Downfall of humanity?

The response to a film about Hitler's final days suggests that some believe we're all to blame for the Holocaust.

Philip Cunliffe

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Before it opened in cinemas, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall was already stirring rumours of controversy for an allegedly ‘humanised’ portrayal of Hitler, and its depiction of ordinary Germans as victims of the Nazis. Once the movie had opened, the debate shifted in tone.

If by ‘humanising’ Hitler the critics had meant portraying Hitler sympathetically, then there was little to debate. It would be difficult to have any sympathy for the frenzied, doddering but unfailingly bloodthirsty and vitriolic wreck that was Hitler in his final days, as brilliantly portrayed by Bruno Ganz. Major historians and biographers agree that Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler matches the testaments of Hitler’s final days, right down to the idiosyncrasies of the premature Parkinson’s disease and the Viennese accent.

But now, the film was faulted for humanising Hitler’s inner circle: the generals and SS henchmen who shine with heroism and bravery by contrast to the degenerate Fuhrer, as they loyally attempt to follow Hitler’s orders in face of the Soviet hordes descending upon them. But this criticism too fails to convince. Far from appearing as selfless and heroic, Hitler’s inner circle, and in particular the aristocratic Prussian generals, appear as pathetic cowards – unwilling to stand up to Hitler’s rants or to refute his fantasy strategies of ordering around non-existent armies – let alone taking the reins themselves. The bunker becomes an apt metaphor for the historical cul-de-sac of fascism. Unable to take German society forward in the 1920s and 30s, the bankrupt ruling class now finds itself paying the price for having handed leadership over to the Nazis: being trapped in a bunker with a raving petty bourgeois demagogue obsessed with death and suicide, while the Red Army closes in overhead.

At times, the film forces the audience to associate with some of the SS officers by witnessing events through their eyes. But this is less an attempt to humanise the SS than a somewhat crude device whereby the director seeks to give the audience an external, detached perspective on the mad, hidden world of Nazism and the bunker, as its inhabitants slide into a state of decadent revelry interspersed with morbid discussions of the most effective method of committing suicide.

In one such scene, the SS general charged with defending the bunker pleads with Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Ulrich Mattes), to call off his Homeguard of civilians, that is hindering the SS defence effort. Goebbels replies that the German people deserve to have ‘their little throats cut’ for having failed to live up to the Fuhrer’s dream. This, and other scenes showing Nazi die-hards massacring German civilians as traitors and deserters, has fed unease on the part of some commentators that Downfall gives vent to a new ‘victim culture’ in Germany – a feeling that the Germans are detaching themselves from their history by seeing themselves as much victims of the Nazis and the war as anyone else.

Unfortunately, the critics of Germany’s victim culture are uneasy for the wrong reasons. To be sure, revisionist historiography has often tried to soften the crimes of Nazism by highlighting the suffering of German civilians in the war. The equally fatuous assertion of a monolithic German ‘collective guilt’ was the hallmark of Little Englander historiography, the favourite stick with which conservative historians beat Germany in order to assert Britons’ moral superiority. Today’s victim culture in Germany is something very different, however. Far from being a sign of resurgent German nationalism, the contemporary sense of German victimhood registers a broader shift in our cultural attitudes to Nazism and the Holocaust.

Today, as the social, economic and technological achievements of modernity are increasingly thought of with dismay, the Holocaust has become detached from any specific social or historical context, such as the contradictions of German imperialism, or the barbarism of Nazi empire-building in eastern Europe. The popular orthodoxy today is that Western civilization as a whole reaches its zenith in the death camps. This sentiment was exemplified by the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s cartoon on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 28 January 2005: a picture of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (a famous emblem of early humanism) with swastika armbands on each of his arms, superimposed over the snow-covered railway tracks and gateway to Auschwitz.

The terms ‘holocaust’ and ‘genocide’ are used routinely in everyday commentary, to refer to everything from industrial farming to civil wars in the third world. In this cultural climate, everybody is complicit in the Holocaust – with the flipside being that nobody is directly implicated. If contemporary German culture has detached itself from the Holocaust, this only reflects the extent to which the Holocaust is seen as the essence of all Western civilisation.

Philip Cunliffe studies international relations at King’s College (email

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