programme called "Good Morning, Mr. Hitler") is a book about an old film, a collection of colour footage shot a few weeks before the outbreak of war in 1939 and left in a drawer until its discovery in Munich in 1993. The film depicts a forgotten Munich Arts Week, a great cultural rally where thousands happily participated in an extravagant pageant of German history designed to demonstrate the economic and political success of Hitler's Germany - it took place just a year after Kristallnacht, a few miles from the first concentration camps, and two years prior to the Final Solution. Hitler's purging of the galleries and museums of the Reich of decadent material had left the (Aryan) visitor of the late Thirties feeling bare, cleansed, uplifted, endowed with a sense of "strength and order" according to some of the by now ageing customers interviewed by Luke Holland for the programme.

The question has many times been asked how an entire and sophisticated 20th-century nation could have been persuaded to follow Goebbels and the Nazi hierarchy into the Reich and into the most terrible forms of warfare devised until that time. Few books have been able to deal with the question as coherently and convincingly as this one does by using materials from these newly discovered films and their own interviews with survivors. The cultural competence of Nazism was its first weapon in the battle for the German mind and in that understanding lies the most dire message to us today - and pondering it might be one of the best ways of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis.

Tom Hickman's nostalgic book (based on a television programme shown earlier this week), shows how the socially and institutionally remote BBC turned itself into a kind of voice of the British people in the course of the War. Although Winston Churchill condemned the BBC as "the enemy within", his placeman, Brendan Bracken, and the BBC chiefs, gradually between them worked out a modus vivendi by which a kind of civil service at the top combined with a truth-telling machine below; a fresh news-gathering system was developed, as was an apparatus for providing a constant flow of entertainment, which between them contrived to provide an authentic radio culture for the dispersed evacuee population as well as those suffering bombardment in the cities. It has been possible for recent historians to pick holes in the myth, but not to dispel it - because it's true.

We sometimes forget that, 50 years after the war, we do have something to feel warm about. Germany doesn't. Things aren't relative. Truth and lies are quite different. And we should keep our eyes firmly on what's going on. It mustn't happen again. It could. Don't fall for propaganda. That's the combined message of these two books.

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