azdak: Face of Klimt's Music II (Default)
posted by [personal profile] azdak at 11:34am on 30/03/2008 under ,
Last night I watched "The Great Escape: The Untold Story" on youtube, which is a strange little programme, part documentary, part reconstruction of the real-life events behind the film The Great Escape. The programme quoted from the transcript of the interrogation of the guard who shot Roger Bushell, the original Big X, who had planned and organised the escape. The guard claimed that when he was given the order he had said that this was wrong, whereupon his Captain had told him it was a direct order, and he must carry it out. The guard had reasoned that if he refused, he would be shot for disobeying orders, and someone else would simply do the shooting. And then he added "But I have always known that I would answer for this, this deed I did not wish to do."

That sentence made me shiver, because it seemed so terrifyingly right. I don't know if you can call it a narrative kink of mine, exactly, because it's a little too abstract, more like a philosophical position than a kink. And it doesn't derive its power from being something I believe to be true about the world - I think people often get away with doing things they know are wrong, whether or not they wished to do those deeds in the first place. But as part of a narrative, as part of a story about responsibility and consequences, it resonates with me on multiple levels . And it struck me that it's one of the reasons why I find Sapphire and Steel so satisfying, because you could write that sentence over the series as a kind of motto: "I would answer for this, this deed I did not wish to do."

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I knew most of the facts that "The Great Escape: the Untold Story" recounted, but there were still a few nuggets that fascinated me. For instance, when those 76 men escaped, it was seen as such an appalling propaganda blow that the Germans diverted an astonishing 100,000 troops to look for them. Hitler threw a hissy fit on hearing the news and insisted that all those who escaped should be shot, in direct contradiction of the Geneva Convention, which states that it is the duty of captured soldiers to attempt to escape. Voices of reason within the High Command persuaded him that if every single escaper were shot, the Allies would know that Germany had broken "all the rules of war." Accordingly, Hitler modified his order to "more than half". Himmler decided that the actual figure should be fifty – apparently his desire for nice neat round numbers led him to overlook the point that if it shouldn't be obvious that the men had been killed deliberately, then fifty was a stupidly non-random number to choose – and drew up a list of those who would die. The death certificate for every single man stated that he had been shot while trying to escape, a transparent lie that the British top brass of Stalag Luft III immediately exposed, when he forced the Kommandant to admit that not a single escaper had been injured rather than killed outright during the many so-called escape attempts. After the war, the British moved heaven and earth to track down the exact chain of command by which the orders to kill had filtered through, and executed various people involved. Including the guard who shot Bushell in the back of the head.

I also watched a program on youtube about the making of the Great Escape, which included a gem of a little interview with Donald Pleasance, who had actually been shot down himself during the war and ended up in Stalag Luft I. He complained humorously that when he tried to give the filmmakers the benefit of his experience, they refused to believe that POWs would ever have used rude words to armed Nazi guards, and he soon learned to keep his mouth shut about what the camps had actually been like.

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