Humanizing Hitler

Last month I wrote about Sophie Scholl’s moral courage, as portrayed in the film “The Final Days of Sophie Scholl.”   She was part of the White Rose movement of students who tried to oppose Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the war.  She and her brother were executed.

Another film I recently watched is Downfall, the story of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, as she experiences the final days of the Third Reich.  The film is superb, and worth watching for anyone who wants to understand how easy it was for a country to fall for the lies the Nazis spread.  At the end of the film Junge is quoted as always having felt she had done no evil — she didn’t know of the holocaust, and truly thought she was working for her country, which was in crisis and at war.   Then one day she saw a monument to Sophie Scholl, and realized they had been the same age.  Sophie, a student far from the inner circle saw clearly what Traudl did not let herself see.   See said she realized then that she could have learned more; she simply took the path of least resistance.

The film itself is powerful.   You see people who know its over, but can’t let go of their belief in their cause and its rightousness.  Some, like Goebbels and his wife, simply can’t imagine a world without National Socialism.  They commit suicide, and kill their eight children with poison.   Others try to help people and think about what will come after the war, while many soldiers simply face the inevitable with a grim determination.  They must do their duty, even if it seems meaningless.

The film does not portray Hitler or those around him as evil.  Flawed, but relatively normal.  This has caused some to criticize the film for ‘humanizing’ Hitler.  One can be rather sympathetic to him and many of the Nazis, seeing the final days from their perspective.   Their country is being defeated and occupied, and by now most Germans simply equate support for Hitler as protecting their country from its enemies.

Seeing these films together (I’m not sure which is best to watch first) gives a powerful message.  It is not only not wrong to “humanize” Hitler, but necessary. He was human.   He had his good traits and bad traits, but was not some kind of personification of pure evil or a demonic presence.  He also had been relatively effective until the war.  His policies were not that different than those of Roosevelt, though he pursued them with more vigor (in part because the Supreme Court stymied Roosevelt).   To Germans, he got them out of the depression, put aside the hated Versailles Treaty and until 1939 did it all peacefully.   The war, they often believed, was pushed upon them by the allies, jealous of German success.

Once the war started opposition to the leader became akin to attacks on the very soul of the country.   Remember how Americans responded to the Dixie Chicks when they insulted President Bush, and how Attorney General Ashcroft warned that people should “watch what they say.”  When the country is in danger, people often rally around the leader, even if they disagree with his or her policies.   First and foremost is to protect the country from enemies and oppression.   Propaganda was fierce and more effective than now — in part because Germany had a tradition of authoritarianism and public obedience.

Moreover, the “narrative” that defines the situation — the war, the leader, National Socialism, duty and morality — becomes learned as common sensical and normal.   One doesn’t question it, it’s obviously true based on how people act and what the papers say.   For instance, fifty years from now one might look at our system of democratic capitalism and say it was one of the greatest evils inflicted on human kind.  If the worst of the global warming predictions come true, and given how one fifth the planet lived in the lap of luxury while the rest struggled with famine and poverty, people might ask “how could they honestly believe in non-stop growth and rationalize their wealth when others starved.”   We might be seen by a future narrative as representing evil, a society which destroyed the planet out of greed — greed for meaningless drivel pumped out from third world sweat shops.

Of course, if global warming isn’t what people predict, and if global wealth spreads, a very different future perspective on our era could be written.  The fact is that whatever the case, we are so caught up in the shared understandings and norms of our culture that we often lose sight of the need to be critical of it.   Sophie and Hans Scholl had that capacity, Traudl Junge did not.  Most did not.   Most, in fact, learn to despise those who question the existing discourse, especially if the discourse is “hegemonic,” dominating at all levels of society.

And that is why de-humanizing Hitler is extremely dangerous.   People like Hitler are threats because they appear normal, brilliant, moral and courageous at the time.    People won’t recognize the capacity for evil in their state or from their leaders if they compare them to a mythologized monstrous de-humanized caricature of the most successful German politician in the first half of the 20th century.   Bluntly, many Nazis were nice people who appeared to have strong moral character.   Yet their beliefs and choices, seen by them as rational or necessary, led to some of the worst atrocities of history.   Once they were writing the narrative, their actions seemed to make sense.

Another movie, Europa Europa tells the true story of a boy Solomon, a Jew, who in the chaos of war ends up adopted by a German family and becomes a member of the Hitler youth.   He knows how the Jews are being treated, knows the propaganda against them, and knows he is one.  Yet he identifies with the Nazis, cries when Stalingrad is lost, and admits that the impact of that experience remains with him today.  He says sometimes when he hears of new US aid to Israel he’ll think to himself, “we Nazis were right, the Jews control the power.”  This, decades after that experience.

