Monday, February 2, 2009

Will a Historical Hitler Make a Comeback?

In five more years, 2014, it will be one hundred years since the start of World War I. The chances are that there are few, if any, living humans who can bear witness to any of the events associated with that war.

Indeed, the virulent hatred of Germany and the Kaiser generated by that cataclysmic event has long receded. It is left to historians to dispassionately record the facts of that hatred as merely a background study of the attitudes of the populations who supported the allied cause. The hated villains of that era, the Kaiser and his mad Generals who instigated the slaughter, have long disappeared from living memory and become footnotes to the main drama of the killing fields and its disastrous aftermath.

Unlike the Hitler era, the Kaiser’s reign did not enjoy the technological advantages of sophisticated and heroic moving pictorial images, leaving historians and information consumers bereft of material to accentuate and propagandize his legacy on television, the internet and movie theaters.

No living creature, even those whose ancestors died and suffered at the hands of the Germans during that bloody conflict, can possibly be roused to raw unforgiving hatred for those World War I perpetrators with the same immediacy and power of those who actually lived through these terrible events. Time, that great leveler which can make grieving subside in the living, has the power to cool even the most persistent of hatreds.

It is now the turn of those who lived through the terrible events of World War II to pass slowly into oblivion. With them will disappear the living memory of a war that contributed to the deaths of possibly 70 million people, a bloodbath of unprecedented barbarism, savagery and destruction that spawned a state sponsored method of human disposal, which became known as the holocaust, and a massacre of millions of non-combatants.

To those who lived through it, the personification of evil, the monster of monsters behind that slaughter is the man Adolph Hitler. As one who was an eyewitness to those events through the vast media coverage and the actuality of the war and its effect on my immediate world and the people in my circle, my memories are vivid and enduring.

While I was too young to serve as a soldier in that war, I and everyone I knew was totally involved in the fervent support of the war, and I fulfilled my patriotic duty as a proudly committed teenager to the war effort. As a boy scout, I participated as a bugler on parade with my troop, dedicating numerous plaques that were raised in every neighborhood marking the names of all who served in the Armed forces. I collected newspapers, metal and contributed my limited pocket money to every cause that was marshaled to help our troops and the home front.

Both of my parents were air raid wardens. Without protest we took our ration books seriously, as well as the blackouts, the air raid drills and any other instructions we got from the government on how we were to conduct ourselves to win the war. It was, as I continue to remember it, a sacred mission.

As far as I could tell, everyone in America was committed to the winning of the war and our hatred of Hitler and the Germans was manifest in everything we did. We had no doubt that America was fighting the worst monster in history. My memories of those times are vivid. At the news of the final surrender of Japan and the end of the war, I rushed down to Times Square to shout my joy along with thousands of like-minded citizens. As a boy scout in our troop drum and bugle corps, I marched down Fifth Avenue in the Victory Parade, a proud and cherished moment.

The aftermath, the pictures of the victims of the holocaust was beyond description. The enormity of its cruelty still defies comprehension. But the pictures could not be denied. We followed the war crimes trials at Nuremberg. The missing man from those trials, the arch villain, the inhuman disgusting monster who perpetrated these cruelties had escaped through cowardly suicide. Our hate for this man was palpable. It still is.

We ridiculed the chorus of denials that came from the conquered German people. “We had no idea of what was happening” or “we were only following orders” was the accepted and frequent response. Of course, we dismissed such excuses. They knew. Everybody knew.

Who then were the ecstatic Germans who lined the streets and filled the auditoriums and sports arenas and hailed their hero at every available opportunity? Is it possible to forget the brilliant films of Leni Riefenstahl, showing magnificently staged Nazi rallies filled with images of frenzied crowds expressing their ecstatic admiration of the Fuehrer, cunningly portrayed as a living God? Indeed there is a huge and apparently unstoppable and continuing commercial interest in the filmed images of that era and a heroic Hitler as its principal actor.

As the years progressed and the German people began to accept the reality of their defeat and recovered their footing and commitment to freedom and democracy, we wished them well and still do. They, too, were zealous in drowning out the horrors afflicted on them by the man their parents and grandparents called the Fuhrer and who followed him blindly to the verge of Armageddon. On many levels we have reconciled with the German people, and the animosity inspired by the two World Wars has been dissipated by time.

But the eyewitnesses of the Hitler era are beginning to die off and there are disturbing signs of small changes on the horizon that suggest that perhaps the image of the monster could be softening. It took a number of years after the war for the Holocaust deniers to stake their claim. Is this a sign that the monster is making a comeback?

