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Nazism and the German People


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There has been much debate in the UK about the merits of the film Downfall. I have not seen the film and cannot comment on its merits. Everyone agrees that Bruno Ganz's Hitler is brilliant. However, most concern has been about what this film says about the German people. For example, this is an article by two UK historians, David Cesarani and Peter Longerich, that appeared in the Guardian:

The film Downfall has received terrific reviews in this country and has already been seen by four and a half million Germans. It has clearly struck a chord with the popular mood in Germany and feelings about the Nazi past.

This should come as no surprise. The brilliant portrayal of Hitler by Bruno Ganz exposes him as a repellent human being devoid of concern about the misery into which he led his people. The film thus panders to the tendency of Germans to see themselves as victims of Nazism and war rather than perpetrators.

A self-pitying attitude has always been present in German attempts at "coming to terms" with the Nazi past, but it has been expressed with increasing stridency over the last two decades. It provides the key for understanding how history is massaged by Downfall's makers.

The film's producer, Bernd Eichinger, and director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, claim they are merely excavating a suppressed history and that they sourced every major scene from historical texts. The script draws on books later written by survivors of the Führer bunker, notably the memoir of Traudl Junge, Hitler's last secretary, but also Albert Speer and an SS doctor, Ernst Günther Schenck.

In fact they have reworked the evidence and omitted crucial information. Traudl Junge appears in the film's opening scene in 1942 as a fresh-faced and apolitical 22-year-old who is engaged by Hitler because she comes from his beloved Munich. The audience never learns that her background was saturated in Nazism.

Her father was a fanatical nationalist who fought in the rightwing Freikorps in the early 1920s. For participating in Hitler's abortive putsch in 1923 he earned the Nazi "Blood Order" medal. Although he was estranged from Traudl for many years, they were reunited in 1936, by which time he was security director in an armaments factory and held SS officer rank.

Traudl herself enrolled in the Nazi League of German Girls in 1935, and in 1938 joined the elite Faith and Beauty organisation. Its mission was "to bring young women up to pass on the National Socialist philosophy of life". She was an activist in other Nazi organisations too. Although she did not formally join the Nazi party until 1944, by the time she started working for Hitler she had impeccable ideological and political credentials.

Perhaps to maintain her image as a virginal witness, the film passes over her 1943 marriage to Hans Junge, who joined the SS-Leibstandarte, Hitler's personal guard, in 1933, and served as Hitler's orderly for three years. He was killed fighting with the Waffen-SS in Normandy in 1944. So when her eyes widen while Hitler rants about "international Jewry" it can hardly be out of surprise at his lethal rhetoric. Her reaction is as unlikely as the sight of Albert Speer, in another scene, shifting uncomfortably when Hitler congratulates himself on having cleansed Germany of the "Jewish poison".

Almost the only voices in the bunker protesting against Hitler's inhumanity come from Waffen-SS members. We see Schenck, after toiling heroically in the underground field hospital, looking shocked at the antics of Hitler's entourage. He repeatedly asks why officers should obey the Führer's orders unto death.

We are not told that Schenck had earlier served in the Waffen-SS on the eastern front or that, more damningly, after the war Munich University refused to reinstate him to his chair because he was implicated in the conduct of "frivolous" medical experiments on inmates in Mauthausen concentration camp.

Most astonishingly, Waffen-SS General Wilhelm Mohnke is depicted as a humanitarian pleading with Hitler to evacuate civilians and arguing with Goebbels against the suicidal deployment of poorly armed militia against the Red Army.

This is the same Mohnke whose Waffen-SS unit massacred 80 captured British soldiers outside Dunkirk in May 1940. He later led a Waffen-SS regiment in Normandy that murdered more than 60 surrendered Canadian troops.

In one dramatic encounter, Mohnke protests to Goebbels against the pointless sacrifice of aged militia men. Goebbels retorts that they had consented to Nazi rule and "now their little throats are going to be cut". The effect is to engender contempt for the heartless Nazi propaganda chief and sympathy for his hapless victims who were hoodwinked into giving their mandate to a gang of murderous thugs.

However, the scene is invented. The only source is the postwar memoir of Hans Fritzsche, who served in the Nazi propaganda ministry. Fritzsche claimed to have heard these words at the last Goebbels press conference, not addressed to Mohnke.

Yet this fabrication goes to the heart of the film's mission, which is to depict the German people as the last victims of Nazism whose true defenders were a band of brave German soldiers, including SS men, who fought until overwhelmed by the Bolshevik hordes.

