Legion. An amalgamated journal.

The Hitler problem

Last spring, I rented Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall from Lamont and watched it, alone, one afternoon when I was bored of finals and had nothing else to do. Watching a film alone is always a bit more of a raw experience than watching it with company, since, with nobody else around sharing stupid interruptive jokes, the image-people on screen have no real-person comparison to flatten them out. Films can never effectively compete with the limitless depth of complexities in a real person—complexities that we’re subtly reminded of even in the sound of breathing in the adjoining seat. But eliminate that comparison, and our brains begin to blur the false and genuine.

Since Downfall is a film whose prominence is due to its ‘humanization’ of the most iconographically evil man of the twentieth century, this particular solo viewing didn’t just make the experience uncanny. It made it profoundly disturbing. Here we have a film wherein Hitler’s last desperate days are played out inside the Führerbunker—not as a robotic arch-villain, but as a complex, maniacal man whose world and vision are torn apart at the seams. The film makes no attempt to pussyfoot around the fact that that man, his world, and his vision were all nightmarish. And yet by the end of the film, stirred in amongst the horror of the decimation of Berlin, the honest viewer must recognize in himself a bit of a feeling we are not used to when discussing Naziism: sympathy.

Part of this is to the credit of Bruno Ganz’s performance, which is an over-and-beyond response to a difficult assignment. Part of it is the fact that the narrative is framed not by Hitler but by his secretary, Traudl Junge. And part of it is because there is an innate human sympathy for anyone powerless—and, in his last few hours, the man who intended to rule Europe was, in fact, utterly denuded of any power.

But anyone who doesn’t go around getting refused by a lot of tattoo parlors is bound to feel a serious degree of shock and self-reprobation at feeling even the tiniest amount of sympathy for a man who has rightly come to signify all the most horrible things that modern society and warfare are capable of. David Denby, reviewing the film in the New Yorker, asked:

Considered as biography, the achievement (if that’s the right word) of “Downfall” is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous—that he was kind to his cook and his young female secretaries, loved his German shepherd, Blondi, and was surrounded by loyal subordinates. We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?


Candor is admirable, but it’s not heroism, and it’s not art.

Is that really so? Denby frets that admitting the slightest bit of air into the historical hothouse of evil in which we’ve placed the Nazi regime will suddenly collapse the whole structure, and we’ll end up remembering the Nazi episode as just another tragic but understandable political misstep. Certainly there’s a good reason to guard against ‘creeping apologism.’ After all, that’s what makes the original feeling of sympathy so revolting—the fact that we know we ought not be treating this villain as a man.

But oughtn’t we? If we are really to guard our society and future against the sort of virile infection that produced the Nazi episode in Germany, shouldn’t it be important for us to confront, face-on, the difficult fact that Hitler did have the power to appeal, that he was, in fact, a real man—and that these things do nothing to dilute the fact that he instituted the largest genocide in history?

The real danger to me seems to be simply condensing Hitler down to historical images: militaristic banners waving over mechanized-looking Teutonic faces, grainy black-and-white photos of concentration camps, the sounds of air-raid sirens over Coventry. Those things tend to totalize Hitler and Naziism into something beyond-human, something impersonally evil, something which we would surely recognize. And that’s where the danger comes in: if we keep an eye out for this kind of evil, we’ll never recognize it when it comes. The real evil of Hitler isn’t defined by red armbands or a mustache or any one historical event. It’s defined by the ability for an entire nation, captivated by a galvanic leader and runaway sentimentality, to rationalize and systematize murder and destruction.

A few weeks after I saw Downfall, Newsweek ran a story called “Presidents and the Mythology of Munich,” warning against the tendency of modern politicians to divide every single situation into Hitlers, Chamberlains, and Churchills. Evan Thomas wrote:

For starters, it is important to understand why the Munich analogy is almost necessarily flawed. In the 1990s, George H.W. Bush compared Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to Hitler, and Bill Clinton’s secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, argued that allowing Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to commit genocide in the Balkans was to invite “another Munich.” But the only real Hitler was Hitler.

The problem with this is: not even the real Hitler was “Hitler”—that is, not the history-book, mythologized Hitler which we have come to understand. Hitler was a man who alloyed together an enormous personal appeal with unmitigated malice and a fair degree of insanity. If we forget that first half, we’re liable to let the next Hitler slip through without us noticing.

If Camus could claim with some literary flair in 1942 that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem, I would like to suggest that, for me at least, Hitler is the only truly serious historical problem. It is almost impossible for me to believe that the images in documentaries and textbooks were the works of real mean, many of whom are still alive to me. It strikes me as utterly bizarre that my grandparents were alive while all this happened, since it has become located somewhere outside the course of human events. I can believe it only in the sort of abstract way that I believe in Einsteinian physics. The events of Naziism have been so parsed over by historians, so strictly encoded into moral quantities and calcified narratives, that they seem much more the elements of a novel than the product of very real passions and fears. Remembering that, though, seems to me an important thing to do—especially if we are to recognize when and where the elements of fascism are returning, insidiously, into our lives today.

Garrett Dash Nelson

August 7th, 2008 at 3:03 pm