ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN, ONE GIANT STEP BACK FOR CAPE TOWN
Columnist Tom Eaton lumps city’s new mayor, Dan Plato, together with Nazis, rockets and his membership with the old National Party
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon it was one small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind. And all thanks to Nazis.
Of course, the Americans and the Russians would have got there by themselves eventually. But in the late 1940s the metaphorical rocket fuel at the heart of their respective missile and space programmes were German scientists and engineers, coaxed, coerced or simply kidnapped at the end of World War 2.
In 1945 they were worth their weight in plutonium. Germany’s culture of producing elite physicists, coupled with Adolf Hitler’s obsessions with ballistic super-weapons, had produced a crop of brains diabolically versed in launching large, explosive objects a very long way.
As the Third Reich collapsed and it became clear that the next war would probably be a nuclear one between the West and the Soviet Union, American and Russian agents raced each other to scoop up as many of these pulsating German brains as they could.
The Americans did well: between 1945 and 1959 they whisked more than 1,600 German scientists away to the US. The Soviets, unencumbered by subtlety, took a more robust approach: in the small hours of October 22 1946, secret police backed up by Red Army troops rounded up over 2,200 scientists living in Soviet-occupied Germany and hauled them and their families off to the Motherland at gunpoint, more than 6,000 in all.
In Moscow, the official line was that the new arrivals had been “invited” to Russia. US officials described theirs as volunteers kept in protective custody, presumably to save them from anti-German mobs rather than to prevent them from high-tailing it with a yodel-heyhi-ho all the way back to Bavaria.
The euphemism was understandable. It would have been confusing at least, and upsetting at worst, for Americans and Russians to discover that the people now keeping them safe from each other were the very same people who had supported Hitler’s party, built his terror weapons and, at least in a few cases, had known about what was happening in the concentration camps.
In retrospect, the propaganda worked. Stanley Kubrick might have given it a maniacal salute in Dr Strangelove, but these days the only traces of the wholesale importation of Nazi talent into the West is the odd children’s cartoon or superhero movie in which a sharp scientist has a German accent or wears a villainous monocle.
For the rest, the US space programme is all star-spangled banners, Tom Hanks and lipquivering salutes.
There are a few morals to this story. One is that the primitive notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend can be taken to absurdly hypocritical lengths. But perhaps the most important one is that a filthy past can be laundered clean if your skills are in high demand.
Which brings me to Dan Plato, Cape Town’s new mayor.
Wait, it’s not what you think. Plato isn’t a Nazi. Or a rocket scientist for that matter.
But his appointment did get me thinking about how much we’re willing to forget or forgive; and that got me thinking about those ex-Nazis beavering away in their new political homes.
Plato, you see, joined the National Party in 1990. On purpose. I know hindsight is easy. Back then, things were complicated.
I can, however, only think of three plausible reasons why anyone would have gone out and actively joined the NP in 1990.
The first is that you liked their politics and recent history. The second is that you loathed their politics and recent history but got offered a tasty deal.
And the third is that you had been kidnapped by the CCB and forced to sign up at gunpoint.
Now, given that the DA is still trying to dispel the Twitter belief that it is a Trojan Horse crawling with untransformed racists, one has to wonder why it decided to appoint as mayor a guy who once joined the party of total onslaught, the CCB and SADF-run Inkatha death squads.
And one is left to draw one of only three sensible conclusions: either Plato is a political rocket scientist, whisked over from the dark side to give the nation the benefit of his extreme skill, or he joined the DA at gunpoint, or the DA doesn’t understand how toxic even a whiff of the NP is to millions of voters.
Then again, perhaps the party is banking on the anaesthetising effects of time, which turns Nazis into nuclear warriors and normalises Nats. We might not want to forgive but most of us can’t help forgetting, at least the small print about small politicians.
Still, for those with longer memories, this is all starting to feel like one small step for a man and a giant leap backwards for Cape Town.
One moral of the story is primitive notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend