My wife and I recently returned from three weeks in Portugal, a country I had never visited before (as an aside, it is an amazing place with incredible food and rich history – well worth a visit!). One thing that did strike me as odd about Portugal though, was the lack of Second World War history. The country’s dictator, Salazar, kept Portugal out of the war, sitting on the fence until it was clear who was going to win, and then giving the Allies use of the Azores Islands as an air base late in the war. I only saw two military monuments during our time in the country, one commemorating Portugal’s contribution of a battalion of infantry to the Allied cause in WW1, and the other to the country’s losses in its colonial wars in Africa. In contrast, I have travelled throughout the U.K., and there is hardly a village without a cenotaph memorializing local losses in both World Wars.
The lack of Second World War awareness hit home to me even more one evening in Lisbon. Our guide, a friend of the couple we were travelling with who lives part-time in Lisbon, took us to an amazing little bar in the old part of town, one famous for its collection of 20th century memorabilia. The place had a plain, nondescript frontage on a side street, and you had to ring the doorbell to be let in by staff – I would have walked right by it had it not been for our guide. Inside was like Aladin’s cave – every wall was covered in glass-fronted cases absolutely jam-packed with bric-a-brac of every description. Dolls, toy soldiers, model airplanes, signage, hats, helmets, toy cars, swords etc etc....it would take days to look at every item. As I sat with my glass of vintage Port my eyes were drawn to one wall in particular, as it was filled with Nazi memorabilia. Officer’s hats, helmets, sashes, small banners and the like, all prominently adorned with the swastika. Such a display would be unthinkable in Canada, the U.K. or most other Western democracies I would think. The last time I had seen real Nazi relics had been in the Imperial War Museum in London forty years previously.
The display didn’t offend me, but I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit I found it disconcerting.
Very soon after arriving home, the firestorm surrounding Mr. Hunka, the Ukrainian WW2 veteran, erupted across Canada. Mr. Hunka was honoured with a standing ovation in Parliament, but it was soon revealed that the unit he had served in during the war was none other than the Waffen SS, Hitler’s elite troops, who had committed a plethora of atrocities from 1939-1945. I was outraged at first, but in an interesting coincidence, I had just finished reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red Famine, about the genocide perpetrated on Ukraine over the course of some 20 years by Josef Stalin. Was it any wonder that many Ukrainians looked upon the invading German army as liberators? Is Mr. Hunka any different from the 100’s of German scientists that the U.S. brought to America after the war to spearhead the missile and space program? Many of them were actual Nazi party members after all, and I haven’t heard anyone say that Mr. Hunka was as well. I am no apologist for the Waffen SS - far from it - and it is outrageous that he was honoured the way he was (the Waffen SS was officially designated a criminal organization at Nuremburg, and its members all swore a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler), but does serving in that unit automatically make one a “Nazi”? I am conflicted...in part because I am pretty sure I know what my Dad and the rest of his aircrew comrades would say!
If writing The Job To Be Done has taught me one thing, it is that studying history requires a nuanced approach – often a simple “a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi” approach results in a comic-book level of understanding of our rich history.
Clint L. Coffey is the author of The Job To Be Done, available now through FriesenPress. Check back soon for new blog posts