This is no accident. The film's agenda echoes the Historikerstreit controversy in the late 1980s over interpretations of the Third Reich, and parallels the efforts of former Chancellor Kohl to allow Germans to feel comfortable with their past.

Although Kohl has gone, his legacy informs this film. His precipitate union of West and East Germany in 1990 left a deeply divided nation. He understood that in the search for a national identity one thing all Germans could share is a history of suffering under allied aerial bombardment and the onslaught of the Red Army on eastern Germany.

The popularity of Downfall capitalises on the success of recent publications about the bombing of German cities and the dreadful experience of civilians overrun by the Red Army. These horrors are undeniable, but the use of memoirs intended to distance their authors from Nazism by depicting Hitler's clique as contemptible reinforces the sense of Germans as guileless victims. Is the belligerent self-pity fostered by Downfall becoming a new form of German nationalism?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/germany/article/...1453913,00.html

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I have seen the film and I thought it was excellent. However, I do have some sympathy for what David Cesarani says (although I may be biased as he was one of my teachers a long time ago). The most fascinating part for me, apart from the portrayal of Hitler which was brilliantly acted, was the portrayal of Berlin in the final days of the Third Reich. I guess this chimes with one of Cesarani's points in that I was really made to think about the civilian population and how they suffered. In fact that was the thing that hit home the hardest from the film rather than the terrible things that the Nazis had done. I haven't read Goldhagen's book 'Hitler's willing executioners' but I can't believe that the same conclusion would be drawn .

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The interesting thing about the response to this film (it has been much debated in the letters’ section of the serious press in the UK) concerns the strength of feeling in this country about the portrayal of Hitler and Nazi Germany.

For example, David Cesarani and Peter Longerich argue: “The brilliant portrayal of Hitler by Bruno Ganz exposes him as a repellent human being devoid of concern about the misery into which he led his people. The film thus panders to the tendency of Germans to see themselves as victims of Nazism and war rather than perpetrators. A self-pitying attitude has always been present in German attempts at "coming to terms" with the Nazi past, but it has been expressed with increasing stridency over the last two decades. It provides the key for understanding how history is massaged by Downfall's makers.”

Some commentators have complained that Ganz has not made Hitler repellent enough. However, in this case, the authors are keen to accept the portrayal as repellent as it adds to their argument that the film “panders to the tendency of Germans to see themselves as victims of Nazism and war rather than perpetrators”. This suggests that the German people should feel guilt about their past. This seems a strange suggestion. After all, there are very few German people left alive who played any part at all in the crimes carried out by Nazi Germany. Are David Cesarani and Peter Longerich suggesting that the sons and daughters of those responsible should feel guilty? What about the grandchildren, should they feel guilty about these events? Why leave it there? Should the children and grandchildren of the appeasers feel guilt about the crimes committed by Nazi Germany?

School history books spend very little time on the German resistance to Hitler. Yet hundreds of thousands of Germans died as a result to this resistance. Most of this took place in the early 1930s but others continued to resist right through the war.

I would argue that people in the UK tend to react completely irrationally when discussing Nazi Germany. I think historians are partly responsible for this.

On the History Forum recently a member asked why Eva Braun is always referred to as Hitler’s mistress. As Hitler was unmarried, Braun was his girlfriend and not his mistress. It was suggested that the reason for this is that to say Braun was his girlfriend would be “to soften his image”.

The language that we use obviously has an impact on how we see characters from the past. My dictionary clearly states that a mistress is “a woman with whom a man has a continuing sexual relationship outside marriage.” Therefore, Braun should not be described as Hitler’s “mistress”. Why then have historians constantly called her his mistress?

Stalin’s relationship with women has also been used against him. It seems we do not like our “historical monsters” to appear normal in their relationships with women.

Hitler also had a strong affection for animals. Some historians have claimed that is why he was a vegetarian. However, some historians have argued that his vegetarianism was a reaction to the death of Geli Raubal. Apparently, the meat on the plate reminded him of Geli’s dead body. These two different interpretations have a different impact on the way we see Hitler.

Hitler clearly had a problematic love life. However, stories about Hitler’s sexuality were first used by the left in Germany during the 1930s. Newspaper stories suggested he was gay. Others claimed he was perverted. While others claimed he committed incest and killed Geli to prevent her telling the world about what happened. This was taken up by the British secret service and stories of his sexual perversions were part of a propaganda campaign during the war. The Nazis ran similar campaigns against Roosevelt and Churchill.

Hitler’s main sexual perversion is the most repulsive one available (it is to my mind anyway). I am not sure how true this is. However, it is very useful if you want to demonize him. It is understandable why we needed to do this in the war but as historians, maybe it is more healthy to look at him as a real human being responding to the economic and political forces of the time.