Despite the legal banishment of such denials, the voices seem to be gaining momentum, stoked by the ravings of what appears to be a Hitler wannabe President Ahmadinejad of Iran. There can be little doubt that his bombastic false assertions are gaining traction both inside and outside of Iran. Indeed, the media of the Arab world has taken a page out of Hitler’s book when it comes to anti-Semitism. One who remembers as I do, sees the same familiar words and images which were in vogue in Germany and Europe during the Hitler era finding their way into the mainstream Arab media.

The evil genius of Josef Goebbels who masterminded Hitler’s propaganda efforts could be getting the last laugh. His carefully crafted outright and shameless lies continue to resonate. It was Goebbels who proudly boasted that if you repeat a lie long enough it eventually morphed into a truth. While it turns my stomach to say so, he may have been on to something.

The once dismissed phony book “The Protocols of Zion,” is circulated throughout the Arab world as if it were a true account of the Jews attempt to take over the world. Worse, the influence of such anti-Semitic lies and distortions is flaring up again in Europe through the good offices of the growing Moslem populations of these countries adding fuel to the still smoldering ashes of that Continent’s entrenched anti-Semitism.

The drumbeat of this hatred goes far beyond a criticism of Israel. It is directed at Jews everywhere.

It has never ceased to baffle me, why the Jewish people, who number about thirteen million of the world’s population of more than six billion people, a minuscule number barely qualified to be a statistic, are scapegoated with such venom. The continuing catalog of lies about this people now amplified on the Internet is beyond my understanding and belief.

Worse, I note in the realm of popular entertainment, two movies: The Reader being one, where the old shibboleth of “I was only obeying orders” has raised its ugly head again. The main character of this book to movie effort, a former female concentration camp guard, is made sympathetic by emphasizing that she was illiterate and therefore not fully capable of realizing the enormity of her crime, a ridiculous assertion. Another movie, Valkyrie, suggests that it was a feat of heroism to attempt to assassinate Hitler, avoiding the brutal truth that it was only after the German officers who made the attempt had served the Fuhrer with blind loyalty until he was leading them to sure defeat. Where were they in the early days of his ugly attempt to Nazify Europe and the world and exterminate the Jews?

Indeed, the sudden reappearance of newspaper inserts from that period heralding stories and headlines of the Hitler era under the guise of being “historical” are flying off the newsstands. Am I being cynical to suggest nostalgia or yearning for the glorious past?

I am fully aware that I am hinting at a rather shocking prognostication and I do not lay claim to being a psychic. Perhaps I am overwrought by what I see happening, but I am concerned about what will occur when all the eyewitnesses are gone and the Hitler era becomes merely a historical fact, richly enhanced by the enormous media library portraying the action film hero Adolph Hitler as a near deity. Will a sense of nostalgia develop for the heady and allegedly glorious days of the Third Reich, clearly a high point in German history, a time when Germans ruled Europe?

Once the painful stings of living memory disappear how will history cast that moment? Will Germans of the future one day erect monuments and museums to mark that historical period and reclaim and celebrate those years when Germany was transcendent and the man who created the moment was a Godlike creature who, they might allege, was defeated by a Jew inspired mongrel rabble?

Will they further allege and amplify that he might have had the right idea and given them a taste of glory that they had never before enjoyed or imagined? Will those who hate and vilify Jews, a cursedly persistent and implacably weird phenomenon, band together to aid in Hitler’s resurrection, perhaps anointing him as a prophet? Stranger things have happened.

But when the eyewitnesses completely die off, the accuracies and nuances of living memory expires and what is left is the interpretations of dispassionate historians and, in this case, an astonishing record of edited movie images which, we have learned, have the power to distort memory and camouflage reality.

We can only hope that such a rehabilitation of this human monster never occurs. Such hope may be an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, those of us still living who were witness to these events, won’t be around to correct the distortions and rationalizations that are certain to emerge in the historical record.


Anonymous said...

I hesitate to initiate the power of agreement but I myself have had similar thoughts.

All kinds of cliche's which were heretofore mythical to me such as 'history repeats itself' had a different meaning. It pertained to style or inheriting your relatives looks and actions. However, in the last few months it has taken on a deeper, more sinister meaning.

We as Americans are experiencing
the lashbacks of political and financial decisions that I thought I would never live long enough to see. Our world as we have known it has and is still changing radically.

So, with all of that said, I strongly lean in the direction of your question positively but with fear and trembling.

Katherine said...

I was fortunate enough to be lent a copy of Daniel Guerin's The Brown Plague recently. It describes visits he made to Germany just before and just after Hitler's rise to power, and documents what was going on "at street level" during that time.

Remember the concentration camps were originally set up to intimidate and eliminate dissenters who might have been able to throw Hitler out of power. The very first thing the Nazis did when they gained control of the government was make it very, very dangerous to not support them.

None of this excuses what was done, but if we are to learn from history, we need to know what all of the history was.

After all, in the late 1930s, the entire world turned away the Jewish refugee ships.