Accidents of history


Cape Town’s official plans for June 16 are, as always, sober. The flags at the Castle will fly at half-mast.

Churches will remain open to encourage personal reflection, but all other workplaces will be shut. For those citizens who want to share in a more communal commemoration, the traditional march-past in Adderley Street will begin at 4pm, with a gun carriage, symbolically empty, being pulled up to St George’s Cathedral. Citizens are urged to give themselves plenty of time to get through the anti-terrorism checkpoints.

At 8pm, weather allowing, a swastika will be projected across the face of Table Mountain. And then, at precisely 9.13pm, the nation will observe five minutes of silence. For, as every schoolchild on the continent knows, it was at 9.13pm on June 16 1967 that Adolf Hitler – father of all free nations, Fuhrer of the New European Reich, Commander In Chief of the Russian Territories, Sultan of the Arabian Protectorates, and Emperor of Middle-Africa – died in his sleep, flanked by his family and enveloped by the prayers of a grateful world.

* * *

Don’t worry. All is well. History reassures us like a nanny soothing away our nightmares, telling us stories of villains defeated by heroes. It tells us that last week, 70 years ago, D-Day opened a second front against the Nazis. Next week, it consoles us, is 38 years since schoolchildren went into the streets of Soweto to light the fire of a revolution and, ultimately, the flame of democracy in South Africa.

It is the apparent inevitability of history that soothes us. History is a story, and stories persuade us that they are the only possible version of themselves. We cannot imagine that Jane Austen might have sat down to write Mr Darcy as a lecherous bastard, or that Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have rejected magic in favour of realism. In the same way, once the stories of our societies are set down, we cannot believe in outcomes other than what we see before us. We allow academics and novelists to fiddle with the focus ring, but the story itself seems as inevitable and unchanging as the greatest myths; preordained, benign, ending with a kiss and a wedding.

This week, history resounds around us like a bell, tolling the triumph of righteousness over wickedness. But by what flukes, what moments of arbitrary luck or frailty – even turns in the weather – did it all play out like this? What if last week’s ceremonies in Normandy had been to remember the failure of D-Day and the heroism of the beaches’ defenders? What if the June 16 we know was made unimaginable by a handful of arbitrary moments 70 years ago? A map misinterpreted at El Alamein; a truck engine frozen solid at Stalingrad; a shift in the wind before dawn on D-Day: could a single bullet fired in 1942 have sent ripples through time that would see black South African children not in schools in 1976 but in strip mines in Angola? Most definitely.

Last week I heard a young black man describe D-Day as part of a “white man’s war”. He might have had no interest in German fascists of 80 years ago, but they certainly had an interest in him.

The Nazis’ colonial plans for Africa were methodical and vast. North Africa would be given to Italy to administer, but Germany would claim everything south down to Namibia, Zambia and Mozambique. This new territory, Mittelafrika, would be the fulfilment of a 19th-century colonial dream; a vast source of labour and raw materials to fuel Hitler’s new world.

The scale of these plans is almost reassuringly monstrous. They read like the diabolical scheme of a Bond villain, and therefore seem unreal. Until, that is, you discover the Nazis’ plans for South Africa, at which point “What if” suddenly comes uncomfortably close to “What was”. Because South Africa was to be left untouched, a nominally independent state run by pro-Nazi Afrikaners, rewarded for their racial ideologies with stewardship of Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Some familiar names had no doubt been spoken of with approval by the creators of Auschwitz: Hendrik Verwoerd, for one, would have been noticed in 1936 when he was one of six Stellenbosch academics who protested against plans to allow Jews fleeing Europe to settle in South Africa.

We know what happened under the National Party, its dogged institution of apartheid in a decolonising world. What would have happened under the National Socialist party in a world in which the Final Solution was considered a necessity rather than a crime? Would verligte Afrikaners and English-speaking whites have resisted or fled? Would Tambo and Sisulu be unknown names in a mass grave? Would Qunu have been burnt to the ground as a reprisal for hiding the Bolshevik war criminal Mandela?

It seems likely that Umkhonto weSizwe or a similar armed resistance would have been formed, but with the Soviet Union destroyed and American nuclear weapons kept in check by Nazi control of Middle Eastern oil, who would have armed it? Without Soviet ideology would it have rallied around religious beliefs and notions of martyrdom? Would we have seen Christian suicide bombers in the slave mines of the Congo?

Next week we will thank the teenagers of 1976. But perhaps we should also remember the teenagers and twenty-somethings of the 1940s who slaughtered each other in numbers so vast that we can’t comprehend them and instead rely on history to ease them away. And we should try to remember that stories can always have different endings.


First published in The Times and TimesLive



  1. Great article. I’ve had this debate before with black South Africans who feel WW2 was a white man’s war that had nothing to do with them. There is a need to educate people here who think they exist in isolation, that their world too would be so much worse if not for the sacrifices of those white men. Respect and gratitude is owed.


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