I believe it is important to understand Hitler as he really was. That is the best guarantee that a figure like him never gets that sort of power again. The idea that the German people should be made to feel guilty for the rest of time is preposterous. How would the British people feel if they were condemned to feel guilty for the many crimes committed by our forefathers.

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When the film was launched in Germany I decided not to see it. My very personal reasons were and still are that I do not want the images which I have in my mind about the final days in the bunker to be influenced and changed by a film. These images and imaginations are based on the various documents and I-witness reports I read. Let me give you an example to make myself better understood: I know that Martha Goebbels poisoned her children. I really do not need and want to see this; my imagination will always be more horrifying than a scene in a film. I do not need to see the scene to know and understand how brutal and inhuman this act was.

I believe it is important to understand Hitler as he really was. That is the best guarantee that a figure like him never gets that sort of power again. The idea that the German people should be made to feel guilty for the rest of time is preposterous.

I whole-heartedly agree but based on the parts of the film I did see I think that the film is not to my liking. I grant the film makers that they had the best intentions possible, but showing Hitler as a ranting maniac makes it easy not only for my parent generation but also for my generation and the generations to come to blame everything on him, to once again say that the German people had become the victims of a maniac and his bunch of cronies and that they were not really to blame.

The post- war generations cannot be blamed for the crimes their parents and grandparents committed but it must be their/my responsibility (and they -or better we-owe this to the ones who fought against the regime) to find out why Hitler could seize power so easily, why so many actively or passively supported the Holocaust, why so many reported wives, friends and neighbours to the Gestapo knowing exactly what the Gestapo did (not everything happened in the dark of the night), why only a small number joined the resistance and why even in the very final days, when everyone knew that the war was lost, children were willing to sacrifice their lives and mayors had to be forced the show the white flag to safe the remains and inhabitants of their towns and cities. A film like Downfall does not help with these difficult questions - I am afraid that it does quite the opposite: offer the simple answer that no one can be blamed because they all were victims of a psychopath, the pawns in Hitler's game. So why bother dealing with that horrible history and asking oneself disquieting questions leading to even more disquieting answers.

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I whole-heartedly agree but based on the parts of the film I did see I think that the film  is not to my liking. I grant the film makers that they had the best intentions possible, but showing Hitler as a ranting maniac makes it easy not only for my parent generation but also for my generation and the generations to come to blame everything on him, to once again say that the German people had become the victims of a maniac and his bunch of cronies and that they were not really to blame.

I think it is incredibly difficult for any filmmaker to help explain why the German people were taken in by Hitler. Documentary film makers have the same problem. I have seen interviews with Germans explaining how they became members of the Nazi Party after hearing him speak at rallies. I have read these speeches and seen film of these events, yet I cannot understand this. Nor can my students. Their reaction is that Hitler seems to be a pathetic and ridiculous figure in these films (I have heard it said that Hitler would not have achieved success in the era of television).

It is interesting to compare the impact that a film of a Martin Luther King speech has on students. Even the most racist students find it difficult not to become persuaded by his arguments. One boy actually said that watching this film helped him understand what it was like to listen to Hitler speak in the 1930s. Such was the emotional power of King’s speech, he argued that he would have agreed with him, whatever the message.

The key passage in the article by David Cesarani and Peter Longerich is: "The film thus panders to the tendency of Germans to see themselves as victims of Nazism and war rather than perpetrators. A self-pitying attitude has always been present in German attempts at "coming to terms" with the Nazi past, but it has been expressed with increasing stridency over the last two decades.”

I believe this is a harsh judgement on the German people. Maybe it is a charge that could be made against the Japanese (hence the problems at the moment in China over Japanese history textbooks) but not the Germans. In my opinion the German people have done a great deal to come to terms with their past. In fact, I would argue that Germany has been much more successful than the British have been in accepting the crimes committed by its ancestors. For example, do you think we have yet come to terms with the atrocities committed during the creation of the British Empire?

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I too think that much has been done in Germany to come to terms with our past. But I think that this process must go on. Once again we have Neo Nazis in a German Länder Parliament (Saxony) and those are not the old die-hards but young people. With the economy in recession and our government doing everything to dismantle most of our welfare systems many people feel left in the cold and are tempted to look for yet another strong leader. Many believe that we need more and stricter rules and laws especially ones limiting and controlling the influx of ethnic minorities who are seen as a danger to our culture and our civilization and who are blamed for taking away jobs Germans could have. The Downfall scenes I saw Hitler was shown as a maniac determined to destroy Germany forever. But those scenes also made him "attractive" in a bizarre way: he was shown as a man who was true to himself even in his final minutes.

