I saw Downfall last night and it brought up many issues for me both personal and historical. I’ve discussed my feelings about the war and growing up in Germany at length elsewhere so let’s move right along to history and topicality.
This film describes Hitler’s last 12 days as seen through the eyes of Traudl Junge his personal secretary and it re-examines many of the issues discussed in Anthony Beevor’s book ‘Berlin: The Downfall 1945’ which we’ll get to shortly. The film, which is excellent, has attracted much comment for depicting Hitler as a human being rather than a manifestation of pure evil. Let’s be clear: the man was a human being and he was surrounded by other human beings who did his bidding and as a result the world was dragged into a five year conflict during which 50 million people would die. This film is a useful reminder of how one man’s obsession can lead nations and continents astray. That Hitler implemented the most barborous culling of innocent humanity that history has ever seen is well known; that his blind ego took him and his armies half way across Europe is also without question. What the film (and Beevor’s book) usefully illuminates is how deeply selfish and corrupt his vision for Germany and world domination was.
Hitler berates his generals for not listening to him when quite clearly they are at their wits end trying to reason with a man who never went to staff college and was fixated on flag-decked maps that bore no relationship to any kind of reality. (See also Beevor’s excellent Stalingrad for further evidence of this foolishness). Clearly Hitler harbored enormous hatred for the intelligent, educated German military minds that surrounded him; most likely a result of his insecurity at never having risen above the rank of Corporal.
Hitler successfully surrounded himself with psychotics and sychophants who constantly fed fuel to his burning ego – anyone who chose to disagree was branded a traitor and was sacked (if they were lucky) or shot: when one of his desperate generals, facing the firing squad, confronts Hitler with the truth about the military situation and shows some strategic sense Hitler promotes him and gives him the unenviable job of defending Berlin. The horrified general responds: “I’d rather have been shot.”
The most telling indictment however is Hitler’s distaste for the very people he had supposedly done all his beastly work for: the German people. As the Russian tanks draw closer Hitler orders every bridge, waterworks, power station and other public utility to be destroyed. Albert Speer reasons with Hitler telling him that his dearly beloved countrymen will need these important items when the war is over. Hitler spits back that the German people don’t deserve it and they should suffer for letting him down so badly. Yet the contrary is true. The German people didn’t deserve Hitler. This after all was a noble and beautiful country with a long history of great art and culture.
I think it is important that the film shows Hitler to be mere flesh and blood. Dismissing him as pure evil, like a being from another universe, is a way to avoid the issue that we are all potentially culpable if we allow someone that bad and evil to thrive in our midst. We need to be reminded that evil lurks among us and we must always be on our guard. A poll in Britain recently revealed this staggering piece of information: 90% of people under 20 believe that Hitler was a fictional character.
Berlin: The Downfall 1945 – Antony Beevor
Stanlingrad – Antony Beevor
Delivered From Evil: The Saga of World War II – Robert Leckie
Hitler – Alan Bullock
The Prosecutor: One final question Sister Prejean. Could you please repeat for the jury your thoughts on The President.
Sister. Prejean: I hate the way he uses religion. It’s a sacrilege to me.
The Prosecutor (To the Judge): I rest my case M’Lud.
(Sister Helen Prejean, writer of Dead Man Walking, is quoted from the February 21st edition of TIME Magazine