'Humanising' Hitler

(13 October 2004) -- IN THE 1960s, in Konrad Adenauer's West Germany, school textbooks portrayed Hitler as an important leader who did great things for Germany, but who made mistakes which diminished his standing. Had he not made those mistakes, he would have remained one of Germany's great leaders.

With US and British connivance, the Adenauer regime rehabilitated ex-Nazis, restored their property and raised them to positions of influence, especially in the armed forces. Meanwhile, anti-Nazi laws were used to repress the Communists and other anti-fascists.

There was a highly influential bloc of revanchists who demanded the "return" to Germany of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland as well as large chunks of Poland and the USSR. In these circumstances, a realistic portrayal of the Nazi period in the mass media was simply not on.

West German films and television eschewed any link between the Nazis and big business, portrayed Nazi Germany's armed forces as victims of circumstance, helpless pawns in Hitler's "mad schemes", people to be pitied not reviled. Concentration camps and the horrors meted out routinely by the German military were simply ignored, brushed under the carpet where it was hoped they would be overlooked.

And meanwhile, all the wrongs of the Nazi period that were admitted were put down as the sole responsibility of one man -- Adolf Hitler. By identifying all the evils of Nazism with Hitler (and to a lesser extent his "gang"), fascism as a system did not need to be examined.

The attempted return to the streets of neo-Nazi groups, however, brought large counter-demonstrations by anti-fascists determined to block them. If the streets belonged to the people, however, the mass media belonged to the capitalists, and in West Germany, anti-fascist films were as scarce as teeth in chooks.

In East Germany, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), by contrast, they were commonplace. Numerous GDR films portrayed the Nazi period and what it meant for the German -- and other -- people.

But films from the socialist countries tended not to show Hitler either, although for a different reason. They studiously avoided adding to the myth that the horrors of the Nazi period, and WW2, were the result of Hitler's personal whim, rather than the inevitable result of the dictatorship of big capital.

One of the best portrayals of Hitler on the screen in this period (before the overthrow of socialism in Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany), was by the Swedish actor Gunnar Moller in the splendid Czech epic Days of Betrayal, a detailed and fascinating recounting of the Munich deal of 1938. Moller gives a riveting depiction of the Nazi leader, complete down to the last nervous tic.

Hitler's telephonist, Major Freytag, has described Hitler as a physical wreck -- at least at the end, in 1945 -- who walked with a limp and hid a shaking left hand behind his back.

Some at least of these physical deficiencies are on display in the most recent -- and in many ways the most disturbing -- film portraying the German dictator: the new German film The Downfall. From the producer of The Name of the Rose, the film premiered in Germany in mid-September.

Based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries, who found him "enchanting", the film restricts itself to Hitler's last 12 days, trapped in his bunker as the Soviet Army closes in on his regime. This is not the first film to focus on this final act, which so handily shows Hitler as a tragic figure.

Pabst's The Last Act was made in 1955 in Austria and many a Nazi must have watched its maudlin depiction of Hitler's end with tears in his eyes. There was even a British TV film on this same theme, with Alec Guinness as "The Leader", facing his end with head held high.

Hitler in The Downfall has been deliberately "humanised" so that we might better "understand him". As played by Bruno Ganz, he is "an avuncular character with a penchant for chocolate cake" (London's Daily Telegraph), "a considerate boss with a tendency to shout" (Weekend Australian).

The effect of this "humanising" was succinctly summed up by the Berlin daily Der Tagespiegel: "This Hitler, who is so nice to the female bunker staff while he sends a whole people to the slaughter outside, does indeed keep awakening sympathy.

"A lonely screamer, betrayed by his followers, who stands firm until the end -- isn't that a hero, maybe not as appealing as the few positive supporting characters, but all the larger than life for that?"

Hans Joachim Dribell, a 70-year-old retired engineer, told The Times' Berlin correspondent that the film "went too far" in making Hitler human: "There was no real explanation for his fanaticism. If you show someone like this as human, then people might be tempted to forgive him as a human -- after all, to err is human."

The Times also noted another key element in this big budget apologia for Nazism: "The strongest reaction of the cinema audience [at an afternoon screening] was not to the gentle portrayal of Hitler -- but to the footage of Berlin under Russian bombardment in the spring of 1945".

Writing in London's Daily Mail, Allan Hall identified the film as part of the process of sanitising Nazism, of turning it into "Nazi lite", which he defined as "the embrace of mankind's wickedest regime as a historical entity, as innocent as a walk around a medieval castle or a trip to the museum".

Hall quotes Berlin real estate agent Frank Hanuskewicz, whose family suffered under the Nazis: "When I see tourists outside the Finance Ministry -- Hermann Goering's former Luftwaffe headquarters -- looking at maps and giggling or visiting underground bunkers, I see that the cumulative effect is one of forgetting the real horrors of Nazism, the pain and suffering it caused on a scale unparalleled in world history."

Source: The Guardian, Australia, http://www.cpa.org.au/garchve04/1202cult.html

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