For example, do you think we have yet come to terms with the atrocities committed during the creation of the British Empire?

Looking at the British textbooks or maybe I should say looking at the rather small number of textbooks or pages in textbooks covering this topic I would say no. At the moment I am teaching a History course dealing with Imperialism and the British Empire and it is very difficult to find British textbooks about this subject. There are many pages on the Internet but it takes quite some time to find and select the sources I need.

Edited by UlrikeSchuhFricke
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Guest Stephen Turner

To understand Hitler's appeal to a section of the German people, we must imo understand the quite unique historical circumstances, that brought this tragedy to a head. The end of the first world war, & the unfair sanctions, that the allies levied on the German people. The horrific effects of the world wide recession following the Wall St crash of 1929, made worse in Germany following as it did years of ruinous war, and finacial sanctions. & possibly the most important factor, the failed long Revolution 1918-1925, which caused a masive moral panic in the middle classes, & the call for a "Strong Man" to sort out this mess.

Remove any one of the above, & Hitler would have been nothing more than Oswald Moseley,a cult in search of a following.

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  • 2 weeks later...

There is an interesting article in today’s Guardian about Erna Flegal, one of the last two left alive from Hitler’s bunker in the last months of the war. (The only other survivor, 88-year-old Rochus Misch, Hitler's telephonist, refuses to talk.)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/secondworldwar/s...1474601,00.html

Flegal has this to say about Downfall: "They got a few small details wrong. But generally it was correct," she said, adding: "I even recognised myself as a nursing sister."

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  • 1 year later...

I have this film on DVD and have watched it many times over the last few months. One thing that happens with such repetitive viewing is that the emotional response in a sense recedes and subtler undercurrents come to the fore. One gains a degree of equanimity which (IMO) is important for historians.

What I see then is an absolute determination by Hitler, as long as he had authority, was to hold the frontline against the Bolchevics ,while one after the other numbers of his staff went west. This was the beginning of the Nazi exodus to the western allies. The Germans had failed with Japan to destroy the Soviet Union. One thing that comes across in this film is the number of avenues open to the remnants of the Nazi regime to go west. I have a personal supicion that the Nazis, Falangists, Fascists, Imperial Japans, primary platform was to first mobilize and unite "the Pure Races" and secondly, after liquidating the primary opposition groups in Germany itself, the socialists, set out with the blessing of Englands leadership and the then neutral America to launch Operation Barbarossa. The people of England and the USofA must then be drawn into the war to follow the Wermacht into the Soviet Union. The aborted Battle of Britain, the sea war in the Atlantic. The obvious yet ignored preparation for, and attack on Pearl Harbour (see RED, PURPLE, MAGIC) almost overnight brought an end to Lindberghs, the Bund, America First isolationism and the war in the Pacific followed.

When Berlin became a frontline city and Operation Clausewitz was launched, the primary remaining role of Hitler in this grand anti Bolchevic conspiracy was to hold the line, so much so that in the end he sent children and old men into the front line, knowing that the longer he held the Red Army at bay the further the western allies would advance (over bridges 'strangely' left untouched in his general eastern scorched earth policies.). Thus he showed his biggest lie was that he loved the German people. He was their enemy from the start, and, as Stephen points out there was a climate they found themselves in, after WWI wherein terror as an art was perfected and herded the populace in stages to the end. to paraphrase a famous 'poem' "First they came for the comunists, and I did nothing, then.....and now they come for me and there is noone left to speak out".

The film does get this across, and an irony is that it was filmed in St. Petersburg.

(The Revolution of 1905 began here. Towards the end of WWI St Petersburg (now renamed Petrograd) saw the beginnings of the Russian Revolution in 1917. In Lenins honor it was renamed Leningrad. During World War II, Leningrad was surrounded and besieged by the German Wehrmacht in the Siege of Leningrad from September 8, 1941, until January 27, 1944, - a total of twenty-nine months. Some 800,000 of the city's 3,000,000 inhabitants are estimated to have perished. This period was the turning point of the war. Then the western allies acted, D-day followed in 6th. June 1944. Leningrad and many of its suburbs were rebuilt over the following decades to the old drawings. (The Tsar had invited german engineers to build much of the original St Petersburg))

Edited by John Dolva
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The post- war generations cannot be blamed for the crimes their parents and grandparents committed but it must be their/my responsibility (and they -or better we-owe this to the ones who fought against the regime) to find out why Hitler could seize power so easily, why so many actively or passively supported the Holocaust, why so many reported wives, friends and neighbours to the Gestapo knowing exactly what the Gestapo did (not everything happened in the dark of the night), why only a small number joined the resistance and why even in the very final days, when everyone knew that the war was lost, children were willing to sacrifice their lives and mayors had to be forced the show the white flag to safe the remains and inhabitants of their towns and cities. A film like Downfall does not help with these difficult questions - I am afraid that it does quite the opposite: offer the simple answer that no one can be blamed because they all were victims of a psychopath, the pawns in Hitler's game. So why bother dealing with that horrible history and asking oneself disquieting questions leading to even more disquieting answers.

