The Hitler Industry in Overdrive

Roundup: Talking About History

Derek Scally, in the Irish Times (4-2-05):

Hitler is big box office. That's the likely message from the weekend box office receipts for Downfall, the German Hitler film that went on release yesterday.

More than five million Germans saw the film, well timed by its producer to capitalise on the coming 60th anniversary of the end of the second World War.

It comes at a time of an extraordinary glut of "Hitler news", an increasingly trivial fuel to feed the apparent growing interest in the dictator as the period retreats further into history. Leading German newspaper columnist Jens Jessen describes this latest wave as "the Third Reich, second-hand".

"We are witnessing a change. The last eye-witnesses are dying out, and historians and artists are now turning to the archives to present the era in whatever way they want," he says. "But what you miss as a result is the confusion of the time, the fact that things weren't so black and white."

Downfall does an admirable job of capturing the chaos of the last days of the war, even though it presents events to the audience from the limited perspective of the poorly ventilated Fuhrer bunker adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate.

It is an exhaustingly thorough film. The film-makers have done their work and spent a lot of money, and it's all up there on the screen. It is an important contribution to the ongoing debate in Germany, but it is neither "the" Hitler film, nor is it a historical documentary made by some government-sponsored foundation. It is a commercial blockbuster created to make money.

Still, the motives of the producer of Downfall seem pure compared to the rest of the Hitler industry. Every night of the week, without fail, a variation on the Hitler Show is running somewhere on German television. News magazines Der Spiegel and Stern appear to have made Hitler their new poster boy.

"Hitler is the strongest drug you can employ to boost sales," remarks Jessen. Even publishers are falling over each other to get "their" Hitler book to market to the atonal accompaniment of the barrel being scraped.

Last month we had Hitler's Bomb, presenting what its publisher called the "sensational results of the latest historical research" that would rewrite the history books and solve the last riddle of the second World War that Hitler did indeed succeed in building his Wunderwaffe, "wonder weapon". The book's main thesis is that Nazi scientists conducted three nuclear tests in Germany in the last days of the war without attracting any attention.

The problem is that this breathless revelation doesn't stand up: witnesses are unbelievable, the documents are ambiguous and the apparent test sites show no sign of the explosion of an atom bomb.

The book is definitely to be filed on the shelf with other entertaining but fictional works like the Hitler diaries and the "Hitler was gay" biography.

Yet Hitler's Bomb was front-page news in Germany's Bild newspaper, and made its way into many British newspapers. The revelation, days later, of the book's many flaws did not. But that didn't matter, the bandwagon had already moved on to the Hitler File, a "sensational work" based on a file prepared for Stalin and based on KGB interrogation of Hitler's valet and aide-de-camp.

This book reads like an precursor to Hello!-style journalism, reporting the most trivial details of the dictator's last days with breathtaking reverence. Hitler scratched his neck until it bled. Hitler demanded that his toilet water was constantly checked for traces of poison. The banality matches the observation of the SS officer-turned-playwright in Mel Brooks's farce The Producers that "the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer"....

The standard defence of publishers and journalists is that they are feeding a public interest, demand even, for Hitler stories.

So why not examine the still unexplored areas of Germany's Nazi history? Earlier this month, researchers at Germany's leading scientific organisation, the Max Planck Institute, issued the first report yet documenting the shameful extent of the scientist collaboration with the Nazi regime, in particular the pseudo-science of Josef Mengele. But apparently that's no way of making the cover of Bild or Der Spiegel. ...

comments powered by Disqus