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Paradoxical killer

08 May 2015


OH, FOR the simplicity of life where everything is black and white; where a person is either a saint, or an irredeemable sinner. A particularly vexing case of the opposite syndrome - that real world in which virtue and evil are teasingly muddled up - was presented in Himmler: The decent one: Storyville (BBC4, Monday of last week).

I over-egg the pudding: there was nothing here to make us wonder whether the head of the SS was, after all, a much maligned chap. But it was a masterly presentation of how someone responsible for the most despicable acts and policies can also be, in some limited respects, loving and considerate.

A large cache of Himmler's family letters and diaries has survived, and the programme was constructed of readings from these, in German, with subtitles, illustrated with archive film. The contrast was shocking. Concern about whether his beloved daughter's birthday presents had arrived were counterposed with vile images of the carrying out of his brutal orders.

His private writings offer clues to his twisted pathology: a desperate longing for order and cleanliness, a desire to find a scapegoat, and a phenomenal capacity for hard work made him the ideal tool for Hitler's conviction that, if only all undesirables - above all, Jews - could be got rid of, then Germany would recover its rightful greatness in the world.

Revolting footage of the cold-blooded shooting of Jews was matched with letters expressing tender concern for the effect of these murders on the soldiers carrying them out. Presumably, it is a kind of psychotic delusion: for Himmler, his millions of victims were sub-human parasites fit only to be purged from society.

We saw a very different wartime episode in The Queen's Big Night Out (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week), the story of how Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret mingled with the crowds on VE night, 70 years ago. It is a slight theme, when all is said and done; but the sheer sense of public abandon, the uncorking of six years of privation and fear, by a society far more regulated than our own was well communicated.

And, although the future Queen was one of a party of 16, nevertheless it can reasonably be considered that this was the one and only night in a life of duty and separation when she has joined in with entirely unstructured street-life, experiencing at first hand the moment in our story when one age ended and another began.

Of course, our freedom from totalitarianism has been guaranteed by the secret world of espionage and counter-espionage, or so countless novels, films, and TV series would have us believe. The Game (BBC2, Thursdays) is a superior example of this genre: it has superbly convincing evocations of the Cold War world of the '70s, in which three-day weeks and power cuts added to the paranoia of wondering exactly which side anyone was on. Who is loyal, and who is a traitor?

It is a bundle of clichés, but far enough in the past, and so brilliantly executed, as to provide unsettling but ultimately reassuring entertainment.

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