Like many young Jews, I had been force-fed images of the Holocaust from a very early age. Such an education cannot fail to have an effect. By the time I visited the scene of the crime, I was completely de-sensitised.
That was 10 years ago and, as the song says, time changes everything. This year I returned to Munich to try to gain some understanding of Fascism. Cosmopolitan magazine had asked me to go to Germany to interview Ewald Althans, a rising star in the German far right.
Althans is 26, tall, thin, blonde and very charismatic. He speaks four languages fluently, including English, and describes himself as a marketing man whose product is national socialism. He has a number of criminal convictions including one for wearing Nazi uniforms. When I met him, he wore the simple grey suit of the serious businessman. But it did not hide his true colours.
He quickly agreed to grant me an interview. I did not tell him I was Jewish. My friends told me I was crazy. My family told me to take care. I told myself I was a journalist, this was an assignment like any other.
I knew I was fibbing. All too often I have stood in a hotel foyer or a crowded pub listening in to the beer-fuelled chatter of anti- Semites, telling each other jokes about mean Jewish bankers; with sick fascination I have read the newspaper coverage of anti-Semitic attacks. And I have come to a bitter conclusion: it is worth worrying about anti-Semitism. Damn it, it is worth being paranoid. It doesn't help when the Sunday Times decides to pay vast amounts to a Nazi sympathiser, historian David Irving, for his help in delivering Goebbels' diaries to an eager British public.
Around the time I was due to meet Althans, Irving was on trial in Munich on charges of insulting the memory of the Holocaust victims by claiming there had been no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Althans was assisting Irving. For a day, the young German Nazi and I sat in the same courtroom. Althans watched Irving. I watched Althans.
It is so much easier to hate your enemy when he is faceless. He can take on whatever form you like. The reality will always be painfully banal. I had come to Munich to meet a Nazi; what I found was someone who looked like a management trainee. I felt strangely empty. Fifty years ago, people who believed what Althans believes saw that, along with millions of others, members of my family were horribly put to death. And yet this Nazi looked so ordinary. 'It's hard,' Woody Allen once said, 'to argue with a man in jackboots.' Perhaps, but I was beginning to think it would be harder to argue with a man in a grey suit.
I TOOK him to lunch at the same Bierkeller at which David Irving had first made his comments about the Holocaust. We talked generally at first, meandering around Althans's vision of a new Germany: he said he believed that it was human nature to be racist. Only through segregation could the white race survive. Everyone else would have to go. Government would be by dictatorship. Democracy, he said, did not work.
Usually during such an interview I have found myself nodding at everything my subject was saying, ever friendly, trying to encourage a flood of words. This time I sat stock still, staring glassy-eyed, determined to show no emotion. I asked him his position on the Jews. 'Are you Jewish?' he asked. I nodded. 'I thought so, 'he said. 'You have the looks. I can always talk to Jews. You like to argue, to discuss. Too often people close their ears when they talk to me.'
He said he considered the Jews to be coloured people. He had already said that all coloured people brought problems to German society and would have to leave. The Jews would have to go, too. 'They have to decide whether they want to be Germans or Jews. They cannot be both. They create inflation by their business practices. If I could control international banking systems and had imperialist ambitions, I'm sure I'd do the same.'
I asked where he thought the Jews should go. He said sharply that he did not care. They could go wherever they liked. It was one of the few occasions when he lost his cool. Most of the time he made his opinions sound so ordinary. This, he was trying to say, was not the rebel yell of extremism, but pure common sense. If he had ranted and screamed and kicked, I would have known what I was dealing with. But Althans is far too clever. Like Irving, he said he believed the Holocaust had not taken place, that it had been invented by a conspiracy of Jewish film makers in Hollywood determined to smear Germany. And I thought I was paranoid.
It was the cue for me to lose my rag. How, I asked, could Althans account for the missing members of my family? Who had killed them, if not the Nazis? They could, he said, have died of disease. 'That was a terrible thing,' Althans said coolly, 'but it is not a Holocaust.' We finished our lunch quickly after that. David Irving was found guilty later that afternoon and fined DM10,000, around pounds 3,500.
That night I attempted to drown the bogeymen in pale German lager. I was left with a feeling of emptiness. His blandness, his virtuoso displays of sick, though reasoned, argument had snuffed out my emotions. That, I now knew, is what makes him so dangerous. And again, I had been less moved by Fascism than I had expected. That was the most disturbing thing of all.
Jay Rayner's account of the rise of the far right in Western Europe appears in the August issue of 'Cosmopolitan', out next week.
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