Inside The Nazi State

Acclaimed filmmaker Laurence Rees sheds new light on the characters and backgrounds of those who participated in the Third Reich.

Inside the Nazi State


During the Second World War six million innocent Jews were murdered, alongside gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the disabled - all those who failed to meet the Aryan requirements set by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, dictating what it is to be human. Now, sixty years later, we are still trying to understand how this could have happened.


For the past fifteen years, producer and Head of BBC History Laurence Rees has been on a televisual quest to find the truth behind one of the most evil regimes in history. During this time he has made arguably the most comprehensive series of historical documentaries of the last ten years,, which has been acclaimed throughout the world. But what is less known is that within the vaults of the BBC archives lie hour after hour of remarkable films - interviews by Rees with former Nazis that have never been seen on television before, revealing how and why they became involved in Hitler's insatiable lust for power.


One of the most fascinating aspects of this series is that Rees interviews those who actually became friends with Adolf Hitler. These intimate interviews with those who consorted with the Fuhrer explodes the myth that they must have been evil zealots. Disturbingly, these people are normal, self-effacing, and give an insight into contact with an apparently very different Hitler at home. While it is clear that these surprising insights into Hitler's personality don't invite a re-appraisal of Hitler's true character: they do however reveal that you cannot dismiss him as merely an evil monster. For example, Reinhard Spitzy, who was adjutant to the Foreign Minister, spent a lot of time with Hitler. His loyalty was so great that, even after the crimes of the Holocaust were revealed, he still cannot forget that Hitler was, "very nice to me, so I can't complain".


In 1932, the Nazi party obtained more votes than any other, with forty percent of all Germans choosing to vote for Hitler as their leader. Germany was crippled by losing the First World War and as Rees' interviews reveal, economic chaos led many to seek a strong and extreme solution to their problems. Fridolin von Spaun was a soldier who was there at the very beginnings of the Nazi phenomenon. Speaking candidly, he explains how defeat after WWI led him and many others to seek more radical personalities to lead Germany. To him, Hitler seemed the strong and even moral leader that Germany so desperately needed. Similarly, Erna Kranz, a privately educated Bavarian schoolgirl, who explains how under Hitler things were better economically for her family. Chillingly, it seems a vote for the Nazi party was not forced upon them - it was a well thought-out choice.


Another key misconception that Rees' interviews help explode is that Nazism was a peculiarly 'German' phenomenon, uncovering the motives that moved people from different countries to fight for, or collaborate with, the Nazis. People like Jacques Leroy, a Belgian who abandoned his homeland to join the German army in order to fight Bolshevism. He fought with the Germans all over the Soviet Union, even returning to the front after being critically injured: "of course, I had lost an arm and an eye, but you know, when you're very young, one isn't affected by these things in the same way an older person would be." Perhaps more disturbing is the account of Petras Zelionka, a Lithuanian who talks about how he shot Jewish men, women and children into pits. When Rees challenges him to explain why he pulled the trigger on these innocent people, he says, "it was a certain curiosity".


A great many Germans believed so strongly in Hitler that they stayed loyal to his cause and defended it to the very end. Through the use of Goebbels' propaganda machine and the undoubted passion and charisma that emanated from The Fuhrer himself, people remained proud in their allegiance to Nazi Germany, even when speaking to Rees sixty years later. Otto Klimmer was a member of the Hitler Youth and recollects that he was still ready to die for Hitler as Russian tanks rolled into his village just days before the end of the war. Not everyone, however, shared Klimmer's exuberance. Walter Mauth, spent three years as a soldier retreating from the Russians and recalls how he dearly wished, but was too scared, to inflict a flesh wound on himself to get sent home from the hopeless war.


As any historian will tell you, one of the biggest mistakes you can make when trying to understand the Holocaust is to assume that these unspeakable acts were carried out by a small bunch of lunatics holding all the power. The truth of the matter is in fact much more terrifying; either by their indifference or compliance, millions of people allowed all those innocents to be killed; millions of ordinary people - with families and loved ones - let this happen. You can read all sorts of theories on why these events took place, but there is no substitute for actually hearing it from the mouths of those who were there. As this is written, every single person that Laurence Rees interviewed is now dead, so his series acts as a powerful permanent record that allows us to know more intimately than ever before the characters and backgrounds of the ordinary people who were there - what they believed, and why they chose to follow Hitler's Nazi Party on a road that led Germany into war.