I regret that such an inquiry - in the public domain - is simply not possible at this time, not in the English-speaking world and I have no doubt the prospect of it is even more remote within Germany.

To inquire - with real integrity - why Hitler was so popular in Germany during the Nazi era (not universally popular, of course, but nevertheless very popular by contemporary standards), one would need to have a full, honest and rational discussion about the Nazi leadership and German society under Nazi rule - reviewing not just negative aspects, but positive aspects also.

Yet such a discussion would create a furore in the over-heated atmosphere we still live in today, more than 60 years after the war's end, in which anti-German Allied war propaganda has congealed into something resembling quasi-religious dogma.

To discuss why "so many (Germans) actively or passively supported the Holocaust" one would need a full, honest and rational discussion about that subject.

Unfortunately, that is even less possible.

Edited by Sid Walker
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I regret that such an inquiry - in the public domain - is simply not possible at this time, not in the English-speaking world and I have no doubt the prospect of it is even more remote within Germany.

Nonsense.

Academic inquiry into the lack of resistance to the Hitler dictatorship is widespread within Germany and Europe.

http://www.gdw-berlin.de/index-e.php

http://www.ghwk.de/engl/kopfengl.htm

Sid doesn't wish to discuss such matters he merely wishes to deny the holocaust

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I completely agree with Andy. There is a large number of publications which analyse what might be called "positive" traits of the Nazi regime e.g. the anlaysis of programmes like "Kraft durch Freude", the documentation of a policy to maintain and secure the social security net (Tim Mason). The post-war FRG prided itself as a society being on its way to something like a class-less society because the middle-classes formed the largest segment of society; this is true insofar as political propaganda and ideology (even the statements of the Socialdemocrats [see the programme of 1959] and the trade unions) no longer thought in the categories of class. This is another - well-documented - result of the Nazi regime and its propaganda: posing as a force and system which tried to protect and maintain the old system the Nazi regime was one the most ardent agents of modernisation.

Although all these things have been reserached and documented it remains an open question (at least for me) why a large mayority of my parents' generation openly or tacitly supported the system even after the war had begun. A film like The Downfall does one thing: it shows that people - young and old - still were willing to sacrifice the lives for a lost and criminal case.

But there is another film which I think should be discussed and maybe viewed together with "The Downfall" and that is the film about the arrest and the last days in the life of Sophie Scholl, wich shows that a small number did resist and gave their lives to save Germany.

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But there is another film which I think should be discussed and maybe viewed together with "The Downfall" and that is the film about the arrest and the last days in the life of Sophie Scholl, wich shows that a small number did resist and gave their lives to save Germany.

I was told about this film on a recent visit to the Resistance Museum in Berlin.

The extremely brutal treatment of the White Rose students perhaps does much to explain why few people were willing to resist.

There was resistance to the Nazis but from very diverse groups - socialists, military, students, christians - never a "resistance movement" as such. They were picked off one by one - hence the power of Niemoller's poem

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I regret that such an inquiry - in the public domain - is simply not possible at this time, not in the English-speaking world and I have no doubt the prospect of it is even more remote within Germany.

Nonsense.

Academic inquiry into the lack of resistance to the Hitler dictatorship is widespread within Germany and Europe.

http://www.gdw-berlin.de/index-e.php

http://www.ghwk.de/engl/kopfengl.htm

Sid doesn't wish to discuss such matters he merely wishes to deny the holocaust

See also my contribution to studying German resistance to Fascism:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERresistance.htm

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I regret that such an inquiry - in the public domain - is simply not possible at this time, not in the English-speaking world and I have no doubt the prospect of it is even more remote within Germany.

Nonsense.

Academic inquiry into the lack of resistance to the Hitler dictatorship is widespread within Germany and Europe.

http://www.gdw-berlin.de/index-e.php

http://www.ghwk.de/engl/kopfengl.htm

Sid doesn't wish to discuss such matters he merely wishes to deny the holocaust

Your hectoring response, Andy, illustrates my point perfectly.

I rest my case.

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