So neither Hitler, nor the next of history’s villians, is an un-human monstrocity.  He and they were and will be seen as normal, often admirable.   They seduce populations into believing lies, and seeing the indefensible as natural.   De-humanizing Hitler makes it easier for future Hitlers to succeed.  Humanizing Hitler forces us to realize that we’re not in some kind of good vs. evil caricature where it’s clear who the good guys are.  Especially as we deal with economic crisis and dangers such as terrorism or perhaps future oil shortages, we have to be very careful not to get sucked into something that seems good, but contains evil — assuming, of course, that we haven’t already been sucked in.

  1. #1 by helenl on July 31, 2009 - 03:58

    “…we’re not in some kind of good vs. evil caricature where it’s clear who the good guys are. ”

    Scott, this is why I became a pacifist. Too much gray area. If the good guys put their guns down, it becomes obvious who is on the side of evil.

    Oh but people say, “then evil will win. The good guys will have nothing to fight with.”

    To which I say, “That’s the whole point. You keep saying you have faith. Faith in what? If it’s really God’s world. Let him fight His way.”


  2. #2 by Eve on July 31, 2009 - 15:13

    What is evil?

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on July 31, 2009 - 15:44

    Actually these two movies really cause me to think more about the term “evil,” which usually is a broad descriptor for something like intentional actions designed to hurt others without cause. The difference between Sophie Scholl and Traudl Junge — and perhaps between Hitler and Mother Theresa — is a kind of introspection. It could be that evil is really the result of not recognizing that part of ones’ own personality that is capable of ANYTHING, even genocide. If one doesn’t journey to the dark side of ones’ own soul to really think about ones’ own weaknesses, then one gets used to a practice of living in denial of sorts. But that still doesn’t define evil, it just moves it from being some kind of objective act in the world to a more subjective perspective. But evil is culturally defined…so maybe keeping it broad — acting without introspection means people will undertake acts that are more likely to harm the self and others. A culture that lacks introspection will do likewise. When the results horrify us, we label it evil.

    OK, I’ll have to think through this more when I have more time!

  4. #4 by notesalongthepath on August 1, 2009 - 14:25

    Hi Scott,

    You make some profound points in this piece. I saw the title, Humanizing Hitler, and picture after picture of dead and starving bodies flashed through my mind. Humanize that? I thought.

    I have asked myself many times, How could they not know what they did? Lack of being aware of our own dark selves is part of the answer–but there has to be more. You said national pride, and in that mindless form, this is true, and so dangerous. Yet, there has to be more. Envy drives humans to do some pretty dark stuff. The desire for power and dominance over others are at the top of the list.

    Our own government is now considering forced vaccinations this fall against Swine Flu, and tough consequences for those who refuse. In America.

    And, I believe evil is the absence of love.

    Keep making us think.

    Pam B

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on August 2, 2009 - 03:25

    Pam, I like your definition of evil!

    One time in Germany I was on a train in a compartment with four elderly women. Somehow we got into a conversation and it turned to WWII. I asked them pretty blunt questions about Hitler, their experiences, and what they thought at the time. They were very open in talking about it — one said “looking back, I think I deep down knew it was all wrong, but I didn’t let myself think about it.” They all claimed not to know about the holocaust, but admitted they had doubts about the stories of Jews just immigrating or being sent to Madigascar. They said that it was a shock after the war to hear about the reality, one woman said she found herself crying for days after seeing footage in the cinema from concentration camps (the allies showed this all over Germany right after the war to convince the people their government had been evil).

    I’ve had other talks with Germans about this, and what strikes me is how they really didn’t think their country could do evil — at the time, they thought they were victims of jealousy from the allies. They also talked about how much they admired Hitler at the time. I’ve been fascinated by the whole interwar period for two decades now.

    Anyway, I strongly suggest people rent those movies (they have English subtitles): Sophie Scholl: The Final days; and Downfall. They are really powerful.

  6. #6 by notesalongthepath on August 2, 2009 - 06:05

    The movies sound really powerful. When my heart is up to it, maybe?
    One of my neighbors is 82, an emigrant from Germany. She is a serious alcoholic and I doubt she will be healed of her pain (a shroud of shame/hate for being German during that time, and for being raped by a group of Russian soldiers in 1945) in this life. The horror still ripples. I hope we never forget–though I do sometimes fear we are.
    In the meantime, we have wonderful home renovation projects to bring joy into our lives!
    Have a good weekend.

  7. #7 by henitsirk on August 6, 2009 - 19:47

    It’s easy to call Hitler evil from our perspective, knowing all the facts, seeing the global picture. I’m sure Germans at the time, subject to a truly awesome propaganda machine as well as the cultural pressures of patriarchy, nationalism, and “public obedience,” really couldn’t understand the “evil” side of it all. I think we have seen over and over again in many cultures and countries that when people are oppressed and deprived of basic needs, they will embrace whatever lifts them out of that state. Hitler and the Nazi Party revitalized the German economy, and the German self-image.

    But… I’m not sure I’m willing to absolve the German people of their responsibility as human beings to recognize evil. Even if the average German wasn’t fully aware of the concentration camps, they still would have been aware that Jews were being persecuted and that that was wrong. I understand that people are strongly influenced by culture and tradition, but in the end, hating is still hating.

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