A new boxed set of documentaries confirms that Hitler believed in safety in numbers

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It seems that everyone had a plot to kill Hitler, not just the patriotic aristocrat Claus von Stauffenberg, portrayed by Tom Cruise in Valkyrie. Even Grandpa Simpson in the August issue of Simpsons comics (No 161) takes Hitler on as a young infantryman in the Second World War. Disguising himself as cheese and getting himself served at dinner at Hitler’s Berlin residence, where he has a clear shot not only at Hitler, but at Mussolini, Prime Minister Tojo of Japan and Flash Gordon’s enemy Ming the Merciless.

More soberly, the 40 documented plots against Hitler’s life, as well as copious details about his personal goon squads (uncovered in recently captured records from SS files), are presented in a revelatory new DVD boxed set of documentaries called Hitler’s Bodyguard. Compiled by the producers of Churchill’s Bodyguard and First World War in Colour, the four-disc set contains 13 episodes in all, lasting more than ten hours.

The series is well narrated by the actor Robert Powell (who starred in my Mahler, 1974 and Tommy, 1975), who has done his homework in expertly pronouncing a veritable roll call of impenetrable German names. By the end of the set I felt as though I’d been pummelled by a barrage of sibilants and gutturals, such as Sturmabteilung (SA, or Brown Shirts), Schutzstaffel (SS) and Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo). Powell also vocally interprets some of the (translated-into-English) speeches by Hitler and the other Nazi heavies. This adds dramatic flair to a relentlessly sobering retelling of complex biographies. Likewise, the filmed testimonies of surviving witnesses add a human touch.

Here are featured not just familiar stand-bys such as Goering, Himmler, Goebbels and Speer, but the slightly lesser and perversely fascinating characters who back-bit, betrayed and jockeyed for favour among Hitler’s elite protection forces: men such as Sepp Dietrich, Bruno Gesche, Otto Strasser, Ulrich Graf, Ernst Röhm, Julius Streicher, Reinhard Heydrich and Walter Stennes. We trace the labyrinthine trail from Machiavellian motive to chilling murder raids such as the Night of the Long Knives and Kristallnacht.

The point is made before each episode that, while his arch enemy Churchill had but a single bodyguard, Hitler felt he required thousands to protect him from frequent assassination attempts, power plays and verbal denouncements. Forget the British, it was the Germans, Austrians, Poles and Czechs who made Hitler keep his eyes trained on his own back. A man this bent on world domination had made a lot of enemies and his paranoia created imaginary ones. With each increase in power he felt he had more to lose...

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