I vividly remember my first Nazi. I was sitting in my living room at about the age of 10. And, though this Nazi’s appearance was on my TV screen, I am not talking about an Anton Diffring, “Achtung, schweinhund”, British Second-World-War movie character. This was the real thing. I was watching footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. The film was overlaid with Richard Dimbleby’s famous eye-witness radio broadcast. I watched as well-fed Germans lifted dead bodies by their spindly arms.
And I remember the rhythm that two of these Nazi guards found as they swung one such body back and forth — the way two friends throw a third into a swimming pool — so that, when they let go, the momentum carried the corpse further into the gaping hole in the ground instead of just tumbling down the grave wall that was already lined with the dead.
I later learned that the British soldiers who liberated the camp forced the guards to do this job. It was revenge, of a kind. But not the kind I began to fantasise about after seeing those scenes.
In retrospect, I may have conflated that footage with film of Dachau shown in Jeremy Isaacs’s landmark TV documentary, The World at War, which I must have seen at around the same time. In that camp, at the end of April 1945, the liberating American GIs also forced the camp guards to confront the suffering of their victims. In fact, so sickened were some of the Americans by what they found, they killed several German guards, some of them even after they had surrendered.
This was much closer to the kind of revenge I envisaged as a boy, although not quite the act of bravery in which I cast myself. My Rambo version saw me running amok with a machine gun through a barrack full of SS.
Even now, that image of my soldier self haunts me against my better judgment. For, although my boyhood comic imagination has mellowed and yellowed with time, footage of Nazis still induces flashes of anger and flashbacks of those revenge fantasies. I have long wished for them to stop. Not just because I suspect that to indulge in such imagined heroics indicates an inability to envisage reality, but because of the nagging guilt I felt, even as a kid, that my fantasies were in some way exploiting Nazi crimes for my own adolescent entertainment.
But now help has arrived in the form of the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming big summer movie, the oddly spelled Inglourious Basterds, which has Brad Pitt as the leader of an American Jewish revenge squad whose mission is to spread fear throughout the Wehrmacht by scalping and torturing hundreds of Nazis in occupied France. My kind of movie, you would think.
But as I watched the trailer showing Jews with knives and baseball bats, doing — as Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine says --- “one thing, and one thing only: killing Nazis”, I felt an increasing detachment from my long-held secret wish to do to unto Nazis that which the bastards (however spelled) did to others. And by the end of just one minute 43 seconds of bludgeoning, stabbing and shooting, my revenge fantasies had evaporated.
I always knew that my childhood heroism was fake and ridiculous, even when I was a child. But, as an adult, that knowledge never entirely prevented me from meting out imaginary punishment to Nazis. Thanks to the revolting excesses of Tarantino’s rampaging Jews, I am now cured.