Noël Annan

  • Blind Eye to Murder by Tom Bower
    Deutsch, 501 pp, £9.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 233 97292 7
  • The Road to Nuremberg by Bradley Smith
    Deutsch, 303 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 233 97410 5

Investigative journalism has many triumphs to its credit. It toppled a President of the United States. It has exposed, through the hard leg-work of tiny teams of sleuths, the evasions of corporations, ministries, crooks in local government, and the common shysters whose trickery Esther Rantzen mocks in tones of cloying surprise. The press are right to blow fanfares in their own praise because investigative journalism is precisely the sort of activity which those who sneer at the free press want to muzzle in the interest of ‘objectivity’ and ‘responsible’ journalism.

It is true that some individuals get hurt unjustly in the process – though they have their remedy in the courts. It is true that hubris can sometimes get the better of professional caution. The prestigious Washington Post and Bob Woodward himself failed, despite warnings, to check out the story on a five-year-old drug addict written by the wretched Janet Cooke, who won her Pulitzer Prize and subsequently had to return it when her report was proved to be a fabrication. It is also true that the techniques cannot be applied as fairly on television as in print simply because there is not the time on television to develop the case in detail – and detail, the piling up of damning fact upon damning fact, is at the heart of the technique. The least convincing programmes are those in which, instead of pursuing a specific abuse, the team decides to indict a whole industry or government. When they take some perennial social malaise, such as the inadequacy of the Health Service, of housing, or prisons or primary schools, and suggest that the whole society in which we live is rotten and culpable, they are really arguing that if only all were to change all would be well. That is a simplistic, and sometimes a sinister, conception of society.

Mr Bower is a Panorama journalist and certainly no charge of inadequate documentation could be levelled at him. He has ransacked the archives and interviewed over two hundred people in order to lay a ghost which has haunted him since his childhood. As a boy, he tells us, he grew up believing that the Second World War was ‘a just and moral crusade’ ending in a victory over tyranny. The British had fought in the expectation that ‘with victory would come justice: those who had done evil would be punished, and those who had died would be avenged.’ But as a man he came to realise Germany had not been systematically purged and that ‘the architects of the country were the same men who had held high positions in the regime which my boyhood heroes had fought to overthrow.’ Worse discoveries followed. Thousands of those who committed crimes, or knew about such crimes, had escaped trial. Others sentenced for vile offences were released and rehabilitated as if they had been guilty of nothing worse than dangerous driving. Others successfully resisted extradition or with disgusting arrogance displayed contempt for witnesses whom in former days they had tortured. Others managed to delay their trial and were in the end exempted by statutes of limitation. To this day, a farcical trial typical of the whole rotten business continues in Düsseldorf: a trial of men and women accused of murdering a quarter of a million people in a camp in Poland. The trial has dragged on since 1975 and still seems no nearer its end. It is a trial in which judges have died and been replaced, German lawyers have denied that there was a Final Solution and murderesses are acquitted because the eye-witnesses to their guilt have during the trial gone to their graves.

How has this happened and who was to blame? Mr Bower indicts the German people themselves, who have swept the past under the carpet. On the rare occasions when a German government tries to bring some of the most atrocious criminals to trial, the mud of law and procedure clogs the wheels. Too many know that if this person is convicted and sentenced, they themselves, or those nearest them, could be in danger, too. But who set the Germans this example? Tom Bower’s answer is unequivocal. British officials, and to a lesser extent American policies, permitted German concentration-camp gaolers, SS and Gestapo members, lawyers who had administered Nazi law, bureaucrats and industrialists who had supported Hitler and profited from slave labour, and bankers who had financed the plunder of Europe, to escape justice and emerge as the architects of the German economic miracle. He names the guilty British civil servants, and generals, and their accomplices in Military Government.

Why is this indictment, compiled with such unremitting labour, so grossly misleading? It is misleading because the author has started out with a simple and, indeed, irrefutable conclusion rooted in his mind. De-Nazification was a failure and war criminals escaped. There then follows a far from irrefutable inference. If this happened, those who let it happen must be guilty men. All the evidence is therefore interpreted to pin guilt upon somebody. This is, of course, how some Panorama or World in Action programmes are made. But Bower seems oblivious of the fact that he is not writing a television programme. He is writing history. Of critical examination of sources such as a historian should make there is hardly a trace. Of the social conditions prevailing in post-war Germany there is no analysis. Of the historiographical problems which beset the interpretation of diplomatic documents, there is no awareness. Of the place which de-Nazification took in the priorities of the Allies, there is no cogent discussion. Of that knowledge of life which should encompass how wars begin and end, of their aftermath, of the agonising judgments which afflicted every European country the Nazis occupied as their governments attempted to identify collaborators and assess their guilt, nothing shows. On Tom Bower’s television screen everything is in black and white. Protest is all the rage today and this is a work of protest. But as a contribution to history it is almost valueless.

In a far more sober study, The Road to Nuremberg, which is no less thoroughly documented, Bradley Smith describes how difficult it was for the Allies to agree on the policy to be followed towards members of the Nazi Party and to war criminals. Allied leaders and officials were genuinely puzzled, not shuffle-footed. Churchill’s instinct was to execute the leaders and criminals as speedily as possible as an act of summary justice. The Americans wanted a trial – a demonstration that the rule of law was to be upheld, whether or not the accused recognised it. They also wanted to inflict upon the German nation a punishment which they would never forget. The best-known exponent of this policy was Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury, whose scheme to pastoralise Germany, stripping it of its industry and its power to create wealth, found some favour with Roosevelt. It found no favour at all with the British. Nor did it with the State Department. Stimson said that being tough or soft with the Germans was not the issue. The issue was ‘whether the course proposed will in fact attain our agreed objective, continued peace’.

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