What got me into history – family history and good TV documentaries.
As thousands of students collect their A-Level results today, it prompted me to reflect on how I got into history.
When you ask people what got them interested in learning about the past, some respond that it was a particular visit to a historic site that captured their interest, for others, it was a passionate and enthusiastic history teacher, but for me, it was the powerful combination of family history and TV.
As an eight-year-old, I can vividly remember sitting on the patterned rug in the living room and being captivated by the voice of Laurence Olivier narrating The World at War series. It was late December 1988, and my uncle was staying with us in Lincoln for a few days to distribute his Christmas presents. My dad received the complete VHS box set of The World at War series. Both history nerds and former military men, they decided to watch the first few episodes together. Bored of playing with my younger sister, and keen to listen in to adult conversation, I had been allowed to join my dad and uncle while they watched and argued over the finer details of strategic decision-making during the Second World War.
The opening words of the first episode sparked an interest that set me on the path to having a lifelong interest in studying the complex range of human behaviour during times of war. Olivier’s haunting story-telling of the tiny French village, Oradour-sur-Glane, and the massacre of its residents by the soldiers of the Das Reich SS Division, just a few days after D-Day in 1944, sent a shiver down my spine.
“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944 ... The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years ... was dead.”
I can remember asking my dad and uncle the big question: why? What were their motivations, why had the German soldiers committed such a heinous crime on defenceless civilians? I could not get to grips with it then and I still can’t now, but it was as if someone had flicked a switch, as I suddenly wanted to know more about the war. My dad warmly encouraged my new found interest in history and furnished me with tales of family members who had fought in the war and became my go-to for all things history. He was Wikipedia in human form. Other family members and friends were slightly amused and perplexed as to why a young girl would be interested in military history and the darker aspects of the Second World War, such as the Holocaust. I remained undeterred and steadfast in learning more.
I pestered elderly relatives, sadly now long gone, who were all too happy to entertain me by answering the endless barrage of questions. As they reminisced, I made a mental note of every detail, experience, emotion and revelation. However, it was my conversations with my Omi (grandmother) about her childhood growing up in Hitler’s Third Reich that particularly resonated. Born in 1933, her memories were fleeting but utterly different in their makeup. On one occasion, she recollected that as a young child, suffering from asthma, she had been sent away for periods to the countryside. She remembered the farm and rural idyll fondly but revealed for the first time, how on one occasion, while playing in the farmer’s fields near a train track, she had responded to urgent cries for help, for water, from those held within a long line of stationary train (cattle) wagons, which had stopped momentarily in the field. Her first reaction was to help, and she fetched water, which she attempted to give them. However, the SS guards and dogs chased her away. She recalled how she had never run so fast back to the farm, and her voice softened as she reflected non-verbally on the realisation that the train had been transporting victims of Nazi persecution to a nearby concentration camp. I was the first in our family to hear this particular story.
After marrying my grandfather, a British soldier stationed in postwar Germany in the early 1950s, she had never felt comfortable in sharing her German heritage with her daughters as living in rural Lincolnshire, so soon after the war, it was difficult. Then a teenager in the early 1990s (and her eldest grandchild), my questions came at the right time. She was all too happy to share a multitude of different stories from feeling sad that the war had ended, as she had not got to wear her League of German Maidens uniform, to her fear of the American officers billeted in the flat above her family’s ground floor flat during the immediate post-war years.
Together we carefully excavated her past. Everything I learnt about the Third Reich I shared with her. I took up learning the German language so that I could gain a better insight. She read widely on the subject, trying to understand the country and regime in which she lived as a young child and adult. For my A-Level independent study, I opted to study the debate around consent and coercion in Nazi Germany, focusing on the infamous Nazi state secret police – the Gestapo. I drew extensively upon Laurence Rees’ TV documentary series Nazis: A Warning from History (1997). One scene, in particular, grabbed my attention. Episode two ‘Chaos and Consent’ featured a two-minute interview with an elderly German woman, Resi Kraus, who had denounced her neighbour, Ilse Totzke, to the Gestapo. The meeting took place in a park, with Kraus seated casually on a park bench. The interviewer presented Kraus with a copy of her denunciation, yet she stated the signature was hers, yet she had no recollection, refuting the document by questioning the point of going over something that happened 50-51 years ago, especially when such action did not directly kill anyone. Totzke was arrested early 1943 and sent to Ravenbrück concentration camp. She was liberated 26 April 1945 but never located.
My interest in this period of history never wavered and in September 1998, the first in my family to attend university, I embarked on an undergraduate history degree at the University of Hull where I would spend the next eight years committed to researching how the Nazi regime functioned. I was lucky enough to visit archives all over the world, capturing as much evidence as I could for my doctorate on the Gestapo intelligence network and I am busy writing this up into a book, sharing what I have learnt with the broader public.
What got me into history in the first place, family and TV documentaries continues to feed my insatiable appetite for retrieving individual voices within history. It is the power of a personal story which continues to ignite interest in the past, just as it did for me as an eight-year-old Lincolnshire lassie.