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How Goebbels gave Titanic a nazi twist

Author Ian Garden has written about the Nazis wartime propaganda films

Author Ian Garden has written about the Nazis wartime propaganda films

THE band played on as the sumptuous passenger liner sailed serenely through the icy waters, a spectacular vision just moments from tragedy.

Everyone, of course, knows what happened next. The Titanic, the jewel of the White Star Line, was doomed to a watery grave, 1517 souls lost, and the tragedy that befell the fastest and most impressive of vessels on her ill-fated maiden voyage 100 years ago would endure.

The story of the Titanic was so overwhelming that it would be told time and time again, sometimes less accurately than others. Yet who would have thought that years later, as Hitler’s Germany brought terror to Europe, it would be this most awful of seafaring tragedies which would receive star billing?

And that the Titanic would, along with Mary, Queen of Scots and the victims of the Second Boer War, be recruited by the Nazis in their bid to storm their way to victory?

“It’s actually hard to see how anyone could make what happened to the Titanic any more tragic, but the Nazis did,” says Edinburgh-based film historian Ian Garden, who yesterday launched his book, The Third Reich’s Celluloid War, which lifts the lid on the way the Germans portrayed their enemies in lavish wartime propaganda films.

“What’s interesting is how they actually turned what happened to the Titanic into an anti-British film. The film’s storyline went that the White Star Line’s share price had been falling and the only way to get it back up was to go to New York ahead of schedule, regardless of the safety of passengers or icebergs. None of that mattered, according to the film.

“Then they introduced five German characters who had never existed in real life. One said things like ‘Watch out!’ and ‘What about the icebergs?’ and so on. Of course, he survived the sinking and went on to give evidence at a trial afterwards – all fiction.”

The story behind the Nazis’ Titanic movie features in his book and, by coincidence, will be explored on Channel 5 tonight in Nazi Titanic Revealed, a documentary which looks at how the film was used as part of Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ machine.

However, it was just one of hundreds of German wartime movies – many banned after the war – released in an effort to help maintain German morale and portray the British in an unflattering light.

For just as British audiences sat down to boo and hiss at typically blonde, blue-eyed and callous Aryan Nazis in movies like Casablanca, Went the Day Well? and In Which We Serve, cinema fans in Germany were gripped by films which portrayed British exploits through history as anything but honourable.

The Third Reich’s hope, says retired bank executive Ian, 55, of Rocheid Park, Fettes, was to leave German movie fans convinced that Hitler was doing the world a favour by attempting to crush imperialistic and brutal Britain.

“The British were bringing out their own movies, of course, which were also fiction, set in the war, and all very effective,” says Ian, who was inspired to research Third Reich films after watching British films of the era.

“The German films were set in the historical past of their enemies – usually the British past. Some were anti-Jewish based on Jewish characters who did terrible things. Goebbels felt that for propaganda to be effective, it had to be based on truth.”

Among the most brutal, he recalls, is a 1941 German movie, Ohm Krüger – Uncle Kruger – based on the British actions in South Africa during the Second Boer War between the autumn of 1899 and the spring of 1902.

“Germany wanted to say that British invented the concentration camp,” adds Ian. “These were actually internment camps for looking after women and children of guerilla fighters and we weren’t going out of our way to massacre people. Indeed, people died because of the poor conditions and dysentery and almost as many British soldiers died in the camps as women and children.

“But that didn’t come out in the film. Instead, it has a go at us for being murderers.”

One of the characters in the film, a concentration camp commander responsible for the deaths of women, was portly and bald and bore a resemblance to Winston Churchill, while Queen Victoria was portrayed as a drunkard.

However, the movie later backfired on the Germans. For as their cities were flattened by Allied bombing, the scenes of Boer War refugees’ destroyed homes in the film were judged too provocative and the movie was banned in 1945.

But it was just one of some 1300 feature films produced between 1933 and 1945 deemed crucial to helping build morale in the country, to develop anti-Allied feelings and hammer home the pro-Nazi message.

“Ninety per cent were entertainment films,” adds Ian, who will give a talk on his research at Oxgangs Library tonight. “They were comedies and musicals, detective stories and the like, intended to entertain. The other ten per cent – probably around 100 films in all – were politically orientated.

“But I’d argue that any film of the era had a degree of propaganda associated with it before it could be released.”

The English, he adds, are singled out by the Nazi filmmakers and some movies portray Scots and Irish as their victims.

“One film, The Heart of The Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots, was largely true but was seen by the Allies as having twisted history. It showed Elizabeth inviting Mary to come to England for refuge only to then have her head chopped off, which as we know, wasn’t the case.

“There were pro-Irish films, too, which worked very well in Germany in that people identified England as a common enemy, but when they were shown in German-occupied countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland, the movie-goers there still saw the Nazis as being their enemy.” Ian, whose role with the Bank of Scotland led to him setting up its first German branch, says the movies were one vital way for the Nazi regime to impose its beliefs on the German public.

“Once at the cinema, people would watch the newsreels and propaganda documentaries, too. A rule was imposed that meant that people couldn’t just come in and watch the main feature film, they had to be in the cinema before that so they had to watch everything and they weren’t allowed to leave until the end.”

Some movies, he adds, had equally dramatic and sometimes even more astonishing real-life stories attached to them. Such as the graphic and shocking anti-Jewish film, Jud Süss, based on a true story about a Jew found guilty of murder, torture and the rape of a Christian woman who was eventually hanged for his crimes.

“As a result of the film, people went rushing out into the streets, attacking Jewish premises. The lead actor, Ferdinand Marian, knew it was controversial. So when he delivered his dialogue he tried to do it in such a way to destroy the effectiveness of what he was doing. He was made to do retake after retake. He died after a mysterious car crash in 1946.

“Even now the film is banned in Germany. In fact, when a movie was produced in 2010 about the film and Ferdinand Marian, people walked out of the cinemas very upset.”

Perhaps, though, the most poignant of Nazi films was intended as a factual documentary which would explode the Allied “myths” surrounding their concentration camps.

“It was fairly late in the war,” recalls Ian. “The Nazis were being condemned for their camps and they decided to give their camp at Theresienstadt, north of Prague, a facelift.

“There were shops and work units, there were places for people to relax, it was like a holiday camp.

“The International Red Cross gave it a clean bill of health. The Nazis decided to make a film of it, so they could say ‘look at the lies they tell about our camps, here’s what a typical camp’.

“They used a Jewish prisoner to direct the film. Of course, as soon as the film was made everyone, including the director, was shipped to Auschwitz and killed. But the Germans shot themselves in the foot. It took nine months to finish the whole film by which time it was 1945 and the British had seen camps like Belsen,” he adds.

“Any propaganda advantage of that film was lost. People had seen the truth.”

• The Third Reich’s Celluloid War by Ian Garden, History Press, £20. Ian Garden will be at Oxgangs Library tonight at 6.30pm. Nazi Titanic Revealed, tonight, 8pm on Channel 5.

 

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