Hitler: The Rise of Evil tried to 'understand' the personality, by ignoring history.
Hitler: The Rise of Evil concluded on 20 May on America’s network channel CBS. The show covered Hitler’s life from his birth in 1899 to the successful takeover of the Reichstag and implementation of the ‘enabling law’ in 1934, which removed individual freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to privacy.
Concerns were raised that, by trying to understand Hitler, the show might encourage the audience to sympathise with him. This is a strange concern, given that everybody save the terminally ridiculous associate Hitler with the most heinous acts ever.
That said, Hitler was a product of circumstance as well as his own twisted personal outlook. The opening 15 minutes of Hitler struck a demonic pose; insinuating that Hitler was the curse of an incestuous marriage, putting bile into the young Hitler’s mouth at every opportunity. It was rather like watching a less good and very shortened production of The Omen. This dehumanisation gives the audience what it wants: distance and an easy dislike, which is comforting but childish and unreal.
According to the blurb on the CBS website, Hitler ‘focuses closely on how the embittered, politically fragmented and economically buffeted German society after World War I made [his] ascent possible’ (1). But this was only ever intermittently achieved. The young Hitler is portrayed as a brat with an abusive father, and the elder Hitler played by Robert Carlyle is a petty, jealous, idiotic twerp.
The presentation of history through the lens of Hitler’s personality avoids the ‘the embittered, politically fragmented and economically buffeted German society’, and instead presents the events between 1899 and 1934 as his mania erupting out, somehow engulfing Germany and propelling the world into war.
A more accurate review might have raised some uncomfortable questions. The Nazis’ thorough hatred and distrust of the left earned them considerable sympathy and support within the mainstream of German politics, and among Conservatives across much of the European continent. Their ruthlessness in dealing with organised workers groups did little to dampen the enthusiasm (2).
And by reading history through its end result, the movie obscures the twists and turns that fate and politics inevitably took. This is most evident as Hitler’s hatred of the Jews takes centre stage. Ejected from the Academy of Visual Arts in Vienna, Hitler is portrayed as turning towards anti-Semitism – and from here a direct and linear path is suggested leading towards the Final Solution.
In reality, however, anti-Semitism was a popularly held prejudice within the elite of Europe and Hitler’s desire to be rid of the Jews was not at all unusual or even extreme at that time. His immediate concern was to make Germany judenfrei by harassing them to leave. This policy might have succeeded but for the restrictions placed upon immigration by other countries – a restriction that was especially enforced against Jewish refugees.
Even the infamous events of Kristallnacht did not result in the long-term internment or mass murder of Jews (and the CBS program concluded four years before this event). Only within the jaws of military defeat did the frenzied imprisonment and mass slaughter of the Jews begin (2).
The other characters in the show are often as cartoonish as the central figure. Ernst and Helene Hanfstaengl, the aristocratic couple who provided support and encouragement to the young Hitler, including advice leading to his famous moustache, are duped by him; while Fritz Gerlich is the noble newspaperman who is not fooled. Vanity and bravery rarely come this distilled in real people: our courage and frailty arrive in random combination. Only in extreme circumstances can massive numbers of people be led towards such an appalling darkness.
It was the adverts, however, that completed the link from Hitler’s time to ours. The anti-defamation league took the opportunity to extol the virtues of talking to your kids so as to prevent the development of, well, little Hitler’s. This opportunism closed the circle – removed from history and reality, there is a potential Hitler in every nursery.
Rather than history, Hitler dealt in moral statements about one warped individual – and about the current human condition. The result is not a better understanding of Herr Hitler, but a greater fear of ourselves.
Stuart Derbyshire is an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Anaethesiology. He is a contributor to Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) See the website for Hitler: The rise of evil
(2) Why did the heavens not darken?, Arno J Mayer, Verso Press, 1990
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