To those who wonder why television revisits the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust with such regularity, the opening statement from Justice Robert H Jackson, speaking at Nuremberg, explains it in the simplest and most powerful terms. “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
Rise of the Nazis: Manhunt (BBC Two) is the fourth instalment in this series, an intelligent mix of history and analysis. The title is something of a misnomer, because we begin here in April 1945, by which time the Nazis’ rise was well and truly over. Some were facing trial at Nuremberg. Others had gone underground: Adolf Eichmann was pretending to be a chicken farmer. Rudolf Höss had changed into an innocuous Navy uniform before his capture and was released a few weeks later, the Allies failing to realise that they had the commandant of Auschwitz in their grasp.
Some of the series covers Nuremberg, using archive footage of that famous courtroom. Hermann Göring took off his headphones, refusing to listen to survivors testifying about children being thrown into ovens. Albert Speer concocted a “good Nazi” defence – that he was merely an architect and technocrat, unaware of the extermination of Jews – which succeeded in saving him from a death sentence.
Other parts of the documentary, which uses reconstructions to good effect, are as gripping as any thriller. They include the Mossad operation to capture Eichmann, who was living under a false identity in South America.
The series highlights the stories of “the little-known people searching for truth and justice”, such as Fritz Bauer, a German-Jewish prosecutor who pressed Israel to pursue Eichmann. But it also sets out some of the moral ambiguities of the post-war landscape, including Klaus Barbie’s (known as the “Butcher of Lyon”) recruitment by the US intelligence services in 1947, plus morally repugnant acts such as the Catholic clergy’s assistance in helping both Barbie and Eichmann to flee.
In Germany, six years after the war’s end, thousands of protesters demanded clemency for Nazi prisoners, who were subsequently released early or had death sentences overturned. “Already, attitudes towards Nazi crimes are relaxing,” the voice-over notes. Another reminder that programmes about the Holocaust must continue to be made.